Muscular strength 101
If you are an avid gym goer, fitness enthusiast or student in an exercise physiology class, you’ve no doubt heard of the term muscular strength.
But what does this really mean? Moreover, can you increase muscular strength over the course of time? As a man that regularly visits the gym, I’ve found that a lot of people get confused about “strength” and assume it simply means how much you can lift.
While on some level this may be true, the construct of muscular strength is a bit more complicated. Before we dive deep into this topic, here’s a video of Chris Hemsworth working out as he trains for his role in the movie, Thor.
Seeing his approach may help set the tone for all that follows regarding muscular strength:
- The definition of muscular strength
- How muscular strength is measured
- How power relates to strength
- How muscular strength and endurance differ
- Examples for increasing muscular strength
- The benefits of building strength over time
- Myths about muscular strength
- Celebrities who engage in strength training
Muscular Strength Definition
Muscular strength is defined as the maximal force that a muscle or muscle group can generate during a single bout of exercise (Kenny, Wilmore, & Costil, 2015).
This is not to be confused with the concept of muscular power, which is defined as the rate at which a single but of exercise is performed and the product of both velocity and force.
Example of Muscular Strength
Let’s say you and your strength traning buddy are at the gym. As as the two of you stand in front of a flatbench, your friend asks how much you can lift in one repetition.
Based on past experience, you think the answer is 220 lb. Impressed, you buddy asks you to prove it. Feeling confident, you load up the weight plates on the universal bar and hop on the bench. As he spots you with minimal assistance, you bang out one rep at the stated 220 lb.
Now it’s your friend’s turn.
He trades places with you and struggles to get the bar off the rack. That 220 lbs is just too much for him. Feeling somewhat embarrassed, he removes plates from each side of the bar until only 110 lbs remain.
When considering full range of motion, this turns out to be the maximum he can lift.
Using this example, it can safely be said that you have twice as much muscular strength as your friend. Make sense?
Let’s move on to measuring strength.
Measuring Muscular Strength
In the hypothetical example we just explored, we assessed the definition of muscular strength on a flatbench. Specifically, we wanted to know the maximal weight that can be lifted in one signle effort.
This approach is referred to as 1 repition maximum (1RM). To determine a person’s 1RM at the gym or fitness center, an individual selects an amount of weight they know they can lift with a full range of motion at least one time.
Once properly warmed up, the person makes an attempt at several repetitions. If they can do it more than once, they increase weight and try to add more repetitions.
The process continues until the indvidual reaches the point where they are unable to lift the weight more than a single repetition.
That last weight that can only be lifted once is their 1RM.
To keep it real, most of us don’t go around measuring muscular strength. Well, at least in the clinical sense.
For that to happen, it typically takes place in a research lab and requires the use of specialized equipment designed to quantify static strength and dynamic strength.
When it comes to gains in muscular strength, they must bifurcated between the structure of the muscle and neural control.
Muscle strength is measured during muscular contraction. The size of your muscle fibers and the ability of nerves to activate muscle fibers are very much related.
How Muscular Strength and Endurance Differ
With all of the different terms associated with exercise, it’s easy to get confused on what they all mean. I know as a body builder, I’ve often struggled with some of them.
In my experience, the two that get most confused are muscular strength vs. endurance. Maybe this happens for you, too?
Here’s a basic definition of muscular endurance:
The capacity to perform repeated muscle contractions or to sustain a single contraction over time.
Muscular Endurance Examples
There are a number examples to point to regarding muscular endurance. These include:
Many endurance type exercises are uniquely tied to something called plyometric exercises. That’s a $10.00 term used to describe explosive movements.
An easy way to determine muscular endurance is to assess the maximum number of reps you can perform at a given percentage of 1RM.
Let’s go back to the example where you bench pressed 220 lb. To evaluate your endurance, you would want to measure how many reps you can perform at (for example) 75% of your 1RM. This would equate to 165 lb.
The number of reps you could successfully do with sustained force is how muscular endurance is measured.
How To Increase Muscular Strength
Now that you know what muscular strength is and how it differs from the other terms, you probably want to know how it’s increased.
The easy answer for improving strength is to hit the gym and do weight bearing exercises. Sure, on some level this is true. But it’s a bit more involved that.
The best way to get your strength on is to engage in a type of approach called progressive overload. In simple speak, this means increasing the amount of weight being lifted incrementally over the course of time.
Some people use the pyramid method. Starting with a pre-determined number of reps, you work your way down until you get to just one rep.
Let’s say you are doing basic concentration curls to jack up your biceps. Here’s how a pyramid might look.
- 15 reps at 25 lb.
- Rest 2 min
- 12 reps at 30 lb.
- Rest 2 min
- 10 reps at 35 lb.
- Rest 3 min
- 8 reps at 40 lb.
In this scenario, you’ve started at the bottom of the pyramid (25 lb.) and gradually worked your way up to the top with incremental increases in weight.
Pyramids can be done from bottom to top (like example mentioned above) or can be conducted in reverse, starting with the heaviest weight (with fewer reps) and moving downward.
Example Reverse Pyramid
8 reps at 40 lbs.
Rest 2 min
- 10 reps at 35 lb.
- Rest two minutes
- 12 reps at 30 lb.
- Rest 3 min
- 15 reps at 25 lb.
Tips for Improving Muscular Strength and Definition
If you are like most folks, you want to increase the strength of all muscles groups while adding definition. This goal is particularly true for body builders.
So what’s the best approach?
Well, you are going to hear tons of advice on various websites but I’ll give it to you straight.
Muscular strength is a function of consistency.
In other words, you can do all the progressive overloading you want to improve the amount of weight you can lift but if you aren’t exercising on a regular basis, growth will not happen.
In other words, missing training sessions can’t be part of your gym routine.
With that said, here are some general tips for improving strength:
- Engage in free-weight exercises
- Use progressive overload approach
- Employ principles of variation
- Consider plyometrics
- Increase the intensity of your exercises
- Assess how much muscle you can realistically grow
Building Muscular Strength Benefits
When you build muscular strength, you not only can lift more, you also experience other benefits. These include:
- Building lean muscle mass
- Increasing muscular size
- Increasing metabolism (good for weight loss)
- Looking tighter and leaner
- Coping with daily stress in a healthy way
- Increasing your level of self-esteem
- Improving posture
- Seeing real results from your efforts at gym
Myths About Building Muscle Strength
There are several myths about building muscular strength. Many of these are the stuff of urban legend. They are also spread by some who want to use them as permission slips for not working out.
Example myths include:
- Increasing strength takes away from endurance
- Women shouldn’t increase strength because it makes them look bulky
- You can increase strength through plyometric exercises alone
- Strength and power mean the same thing
- Older people (50+) can’t grow their muscles
- Only body builders benefit from strength gaining exercises
Celebrities Who Regularly Build Muscle Strength
If you are a moviegoer or watch television, there’s probably a few celebrities who are your favorites.
Here’s a short list of actors who regularly engage in strength building exercises as part of their career.
- Chris Evans
- Scott Eastwood
- Ryan Phillippe – See Link
- Dwayne Johnson (The Rock)
- Chris Pine
- Zac Efron
- Cam Gigandet (link)
- Tom Hardy
- Sylvester Stallone
- Arnold Schwarzenegger
- Vin Diesel
- Lou Ferrigno
- Chris Hemsworth
If your goal is to see noticeable results at the gym, you’ll want to focus your efforts on muscular strength building exercises.
There are lots of books about this available online. One of my favorites is Beyond Bigger by Michael Matthews. It’s loaded with practical tips for newbies to strength training or people with lots of experience. (See Amazon for price).
I hope you found the information on this page useful. Remember, consistency is key to getting bigger and stronger!
Kenny, L., Wilmore, J., & Costil, D. (2015). Physiology of sport and exercise (Vol. 6). Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.
Main photo credit: Deposit photos