Strength or muscle mass? That is the question!

A workout can and should be done in many different ways. One fitness parameter is best developed when it is given more emphasis in training over a longer period of time and the others are pushed to the background. If you have limited time for training, you will sooner or later have to choose which area is more important. Strength and muscle mass are an interesting pair, you can develop them together, but if fitness for everyday life is the main goal or progress in most sports, then I think it’s worth shifting towards strength. This is not a black and white topic, this article will be about the nuances of it!

What is strenght?

A textbook definition of strenght:

“Muscular strength is the ability to overcome external forces and internal forces or resistance during movement by the active exertion of muscular effort.” (Nádori, 1991).

Types of strength in brief and with examples from sports where it is useful to have it at a high level.

  • Relative strength: how strong are you relative to your own body weight? E.g. gymnastics, wall climbing, calisthenics
  • Absolute strength, maximum strength: no one cares about your weight, only how much weight you can lift. E.g. powerlifting, strongman competitions, max bench press, squat, deadlift
  • Speed strenght: How fast can you summon your maximum effort? Or how fast can you brake and change direction? E.g. athletic throwing events, weightlifting, ball games, martial arts
  • Strength-endurance: whether you can exert a moderate amount of force repeatedly for 20-30 seconds or even 1-4 minutes. E.g. kayak canoeing, martial arts
  • Reactive strength: How quickly and efficiently can you recycle the energy accumulated from the previous movement? E.g. sprint running, jumping, plyometric exercises

We can talk about general strength, which is not specific to a sport, and there is specific strength, which is specific to a sport-specific movement.

Johny, for example, has been going to the gym for years and can squat 200 kg, so she has pretty strong legs in general. Peter has been sprinting all his life, but he can “only” squat with 150kg. He is not weak either, they are all strong in general. However, Peter easily beats Johny in the 60m sprint, because he can put his strong leg muscles to work much more effectively in this particular movement.

Muscle size matters when it comes to muscle strength (bigger muscles are generally stronger), but so does the efficiency of the brain-muscle connection. How much muscle fibres can you get to work in a short time?

If we don’t train the muscles or there is no life-threatening situation, the muscles are lazier, less muscle fibre will be involved in the effort. The effectiveness of this can be greatly improved by proper strength training!

What is muscle mass?

Muscle mass is the total number of muscle cells and mainly the cross-sectional area of muscle fibres. The amount of proteins in muscle cells can be increased by resistance training, making the cells and fibres thicker. In addition, the amount of nutrient stores (glycogen, creatine) and water retained also contributes to the optical tuning due to proper training and nutrition.

There is a correlation between muscle cross-section and strength, i.e. as cross-section increases, so does muscle strength, but this is not the most effective way to increase strength. Big bodybuilders are also generally very strong, but not the strongest possible for their mass.

Evolutionary, economic and everyday aspects

Native peoples are not characterised by a large, bulky physique. Rather, they have a lean musculature that enables them to walk and run for hours, but they have no problem lifting heavy objects and carrying them for long periods, for example after a hunt.

Perhaps there is no need to over-detail why a high “horsepower to bodyweight” ratio, combined with stamina, is a good thing. If you can lift the same or more weight with a smaller body weight than a larger colleague, you have an advantage in several ways. Climbing, pull-ups, sprinting, and most of all endurance sports will be easier.

Big muscle mass requires more energy (food) and oxygen. It’s more costly both energetically and financially.

But if you’re on the verge of a bar fight, more muscle mass gives you some prestige by default and less chance of being picked on. Few dare to attack the big brown bear.

Also, in the modern world, there is an emphasis on optics, a societal expectation that both men and women should have spectacularly sized, toned muscles. Of course, you don’t have to meet all expectations.

One more good point for gaining muscle mass! Muscle mass naturally decreases (sarcopenia) after the age of 40-50, but this can be stopped with exercise and even then you can gain muscles, so it’s worth doing some bodybuilding exercise from time to time.

Sport goals

Genetics has a lot to do with strength and muscle mass. I’m sure everyone knows someone who gets muscular just by “looking” at a barbell. Others can only gain weight through hard work. And then there are those who are born strong, who can do pull-ups by factory design, and others have to work for it. However, hard work does not always go hand in hand with talent, so a less genetically blessed individual may go further in the long run than a lazy person with luckier genetics.

The good news is that with regular, proper training, strength and muscle mass can be greatly improved!

Of course, if you are a bodybuilding enthusiast, then maximising muscle mass will be very much in focus there. On the stage (or even just at hobby level) no one cares how much you can bench press, squat or pull-up, the important thing is to have big, proportionate and lean muscles.

In sumo wrestling or in the heavier categories of weightlifting sports, athletic throwing events, it’s also good to have more muscle mass.

In most sports, a relatively low body weight and the associated high level of strength is the winning combination. Also a high level of endurance or even speed and explosiveness. Balanced, proportionate strength training also has an injury-preventing effect. We are better able to react and deceletare in unexpected, accident-prone situations.

One can be relatively strong, super fast and explosive, have extremely high endurance without spectacularly large muscles.

However, if you want to experience your best absolute strength potential, your maximum strength, you will need to add some muscle mass. In fact, in many sports it is worth building more functional muscle if you want to get the best out of a person in their career. See today’s world-class muscular footballers or tennis players.

Muscle mass development methods

Many different methods can work depending on your fitness level. A beginner will respond well to a wide variety of methods. Someone who has put in several years to decades of work may need a very sophisticated training plan to continue progressing.

A few general key points that lead to muscle mass growth:

  • Performing compound exercises regularly (squats, deadlifts, bench press, overhead press, pull-ups, rowing).
  • Supplemented with isolation exercises that focus more on a specific muscle group.
  • Mostly aim to achieve muscle acidification, pump and use moderate repetition ranges (6-30 reps/set). With medium resistance, where this higher repetitions can be achieved. Shorter rest intervalls between sets (30-60sec).
  • Relatively high volume, many sets spread over several workouts during the week.
  • Characterized by high metabolic stress and high muscle micro-injury volume, low to moderate nervous system fatigue.
  • With proper nutrition and sleep, it is worth training the same body part several times a week.

Methods to develop strength

Here too, many different methods can work. Here I would prefer complex exercises. This way the whole body will work in a coordinated way, developing and “speaking” when it needs to.

Strength also develops with muscle mass, but it’s even better to focus more on it and use more specialised methods, which will develop the efficiency of fast muscle training more. Specialised strength training can also increase muscle mass, but it’s not the most effective way.

  • In general, it is advisable to use lower repetition rates (1-6 reps/set) with corresponding high resistance
  • Long rests between sets (3-5 minutes)
  • Relatively many sets (5-10) per workout.
  • Characterised by high nervous system fatigue, low-medium muscle micro-injury, low-medium metabolic stress.
  • Due to higher nervous system fatigue, 4-5 days rest may be necessary to train the same exercise again and see some improvement. After a really heavy deadlift training this can be up to 7-10 days!

Another way to improve strength is to do a lot of strength training exercises with little to no fatigue. Even several times a day, or several times a week. This will be good for learning the movements, and will make the exercise more economical. The question is, who has the time for this?

The key is to move

It’s entirely up to the individual to decide what his or her goal is with sport. At a younger age, the main goal may be to gain bigger, more spectacular muscles, or at an older age to maintain muscle mass (also bodybuilding). At other times, it may be “just” to get stronger for your body weight (strength training).

Both strength and muscle mass can be developed to some extent with bodyweight exercises (in fact, it’s a good place to start!), but for higher levels it is worth using weights. Training with a focus on both strength and muscle mass can help prevent osteoporosis and muscle mass loss in older age.

For a normal life and age 100, I don’t think you need a lot of muscle mass or not even extreme strength. Large muscles are expensive to maintain and can be a disadvantage in endurance sports activities. But extra strength is good for almost all sports and life situations and can be achieved with a thinner physique.

I think the best approach, if you don’t have a specific sporting goal, is to cycle your training and have some muscle mass building to start with, which can then be made even stronger or more explosive and have more endurance, work capacity as required. Or you can train for both in the same workout, training week, e.g. strength at the beginning of the workout/week and muscle mass building in the second half.

If you’ve “overstrengthened” without bulking and you find that you’ve “lost” a bit of muscle, you could go back to bodybuilding training for a few months.

The point is to move regularly and improve until you get into the shape you want, and preferably maintain it in the long term!

Keep moving!

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