Size versus Strength – is Getting Bigger the Same as Getting Stronger?

size-versus-strengthIs Bigger Necessarily Stronger?

A bigger muscle is a stronger muscle. The muscle getting bigger is the body’s adaptation as a result of resistance exercise, as long as that resistance at a fairly high percentage of your maximal effort. You don’t get big just walking around and while body weight exercises are great, gains from them will stall after a while.

This is not to say a bigger person will always be stronger than a smaller person, but when you get bigger, you will also have gotten stronger. No one adds muscle without adding weight to the bar or doing a more work. The body’s response to stress on the muscular system (in the form of micro trauma) is hypertrophy (muscles getting bigger). This is the body responding so it can better tolerate anticipated future stress.

Is a Rep Just a Rep?

Now what’s the difference between getting bigger and getting stronger without getting bigger?

There is some type of intensity (defined as a percentage of your 1 rep max (RM)) involved in both. You’ve probably heard 8-12 reps is the best range for hypertrophy, but 1-3 reps is best for strength. But why? Isn’t the amount of weight you use is directly related to the potential for micro trauma? Why do you need to do more reps and why isn’t a heavy weight better? The truth of the matter is that a heavy weight is better. The problem is you can’t do a whole lot of work with a heavy weight (since the number of reps you can do are limited) and get a reasonable amount of micro trauma for hypertrophy. Heavy weight and low reps mainly stress the neural components more than the muscular.

So as a lifter who wants to get bigger and stronger, you need to find the happy medium between the amount of weight you use and the number of reps you do. As an example, what if you use a weight you can do 25 reps with? Any weight that allows you to do 25 reps would be so low that the you wouldn’t be getting much micro trauma from each rep and it’s the repair of this micro trauma that drives muscle growth. At too light a weight and too many reps, you aren’t getting any micro trauma at all and the exercise becomes one pure endurance.

The answer to this is to do the weight in sets so we can intensity (amount of weight) high and still do a given number of reps. So 5 sets of 5 would give the same 25 reps, but with a weight that causes micro trauma and thus drives an increase in size. Micro trauma is also why static holds or short range partials with very heavy weight tend to not work over time. You need to move the weight through the full range of motion and leverage to get the most micro trauma.

But All I Care About is Getting Bigger

You have to keep in mind that the neural components has nothing to do with getting bigger other than in its influence in how much weight you can do. Hypertrophy comes from induced micro trauma through increased workload by doing more weight or more work over an extended period. Enhanced neural capability leverages your ability to do this and the resulting hypertrophy gains. Better neural = better potential hypertrophy because better neural allows more weight. You see this with “newbie gains” where the main driver is rapidly developing neural adaptation and that drives weight on the bar which drives progressive loading which drives hypertrophy. So newbies very quickly enhance their neural capability, which means more weight more quickly, which means more micro trauma which means more growth.

So what this means is that some neural focus is quite helpful and should part of any mid to long-term plan.

How does this Add Mass?

The body is a system and adapts best as a system. This is why compound exercise like squats, dead lifts, rows, cleans, presses, and snatches are very effective. When doing these exercises, you are using a large portion of your body’s musculature to move a heavy weight through a fundamental range of motion. This full body lifting stresses a large portion of the body’s musculature all at once, so adding weight to these exercises should net hypertrophy over the entire body. The body grows best as a system and as such should be trained as a system.

What’s the Most Efficient Way to Plan to Get Bigger Over Time?

So what’s the deal with the 5×5 stuff (Bill Starr’s advanced 5×5, Bill Starr’s ntermediate 5×5)? These routines focus on the most effective lifts–the ones with the highest potential for hypertrophy. These routines are for pure muscle, not for shaping and refining (like an advanced body builder might want to do). Nothing is worked in isolation. So what’s with doing the big lifts that often and not splitting it up day by day? Two things:

1) How do you train for any sport or motion? You do it a lot, as much as possible, until it’s second nature. This is how the nervous system and your body adapts and becomes more efficient. If that’s the case, then why not do it every day then? If you did, the micro trauma would be too high and overwhelm your body’s systems. This is why power lifters don’t just do max squats, dead lifts, and benches every workout – it’s the most direct way to train but it can’t be done for long. And in the weight room, just like in life, it is very hard to get very good at a lot of things all at once or when changing those things all the time. You need to focus on a few things at a time to really get good at them.

2) Recovery is usually fairly fast. Once your body gets used to training, your muscles repair themselves within 2-3 days. You don’t need to be 100% recovered to train again. Tolerable periodic exposure is how the body adapts. So more frequency is desirable… up to a point. You get more benefit from a tolerable amount more frequently than from all out effort done infrequently. Think of how the body tans–you can tan in three 30 minute sessions without burning, but a single 90 minute session might toast you. Micro trauma works the same way, hence working the muscles three times a week instead of only once.

What about Food and All the Different Programs?

So that’s how strength and hypertrophy are related. That’s also why the 5×5 or any similar setup is structured for progression and designed to work. But if you’re going for size, all the micro trauma in the world won’t help if you are eating. You need extra calories to get bigger. If you aren’t gaining weight, you aren’t eating enough. All any training program can do is get you better (the neural component) at the big lifts. The rest is diet. Size gains can be irregular over the short-term, but over the mid to long term, as long as you are eating appropriately, you will find that your size gains stay in line with your strength gains.

It Doesn’t Sound very Complicated

It’s not. In spite of why you usually see people doing in the gym, split workouts with many different exercises done 1x per week and lot of isolation work is not the best choice from an efficiency standpoint for getting big. Training the whole body or a big portion of the body each session will let you get enough frequency and let you really focus on the lifts that can pile on the mass.


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