Strength Versus Muscle Mass: Is There a Difference?
Let’s start with a simple YES. In this article, we will be unpacking the difference between strength and hypertrophy and how different training programs will affect your gains.
When we think about building muscle (that is laying down more muscle tissue) this is called muscle hypertrophy. If building muscle mass is your goal, this is best achieved by lifting in a rep range between 6-20 reps in your working sets.
What is hypertrophy?
Hypertrophy is referring to growth or an increase in muscle size. Understanding muscle composition can be a little complex, but simply think of them like a bunch of tiny cables (sarcomeres) bundled together to make one big one. These little cables are called sarcomeres.
What is strength?
The term ‘strength’ however is referring to the maximal amount of force that the body can generate. This can be tested by how much you can move in a single rep (1RM). Typically if you are trying to build pure strength this is best achieved in lifting 5 reps or less in your working sets.
When you train you are causing stress to the tiny filaments in the cables that force them to break down and adapt to make them more resilient to the stress you place upon them in the future. When you train for hypertrophy (mass) you are literally increasing the cross sectional area of the fibres. This is in comparison to lifting for strength where the the main outcome is an increase in maximal force output of the muscle fibres, nervous system, ligaments and motor units increase.
How does this translate to the real world?
Therefore it is completely possible to get stronger across a training program, but not see an increase in muscle mass in a body composition scan like an InBody. I saw evidence of this myself, after finishing an 8 week powerlifting block. My muscle mass dropped from 32.5 to 31.5kg despite hitting new PBs in all of my lifts. Prior to this strength phase I was hitting a more stereotypical bodybuilding split program that had significantly more volume.
Is there a relationship between muscle size and strength?
As you work to increase your strength, some size may come, but it will not be the same full bellies and ‘roundedness’ of a stereotypical sports models program. Further, when you are lifting in the 6-12 reps range, you should also still be focused on increasing your mechanical load over time to continue to force the adaptation.
You will also find that to be able to ‘go heavy’, you will need to have a solid strength endurance base first. This base is best achieved through a balanced weight training program where the reps are between 6-20. Therefore encouraging you to build muscle mass anyway.
Some women are also more predisposed to build greater muscle mass than others. For me personally, I like to incorporate super heavy sets into my program as allows me to build my strength without necessarily building more muscle bulk.
What is better?
The answer to this question really depends on your goals, preference, training frequency and training age.
Lifting big is empowering AF! It is more functional and transferable across to the real world, but it is hard and is an advanced form of a workout. It takes time for the body to be able to take on the weight and have the required muscle memory of good technique. If you are just starting out, you are better to focus on muscular endurance first and build a good muscle mass base. Incorporating a pure strength phase into your program is also super rewarding as it helps you to set and hit more objective milestones in your training.
Lifting for hypertrophy is great to build muscle endurance, increase heart rate (as the sets are much longer and the muscle is under tension for longer) and a great way to target specific body parts (like your glutes or shoulders). This could also be a better way to train if weight loss is a focus as the workout is likely to be more metabolically demanding.
23W signature “Strong” program
We recognise that in a group training environment, creating the perfect program for everybody is challenging. We know that regardless of your goals, the best results come from being motivated and self-disciplined to actually turn up and do the work. Our strong program follows an annual periodisation that moves between higher volume and higher intensity twice throughout the year. By doing so, we can keep our programs fresh and exciting for our members, while having the required consistency and programming help our members get stronger AND build muscle mass.
We just wrapped up our first strength block for the year and will be focusing on higher volume, range of movement and muscle growth over the next few months.
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Ange Drake is an personal trainer, women’s empowerment coach and fitness blogger in the northern suburbs of Melbourne. She is the director of one of the few womens’ only strength training gyms in Melbourne, 23W. Ange helps women to learn how to use strength based training, nutritional strategies and a positive mindset to transform their bodies, relationship with food and mind.
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