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Does Strength Always Equal Size? How to Measure Strength?

There is a belief that just because a person has big muscles it doesn’t mean that they are strong, but this view is way too simplistic.

For example a bodybuilder has much bigger muscles than an Olympic weightlifter, but the weightlifter can lift heavier weights.

Does this make the bodybuilder weak though? Well why not challenge them to an arm wrestle and you can see for yourself![toc]

How do you measure strength?

In the opening paragraph we looked at an Olympic lifter, you’ve probably seen videos of 17 year old girls who can perform huge lifts for their size. Or maybe you’ve seen Maryana Naumova perform a 100kg bench press, yeah her form was poor but she is still stronger than most people.

How big were those girls? Certainly bigger than your average teenage girl, but nowhere near as big as a bodybuilder.

But is an Olympic lift a good indication of strength? Would it not be a better indication of flawless technique, momentum, and speed?

Would that same teenage girl be able to bicep curl a 20kg dumbbell, which is something that a lot of gym-goers can do – even if they couldn’t perform a single Olympic lift with good technique.

Powerlifting is a better example of strength because whilst there is still a lot of technique involved, it’s nowhere near as challenging as an Olympic lift.

When a powerlifter performs a 400kg deadlift there is no arguing that the guy is strong. But until you get into the world’s strongest man category a lot of powerlifters would appear smaller than even amateur bodybuilders, because they are training for a different outcome.

How strong are Bodybuilders?

A lot of people believe that bodybuilders are nowhere near as strong as they look, and that training for hypertrophy will lead to puffed out muscles that just don’t have the strength.

This seems to be based on the fact that bodybuilders tend to use lighter weights for more repetitions. But remember this is because they are training for hypertrophy, which requires more muscle fibre activation and metabolic damage.

A bodybuilder would have as much need for a one rep max as a powerlifter would have need of a drop set. But that does not make the bodybuilder weak, in fact they are very strong just in a different rep range.

The strength and size correlation

The truth is that when training for hypertrophy your muscles will adapt to the stimulus and you will build bigger muscles, and when training for strength the same will happen.

But as you train for size your muscles will get stronger, and as you train for strength your muscles will also get bigger in size.

This is due to the fact that you are pushing your muscles further than almost anyone else, further than the muscles would be able to. So they adapt.

A powerlifter will end up with muscles that are bigger than 90% of the population, whilst a bodybuilder will end up with muscles that are stronger than 90% of the population.

If we take a look at running as an example. Do you think that a record-breaking 100m sprinter would be able to beat an average 10km runner in a 10km race? Probably, because they are fitter and stronger, and have a better running technique than most people.

The same thing would happen if a record-breaking 10km runner competed against an amateur 100m sprinter. Doesn’t matter that the 100m sprint isn’t their speciality, there is enough carry over and enough talent for them to win it.

What about regular lifters?

Weight Lifting

When you walk into the gym for the first time, training for hypertrophy is probably your best bet. This is because you are untrained and will have very little coordination when it comes to the movements.

This means that a really heavy weight would be beyond your capabilities, but that a high-rep set on a lower weight would be ideal.

Once you build the neuromuscular coordination you will notice that the exercise becomes easier and that you can now lift substantially heavier weights.

Once this happens you can either continue along the hypertrophy path (8-15 rep sets, drop-sets, back-off-sets, etc …) or you can try lowering the reps (1-6 reps) and building some strength.

As you are just starting out, you will find that either path gives you both strength and size (though obviously the differences will be small at first).

The longer you train, the bigger the differences can become but this doesn’t mean that you have to stick to that path.

Becoming very strong, or very big will enable you to cross-over and get good results in either discipline. This has been proven by the number of fitness professionals who have managed both (check out Layne Norton).

One final thing to contemplate, we’ve talked about bodybuilders and powerlifters and it would be easy to imagine the world’s strongest men/women to be the perfect example of a powerlifter.

Whilst imagining that Phil Heath is the perfect example of someone training for size. But as admiral as these people are, they are hardly representative of what YOU are going to achieve.

Professional bodybuilders are taking anabolic steroids, HGH, insulin, and some are even adding synthol to their muscles to increase size. They are so far removed from what a regular person is capable of that it is almost absurd to compare yourself to them.

Whilst powerlifters are normally drug-free, that doesn’t make them any more comparable to regular people than Usain Bolt is to your friend who took up jogging. They are athletes who are:

  1. Naturally suited to their sport
  2. Sponsored to train like nobody else
  3. Receiving training advice from the best coaches in the world

For regular gym goers, the strength and size debate is usually redundant because you’re going to be getting a decent amount of both, and you don’t have to deal in extremes.

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