In today’s world, a lot of importance is placed on appearance, but as we all know – looks can be deceiving. And when it comes to muscles? Just because you have them, doesn’t mean you’re strong. You might not realize it, but there is actually a difference between ‘big’ muscles and ‘strong’ muscles.
Many men who first get into the fitness world might have goals of obtaining the “ripped” look with huge muscles – and they also want to be as strong as possible. Well, sorry to break it to you, but you can’t train for both. No matter how hard you try, science says you can’t have those lean, six-pack abs while simultaneously training for maximum strength. Now, it’s important to mention that you can be big and strong; however, you can’t train for both strength and muscle growth at the same time. It will take a back-and-forth effort over time to achieve that. So, what’s most important for your training program? Being strong or being ‘ripped’? The answer will depend on your goals, but it will help if you know the science and mechanics behind it all. Let’s break it down.
Muscle tissue is basically made up of two main types of muscle fibers (there are subtypes, but we’ll deter from the details for the basics of this article):
Type I Muscle Fiber: These types of fibers are also known as slow-twitch fibers and use oxygen more efficiently. These types of fibers are used for endurance over longer periods of time. Type I muscle fibers are our bodies’ smallest and least powerful muscles and have little chance at hypertrophy (muscle growth).
Type II Muscle Fiber: Known as fast-twitch fibers, these types of muscle fibers burn energy quickly and in short bursts. These large, powerful fibers have a greater chance at hypertrophy.
Depending on what you want your muscles to do – get bigger or get stronger – you’ll need to treat these different muscle fibers in different ways to achieve your goals.
In order to get your muscles to grow, you’ll need to get them to a state of hypertrophy. Hypertrophy is the result of lifting moderate to heavy loads in moderate repetitions and higher sets. Plus, both nutrition and rest will need to be incorporated into the training program to achieve this. With this approach, it causes micro-damage to your muscle fibers. In turn, your body works to repair the damage, making the fibers thicker and larger so that they’re able to handle the stress in the future.
Strength, however, is a different approach. If you’re looking to have the strongest muscles as possible, it will require heavier lifting at lower reps and lower sets. When muscle fibers are exposed to extremely heavy loads, it causes the nervous system to adapt over time by learning how to “turn on” more muscle fibers immediately so your body can handle the weight.
In a nutshell – hypertrophy (or big muscles) is a structural change to the muscle tissue while strength is a change in the nervous system.
So, how do you make your muscles bigger?
Heavy weights and higher reps: To make muscles bigger, you’ll want to use a weight that is not only heavy but one that you can lift for a high number of repetitions. The load and rep recommendation is 67-85% 1RM for 6-12 reps as a starting guideline to achieve hypertrophy.
Low rest interval: Keep your rest intervals around 30-90 seconds to reach hypertrophy. Less recovery time causes muscle growth because it leads to elevated levels of serum growth hormone in the body.
Maximum weights with fewer reps: For the strongest muscles possible, you’ll need to activate as many muscle fibers as possible. To do so, increase your load to >85% 1RM. Naturally, if you’re lifting near your one-repetition maximum, it will be very difficult to do many reps. If you can do more than six, the weight is too light.
Longer rest interval: In order to train your nervous system for maximum strength training, it needs time for a full recovery between sets. Increase your rest intervals to two to five minutes when working with your maximum load.
As you can see, just because someone has big muscles, doesn’t necessarily mean they have the power you might think. The key to being both strong and big is to make sure you’re varying your training program to include both groups and styles of training.
Blog posts are based off our opinions and experience however, we advise seeking consultation with a fitness professional prior to exercising*