Strength or Muscle Mass- What’s the Difference?

With every new client it is routine to ask them about their goals. Sometimes you have people that come up to you to ask for advice. In order to give good advice you must understand where they want to go.

But what I sometimes encounter is this word vomit of words that are a little all over the place. This usually means that the person telling me this is missing some fundamental understanding of the difference in the terms they are using. And that’s okay!

I think a very common misinterpretation that people have is the interchangeability of muscle mass and strength. Let’s get this one straightened out, strength as a primary goal does not involve focusing on muscle mass as a primary goal, and visa versa. Check out the definitions below:

Strength: the ability to exert force

Muscle: a band or bundle of fibrous tissue in a human or animal body that has the ability to contract, producing movement in or maintaining the position of parts of the body

Between these two definitions, we see a difference; Muscle allows for movement and strength is the performance of that movement. Furthermore, muscle is focused on shortening of a fiber, or contraction, whereas strength focuses on the result of a movement.

It really is fine to want to improve both, but you need to prioritize one and have the other as a secondary goal. This is because the training is vastly different for these goals.

Training for Strength:

Again, the purpose is to improve on the performance of a movement. So the sole purpose of a strength building program is to progress a person’s ability to lift weight by progressively loading more and more onto the bar.

With that in mind, a training session focused on building strength is focused on (usually) one big compound movement per training day (ie. deadlift or squat) and performing that exercise for very few reps. Performing a low number of repetitions insures the full engagement of the nervous system and prevents the depletion of energy stores in the muscles (glycogen). Furthermore, strength training involves at least two minute rest intervals between sets.

Training for Muscle Mass:

With this goal, the task is to cause as many micro tears in the muscle tissues as possible. This is done by performing exercises at a variety of rep ranges. A common approach is to pyramid the way up and decreasing the rep count as the weight increases. There are also techniques such as “sets to failure” that are incorporated to push the body to its limits and cause micro tears in the muscle. Usually, with this kind of training, the rest intervals vary but a common rest time is 90 seconds. The goal is to perform quality contractions in the muscle versus lifting the most amount of weight.

The Conclusion:

Yes, strength increases with muscle build up, and muscle is grown with strength increases but these results are byproducts and should not be prioritized equally. The two methods of training are completely different, so trying to have both as primary goals can be counterproductive.

If you still wish to increase muscle mass and build strength, do so by deciding between a primary and secondary goal. If the primary goal is strength, then the majority of your workout should be low reps, long rest intervals, and maximum weight. The last 30 percent of your workout can include high rep sets with variety for muscle building. Conversely, if muscle mass is your primary goal, then the first exercise or two can focus on heavier sets, longer intervals of rest, but your rep ranges should be around 5 per set. Then the rest of your workout should be extremely volume heavy to make up for the lost opportunity earlier.

Nik V Vasilyev

Digital Fitness Coach

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