What is Strength Really?

It’s generally assumed that someone with bigger muscles is stronger. But that isn’t always the case. While having bigger muscles does help make you stronger, that isn’t the whole picture. But if having bigger muscles doesn’t make you stronger, what does?Strength is a consequence of muscle size coordinated with muscle fiber coordination. The later is the really important component. To understand strength, you need to know a little bit about how muscles are built though.

Muscles are made up of lots of little strands of muscle fibers, think spaghetti noodles. Now when somebody tells you you have noodle arms you’ll know it’s true for everyone! These strands are wrapped in connective tissue to create a bundle. Then these bundles get the same treatment to make a bigger bundle. This happens several times until the entire body of a muscle has been defined.

When muscles move our body, we don’t use all of these muscle fibers at once. Only some of them contract while some stay relaxed. The amount of effort required to move the load is what dictates how many muscle fibers must contract to accomplish the task.

For example, if I’m trying to pick up a light object, then very few fibers have to contract and I feel very little muscle tension as I perform the action. However, if I have to pick up an object that is the heaviest object I can pick up, also known as a one-rep max, then as many muscle fibers as possible will contract. When this happens I feel massive muscle tension as I complete the task.

In people who are untrained, i.e. don’t do very much physical activity, they may only be able to recruit 50% of their muscle fibers in a single effort. However, an elite athlete may be able to recruit a number approaching 100%, Olympic lifters come to mind… So a primary component of strength is learning to recruit a higher percentage of muscle fiber.

So what does this mean? It means that a very high percentage of strength generation is neurological. As you handle heavy loads, your nervous system adapts and learns to access more muscle fibers. So… if you really want to get stronger, you have to handle loads that are near the maximum you can handle.

I know, I know. You’re telling me you can make your muscles bigger to get stronger too. You can. But it’s the less important aspect. The other component of strength is muscle size. Note I said muscle size and not muscle fiber size. That’s because there are two ways to increase the size of a muscle. They are hypertrophy and hyperplasia.

Sounds fancy!

Hypertrophy just means that the muscle fiber get thicker, and hyperplasia means that you grow more muscle fibers. So, a little visual exercise to help you get the idea.

For hypertrophy, imagine that your muscle fiber goes from the size of your pinky finger to the size of your big toe. And for hyperplasia, imagine you go from just your pinky finger to all of the fingers on your hand.

It’s been believed that hyperplasia was impossible in humans, but I’m starting to find some research that shows it is possible.

Why is this important to understand? Because the training protocol for getting stronger and for growing larger muscles are different. So in keeping with my previous exploration of program design basics, if you want to get stronger but you take all your workout programs from bodybuilders, you’re not working toward your goals.

But the real take away here, is that strength is a developed skill that comes from efficient technique and efficient anatomy. After 3 years of consistent rock climbing, I can comfortably hold on to things that most people wouldn’t even consider gripable, maybe not a word but I like it!

It’s not because I have massive forearms. It’s because I have learned how to recruit a very high percentage of my forearm musculature. You can do the same thing, and that’s the real way to get strong. Strong isn’t just for big guys, it’s for everyone!

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