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Does big mean strong?

When it comes to getting stronger, do we automatically assume that getting bigger means getting stronger?

I used to believe this, if your muscles are bigger, surely they'd be stronger... right?

Well, yes... but actually... no... Allow me to explain.

See to understand this, you first need to understand the makeup of a muscle.

Within the muscle itself, you have various components. Each has a role to play in both strength and size. Both are caused by effectively damaging the muscle tissue, your body then repairs this damage by fusing together tears in the tissue. This sort of 'filler' is what gives you the extra size in a muscle. (Very broad strokes of course, there is a lot more to this, but that is for another blog!)

Now, let's start with just all out size. What do you need to do to get as hench as possible if you're not worried about the functional strength of a muscle?

Sarcoplasmic Hypertrophy

Sarcoplasmic hypertrophy refers to an increase in the volume of sarcoplasmic fluid in the muscle cell.

Think “the pump”. This kind of hypertrophy is what bodybuilders tend to focus on when maximising overall size of their muscles. This however has little to no impact on the overall strength of a muscle (Beach muscles it is then, all show, no go!)

Sarcoplasm is actually the fluid and energy resources surrounding the muscle fibres. It contains ATP, glycogen, creatine phosphate and water. So, sarcoplasmic hypertrophy occurs when the volume of sarcoplasmic fluid in your muscle cells increase.

With Sarcoplasmic hypertrophy, the muscle tissue adapts so that it lasts longer without the need for maximal strength or speed in briefer periods. This would add to the overall volume of a muscle, but have little impact to overall strength, meaning that relative strength would decrease by adding body weight with no function except to look massive (Which is a very good trade off in the off seasons!)

Now, what about if you're not worried about the your size, but absolutely, possitively have to be able to move anything put in front of you?

Myofibrillar Hypertrophy

With myofibrillar hypertrophy, think weightlifters, strongmen and powerlifters. For this, let's look at powerlifters.

A powerlifter is a strength athlete that trains specially to become more powerful, focusing solely on lifting the most weight possible in an extremely short rep range (1 rep in competition!)

A powerlifter will often be much smaller than a bodybuilder, but easily outperform them when it comes to actually using the muscles to shift heavy weights.

When training for myofibrillar hypertrophy, actin and myosin (proteins in the muscle that cause contractions) actually increase in number and add to the actual strength of a muscle, as well as a small increase in the size of the muscle, due to the body treating the small ‘tears’ in the muscle fibres as injuries, sealing and strengthening them with more proteins.

Or to put it simply, you’re slightly damaging the muscles by putting them under extreme stress, causing them to adapt to larger loads. They then become more functionally strong and slightly larger in size, due to an increase in cells recruited.

How to train for these

Training to achieve either of these goals is very different, in fact pretty much the exact opposite! For Sarcoplasmic hypertrophy (size with little impact on strength) you'll be working lighter loads for more reps with little rest.

8-15 reps, 4-5 sets, >60 seconds rest

For myofibrillar hypertrophy (strength with minimal size increase) you'll be working much much heavier loads, more sets and longer rest periods.

1-5 reps, 5-10 sets, 3-5 minutes rest to allow recovery of both muscles and CNS between efforts! You'll spend most of your workout on large compound movements (Squats, deadlifts, presses and rows)

What if I want both?

Unless you want to focus solely on one side of hypertrophy or strength, it makes sense to take a hybrid approach to your training if you wish to be both functionally strong and aesthetic. Consider adding one big lift to each of your workouts and completing it in the heavy myofibrillar rep and set ranges at the start of your session, with a more sarcoplasmic approach to the rest of your workout.