We ask all of our clients to rank a few options that best describe their goals. On the list we include "gain muscle" and "gain strength."
Every now and then we get someone who asks us if that is a mistake, or what the difference is. How would you answer that question?
Gaining muscle and strength are definitely related, but not necessarily the same. From the goal setting perspective:
- Gaining muscle is for looks, increased metabolism, and a foundation for more strength potential.
- Gaining strength translates more to performance, and also increases the potential to build more muscle. (It also helps build your ego when you can lift heavy things)
Hypertrophy is a term that means "gain muscle". When hypertrophy is the goal, we often focus on the 8-12 rep range. This range doesn't push your upper strength limit, but still causes adaptation in the muscles to grow. It increases blood flow (creating the pump) and has the optimal balance of mechanical tension and metabolic stress for muscle growth. Mechanical tension describes the load within the muscles, so heavier weight increases the mechanical tension. Think of becoming out of breath as high metabolic stress, so the more reps you complete, the higher the metabolic stress.
Maximum strength increases when lifting weights that are 80%+ of your 1 rep max. These weights typically allow you to complete 1-5 reps. We focus on this range when strength is the main focus. The mechanical tension is greater in this rep range and leads your body to adapt in ways to increase your strength (that includes muscle growth, but other things as well).
Working on Both
Strength relates more to performance while muscle size relates to looks, however, in the long-term you should be getting some of both no matter what your goal is. You can do this by focusing on strength for 8 weeks and then hypertrophy for 8 weeks, or you can mix both into your workouts and be less focused on both, but making more consistent progress on each rather than alternating.
It is beneficial to work on both for long-term benefits because by increasing muscular size, you increase your strength potential, and by increasing your strength, you have more muscle-growth potential.
Think about it like this. If you can lift 100 lbs for 8 reps and then you work on strength. Now you can lift 100 lbs for 12 reps. You can work in higher mechanical tension for more reps leading to greater muscle growth.
After building that muscle, now you have larger muscles to recruit during your lifts. You can get to greater max strength levels by involving more muscle into that movement.
In this article we have discussed these different approaches as if they are mutually exclusive. That is not the case. Any time you increase strength, you will see some increase in muscle mass. Focusing on hypertrophy will definitely lead to increased strength. Knowing how they relate and differ is important for designing a program that will help you reach your specific goals.