Building Strength vs. Adding Muscle: The Whole Burrito
by Dave Thomas
One aspect of our training in which we’ve always prided ourselves upon is that within the framework of our twice weekly strength focused days, you get a choice: strength or muscle, which is really performance or physique. After all it’s your goals that matter, not ours, and we want you to always work towards outcomes that are most in line with what you want.
This cycle we have the deadlift as a strength building movement and on that day you can either work ~10R for building muscle or ~5R for building strength.
“But wait”, I can hear you query. “Aren’t building strength and adding muscle the same thing?”
While they exist on the same spectrum, there are some subtle yet major differences in how you train each.
- Load: ~75 – 100%+ (Heavy, all reps are hard)
- Reps: 1 – 5
- For Example: 4×4 Deadlifts @ 80%
- Very Taxing on Your: CNS (Central Nervous System)
- Soreness: Minimal to Mild (except for beginners)
- Risk: Higher, Requires Longer On-Ramp
- Yields: Denser Muscle
- Goals: More Performance
- Load: ~60 – 70% (Moderate, it should feel hard the last few reps, but you’re not maxing)
- Reps: 8 – 12
- For example: 4×10 Deadlifts @ 70%
- Very Taxing on Your: MSS (Musculoskeletal System)
- Soreness: Noticeable, Sometimes Quite High
- Risk: Lower, Less Load so More Accessible
- Yields: Bigger Muscle
- Goals: More Physique
The after effect of a 4×4 deadlift strength day at 80% will feel much different than a 4×10 muscle day @ 60% in the following areas.
CNS vs. Muscles
Why will muscle training leave you more sore?
Believe it or not, strength is much less about the size of your muscles and much more about the ability of your body to create efficient contractions. This is called “neuromuscular efficiency” and it is a product of your CNS. The lower rep strength day will effect your CNS much more than your muscles, so you’ll have total body fatigue afterwards but won’t be quite as sore. But because reps are fewer with strength building, your MS system isn’t the primary system used. You don’t achieve a pump so you’re not growing as much muscle.
On the flip side, when you’re building muscle with the 10R deadlifts, you will likely feel pretty significant soreness in your ass parts and legs because you got more volume, more of a pump, and more muscles were broken down during your set. However, you won’t build quite as much strength since your CNS wasn’t the primary system used.
Strength reps are too low to build muscle ideally, muscle reps are too high to build strength ideally. This is why muscle building will always be limited in the kind of strength it can produce, and why strength training will always be limited in the amount of muscle you gain. Two very different different systems which produce two very different physiological effects. Muscle is a bit more “show” and strength is a bit more “go”, which is why you often see small men and women lifting very heavy weight. Their CNS is highly trained and they don’t focus on high rep muscle development as much.
Which leads us nicely into…
Denser vs. Bigger Muscles
Why will strength training not get you much bigger?
In plain English, strength training won’t get you very big because it creates more dense muscles. The reason is that at that load and rep count, you’re mostly increasing the diameter of the sarcomere, the most basic unit of a muscle fiber. It increases denseness and creates strong, compact muscles.
Muscle building, on the other hand is going to create bigger muscles because it increases the volume of the sarcoplasm, which is all of the stuff around the fiber like glycogen, water, plasma volume, etc. It increases fullness and creates larger, more filled muscles. Obviously, this is casting a pretty big generalization over a highly complex system, but it’s accurate enough to give you an idea of what’s happening physiologically with both strength and muscle building.
ENTER, THE BURRITO
Now that we have established that building strength and adding muscle require two distinct training criterion, we’re going to temporarily confuse the shit out of you by saying that while they are different, there is no such thing as completely isolating strength or muscle. You can’t get one without at least some of the other.
To really set the mood for understanding this, I’d like you to think of being hammered drunk at 2 am outside your favorite burrito shop, visualize slurring your order and then sinking your teeth into a delicious California burrito. When you bite into it, you get the perfect blend of warm tortilla, seasoned carne, melty cheese and golden brown french fries. It’s a total, delicious package where you get some of all the ingredients in every bite.
What you can’t do with a California burrito is order it so one corner only has carne, the other corner only fries, and all of the ingredients are completely separate. They all blend together (unless it’s wrapped very disrespectfully).
Now think about our strength days producing the same “burrito style” results for you. The first tier is the warm tortilla and in it goes a lot of strength, some muscle growth, some improved muscle endurance, and a little increased work capacity. All wrapped up nice and deliciously for you. That’s what happens when you’re training any barbell lift, no matter if you’re training 3R sets or 12R sets. Just as you can’t isolate single ingredients in a bite of your Cali burrito, so too can you not isolate single, stand alone outcomes in your strength burrito. The CNS (strength) and MS (muscle) systems don’t exist in silos completely separate of one another. There is always going to be some crossover, so when you are building strength, you are going to add some muscle and when you are adding muscle, you’re going to build some strength.
Nothing is ever completely separate or isolated.
You can manipulate your results by dictating which ingredient you want more of to be included in the first place. In a Cali burrito, you could ask for a bit more carne or a few more fries. In the gym, we can ask for a little fewer reps and a bit more load (strength), or we can ask for a little more reps at a bit less load (muscle). As the spectrum below illustrates, you’re still getting some of both regardless, but where you land on your rep and load choice will decide which outcome you the vast majority of.
Low and heavy (1-5R) yields strength gains along the left hand side of the spectrum while more reps and moderate weight (8-12R) yields muscle gains along the right hand side of the spectrum. The 5R set acting as the perfectly balanced California burrito with just the right amount of both, which is exactly why it’s our most frequent prescription for you.
“Which One Should I Do?”
It’s up to you. You have to decide if you’re more a carne or fries guy or gal.
Strength training is great for any man or woman who wants to really explore their strength and hit some PRs, and those who want to focus more on their performance than anything else. It will always come with more risk since there is more weight, which is why it is idiotic for beginners to dive right into training at loads of 75%+. That’s an indisputable relationship that will always exist, but that doesn’t mean you need to fear it, just respect it. Listen to your body. Prioritize your technique. Don’t over do it. If you train strength in one cycle, mix it up and train for muscle in the following cycle. No one should ever train strength all year long in every lift.
The muscle building option is great for those who want to focus on developing their physique a bit more than their performance. The more muscle you have, the more calories you burn so it makes sense to swap body fat for muscle. It’s also great for those who are getting a bit older and no longer feel huge benefits from pure strength training loads. If you’re not interested at all in the “PR world” then honestly, you don’t really ever need to hit the pure strength training ranges (1-4R).
The 5R option, the one that most often sits right in the middle of the board is our version of “best of both worlds”.
I hope this was helpful. Your coaches are all adequately prepared to talk you through your decisions in class, so take advantage of them, and let’s hit those goals.