Size and strength are two of the most trainable qualities in the human body. Not only do they both respond very predictably to training but they just so happen to go together like peanut butter and bananas.
Where certain physical qualities might have a more rigid ceiling that can’t be pushed past, anybody can continue to add a little bit of muscle mass by increasing training volume, implementing progressive overload and upping their calorie intake. If your goal is to increase strength, there is always the option to add a few more pounds of muscle to your frame.
Size and strength can also be trained separately and when that’s done for a long enough period of time you can dramatically increase one at the expense of the other. At the top end of the competitive tier, you might very well find bodybuilders with ridiculous amounts of muscle on their frame who would be hard-pressed to hang with amateur powerlifters 3 weight classes down. And on the other end of the spectrum, you will see 500lb benches and 800 lb deadlifts from specialists who have as much muscle as your average landscaper.
Genetic factors make up a good amount of these differences; everyone adapts slightly differently to training and it’s really the genetic outliers who can get DEEP into crazy specialization territory. But that specialization doesn’t occur without training methods that focus on an exploit one particular mechanism of growth. You need to understand the differences between those mechanisms if you want to get a handle on how competitive programming gets put together.
Let’s start with size. Muscle cells are comprised of contractile proteins and that’s generally what we concern ourselves with when it comes to growing muscle tissue. Increasing contractile proteins is what allows you to produce more force and contributes to ‘density’, which is the appearance of harder muscle tissue. Within the muscle cells, there is a sarcoplasmic fluid that contains substrates that contribute to the function of the muscle fiber. An increase in this fluid can definitely give the appearance of bigger, fuller muscles but that won’t contribute nearly as much to actual force production.
What it does contribute to? Muscular endurance, and how. The hypertrophy-specific training that bodybuilders do, which includes a lot of sets, reps and fatigue, increases the sarcoplasmic fluid. This increases the abililty of the muscle to store precursors to muscular contraction along with the number of mitochondrial bodies. What this means for you is that regularly doing high rep, high-volume pain-fests will dramatically incrase your motor. Even though most Olympia competitors may not be setting World Records when it comes to one rep maxes (though they are obviously still stronger than when they started), if there was a contest that prioritized short term muscular strength-endurance, they would probably be the best in the world.
Those who are all the way to that end of the spectrum, whose massive physiques are primarily a byproduct of sarcoplasmic fluid increases, are few and far between. Seriously, this is not a concern for most lifters and you should absolutely not be using this as an excuse to avoid high-rep work. It takes years of focused training in this particular threshold, specifically at the expense of any other dedicated strength training, in order to get such a lopsided profile of sarcoplasmic hypertrophy to myofibrilar hypertrophy. For everybody else, working in these threshold will give a modest increase in capacity that actually ends up aiding in your strength specific work. High rep word can also increase blood flow around joints and tendons helping to stave off overuse issues and repair damaged tissue.
On the other end are the strength freaks, the guys and gals who have slight frames and limited muscle mass while managing to hoist massive weights. The big outliers here typically have physical differences within their frames that make this possible. Features like limb ratios and the points of tendon insertion can dramatically increase the potential for somebody to express strength at a given amount of muscle mass and effort. Unfortunately, that’s just how you are put together; those qualities can’t be changed (unless you know a really good surgeon).
The thing that is trainable, however, is how your nervous system operates and this is what dedicated strength athletes can absolutely exploit in order to increase strength without mass gain. Muscle fibers are grouped into bundles called motor units, which is essentially a grouping of fibers that contract off of a single nerve impulse. At any given time, your body will limit how many motor units you can contract in a single effort. The reason for this is self-preservation.
If you were able to contract 100% of your motor units, not only would you exhaust yourself to the point of death but you would likely injure yourself as unchecked muscular contractions can produce enough force to rip tissue and tear tendons from bone. Think of the ‘shut-off’ that happens when you try to bench with achey elbows; the pain sensation makes you feel weaker, which is your body regulating your force output amidst a vulnerability. Your body is pretty good at only letting you do what you can handle.
As you train, your body increases the number of motor units that you’re able to use. It’s like demonstrating that you are a worthy borrower so your bank increases your credit limit. So, you go from a relatively low percentage of motor units recruitment to a higher number and suddenly you’re lifts go up, all without packing on an ounce of muscle. This is a direct byproduct of your nervous system becoming more trained and efficient and this is what the best powerlifters and Olympic lifters have in their corner.
If you take it one step further and focus on the time it takes you to reach that peak number of motor unit recruitment, then you’re talking about moving more substantial weights with high velocity and that is the ultimate goal of all athletic development.
Now here’s the kicker; if you can, over a training career, continuously add muscle mass while continuously increasing the efficacy of your nervous system then you have the recipe for absolutely meteoric improvements in strength and performance ability. You don’t have to become a 300 lb bodybuilder and you don’t have to be a hyper-specific, one-rep pony. Gains in one will invariably increase your potential to inmprove the other and the resulting synergy will make plateaus few and far between.
That is, if you actually know how to train both.
When you look at some of the greatest lifters from decades past, you’ll notice a lot of guys looked like they were carved out of marble. The physiques of some of the best lifters of the 70s actually led the creation of a blog that paid homage by taking the title “70s big.com”. The name honored the physiques, mentality and training styles of the biggest lifters of the decade.
Guys like Doug Young, Ted Arcidi, Bill Kazmaier, Roger Estep, etc. often supported hearty mustaches, short-shorts, chest hair and a rolling physique that could only be built off of many, many reps with countless different exercises. The result wasn’t just an impressive frame but world record level performance on the platform.
The benefit of increased muscle mass, specifically as a way of rounding out your physique so that the body can move more efficiently, applies to just about every athlete. It’s not just about getting the pecs bigger so that you can bench more but finding which areas might fall behind so that you can target them early, thus preventing it from happening in the first place. Lats, rear delts and biceps are hugely important in bench press performance, yet do not directly benefit from bench pressing alone. Even Olympic lifting teams have taken to incorporating substantial amounts of bodybuilding volume (that is, isolation movements for high reps) so as to pad the physiques of their best weightlifters. The simple fact is is that thicker legs and broader shoulders can support more powerful performances; it’s true for the clean, jerk and snatch just as it’s true for other power sports.
So, to you young lifters who insist on limiting your training to the main barbell lifts, know that you are not participating in any truer a version of powerlifting and you are not better off for limiting the amount of tools in your chest. Some of the most celebrated training methods that have been applied to the most specialized strength-sports have included ample effort towards what many might write-off as bro-training or fluff work. You can’t just drive weight up at all times; you need time to widen out your base and give yourself a break from heavy loads.
It so happens that, with most of you, the quickest path to a semi-competitive total isn’t a lot more singles and perfect practice with your contest set up but actually doing a basic amount of work that might add 5 or 10 lb of muscle to your frame. New lifters respond to generic bodybuilding training insanely fast and the benefit is that you build familiarity with a more diverse array of movement patterns, add muscle quicker, prevent weak points, all while still getting neurological adaptations that are very potent in developing early strength. I fully believe that the average bodybuilding hopeful in his first year does more to increase strength then a similarly experienced powerlifting novice.
It’s like I said in the beginning: size and strength go together like peanut butter and bananas. Don’t feign superiority by sacrificing one for the other.