How are gaining “strength and size” different?

Everywhere you go in the fitness industry, experts talk about how to gain “strength and size” with particular programs.

But even though there is a growing realization that muscular hypertrophy does not track strength gains after training, we *still* very rarely consider just how different these two things really are.

And even when we do remember that hypertrophy does not predict strength gains, we *still* usually forget that while muscle size is something you can “have,” strength is something you “display” on a given occasion.

Let me explain what I mean, with a quick example.

When a bodybuilder engages in an off-season bulking phase, they only have one aim, which is to gain muscle size.

After hitting the weights for a few months and eating everything in sight, they go back to the lab for another set of measurements, and they are very happy to discover that they have increased their fat-free mass by a few kilograms.


On the other hand, when a powerlifter undertakes a preparation program for a meet, they also train hard for a couple of months, and they may increase their training weights by a good margin. Based on that, they fully expect to achieve a new personal best at their chosen meet.

Unfortunately, they have a bad day because they are psyched out by their opponents, they get the final details of their meet preparation wrong, and they end up not achieving a new personal best after all.

So did they improve their maximum strength after training?

Well, as measured by the meet performance, they did not. But if we had tested their muscles in a lab before and after their training program, under carefully controlled conditions, we may have recorded an improvement.

Even then, however, if they had trained *too hard* in the final few days prior to the test and become overly fatigued, we might still have recorded no gain in strength, even with very careful measurements.

If we only measured strength, we might decide that this program had been a failure at helping the athlete produce the necessary neural and muscular adaptations that lead to greater maximum strength. In reality, what the athlete may have needed was a better approach to psychological preparation, and a proper taper. With those factors in place, they may have smashed their previous personal best into the middle of next week.

Now, if we had unlimited resources, we might be able to look inside an athlete and detect the hidden adaptations that reveal how their latent ability to produce force had changed.

These hidden adaptations might include increased muscle size, greater lateral force transmission ability inside their muscles, greater tendon stiffness, an increased ability to activate their muscles, and superior coordination.

And by doing that, we might be able to predict their “true strength” without actually testing it. But until we have futuristic medical devices in every training facility, that is not going to happen.

What does this mean?

What this means, is that strength and size are very different, both in the way that they are developed by training, and *also* in the way that they are measured.

Size is something you can *have* and we can measure it relatively accurately, regardless of whether you are tired and hungover, or fresh and raring to go. If you are a bodybuilder, and you increase muscle size after a training program, then you know that it worked (at least, at that particular point in your training career).

Strength is something you can only *display* on a given occasion, and it depends on the environment, their state of fatigue, and many other factors.

You might improve your ability to produce force after strength training (because of various changes inside your brain and body), but you may still fail to *display* that improvement in a test. So if you are a powerlifter or another strength athlete, this makes it very hard to assess the quality of a training program, and a good taper (or a good meet experience) might completely alter your perception of a program you just followed.