Getting Bigger or Getting Stronger? Strength vs. Hypertrophy
When you lift weights at the gym, what is your primary goal?
Do you wish to get bigger or stronger? Both? Do you think getting bigger automatically means getting stronger or vice-versa?
Let’s examine the difference between getting bigger and getting stronger and why they are not the same goal.
Muscular strength is defined as the ability of a muscle to produce maximal force against a resistance. Strength is influenced by muscle size, muscle cell type (fast vs. slow twitch), your trained state (i.e. novice, intermediate, advanced), neuromuscular skill (ability and rate of recruiting motor units), and biomechanics (mechanics of movement). Muscular strength is not the same as muscular growth despite its interchangeability in common lifting language. Muscular growth (also known as muscular hypertrophy) is the mechanism in which the muscle’s cross-sectional area grows due to increases in the contractile elements within the muscle. `
Wordy story short, muscular strength is equivalent to how much weight you can lift while muscular hypertrophy is equivalent to how large your muscles can grow in size.
These two mechanisms can act simultaneously and typically don’t occur in an all-or-nothing fashion. It is possible to get significantly stronger without getting significantly larger in size, however, muscular growth will ultimately occur because of the increase in muscular strength happening predominantly from hypertrophy (gains in size) and not neuromuscular development.
Approximately 90% of muscular strength gains happen through neuromuscular development in the first 2 weeks of an 8-week program.
This occurrence can explain why it may take a while for a lifter to notice significant increases in muscle size despite getting significantly stronger at the start of their training program. The gains at the start of the program are primarily happening due to an increase in neural control. Factors that improve neural control include: increased motor unit recruitment (more motor units helping to produce force), increased motor unit synchronicity (motor units working in sync vs. asynchronously), and reduced co-activation (less activation of opposing muscle groups) to name a few of many neuromuscular mechanisms.
This phenomenon also perfectly showcases the differences between powerlifters and bodybuilders in the fitness sphere. Powerlifters would technically be better-named strength lifters because of their muscles’ ability to exert maximal force against a resistance. Powerlifters seek to lift as much weight as possible in 3 lifts: squat, deadlift, and bench press. Powerlifters typically do not have aesthetic goals because their primary focus is to lift as much weight as possible irrespective of their looks.
Bodybuilders, on the other side of the spectrum, focus on muscular development (aka muscular hypertrophy). Bodybuilders seek to gain as much muscle mass as possible while decreasing their body fat percentage to reveal as much muscle as possible on stage. Bodybuilders don’t tend to focus as much attention on how much weight they are lifting and instead focus on subjecting the muscle to as much stress as possible that will lead to muscular development and symmetry. Bodybuilders’ primary goal is aesthetics first and strength second.
So which should be the focus of your training program as a recreational lifter? Either one! As long as proper technique and training principles are applied to either method, lifting for strength and lifting for gains in muscle size can be used at your discretion. Lifting weights in general brings about tremendous health benefits including: stronger bones and connective tissues, improved body composition, improved (or maintained) flexibility and mobility, increased joint stability, and increased performance in sports and activities of daily living. There are even mental health benefits that are associated with lifting weights regularly. Plus, who wouldn’t feel amazing after getting stronger and/or bigger muscles following a training program? Lifting should be a regular part of everyone’s life regardless of age, gender, or ability. 🙂
(All scientific information from this blog has been retrieved from pdf notes listed in my ‘Performance for Athletes’ Kinesiology 165 and ‘Exercise Physiology’ Kinesiology 118 classes at California State University, Fresno with the amazing professors and researchers Dr. Morales and Dr. Coles. If you would like to know more information regarding these topics, please feel free to reach out to me for access to my notes from these lecturers or direct studies featuring these topics. I’d love to help out!)