Mass vs. Strength

Written by: Elsie Velazquez CPT at Prescription Fitness (CLE,OH)

I think it is fair to say that a person’s level of strength is often associated with the amount of muscle mass the person has. Although, there is a correlation between the two, a person who has more muscle mass is not necessarily always going to be stronger than someone with less muscle mass. One example is the difference between powerlifters who tend to be stronger than bodybuilders, but bodybuilders have a larger amount of muscle mass.  The reason is that different adaptations take place during training.

Training for mass

If your goal is to become bigger and more muscular, it won’t happen overnight and you will not achieve it by running on a treadmill five times a week with no strength training in the equation.  Increasing muscle mass (muscle hypertrophy) occurs with an increase in size and number of the small muscle fibers within the muscles.  Muscle hypertrophy occurs by lifting moderate weights with reduced rest periods between sets and a high volume of sets or exercises. Training for an increase in muscle mass involves performing a high volume of activity for each muscle group. Completing 3 to 5 different exercises per muscle group, with three to six sets of each exercise is best.  Select a weight in which muscle fatigue is reached between 6 to 12 repetitions at about 50 to 75 percent of your one-rep max. Rest periods between each set are short in duration, usually between 1 to 2 minutes in duration.

What you really need in your training are the basics. Start with the moves that enable you to use the most amount of weight and utilize the most amount of muscle mass. Multi-joint, compound exercises like bench presses, shoulder presses, pull ups, rows, deadlifts, squats, and dips give you the most bang for your buck.

Training for Strength

Adaptations that occur with increasing muscular strength differ slighty from muscle hypertrophy. Along with some muscle hypertrophy that occurs, more biochemical adaptations take place.  This enables lifters to lift a heavier load. Some biochemical changes include an increase in muscle glycogen, stored glucose in the muscles, creatine phosphate and adenosine triphosphate substrate stores and additional enzyme activity needed to speed reactions for maximal energy production. You can improve your muscular strength with heavy loads, fewer repetitions and longer recovery periods. The decreased number of repetitions does not allow time to stimulate the growth process as in high-repetition training that produces high levels of phosphate and hydrogen ions, which enhances the growth process.  The general rule of thumb when training for strength is that the reps should be low and the resistance load should be high.

Improving muscular strength and higher-intensity training go hand-in-hand. Fewer exercises are necessary and the number of sets needed is reduced.  Typically, 2 to 3 exercises per muscle group with 3 to 5 sets per exercise is good. Select a weight at which muscle failure occurs between four and eight repetitions and rest periods between sets are two to three minutes in duration.  You can also perform high-power activities using a heavier weight with failure occurring between 2 and 5 repetitions.


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