Saturday, November 19, 2011

Size v. Strength: The Great Debate

Ever since the dawning of the modern workout, there has been a great divide between two main trains of thought regarding muscular growth.  There were those who wanted to get BIG, and those who wanted to get STRONG.  Such desires spawned two completely different methods for lifting weights, and two completely different types of athletes.

For the time being, lets ignore the casual "I just want to get toned" gym-goer (although I will admit this is a large percentage of gym-goers...).  

When I say two completely different athletic builds, I really mean it. Put these guys next to each other and rarely will you see extreme similarities.  Make them train alongside each other, and the differences will become even more apparent.  The methods are DIFFERENT.  To get big, you must train in separate fashion than you would if you were specifically looking for strength.  Yes, some traits carry over from each method of training (an athlete looking for strength only will inevitably put on muscle mass), but I'll say again, in general they are distinct from each other.

Let's examine the methodology behind each muscular goal.  What goes into the workout, why does the method work the way it does, and how can you incorporate it into your own gym related endeavors?

SIZE:  We've all seen them.  The fantastically enormous bodybuilders that appear to be half man half gorilla, all muscle.  They're basketball sized biceps, ginormous pectorals, and shredded abdominals seem to defy some law of nature.  Yet there they stand, bigger than any human we've ever seen.  How do they do it?  Well aside from an extremely picky diet, and some "medical enhancement," it's all in the gym, and their method of training. 

Bodybuilders train for hypertrophy.  Hypertrophy is the increase of overall cellular volume.  More specifically, bodybuilders train for sarcoplasmic hypertrophy, and focus more on training their slow twitch, or I muscle fibers.  This basically means that bodybuilders train to experience an increase in cross sectional area of their muscles, and not really associated strength.  It's common to watch bodybuilders doing unbelievably high volume with very sub-maximal loads, at least relative to their muscle size.  Judging by their physique, it appears that they could throw a car above their head.  But in the end, they simply do not have the strength that they appear to have.  

But to them, this doesn't matter so much.  They train for APPEARANCE. And there's a lot to be said about appearance.  Sarcoplasmic hypertrophy allows you to look big and strong, often a more impressive trait than actually being as strong as an ox but only average in the muscular department.  This hypertrophy also more readily accelerates your metabolism, allowing you to burn more fat more quickly, and build that physique you've always wanted.  

How do you go about training for this type of muscle gain?  Well for building big muscle, you want a big rep number, with sub maximal weight.  Don't go super duper light, but work those muscles to exhaustion.  As you've probably heard before, FEEL THE BURN.  Super sets, drop sets, and negative reps are all great ways to overload your muscles for set after set to really ensure a good growth stimulus is sent to your brain and those muscles increase in volume as quickly as possible.  The most general rule for sarcoplasmic hypertrophy is to keep reps within the 8-12 range, for at least 3 sets (I've seen people do as many as 10-15 though.)  This is only a general guideline though, and I suggest heading over to to get a more detailed workout routine.  

STRENGTH:  Let me bring to mind an athlete you may or may not have heard of: Pyrros Dimas.  Dimas was a three time Olympic gold medalist for weightlifting.  He weighed in at a meager 182 pounds, yet lifted 473lbs over his head in the Sydney Olympics.  He was the ultimate example of a strength athlete, and is one of my personal heroes.   

So how is it possible that Dimas was able to get so ungodly strong without becoming enormous and inflexible?  Well he, and other strength athletes alike, train for Myofibrillar hypertrophy, or an increase in overall muscle fiber connections.  This type of training surprisingly does NOT drastically increase cross-sectional area or overall volume of the muscle being trained, but instead allows the muscle to contract with much more force than it could previously.  Believe me, to put that much weight over your head, you need a LOT of targeted, raw, force.  

Myofibrillar hypertrophy deals more with fast twitch, or type II muscle fiber, the kind often referred to as "usable muscle."  Athletes like sprinters, Olympic lifters, power lifters, and other related force athletes often have large amounts of fast twitch muscle.  This muscle contracts, as the name implies, hard and fast, and can apply great amounts of energy to objects in very short amounts of time.  It is not, however, very effective endurance muscle.  Muscles can only contract with remarkable force for relatively short periods of time, hence the reason that joggers, bodybuilders, Nordic skiers, swimmers, and other endurance athletes (I put bodybuilders in there because of their ability to hit fantastic numbers of reps, NOT their running ability, which I'm sure is horrendous) possess much more slow twitch, endurance muscle fiber.  

It's always good to get strength training into your workout routine, as being able to lift heavy weights is not only healthy, it also builds a more solid body and strong neural connections between your brain and your muscles.  So where do you start?  Well, first of all, drop the huge number of reps.  Next, increase the weight.  Finally, do this for a good number of sets, 10 or so.  For an olympic lifter, a squat workout program may look like this:  10 sets of 2 reps, every rep at around 85-95% of max.  Believe me, though it may look like an easy workout, it is anything but.  That weight is very heavy, and will ALWAYS be very heavy.  This type of training does work though, and I can personally vouch for it.  The majority of my training is strength targeted.  My squat has gone up around 90lbs in 6 months, and shows no signs of slowing down.  And I don't look too much different, implying I haven't experienced much sarcoplasmic hypertrophy.  Watch out Dimas, here I come!


So which is the best way to train?  ....HAH!  What a silly question.  That's not possible to answer, and rarely will anybody who knows there stuff about exercising/fitness give you a straight shot one way or another.  For the average person, I suggest a mixture of both!  You'd like to look good and be strong at the same time, right?  Well that's a great goal, AND entirely possible.  Switch up your workout, either weekly, monthly, yearly, daily, I don't care.  Confuse your body, train both high and low reps, high and low weight, high and low volume.  You want to see benefits across the board right?  Well you will!  There's always carryover from each type of training.  Even though I said bodybuilders aren't relatively strong...well...I said RELATIVELY.  They're still unbelievably strong, because look at how much muscle mass they've got!  And sure, Olympic lifters aren't overly huge, but I mean they aren't exactly tiny either.  Train for both size and strength, and you'll get both.  Sure, what you'll always get isn't the BEST of either world, but it'll be a pretty good start into each one, and it'll do your body a huge favor.

Get big, get strong, and as always, good luck!

1 comment:

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