Is A Bigger Muscle A Stronger Muscle? Why Are We Even Still Debating This?
One thing I love about my training crew is we get to discuss the trends in the industry and throw back and forth ideas and what we’ve found as far as our research goes.
Seems lately – as with most industries – the hot topics are ones that have been thrown around for decades now. Almost to the point I can’t still believe we are discussing them. Every new generation of trainers think they’re reinventing the wheel when it comes to training ideas and discovering the science behind lifting.
As I mentioned to a colleague earlier today, it’s like the whole “machine weights vs free weights, which one is better?” headlines all over again. Haven’t we already had these discussions enough?
The biggest one that always pokes the bear is the notion that you have to get stronger to get bigger.
At best this is an oversimplification of the idea of progressive overload, at worst its complete ignorance of the science behind strength training.
So, is it possible to get stronger without getting bigger??
If so, what are the training effects that actually take place
In Part 1, we will talk about the different effects that a training stimulus can have.
Subsequent parts in the series will discuss each in more detail.
Right off the bat, the answer to the first question is obviously yes. You should know, at least anecdotally, that you can get stronger without “bulking”.
After all, isn’t that exactly what we tried to achieve for so many years? To convince females to strength train and show them it won’t bulk them up?
Lift weights we said. You won’t get too big. You’ll just get stronger.
And now what? We tell everyone the only way to get bigger is to get stronger?? Seriously.
So what’s the science have to say?
As most of you know, I’m a visual learner, and like nothing better than a good flow chart.
Outlined below is a simplified version, taken from Mel Siff’s awesome book on strength training – Supertraining.
It summarises each of the subsequent training effects that take place as a result of applying a training stimulus. For example…lifting a weight.
In truth, there are 3 main training effects that occur in response to a training stimulus:
- The Structural Effect – Or the one most of us know as “getting bigger”. This is the muscle hypertrophy that can accompany the training stimulus
- The Functional Effect – which further breaks down in to
- Inter muscular Coordination
- Intra muscular Coordination
- Reflexive Changes
- The Motor Learning Effect
Take a good look at the chart again, and notice the small tiny part of the overall table that is taken up by the word “hypertrophy”. Now pay attention to ALL of the other ways in which your body can adapt and increase strength WITHOUT increasing muscular size.
And not only that, you will find there are in fact 2 different types of hypertrophy. One that coincides with an increase in strength – what is termed FUNCTIONAL HYPERTROPHY and another where you can get an increase in size WITHOUT a subsequent increase in strength. This is termed NON FUNCTIONAL HYPERTROPHY.
This idea will be explored in more detail in Part 2. Along with discussing in more detail the other ways your can improve strength without increasing size.