Article: The Size Myth
Almost every bro lifter at your local LA Fitness/Gold’s/Cookie Cutter Globogym of Choice lives a lie. The mirror-obsessed biceps curlers screaming at each other for one more rep believes something that simply isn’t true:
Size equals strength.
They believe that the strongest guys are also the biggest. They are well-intentioned, but also buying into a myth.
Size helps, just don’t think it’s the only thing
While it is true that there is a positive correlation between strength and size (you don’t need a scientific study to understand this… just look around the gym) scientific literature has yet to announce a causal relationship between size and strength), the myth comes into play when the pursuit of size becomes the only pursuit of an athlete training in order to gain strength.
So, why is there a discrepancy in strength (especially relative strength) between, say, an Olympic lifter and a bodybuilder?
Fundamental Concept: S.A.I.D.
There is no definitive answer to the aforementioned question, but much of it comes down to one of the most fundamental concepts of training (all training, really, but specifically physical training): SAID.
Specific Adaptation to Imposed Demand.
SAID states simply that your body will change specifically to the stimulus put on it. Which is to say that you can’t front squat your way to a Boston Marathon billet – you’ve got to run!
Now, when stated as a banal English sentence, SAID is so plainly obvious it’s eye-roll-inducing; and yet it is the most common misconception I run into as a strength coach advising athletes from all over.
Now, let’s apply SAID to our two example athlete types.
Bodybuilders focus on developing muscular size and symmetry in isolation from other muscles. On the other hand, Olympic lifters focus on building strength under a certain body weight using complex movements and muscle patterns. They have a more “systemic” approach to training rhythm, coordination, and strength between muscle groups than the “isolation” approach used by bodybuilders.
Also, bodybuilders tend towards higher reps per set, fewer total sets, and moderate loading with moderate to long rest periods. While Olympic lifters typically train more sets with very few reps per set (typically 3 or fewer), and long rests between.
The results of all of this is much more of a neural adaptation for the Olympic lifter and much more of a hypertrophic adaptation for the bodybuilder.
And so, when it comes to big lifts – squats, cleans, snatches – the Olympic lifter has the edge. That’s specific to what they train and how their muscles are “wired” to function. The same is true of a bodybuilder who would undoubtedly excel at arm curls, for example, over snatch.
Really, the size equals strength myth is perpetrated by the fact that big muscles are best attained by training them in isolation. Those muscles look cool (they made the careers of every ‘80’s action star you know), but they don’t move heavy things well when they have to work with other muscle groups. The coordination between groups just isn’t there.
Contrastly, high relative strength (meaning strength per pound of bodyweight) is better attained through complex lifts that promote neural coordination and strength between muscle groups.
The Problem with Size
The rub here, from our training paradigm, is bodybuilders end up carrying around a lot of extra mass they can’t really do any work with. It’s just mass that isn’t contributing to 1) moving their body over ground and 2) working with other muscle groups efficiently to get work done.
Yet, of course, there exist real benefits to having extra mass as well. Muscle is good armor against impact. Skinny cyclists commonly pop collarbones anytime they hit pavement at speed. A big part of this is how slight their upper body musculature is – and the fact that the bones in their upper bodies are less dense due to a complete lack of loading.
So, a balance must be struck between having armor to protect bones from impact and staying light enough to move over ground quickly and efficiently.
Discovering Your Balance – All Fitness is Individual
Look to your sport for balance.
Your degree of balance is demanded by your sport, mostly, and to some extent by the individual attributes of you as an athlete – this statement, of course, is a logical restatement of SAID from the perspective of the imposed demand.
Following this idea, it’s clear to see that very few sports/activities require excessive size as it’s ideal athletic body composition. Indeed, many require moderate size and high levels of coordination and rhythm. Sports tend toward the “systemic” or neural adaptation of strength more than the “isolation” or hypertrophic adaptation.
Strength is Skill, Size, and Systemic
Moving back to the idea of size being strength, there is perhaps no better counter argument to this myth than Olympic lifters themselves. A sport in which 170 lb. athletes put well over 300-400 lbs. overhead just to be competitive. Relatively, these athletes are far stronger (and in more cases than not, absolutely stronger as well) than any bodybuilder, yet they possess much less size than the bodybuilders.
Such evidence leads to the conclusion that strength isn’t size, but nor is it purely neural either. Rather, strength is a function of muscular size, neural recruitment, and proprioceptive rhythm and coordination (put in a simple term, you could simply say “skill”).
So why does the myth persist? Who knows, really. It probably has a lot to do with the fact that big muscles look cool. And looking cool is far better than not, from a social perspective. But also, the seed of truth in the myth is that so many of the strongest guys people see on a day-to-day basis are the biggest guys. If your daily reality shows such evidence, it’s hard to be convinced otherwise. Especially if you are not concerned with/educated about relative strength; and not to mention if you don’t have a sport, but just train to “stay in shape”, which, honestly, is equivalent to wanting to look cool (in most cases).
Yet the data and broader experience reveals otherwise. Strength is influenced by so much more than just size.