Logically, the bigger a muscle is, the stronger it will be. We can all accept that as a fact. However, you probably know of someone who is very strong but does not have large muscles. How can this paradox be explained? Well, muscle size is only one of the factors that determine muscle strength. There are other four factors that are equally important. However, let’s start from the very beginning by bringing you the correct definition of muscle strength.
What is muscular strength?
Definition 1. Muscular strength is the ability of the muscles to exert force, or the amount of force required to produce a single maximum effort. Weightlifting is a very good example of this.
Definition 2. Strength, or muscular strength, is the ability to generate maximum maximorum external force. The forces acting between an athlete’s body and the environment are called external forces. Thus, according to this definition of strength, only external forces are regarded as a measure of an athlete’s strength.
How to improve muscle strength?
In order to improve muscular strength it is necessary to lift heavy weights (80-100% of our maximum), using a low number of repetitions. If they are heavy we will not be able to lift them for many repetitions. We could work on what is known as the pyramid system; using a heavy weight we might do a set of five repetitions, followed by a set of four, then three, then two, then one. The starting weight would have been predetermined by finding our maximum for five repetitions commonly known as our five-rep max. Also, in order to build up muscular strength it is necessary to exercise through the full range of joint movements and to work slowly when lifting.
So what you have to understand is that training for muscular strength differs drastically from training for muscle size (muscle hypertrophy) regarding many training variables such as intensity, number of sets, number of repetitions, etc. So the best way to gain strength is to train for strength. To gain endurance, train for endurance. To get muscle size you should train using the hypertrophy training protocol. You can start by reading our article: intensity, sets, and repetitions for strength, size, and endurance. For example, we see many people who want to increase the size of their muscles (hypertrophy) fail because they are outside the recommended margins. They simply lift too heavy weights and although they have developed strength, they did not increase the size of their muscles. That’s why they remain in wonder when they see people who have doubled their muscle mass by lifting half their weight.
How do we measure our muscular strength?
To measure our muscular strength. we need to find out the maximum force that a muscle group can apply. Special dynamometers can be used to measure muscular strength at different speeds and angles, and according to whether the muscles are lengthening or shortening. They can also be set up to make our limbs move in the same way as in our chosen sport.
The repetition max test
We can carry out a repetition max test using free weights or multi-gym equipment. The aim is to find out the maximum weight we can lift just once, by gradually adding weights. This is called our one repetition max (1 RM). We must allow at least 2-3 minutes between each lift for recovery.
Although this assessment yields a good measure of absolute strength, it does require considerable time, because the 1 RM is determined through trial and error. For example, the strength of the chest muscles is frequently measured through bench press exercise. If an individual has not trained with weights, he may try 100 pounds and lift this resistance easily. After adding 50 pounds, he fails to lift the resistance. Then he decreases resistance by 20 or 30 pounds. Finally, after several trials, the 1 RM is established. Using this method, a true 1 RM might be difficult to obtain the first time an individual is tested, because fatigue becomes a factor. By the time the 1 RM is established, the person already has made several maximal or near-maximal attempts.
Hand grip strength test
To test the strength of your hand grip. you can use a hand-grip dynamometer. You simply squeeze the handle as hard as possible with your hand and record the reading on the dynamometer.
What are the factors that determine muscle strength?
The power of a muscle’s contraction (muscle strength) depends on the following five things. This is how muscle gain strength.
#1 NUMBER OF MOTOR NEURONS USED
A strong person is someone who has the ability to use the maximum amount of his muscle fibers at a given moment. The use of these muscle fibers is carried out by the central nervous system. Everything starts at the cerebral level: The command given to contract muscles goes through the nerves in the spinal cord. Motor neurons then carry the command to the muscle fibers. Each motor neuron controls the contraction of a specific group of fibers. The more motor neurons that are activated, the greater the number of muscle fibers that will contract. This is why training should be done with heavy weights. The heavier the weight you lift, the more motor nerves you will be able to use simultaneously.
#2 STRENGTH OF THE IMPULSE SENT BY EACH MOTOR NEURON
Motor neurons can send electrical impulses to muscles with varying frequencies. If the frequency is low, the muscle contracts sluggishly. However, motor neurons can send a flurry of intense impulses that act powerfully on muscle fibers. The intensity of your training develops your capacity to do the most repetitions possible with a heavyweight. Doing plyometrics also plays an important part in increasing the power of nerve impulses.
#3 SIZE OF THE MUSCLE
There is a strict correlation between the size of muscle fibers and the strength they are capable of developing. The stronger a section of muscle fibers that is linked to a motor neuron, the more force will be generated by a nerve impulse. You can develop muscle mass by performing weight training exercises with a weight that is around 80 percent of your maximum strength.
#4 INTRAMUSCULAR COORDINATION
In a sedentary person, when motor neurons discharge their electrical impulses, they do so in a disorderly fashion. The muscle fibers contract in a random, and therefore inefficient, way. Through training, these discharges become synchronized. The fibers begin contracting in a coordinated manner. Muscles become more efficient. You can achieve this by doing weight training exercises with a weight that is close to your repetition maximum.
#5 INTERMUSCULAR COORDINATION
It is rare that you have to contract only one muscle at a time. Generally, a whole group of muscles is activated to produce a movement. When resistance becomes greater, the muscles of inexperienced athletes have a hard time working together in an efficient manner. You can see this when such athletes do pull-ups. They lean to one side more than the other. They cannot pull themselves up in a linear fashion and without jerky movements. The body shifts from front to back.
Through training, the quality of movement improves, simply because the arms will have learned to work together with the back muscles, and the muscles on the right side will be in synchronization with the muscles on the left side.
This gain in efficiency translates to an increase in strength. It is the same in all areas of fitness when you have to learn a new move. It is the volume of work, and therefore the repetition of a movement or an exercise, that improves intermuscular coordination.
Through regular weight training, an athlete’s muscles become accustomed to working together. This advanced work means that an athlete can learn new movements more quickly if he has already been weight training for months.
In summary, among the elements we have described, the size of a muscle is just one of five factors of strength. THE BOTTOM LINE: Yes, it is possible to be strong—and to get stronger—without having enormous muscles. But it’s likely impossible to be huge and weak because big muscles will always have a lot of strength potential. To increase power and strength, your weight training program must also improve the four factors that are part of the central nervous system.
You should glean several practical consequences from these physiological facts:
The importance of muscular strength
We use our muscles to move ourselves and everyday objects. Without strong muscles, normal life would become very difficult. We need muscular strength to lift shopping and to move furniture. Attempting these sorts of activities without sufficient strength or correct technique could lead to injury.
Muscular strength is extremely important in most sports. For example, a judo player needs strength when attempting to throw an opponent; a rugby player needs strength when pushing in the scrum, and an archer when drawing back the bow.