The vast majority of people in the gym have different training goals from each other.
Some people want to get as strong as they possibly can, whereas others want to look great and have an awesomely symmetrical physique.
So, is it better to train for strength or to train for aesthetics?
Whether you train for aesthetics or strength will always be down to personal preference. Furthermore, they’re not actually mutually exclusive. Both forms of training involve some form of progressive overload, which means that you’re able to get stronger and more muscular (to differing degrees) with both forms of training. A good workout program should involve training for strength and hypertrophy.
Aesthetics Training vs. Strength Training – Personal Preference
You’ll typically hear that it’s better to focus on strength and performance as opposed to hypertrophy.
I guess the main reason for this is that strength training is better for athletic performance and functionality, whereas hypertrophy training is more of a superficial goal.
However, in truth, this doesn’t automatically mean that strength training is better.
In fact, I’ll explain in a moment why strength training could actually be worse, potentially more harmful, than aesthetics training.
So realistically, this all comes down to personal preference.
These are questions that only YOU can answer, and from there you can decide on your specific training plan.
That being said, I personally believe that a good training program should incorporate both strength and hypertrophy training, as well as other forms of “functional training”.
They’re Not Mutually Exclusive
Strength training and hypertrophy training actually go hand-in-hand and they’re not mutually exclusive.
Okay, I’ll admit that competitive powerlifters and competitive bodybuilders train (and eat) in very different ways.
However, for us mere mortals and recreational gym-goers the two training protocols aren’t as different as you’d first believe.
As an example, in order to pack on size and muscle you need to progressively overload.
So, let’s say as an example the first time you ever perform dumbbell shoulder presses you use 20lbs dumbbells.
Within a year or so, while progressing on a regular basis, you are now performing shoulder presses with 40lbs dumbbells.
Do you honestly think you’re not going to be any stronger after a year?
Of course you are, and the fact that you’re pressing double the weight now proves this.
The same works the other way round.
Imagine that you’re squatting 300lbs for 3 reps.
Once more, over the course of time, you increase this to 400lbs for 3 reps.
Not only will you be stronger, but I guarantee that you will have added muscle mass too.
OKay, I’ll admit that you’ll add more muscle when training specifically for hypertrophy, and you’ll be stronger by focusing solely on strength training.
However, the fact remains that you’ll still get stronger and more muscular with both forms of training, but just to different extents.
Your nutrition clearly has a part to play too.
You can actually get stronger without putting on weight, but clearly you’ll be limited to how much stronger you can get.
However, training for hypertrophy will require you to eat at a calorie surplus in order to increase size.
And by the same respect, to complete your aesthetically-pleasing physique you’ll occasionally have to eat at a calorie deficit to cut extra body fat.
Are You Ego Lifting?
Okay, so clearly whether you train for aesthetic or strength is totally down to you.
There is no “one is better than the other” here.
However, I mentioned earlier that hypertrophy training is typically viewed as a superficial goal.
Now, this isn’t always the case, but you don’t want to be training for aesthetics to an obsessive degree.
Basically, if you’re a recreational lifter you don’t want to be reducing your body fat levels so low that it becomes dangerous.
Plus, if you’re taking drugs in order to improve your appearance then you’ve gone beyond the realms of being a recreational gym-goer.
If you find yourself in this situation it’s probably time to change perspective and focus more on performance and functionality.
That being said, if you’re training solely for aesthetics then ensure that you train every muscle group and that you hit all the basic body movement patterns.
In other words, don’t just train your chest and biceps, and make sure you squat, lunge, push, pull, hinge, and rotate.
Plus, you also want to get some regular cardio in for your cardiovascular health.
Now, the same can be said for strength training and the ego.
Realistically, unless you’re a competitive powerlifter or an athlete, do you really need to get stronger and stronger?
In fact, training for maximal strength, which goes beyond the requirement to function optimally in your everyday life, is no different to training obsessively for hypertrophy and aesthetics.
Both are goals driven by ego.
Essentially, if you can bench press 400lbs you’re a hero in the gym environment.
But, what practical use is this outside of the gym in your everyday life?
Don’t get me wrong, whether you decide to go beyond this point is completely down to you.
Once again, choose a training protocol that you enjoy and that excites you.
Performance & Functional Training is More Than Lifting Heavy Weights
Now, I’ve spoken about strength training being viewed as being more performance and functional related.
However, this isn’t strictly true.
Many powerlifters simply train the “Big 3” lifts, namely squat, deadlift and bench press.
But, isn’t a power clean better for performance and overall functionality than a deadlift?
I would also argue that the front squat is more athletically-inclined than the back squat.
Plus, how often in your life do you really need to lie on your back and push a heavy load away from you.
In fact, you could argue that aesthetics training, as long as you hit all the major muscle groups and body movement patterns, is far more functional and performance-related than pure strength training.
Additionally, how many powerlifters push so hard to achieve maximal strength that they end up hurting and injuring themselves?
Then again, there are many powerlifters who end up detracting from their original goal over the long-term, and then have to dial down their training.
Furthermore, it’s all well-and-good being able to bench, squat, and deadlift 300,400, and 500lbs respectively, but what does it say about your performance when you’re out of breath after 5 minutes of cardio?
Obviously, I don’t wish to generalise here, so this isn’t true for everyone.
And there are certainly some bodybuilders who are more functional than powerlifters.
For me, I would rather be fairly strong on the moderate side, but actually end up with healthier joints and connective tissues 10-20 years down the line.
Real Functional and Performance Training
So, training for maximum strength or training for maximum or training for aesthetics isn’t the better goal.
The two go hand-in-hand.
So, it’s clearly impossible to label one better than the other if you are solely focused on just one form of training.
And while strength training is said to be better for performance and functionality, I’ve shown that this isn’t always the case.
Personally, I feel that you should be training both protocols.
We would all love to be a bit stronger, and who doesn’t want to look great with their top off or even while wearing clothes?
That being said, a better way to train would be to also include some real functional and performance-based training.
I’m talking about things that may actually be useful to you in everyday life.
Once again I’ll repeat, the way you train is always going to come down to your own personal preferences.
Some people just want to get as strong as possible, and others just want to look fantastic.
I have absolutely no issue with this at all.
However, I would never state that one form of training is better than the other.
In fact, the best type of training program will always be the one that has a little bit of everything,
Key Learning Points
- Whether you should train for aesthetics or for strength is down to personal preference. There is no “one is better than the other”.
- They are not mutually exclusive. If you train for aesthetics you will automatically get stronger. If you train for strength you’ll automatically add some muscle mass.
- Aesthetics training should involve training your entire body and using all the basic human movement patterns.
- Training for strength should involve more than just bench, squat, and deadlift.
- Strength training isn’t particularly “functional” or “performance-related” if you struggle with certain daily activities, e.g. you get out of breath easily.
- It’s fine to train for both strength and aesthetics.
- Functional training should also involve other training protocols, e.g. calisthenics, throwing, jumping, sprinting, swimming, etc.
Hi, I’m Partha, owner and founder of My Bodyweight Exercises. I am a Level 3 Personal Trainer and Certified Strength & Conditioning Specialist through the Register of Exercise Professionals, United Kingdom. I have been a regular gym-goer since 2000 and coaching clients since 2012. My aim is to help you achieve your body composition goals.