Muscle Science: Bigger Isn't Stronger
Sixty years after "The problem of muscle hypertrophy: a review"1 scientists at the University of Missouri decided to revisit the topic4.
Their review contrasts the attention paid in exercise programs to maximize both muscle size and strength with the lack of clarity on the connection between changes in muscle size and strength.
The review goes as far as to say that there is no meaningful relationship between the two and that they are separate and unrelated adaptations to resistance training. Some people seem to respond better in strength terms and some people tend to grow muscles easier.
So, you may have a guy at your gym, or know someone, who isn’t very big but pulls very big weight. On the other hand, just because you have 22 inch biceps and a 58 inch chest doesn’t mean you can bench 450 lbs. You probably feel the same way based on personal experience.
In an article on the Strength Theory website the author, Greg Nukols, puts it this way,
“..building muscle will probably make you stronger, but it will certainly increase your potential strength. A version of you with more muscle will have the potential to lift more than a version of you with less muscle, though you very well may be able to out-lift someone with way more muscle than you have, and you may still be put to shame by someone who’s way less muscular than you.”
What is also true is there are no non-responders when it comes to resistance training. It works for everybody in some shape or form. However, the way people adapt to resistance training for strength is not the same as how other people respond to the same training with changes in lean body mass and muscle fiber cross-sectional area (CSA), one measure of hypertrophy2. It may be nice and feel good, but you don’t need to see your muscles grow to see your strength grow. Research3 has shown that hypertrophy only explains about a quarter of the change in strength in some cases.
Another interesting takeaway from this review is the emerging evidence that suggests hypertrophy isn’t dependent on exercise intensity, but that increases in your 1-repetition maximum (1RM) requires that you workout close to you 1RM intensity, even if the growth in muscle is similar in both instances. So, you can grow muscles in low-load exercises and high-load exercises, but if you look at pure strength as measured by a 1RM for a specific movement (bench press, squat etc.) you need to practice 1RM lifts.
Dr. Jeremy Loenneke, Assistant Professor at The University of Mississippi, is one of the authors of The Problem of Muscle Hypertrophy. He says:
“I would characterize low loads as 20-30% of an individual’s maximum and high load anything 70% of their maximum and above. When using either loading scheme with 2-3sets to failure, I would expect similar muscle growth and different strength in the activity to which that person exercised. For example, if a person is consistently training with light weights and you test someone to see who the best at lifting heavy weights is, the low load group will almost always increase 1RM strength less than those lifting heavy weights. This is likely related to them having less “practice” at/near their 1RM. “
“Muscle growth from exercise appears to be a local response specific to the muscle trained whereas strength appears to be related to changes at the muscle level as well as the nervous system.” says Dr. Loenneke.
-do a few sets to failure a couple times a week on each major muscle group
-do 20-30 min of cardio most days of the week
-eat well most days https://t.co/GZWnmHRmqY
— Jeremy Loenneke (@jploenneke) October 30, 2016
The review also makes a point of talking about how muscle size may be lost during periods of inactivity but that strength loss is not commensurate.
“Several studies show that when an individual stops working out they lose the muscle mass they increased with training relatively quickly but can maintain strength above their initial baseline for months/years. One study in particular found that just doing the 1RM test once a month was able to maintain the 1RM strength they had gained from exercise entirely (at a group level) despite a complete loss of muscle hypertrophy. “ Says Dr. Loenneke.
Controversial, or not, the work of Dr. Loenneke, his colleagues, and experts like Greg Nukols, help to illustrate how unique hypertrophy and strength gains are to an individual. There is no one-size-fits-all approach to programming for one or the other. People respond in their own unique way, and most people can probably make some sort of self-assessment over a 12 week period.
There, as Dr. Loenneke’s summary of the key points of the review say:
- Muscle growth can occur independent of the load and can largely be dictated by personal preference.
- Muscle strength appears to be very specific to the task. If an individual wants to be good at lifting heavy, they need to be practicing that skill.
- Some people will train and minimally increase muscle size, most will gain some, a few will gain a lot. An individual will have a pretty good idea of which one they are in the first 8-12 weeks of training.
We could sign off with lift heavy, or lift happy, but we’ll leave it at: Lift Intelligently.
1. Rasch PJ. The problem of muscle hypertrophy: a review. J Am Osteopath
2. Churchward-Venne TA, Tieland M, Verdijk LB, Leenders M, Dirks ML, de Groot LC, et al. There are no nonresponders to resistancetype exercise training in older men and women. J Am Med Dir Assoc 2015;16:400–411.
3. Erskine RM, Fletcher G, Folland JP. The contribution of muscle hypertrophy to strength changes following resistance training. Eur J Appl Physiol 2014;114:1239–1249.
4. Buckner, Samuel L., Scott J. Dankel, Kevin T. Mattocks, Matthew B. Jessee, J. Grant Mouser, Brittany R. Counts, and Jeremy P. Loenneke. “The Problem Of Muscle Hypertrophy: Revisited.” Muscle & Nerve, October 7, 2016.