Do You Need to Build Muscle to Be Stronger?
The reason you’re probably on this site is to learn more and better ways to increase your strength. In fact, that was the top response in our recent reader survey.
Along those lines, one question I get all the time is, “how connected are adding muscle and building strength?”
In other words, if you want to get stronger, should you be focused on adding muscle? Is there a difference between training optimized for power lifting vs. training optimized for body building?
Intuitively most of you know the answer. Think back to when you first started lifting, how much could you squat? Let’s say it was 100 lbs to make things easy. After a year how much could you squat? Maybe 200 lbs. Ok, so you doubled your max squat in your first year of lifting, do you think that means you doubled your muscle mass? Almost certainly not.
I mean, body builders are the most muscle bound lifters out there and yet, power lifters (on average) are much, much stronger.
There’s some research to back this up too. One scientific study looked at how efficiently body builders were able to use their muscles as compared to power athletes and found that the body builders had 62% less specific tension than power athletes. Specific tension is basically how efficiently you use your muscles, e.g. if you and I are both lean and have 30 inch legs, but you can squat 100 lbs and I can only squat 38 lbs, then I have 62% less specific tension.
So, even though body builders often have much more muscle, they usually aren’t able to recruit it half as well as power athletes!
That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t care about adding muscle though. Hypertrophy is one of the primary factors we have control over to increase our strength. Other research has shown that increased muscle can account for about half of strength gains – though that varies dramatically from person to person.
If not from muscle gains, where does the rest of our strength come from then? Well, there are over 10 factors that effect strength, like: muscle fiber type, coordination, body proportions, etc. Some of these factors you have control over and others you’re pretty much stuck with (thanks a lot for the long legs mom and dad).
At a high level though, the rest of your strength comes from learning how to use the muscle mass you have more effectively and efficiently. Broadly speaking, these are neural adaptations where you improve things like muscle unit coordination and the intensity of signaling to fire your muscles – aka improving your specific tension.
So what’s a lifter to do? In short, unless you compete in a weight class sport, it’s probably a good idea to include a solid mix of hypertrophy and heavy work in your training.
This is one of the reasons why I think undulating periodized programs are fantastic for the average lifter. They provide day-to-day variation in your training and the format accommodates focuses for different days, e.g., heavy day, gains day, etc. For example, the Cult of Strength four day / week undulating program contains: a muscle building day, a power day, a heavy day and an accessory day. We’ve found this combo to be a great balance for building strength. So, give something similar a shot.
Alright, now get back to lifting that heavy shit.