“I want to lift weights, but don’t want to get bulky.
Okay so you want to get stronger? No,no,no I don’t want to get big.”
This was a quote from a conversation I had the other day at the gym with a member. She then went on to explain she wants to be able to lift a bit more weight and reduce knee and back pain when lifting boxes at work.
She wanted to get strong.
But she thought strong meant looking like Arnie.
The confusion between muscular strength and muscular size is still evident within the general population. In the media strength is often associated with bodybuilders and The Mountain from Game of Thrones.
In the fitness space, strength is often associated with how much you bench or squat.
What is strength? What’s the difference between improvements in strength and muscular size?
Muscular size: also known as hypertrophy, is the increase in the volume of an organ or tissue due to the enlargement of its component cells.
Muscular strength: is the increase in the efficiency and power of the muscle to produce force. Or simply, your ability to push/pull more weight in a maximal effort.
So now that we have some definitions on strength and hypertrophy, how would our training change? Can you be strong and not have slabs of thick muscle?
Training for hypertrophy is relatively straightforward, there’s three main factors required for muscle to grow in size.
- mechanical tension (very simply put is the process of placing the muscle under both passive and active tension)
- metabolic stress (build up of metabolic byproducts such as a lactate or the occlusion/pooling of de-oxygenated blood in the muscle)
- muscle damage (not to be confused muscle strains and tears, muscle damage is the accumulation of tiny micro-tears which then promote muscle growth and repair)
Strength training requires similar stressors, characteristically though strength is heavily influenced through our CNS (central nervous system). Lifting with heavy loads such as 80% 1RM and above elicits predominantly neuromuscular adaptation. By performing multiple repetitions with heavy loads we start to accumulate volume through the 3 factors for hypertrophy mentioned above.
Over time individuals who are training with heavier loads become more adept to recruiting muscle fibers more efficiently than someone who is not training. This has multiple benefits such as:
- Shock absorption when jumping/falling
- Developing power in sports
- Strengthen soft tissue ligaments and tendons around joints
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Can you train for both strength and hypertrophy?
Follow these simple guidelines.
Choose 3-6 barbell lifts to periodise (%1RM, RM Max) as main lifts (Squat, deadlift, bench press etc.)
Perform 2-3 main lifts per day
Choose 6-12 secondary/assistance exercises to round off your development and ultimately improve your main lifts. (think isolation exercises eg. bicep curls, isolateral exercises eg. lunges, machines eg. hack squat and leg press)
Perform 2-4 accessory lifts per day.
Across the week aim for:
~20 reps between 70-85% 1RM for each main lift (mid-band)
<10 reps between 90-95% 1RM for each main lift (high-band)
~30-40 reps for each muscle group for each session (for hypertrophy)
The above guidelines will provide you with the increases in strength and enough volume to accumulate hypertrophy.
I hope that’s cleared up a few things and will now provide you with some clarity between strength and muscle size (hypertrophy). They’re similar, but different!
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