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Strength vs Size

By Alan Frost, updated November, 2013

Excersize GuyThis article is aimed at beginners who do not fully understand the difference between training for strength vs size. While most serious gym-goers will have a solid grasp of the training differences and goals, many rookies pretty much think that the bigger you are, the stronger you are.

There are different goals that one can have from training at the gym. If one excludes general goals like weight loss and fitness, and instead looks only at the effects weightlifting can have on your muscles, these can be narrowed down to three broad goals:

  • Strength: This refers to the most amount of weight that you can lift. The term for your single one rep max is called limit strength. Powerlifters take this to the extreme when they compete for their one rep max in the squat, deadlift, and bench press.
  • Size: Being bigger and heavier is a very common goal. Bodybuilders take this to the extreme by training for size, symmetry, and low body fat.
  • Power: In all sports, speed is what matters. In other words, your ability to explode and generate as much strength as possible, as quickly as possible. Most sports depend to a smaller or greater degree on power (usually greater). Pure power can be seen in Olympic weight lifters when they compete in the snatch or the clean and jerk.

For the purpose of this article, I will comment solely on training for strength vs training for size.

Understanding how the body generates force

Every time we contract our muscles, whether it is to lift weights, throw something, move, talk, and so on, we use the energy molecule called the ATP molecule. Our body is in a continuous state of using and rebuilding this molecule and it has a number of metabolic pathways at its disposal for doing so. The longer the duration of muscular exertion, the more the body will be forced to rely more on less efficient but more long-lasting ways of re-generating the energy molecule.

The longer the duration of muscular exertion, the more the body will be forced to rely more on less efficient but more long-lasting ways of re-generating the energy molecule.

The first couple of seconds of energy come from ATP stored in our bodies. The body begins to regenerate the ATP molecule via the following three pathways:

  • Creatine phosphate is broken down, lending its phosphate molecule to regenerate ATP. This provides another couple of seconds of near-peak energy.
  • If muscular exertion continues, the body will start using glucose and/or glycogen stored in your muscles blood and muscles. This is called the glycolytic pathway. This gives us energy for about 30 seconds.
  • The final way the body regenerates ATP is aerobically (i.e. using oxygen). This can give us energy for many hours (e.g. running a marathon).

Excersize GuyPlease note that these pathways overlap, and all of them are used from the beginning. However, at different stages, one will be dominant.

As you can see, a powerlifter who lifts very heavy weights for few repetitions, does not rely heavily on any pathway other than creatine phosphate. Bodybuilders on the other hand, tend to train primarily in the glycolytic pathway (rep ranges of 6 or more, and typically 8-12).

So why is this important in understanding training for strength vs size? This is simply because large muscles are the result of glycogen storage in the muscles. In this sense, bodybuilders are largely endurance athletes, but unlike long distance runners, they are anaerobic endurance athletes. This is why a powerlifter who is typically much smaller, will lift heavier weights, but as the number of reps lifted pass 6, the advantage starts to shift in favour of the bodybuilder.

The short answer is, if you are training for strength you need to keep the reps low… If you goal is size, focus on lifting heavy at a variety of rep ranges

The short answer is, if you are training for strength you need to keep the reps low and you should expect to get strong, compact muscles. If you goal is size, focus on lifting heavy at a variety of rep ranges, mostly exceeding 7 reps.



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