Strength Gain or Muscle Hypertrophy: What to know?

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“ Gotta lift big to get big!”

A well-meaning sentence which can be heard in nearly any gym around the world at
most times of the day or being espoused by your favourite fitness influencer to millions
of followers.

But is it true?

The long story short, overly simplified answer is no, you do not have to lift “big” weights
to get bigger muscles. It is not a requirement to develop the level of strength needed to
lift very heavy things for you to develop more muscle mass.
So if the answer is this cut and dry, why does this myth continue to this day and why do
people swear by it as a key piece of gym and fitness knowledge above reproach?
To explain this, we must first understand what the differences between muscle growth
and strength gain are, how they work together and finally, why they are different things
despite being somewhat intertwined. So let’s begin with everyone’s (my) favourite: Muscle Hypertrophy or the process of growing muscle.

Muscle hypertrophy

Gaining muscle is a goal highly sought after, to varying degrees, by athletes and fitness
enthusiasts of all kinds: From bodybuilders to gymnasts, sprinters to Sumo wrestlers,
having more muscle allows you to perform better, work harder and yes, even get
stronger.But wait, wasn’t the purpose of this to show how strength and muscle growth are
different things? It sure is, but it would be scientifically incorrect to say that the 2 are
unrelated or don’t work together to a large degree.

Muscle Hypertrophy is the result of primarily 3 things that work together (there are
compounding factors such as genetics, training experience, diet, etc that assist with
amounts of muscle growth but generally don’t enable or disable the ability to grow
muscle unless extreme cases) : Mechanical tension, which is the amount of stress that
you are able to put on a specific muscle group, generally by lifting weights.
Intensity, which is to say the relative effort of an exercise that puts mechanical tension
on a muscle and how close you take that muscle to its limit. And finally, the recovery
and adaptation ability of the muscle.

Putting a muscle in a position where it has to work against a weight, taking the muscle
through its full range of motion until it is almost or completely unable to perform another
rep and doing this enough that the muscle can still recover and begins to adapt but not
so much that it cannot recover is the baseline explanation of how to get bigger muscles.
Over time, your muscles will hypertrophy which will mean that they can contract harder
which means you must lift heavier weights or impose more tension than when you started to continue to grow more muscle. This is how building more muscle can help you become stronger and it certainly does help your strength expression to be more muscular but strength itself differs from the muscle growth process.

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Strength

Strength is the expression of your ability to produce force against an opposing force. A
powerlifter deadlifting 800lbs is likely going to have a good deal of muscle on their body
but nowhere near the amount a bodybuilder would have, despite likely being able to lift
200-400lbs more than them.

So how does that work?

This is because strength is a skill.

The ability to use muscles, joints, leverages, technique and adapting your nervous
system to maximal efforts takes practice, effort and time. This isn’t to say that someone
who is very muscular is not quite strong, because they likely are, but more so that they
have not had the practice of technique and drive required to use their muscles in a way
that would allow them to be as strong as they could be. The technique for strength
expression also differs from that of muscle hypertrophy in that it attempts to spread the
amount of tension caused by very heavy weights across as many muscles and joints as
possible, allowing them all to take less total strain and work together to push against the
weight.

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So to summarize why all this description and nitpicking matters:
Muscle growth relies on putting as much tension in a muscle as possible, while strength
training aims to spread tension as much as possible across many muscle groups. Both
training for hypertrophy and strength will make you stronger and bigger up to a point,
however they both do a far better job at one and a far worse job at the other because
they are 2 different goals that often run inline with each other but are separate things all
together. So if you are starting a program, and you’d like to be as big and as strong as
possible, identify which is more important to you and aim for the style of training that
makes most sense. But never forget, you don’t have to lift big weights to get big.