You often hear the words ‘big‘ and ‘strong‘ mentioned in the same breath, to the average person these two qualities may seem inextricably linked, but are they mutually exclusive, or does one depend on the other?
It’s true that there is some correlation between size and strength, after all, when was the last time you saw a 60Kg ectomorph squat three times their body weight? Of course there are occasions when an individual may be superhumanly strong relative to their weight (Olympic weightlifters), but whether or not performing Olympic lifts to achieve optimal muscle growth is certainly up for debate.
Muscle growth may not be top of your agenda, but since that’s what this blog is about, that’s what I’m going to focus on. This is a hotly debated topic which many have some strong views on, but I’m going to go out on a limb and make some statements which I believe to be true;
1. Gaining strength DOES help with gaining size
Because strength facilitates the use of heavier poundages, allowing the trainer to utilise the progressive overload principle to force the body into adaptation (a calorie surplus is also required). In addition to this, gaining strength with compound exercises such as the squat and deadlift will result in a more stable posterior chain and core, resulting in the ability to handle more weight in exercises such as the military press.
Performing strength exercises also hits muscle fibers that light weights can’t.
2. You can get stronger without getting bigger
Because there are two different types of muscle fiber, myofibrillar and sarcoplasmic. Sarcopalmic fibers are in effect the substance that fills the inside of the fibers, these are stimulated with more time under tension (and, generally ‘higher reps’) and has the potential to expand in volume, ultimately resulting in bigger muscles volume-wise. Myofibrillar hypertrophy occurs when the tiny fibers within the muscle belly are strengthened and become ‘denser’ resulting in the ability handle heavier weights – think along the lines of the thick, dense metal cables that hold up suspension bridges.
So, although strength and size gains can occur in isolation, unless you’re training to specifically increase one and not the other, they’ll both increase in unison.
Using Size to Gain Strength
As I mentioned above you might have seen Olympic lifters hoisting some serious weight above their heads – pound for pound they’re extremely strong, but it’s not just pure strength that they have in their arsenal, using perfect technique is key to succeeding in this sport. There’s no doubt that size aids strength, even when it’s not all muscle – just look at strongman competitors, most, if not all of them (with the possible exception if Pudzianowski) are carrying relative high levels of muscle and AND fat.
So what role does fat play? Firstly, if you’re trying to gain the maximum amount of muscle possible, in the quickest time possible, regardless of fat gain, well, you’ll gain a lot of fat. Hitting the right amounts of calories to ensure you’re in a surplus, so if quick muscle at any cost is your goal, then overeating, which leads to fat gain, makes sense.
Additionally, more fat around the joints provides crushing and stability to help with big lifts
Using Strength to Gain Size
All else being equal, you’d expect a guy who can deadlift 200Kg to be bigger than a guy who can only deadlift 100Kg, but this isn’t necessarily just because he can deadlift more. Overall strength facilitates muscle growth because it allows for the pursuit of the progressive overload principle. Compound lifts like squats and deadlifts shore up the posterior chain, meaning more overall stability, a more solid foundation, and the ability to handle heavier weights for isolation exercises that are better able to target pure hypertrophy.
So you can certainly get stronger without getting bigger (up to a point), but can you get bigger without out getting stronger? There are bound to be conflicting views on this within the fitness community, but I’d argue that, when ultimately aiming for size, strength gains need to be a primary concern on the road to your ultimate goal. You’ll struggle to add size unless you’re constantly pushing the boundaries, but to be able to do that (in the optimal hypertrophy rep range) you’ll need to gain strength.
For example, if your 10 rep max on the barbell shoulder press is 30Kg, you won’t increase this by simply pressing 30Kg every week, you’ll gain endurance, but not size. If you want to up the weight you use for your 10 rep max, the best course of action would be to increase the weight and drop the reps. Work on gradually increasing the amount of reps you can do with this increased weight (and eat a calorie surplus), and you should be able to handle more weight for 10 reps. There’s your progressive overload. If you have been in a calorie surplus throughout this process, chances are you will have gained some size.
Throughout this article I’ve talked in terms of ‘absolutes’
- Do this for ultimate strength gains
- Do this for ultimate size gains
You might think you just want to be strong, or you just want to be big, but unless you;re going to be earning big money for being one of the best few people in the world at strength competitions or bodybuilding, what you think you want and what you actually want are probably two different things.
Do you really want to be able to deadlift 3x bodyweight but look like you don’t even train wearing clothes? On the other hand, do you want really big arms, chest and shoulders that are covered with so so much fat that no one will really notice? Probably not.
This is why you need a BALANCE between size and strength training. 99% of people want (whether they realise it or not) a balanced physique – i.e. an appreciable and symmetrical level of muscle mass, and a low enough level of body fat to effectively display that muscle mass – and this is achieved by mixing up your training methods.
Hypertrophy training helps with muscle size, short rest periods and powerful, explosive movements like clean and presses elevate the heart rate and stimulate the metabolism, encouraging fat loss, and strength training allows for more stability, and facilitates the progressive overload principle. More strength means more muscle – if you train right, more size means more strength – if you train right, and more muscle means elevated metabolism and lower body fat.
Everything works together in harmony. Work on size and strength, see the bigger picture.