What's the Difference between Building Muscle Vs Building Strength?



Many of us, especially us guys, decide to take on the illustrious goal of physical self-betterment in the hopes of building muscle. In turn, building muscle has the added benefit of making us stronger… or so we’ve been told.

The adage, the dude with the biggest muscles should be able to lift the biggest weights. Now, there is some truth to that. Being stronger do, to an extent, require more muscle, and having more muscle generally means more strength.

Especially beginners, it’s a guarantee that you will get stronger and bigger once you start lifting, since any type of extensive muscle stimulation will invoke some degree of muscle hypertrophy and strength gains just from the novelty of training itself. However, although it is unlikely to increase one completely without the other, it is possible train specifically for one. Doing so would indeed improve one more than the other due to some physiological differences in which will be discussing in this blog post.

First, let’s dig a bit into strength adaptations. Strength gains derive heavily through the creation of additional contractile protein, actin and myosin, which increases total contraction. This is achieved through a sufficient training stimulus, like lifting weights, and sufficient nutrient intake, like eating more protein. Strength can also dramatically increase, especially in beginners, through simple practice.

As all of us know, starting any new physical skill isn’t easy and we often exert much more effort and energy to start out. Lifting weights is no different. As you become more efficient with your technique and form in something like the squat, then you’ll be able to effectively squat much heavier weights.
There are also neuromuscular strength adaptations, like increasing motor unit recruitment and rate coding, or the ability and rate in which your nervous system signal your muscles to voluntarily contract.


Consistent training can improve this as well. And lastly, there’s a matter of biomechanics, which we won’t be able to fully analyze since it takes quite a bit of explanation far past the scope of this topic. In short, there might be a biomechanical advantage based on your body structure which influences things like moment arms and levers that can impact the amount of force placed on any given load.


Now, about muscle growth. Similar to strength gains, increasing contractile proteins will also increase muscle size. This is known as myofibrillar hypertrophy. Another hypertrophy concept exists, however, that supposedly benefit muscle size more so than strength.
This is called sarcoplasmic hypertrophy, a prevailing theory in which other non-contractile protein components, like fluids, glucose and sarcoplasmic organelles, create a swelling effect that lead to larger muscles beyond that of myofibrillar hypertrophy. Now, we don’t exactly know how sarcoplasmic hypertrophy works and much of the current literature is quite convoluted.

But in short, specific training MIGHT, but not for sure, increase sarcoplasmic hypertrophy and specific changes to the fiber itself, like fiber diameter, thickness, and energy preference, which could impact muscle size relative to strength. But again, a great deal of uncertainty exists on this matter.

But the one thing that is much more certain is which training method suits which goal best. For muscle growth, undoubtedly the biggest training focus will be total work volume. In the most basic sense, total work volume is the amount of sets times the amount of reps time intensity, or the amount of weight you lift. The goal would be to accumulate as much volume as you reasonably can, and continue to increase volume session by session, week by week, and so on.

You can do so by adding more sets, more reps, more intensity, or adjustments of all three. Typically, bodybuilders shoot for 3 to 5 sets of 8 to 12 reps with a moderate intensity since it’s kind of a “sweet spot” for accumulating volume at a relatively short amount of time. However, studies have shown that doing as many as 100 reps per set or even just 2 to 5 reps per set, can indeed achieve similar muscle gains as long as total volume was the same.

Strength, however, relies on volume much less. By far the most important piece of the strength puzzle, outside of practice, is simply intensity. In the same studies showing 100 reps achieving similar muscle growth as 5-rep sets, the researchers also found that, in the case of strength, the lower rep group, which worked with muchhigher intensities, achieved by far the highest strength gains.

One study also found that similar strength gains in the squat and bench press can be achieved with just doing 1 single set compared to doing 5 sets when both groups employed the same intensity. Simply put, if you want to be able to lift heavier weights, then you have to train heavy. There’s really no way around it.
 
Common strength programs would have you working within het 85 to 100% 1-RM, with 1-RM being the maximum weight you can lift just once. Now, of course, most of us probably want to get stronger and build muscle simultaneously. That’s where a solid and balanced program comes in handy. Typically, that means finding a middle ground, such as working with moderately heavy intensities while shooting for more volume, or splitting your program to focus on one aspect at a time.

Other than that, that’s about it as far as differences of building strength versus building muscle. Ultimately, there are notable difference in physiological sense, and in training, it comes down to intensity versus volume.

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