Why am I getting stronger but not getting bigger?
We’ve all seen it before; the “smaller” athletes at the gym bench pressing three times their body-weight, or the big guys with biceps the size of their heads who couldn’t deadlift the same weight if their brown rice depended on it? Of course, you can have the best of both worlds: size and strength. It is in your control, you just have to understand that the mind-muscle connection is a lot more important than you think.
If you’re training for size, as well as strength, then this is a must read for you.
It’s all about the wiring.
In order to fully appreciate the adaptations your body makes to increase strength, it’s important to know exactly what a muscle is and how it works. As I always say: “Knowledge is Power”.
When we think of our muscles, we think of the biceps or quads – the things you can see. They’re what cause the movements after all, right? Not exactly. The central nervous system (CNS) is in complete control of your muscles (the “neuromuscular system”). Not only with respect to muscle contraction but also how quickly they respond to stimuli and how much power or force they generate.
I like to think of the neuromuscular system as a computer. Your brain is the processor, your nerves are the wires that carry the information and your muscles are like the images you see on the screen. It’s all about the wiring. The central nervous system sends messages in the form of electrical impulses from the brain through motor neurons which innervate or “instruct” the muscle to “do work” or contract. A single motor neuron can innervate anywhere from ten to one thousand muscle fibres, depending on the muscle size. A motor neuron and all of the muscle fibres it innervates is called a motor unit. However, a muscle isn’t composed of just one motor unit; there are hundreds. How many of these motor units you recruit during a movement varies and this is the fundamental basis of strength training.
Intensity for Strength.
Imagine that you’re doing a bicep curl: a simple movement that only requires a few muscles to contract and we can probably all agree that they’re not very difficult. For this movement to happen, your CNS sends a message to your muscle to contract, much like my analogy with the computer screen and the wiring. Here, only a few motor units are recruited because the intensity or load is low.
However, when your body is faced with a 4 x Body Weight (BW) deadlift, it basically says “Holy crap! This is heavy! Get to work lads!” and recruits more motor units to help out. The more motor units you recruit, the greater the force you can produce and therefore the greater the load (or weight) you can lift. Essentially, you’re shocking your CNS into asking for as much help as it can muster to respond to such a strong stimulus.
As you progressively overload the CNS by lifting heavy loads (typically in the 80%+ range of your 1RM) your neuromuscular system adapts by recruiting more motor units in order to complete the lifts. Essentially, you’re training your nervous system to work more effectively. This is why you might find yourself yawning during a strength session rather than “feeling the burn” as you would with a body-building style (6-12 rep range, moderate weight) workout.
Strength training doesn’t invoke much hypertrophy (increase of muscle size) directly, as muscle growth is mostly reliant on microtears of muscle tissue (“the burn”) that are repaired through the process of protein synthesis. These microtears form as a result of repetitive stress put on the muscle tissue by load and time under tension. In other words, when you’re grinding out those last few reps (which often accompany a few screams from the hardcore folk… you know the guys I’m talking about!) your muscles are being broken down. As long as the body is sufficiently nourished it will repair the muscle fibres and also stimulate growth of muscle fibres. These fibres will, in most cases, be thicker and stronger in order to withstand expected future stress and this is the fundamental basis of bodybuilding.
Although strength training doesn’t have much direct impact on hypertrophy for the intermediate to advanced lifter (beginner gains are great, but they don’t last!) it most definitely impacts hypertrophy indirectly. By training the neuromuscular system to recruit more motor units (therefore more muscle fibres) during a movement, more muscle fibres will be trained and therefore a greater amount of microtears will occur. The more fibre damage, the more fibre repair and in turn, muscle growth. It’s important to point out here that it is possible to cause too much fibre damage (that will not be repaired) and this is when we hit the black hole that is “overtraining” so be sure to keep those rest days in check.
Get the best of both worlds (for the best gains!)
To summarize, strength training is more of a neuromuscular adaptation and doesn’t cause as much microtrauma (a main player in hypertrophy) to muscle tissue as bodybuilding does. So while you may indeed be getting stronger, you might not be bursting out of your muscle shirt just yet. However, it does have an impact on your potential gains in muscle size once you’ve taught your neuromuscular system to work as efficiently as it can by recruiting as many motor units (therefore muscle fibres) as possible. So at the end of the day, a combination of both strength training and hypertrophy based work will lead to solid strength and muscle gains and, most importantly, the chance to reach your maximum potential as a natural athlete.
About the Author
Michelle is a scientist, an athlete and a writer and she’s proud to have faced her demons head on and she’s beating them. In weight lifting she found an outlet to help change her life – and she’s loving it! Follow her journey with BULK POWDERS™.