Size VS Strength
Does size = strength. Not exactly but they are similar. They are often seen together but their relationship is clouded in secrecy. I’m not gonna speculate on whether or not they are dating, but it’s certainly a possibility.
For the purposes of this post, I’ll be using the word “size” to refer specifically to the size or girth of a muscle. A discussion of size in any other context, such as the overall size of an individual, would require us to factor in a number of other variables and complicate the issue unnecessarily.
So, when you see a person with big muscles, does their size necessarily imply that they are actually strong? Yes, in the sense that they are more than likely stronger than the average untrained individual, but no, in the sense that they might not actually be strong relative to other people possessing similar size.
Confused yet? Perfect.
Let’s attempt to simplify this equation a little. Size is equivalent to the potential for strength. Make a note of that last sentence, as it tells you pretty much everything you need to know.
The larger the cross section of muscle, or the more girthy the muscle, the higher the potential strength output of that muscle. So, keeping that in mind let’s re-address the example of the muscly gentleman from paragraphs past. This person with large muscles has a high potential for strength and is therefore very likely stronger than an average person, however there is no way of knowing if this person has effectively reached or even approached their full strength potential simply by observing the girthiness of said muscles.
Most people, particularly untrained individuals, have not even begun to scratch the surface of their strength potential. Those who train with the specific intent of increasing their strength can make remarkable progress in that one area without adding any significant bulk to their frame. This being the case, it is quite possible to develop great strength without also developing the physique that we would normally assume denotes strength.
For extreme illustrative purposes, let’s look at the example of famed powerlifter Lamar Gant. This gentleman, at a mere 123 lbs (56 kg), was able to deadlift 639 lbs (290kg). Being able to deadlift this much is impressive at any size but for this feat to be performed by someone weighing about the same as an average American 14 year old is absolutely unbelievable.
Gant was able to deadlift over five times his own body weight. Just for fun, try multiplying your own body weight by five and imagine trying to pick that amount of weight up. Probably not gonna happen any time soon.
Gant, while having some physical attributes that contributed to his success, is still only human. Aside from a severe case of scoliosis, his musculoskeletal system looks very much the same as yours. Did I forget to mention he deadlifted 5x body weight AND had serious scoliosis?
Without getting into a conversation about leverage and technique, why might someone who doesn’t have the biggest muscles be so much stronger than we’d expect?
The answer is: because strength is a skill. It is something that can be enhanced with proper training specific to that skill. Although, as I’ve previously stated, the cross-section of a muscle is the biggest factor in determining the maximum potential of that particular muscle’s ability to generate force, a number of other factors contribute to how that muscle will actually perform when tested.
These factors include (but are not limited to):
All of these factors can be influenced by one’s training. Let’s take a quick look at each one.
When one has trained to perform a particular task, they develop confidence in their ability to perform said task. If you (yes, you) were to attempt to replicate Lamar Gant’s feat of deadlifting 639 lbs, at some point during this attempt your brain would likely warn you that you were in danger of injuring yourself or even blacking out. This aversion to pain and exertion is a natural safety mechanism that can only be overridden when one subjects themselves to repeated exposure to this particular negative stimuli.
This natural regulatory mechanism prevents an untrained individual from fully tapping into their maximal strength potential. Developing comfort with this feeling of discomfort, or otherwise ignoring it, can allow a person to increase their strength output without the need to dramatically increase the size of their muscles.
Disclaimer: I’m not advocating that you should attempt to lift a weight you’ve never lifted before and ignore all warning signals from your brain. Developing the type of confidence I’m referring to here is something that can only be done with long hours of hard work. Please do not confuse it with ego.
This refers to both the coordination between muscle groups and between the sub-groups of a singular muscle. Huge differences in the performance and the application of strength can be achieved simply by having the requisite muscles fire in a properly coordinated fashion. All the effort and confidence in the world are useless if they are not directed in a meaningful way.
This fine-tuned coordination is something that is only developed with repeated practice. To give an example, a professional basketball player can sink a free throw with greater reliability than an untrained individual precisely due to the fact that the pro has practiced this motion repeatedly, thereby tuning their central and peripheral nervous systems to coordinate the necessary firing of muscles in the right order, with the right timing, and with the desired intensity. Much the same can be said about feats of strength.
Although feats of strength are not typically thought of as graceful acts requiring great finesse, the truth is that they are just as reliant on the precise firing of particular muscles as anything else. This can partially account for why a smaller individual can potentially perform feats of strength that a larger, but less trained individual can not replicate.
This last element is a bit more complex and some elements of it are open to debate. However, suffice it to say that the size of a muscle does not tell the complete story of what is happening internally at the level of the hardware. This is true down to the level of the individual muscle fibers themselves. Not all muscle fibers are created equal and not all muscles are as densely packed with fibers or even packed with the same types of fibers.
Some of this is due simply to genetics. This accounts for the wide variety of starting baselines that one can observe in untrained individuals, before specific training even becomes a factor in the equation. Some of these variables are responsive to specific training and this partially accounts for how an individual of a given baseline strength can make tremendous progress in strength development without packing on a ton of muscle.
So, at the end of the day, that guy with huge muscles is probably stronger than you. Sorry to say it. The good news, however, is that there are probably also a lot of little guys that are stronger than you too. Take Comfort in that fact.