Many people want to know how to get stronger. Most people know that more muscle mass leads to greater strength, but many don’t realize that getting bigger is not the only way to get stronger. To understand how to get stronger, we need to be aware of how strength gains are made. There are two ways to accomplish this:
Muscle hypertrophy is what most people are familiar with. It’s the increase in the size of your muscle. This happens during anaerobic exercise (resistance/strength training), and to a lesser extent (or none at all) with aerobic exercise (running, walking, endurance exercise, or other low intensity training).
When we lift weights or do other high-intensity exercise, we cause micro-trauma in our muscle cells. This break down of our muscles causes our body to rebuild the muscle bigger and stronger in an effort to cope with the increased stimulus. While increased muscle size does not automatically equate to increases in strength, there is a definite correlation between the size of the muscle fibers and the forces they can generate.
How to Get Stronger Through Muscular Hypertrophy
Muscle hypertrophy can be achieved in many ways. Some of these include:
- Progressive Overload – Continually adding resistance to your exercise. Usually this comes in the form of adding weight to the bar each workout. An extra 5lbs of resistance with the same exercise as last time stimulates the body to create more muscle mass.
- Increased Repetitions – If you can’t add weight, you should be trying for at least an extra rep or two. Just an extra rep with the same weight as your last workout is enough to stimulate hypertrophy.
- Increased Working Load – This usually means adding an extra set to your routine. It can also mean the total tonnage that you moved during that workout. For example, if you used 100 pounds for 3 sets of 10, you moved 3,000lbs (100 * 3 * 10). Increasing your total working load will create muscular hypertrophy.
Whatever method(s) you use, just make sure you are continually progressing in the gym.
Motor Neuron Recruitment
The other way to get stronger is through greater motor neuron recruitment – basically learning how to use your muscles. Think about when you learned how to write, or you learned how to walk. More likely than not, you already had the muscle mass necessary to accomplish these things, you just needed to train your muscles to work together to do them.
Take for example the squat. The squat is a near total body exercise. If you’ve never squatted before, it might feel awkward the first time you do it. Your balance might be off, or you might not be able to use the amount of weight you thought you could.
However, each successive workout that you squat, things get easier. Sure, you probably put on some muscle, but a lot of the strength gains came from better motor neuron recruitment. The motor neurons of your central nervous system (CNS) learn to work together and fire off in a more synched manner so that all of your muscles are working together as one.
This motor neuron recruitment is the reason why people can continue to get stronger without getting any bigger. Take for example a powerlifter who needs to continually get stronger, but needs to stay under a certain weight. He can continue training his CNS to get stronger without a corresponding increase in muscle mass.
How to Get Stronger Through Better Motor Neuron Recruitment
While you can learn to recruit more motor neurons simply by “doing”, the greatest effects come from lifting heavy loads. As more muscle fibers are needed to lift heavy weights, more motor neurons are needed to get them to contract. Lifting weights in the 1-5 rep range tends to recruit the most motor neurons.
I’m a big fan of starting out my workouts with heavy loads – many times working up to a 1-rep or 3-rep max. After that, I drop down my weights and do a typical 3-5 sets of 5 repetitions doing a similar movement. This process effectively activates maximum motor neurons under max loads and then helps me to make greater strength gains when I drop the weights down and increase reps. The weights seem lighter because I just finished training my muscles and neurons to work together under maximal loads.
Getting stronger is a function of both muscular hypertrophy (bigger muscles) and better motor neuron recruitment (learning to use your muscles). Strength gains can lead to muscle gains, and muscle gains can lead to strength gains. Strength and muscle are two independent goals to train for. You should incorporate them both in your fitness routine. Once you do, you will create a synergistic effect that can take your training to the next level.