“What’s The Difference Between Adding Muscle and Building Strength?”
One aspect of our training in which we’ve always prided ourselves upon is that you typically get the autonomy to decide which route you want to take in a strength-focused workout. While both exist on the same continuum, there are some subtle yet major differences in how you train each that put them at different points on the continuum, and different physiological outputs.
- Load: ~75 – 100%+ (Heavy, all reps are hard)
- Reps: 1 – 5
- For Example: 3R 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: 6 – 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 3R deadlift strength day at 80% will feel much different than a 10R 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 optimally, muscle reps are too high to build strength optimally. 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. So it will recompose you to look leaner and more athletic, but won’t increase your overall mass very much. 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.
NEVER MUTUALLY EXCLUSIVE
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.
How, and why does it go like this?
To really set the mood for understanding this, I’d like you to think 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. 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.