Strength vs. Muscle
Many people see training for strength and muscle mass as the same thing. While there is undoubtedly overlap and interplay between the two, choosing how to train should depend on which of the two you want to pursue.
With that in mind, let’s examine what it takes to train for strength and muscle mass and how the two differ.
Training For Optimal Muscle Growth
Optimal hypertrophy occurs when we follow three specific rules. But there are always nuances within the rules, so no single approach will work great for everyone. The four rules are:
- Do enough sets and reps
- Train with a high enough intensity for practicality and optimal stimulus
- Have a large arsenal of exercises
- Train each muscle group two to three times per week.
Doing enough sets and reps is crucial for muscle growth. According to research, anywhere from 10 to 20 weekly sets per muscle group seem to net the best results. Start on the low end and progress accordingly.
Training with weights that are heavy enough is also important. Doing so allows you to stimulate your muscles well and accumulate enough volume without piling on too much fatigue. In general, researchers recommend training with 60 to 85 percent of your 1RM across exercises. Meaning, train within the 5 to 25 repetition range.
Doing at least two movements for most muscle groups is vital for varying the stimulus and angle of attack. In doing so, you can stimulate more motor units and achieve more balanced development.
Researchers and experts agree that training our muscles twice per week seems optimal. First, doing so allows us to allocate our training volume better. Instead of doing 16 sets for chest on Monday, you can do eight on Monday and another eight on Thursday. Second, it allows us to stimulate our muscles more frequently, resulting in slightly more growth.
How to Train For Superior Strength Gains
Having more muscle on your frame is undoubtedly beneficial for attaining strength. A larger muscle typically has a greater strength potential than a smaller one. This is one reason why powerlifters and other competitive athletes lift more weight as they go up through the weight classes.
But aside from the sheer amount of muscle mass, strength depends on skill, neuromuscular capacity, daily readiness, and other factors. A muscular person isn’t necessarily that strong, just as a small person isn’t necessarily weak.
First, building more strength is about training the lifts you want to improve more frequently. In doing so, you get more quality practice, which enhances your skill and neuromuscular capacity. A frequency of two to three times per week seems optimal.
Second, lifting enough weight also plays a role in strength gain. Research suggests that training with over 75 percent of our 1RM stimulates strength adaptations while allowing us enough quality practice.
Third, getting controlled exposure without driving ourselves into the group. Training to failure might seem like a great approach, but strength training is nuanced, and we have to look at our overall plan, not just at what’s in front of us. Sure, a single set taken to failure might produce a bit more strength than stopping short of failure. But that single set could impact your performance on subsequent sets and workouts, resulting in smaller adaptations over time.