Does more muscle mass equal more strength?

On the left, Triyatno (Indonesia), an olympic weightlifter who is not overly muscular, but able to lift 2.7 times his bodyweight from the floor to overhead in the clean  and jerk. On the right, Jeff Seid (USA), a bodybuilder who is usually very lean and muscular but able to lift 'merely' 2.5 times his bodyweight from the floor to the hip  (not overhead!) in a deadlift. How is that possible?
On the left, Triyatno (Indonesia), an olympic weightlifter who is not overly muscular, but able to lift 2.7 times his bodyweight from the floor to overhead in the clean and jerk. On the right, Jeff Seid (USA), a bodybuilder who is usually very lean and muscular but able to lift ‘merely’ 2.5 times his bodyweight from the floor to ‘merely’ standing up straight in a deadlift. How is that possible?

 

There are many variables that will make someone physically strong (or not), but for the sake of brevity I will stick to the three most important factors that determine someone’s strength. This will at least explain why some bodybuilders are remarkably strong but others are not. It will explain why some powerlifters are incredibly muscular while others less so, and it explains why olympic weightlifters can lift huge amounts of weight overhead even if they’re very small.

1 – Exerting force happens by contracting muscles. More muscle mass means more mass that can contract. That is the biggest reason that a bigger muscle is a stronger muscle. This explains why bodybuilders can be pretty strong even if they don’t train for strength at all.

2 – You have to be able to activate your muscle fibres. Your nerves activate muscle fibres to contract, and this neurological thing explains why people can be strong even if they have relatively little muscle mass.

3 – Your body needs to be efficient in movements. Neurological efficiency means that your body gets better and more efficient in a certain movement. Doing a movement often and consistently will teach your body to engrain the movement pattern. This is often referred to as specificity: you get better at what you do a lot. Perhaps you are extremely good at doing leg extensions, gymnastic exercises, leg curls and hip thrusts, but this does not automatically make you good at squats – Your body doesn’t know how to use all those muscles in tandem in a specific exercise. It is not efficient in that movement. This is how olympic weightlifters move so efficiently to lift enormous weights overhead, they spend years honing their technique and becoming more efficient in a very select few exercises.

There are many more factors that are at play here. For example,

  • How are you going to measure strength and compare who is stronger? Are we talking maximum strength here, like in a deadlift? Well then, what if you have long arms, which gives you an edge in the deadlift? That sorta skews the comparison a bit. Or are we talking about a power clean, where you need explosive power and more technical proficiency as well?
  • Are we going to test a weight that you can lift only once or a weight that you can lift 10 times? Then what about the energy systems in your body, that might be adapted to squat 100 kilos for 15 reps, but not 130 kilos for 1 rep?
  • What about the psychological aspects that are important when pushing your limits as you try to see how strong you are in a heavy squat or snatch?

You could write a whole book on the subject, but I hope this at least gives you an idea of why ‘more muscular’ does not always mean ‘stronger’, but it can definitely attribute to it.

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“Having big muscles and no strength is the training equivalent of wearing a strap-on.” – Jim Wendler