Size Means Strength?

The basic idea presented in this article is there is a relationship between size and strength, but strength increases can occur due to other reasons. Just as size increase can occur with a non-linear strength increase.

One day you're in the gym and a freak of nature walks in. This guy has massively ripped muscles from head to toe. As you watch the specimen, he approaches the squat rack. You begin to get excited as he loads the bar in the squat rack. You are wondering how much this guy squats. He begins going through his warm-up sets. He starts with 135 and then 225. He puts 295 on the bar and begins his decent. Guess what? He is stuck at the bottom.

The next day at the gym you notice a short chubby guy walk in that you have not seen before. You watch as he approaches the squat rack. He begins to go through his warm-up sets. He starts his warm-up sets with 135 then 225 and then 315. You are very surprised. This guys physique development does not even come close to the level of the freaks' that was in the gym yesterday. This guy is now squatting 405 with ease. Eventually he moves up to 500lbs. for 3 reps. This is a common scenario.

How do we explain the chubby guy squatting more than the lean muscular machine? Another example of this case is the comparison of powerlifters to bodybuilders. There is a noticeable difference in physique development. The bodybuilders show supreme muscular and physique development in comparison to the powerlifters; but powerlifters are usually stronger. There are numerous factors that contribute to the supreme strength displayed by the powerlifter.

These factors include mechanical advantages such as limb length and tendon insertions. A higher rate of fast twitch muscle fibers and better neural efficiency can also contribute to the disparity of strength between the two athletes. There are numerous other factors that can affect strength, but we will not discuss these issues any further. Our concern in this article is the size strength relationship. More precisely we will look at sarcoplasmic hypertrophy, and myofibrillar hypertrophy.

Sarcoplasmic hypertrophy (common in bodybuilding) involves the growth of the sarcoplasm (fluid like substance) and non-contractile proteins that do not directly contribute to muscular force production. Filament area density decreases while cross-sectional area increases, without a significant increase in strength. Myofibrillar hypertrophy occurs due to an increase in myosin-acting filaments. Contractile proteins are synthesized and filament density increases (Zatsiorsky 1995). This type of hypertrophy leads to increased strength production. Sarcoplasmic Hypertrophy Muscle fibers adapt to high volume training by increasing the number of mitochondria (organelles in the cell that are involved in ATP production) in the cell. This type of training also leads to the elevation of enzymes that are involved in glycolytic and oxidative pathways. The volume of sarcoplasmic fluid inside the cell and between the cells is increased with high volume training. This type of training contributes little to maximal strength while it does increase strength endurance due to mitochondria hypertrophy. Growth of connective tissue is also present with sarcoplasmic hypertrophy.

Myofibrillar hypertrophy occurs due to increases in the number of myosin/actin filaments (sarcomeres) inside the cell. This leads to increased strength and size of the contractile unit of muscle. Ultimately this means greater force production. This is often referred to as functional muscle, while sarcoplasmic hypertrophy is referred to as non-functional muscle. ATP and Muscular Growth as we said earlier, increasing the number of mitochondria in the cell means increased ATP production. ATP is required for protein synthesis to occur. Low levels of ATP will halt muscular growth as well as inhibit other metabolic functions that take place inside the muscle cell. Siff and Verkhoshansky have shown that it is possible to increase your muscles contractile unit faster than the mitochondria's ability to compensate for this growth. When actin/myosin filaments out grow the number of mitochondria, growth of elements besides the sarcomere is inhibited. The insufficient quantity of ATP results in the body's inability to promote protein synthesis.

Size vs. Strength

In general, bodybuilders are more muscular than powerlifters, but powerlifters are stronger. How does training with weights that are 90% of 1RM develop strength and power, but do very little for hypertrophy? Studies have shown an intense set of 5 reps involves more fibers than an intense set of 1rep. Research has shown that using loads in the 90% range causes failure to occur before a growth stimulus has been sent to the cells. Therefore other factors besides muscle fiber fatigue result in termination of the set. The muscle simply does not have sufficient time under tension to stimulate the growth process. High rep training produces high levels of phosphate and hydrogen ions, which enhance the growth process. Research has shown heavy lifting enhances neural efficiency (improved motor recruitment, and firing rates), which enhances strength, but does not necessarily result in muscular growth.

With this information you can see why the strength, and size levels are different between bodybuilders and powerlifters. There are powerlifters that possess muscularity comparable to bodybuilders. There are also bodybuilders who have equal or greater strength than powerlifters. Do not misinterpret this article to mean there is no relationship between strength and size.

If you gain 30lbs. of lean tissue you will probably become stronger. The basic idea presented in this article is there is a relationship between size and strength, but strength increases can occur due to other reasons. Just as size increase can occur with a non-linear strength increase.


The weight trainer (2001) Muscle Growth part 1811: Why, And How Does A Muscle Grow and Get stronger? Zatsiorsky, V. (1995) Science and Practice of Strength Training. Human Kinetics. Copyright 2001 Jamie Hale