Size influences strength, but you lifting for size is by no means the quickest way for you to get stronger. We'll get crackin' on protocol work later- but the science part comes first: what's causing your body to experience strength increases. Then once this is understood, we can set up the protocol to target these
adaptations. So waste a little time reading, and you'll save a lot of time in the gym.
I'm sure you've read those "hero mother" stories about a kid getting trapped under a car and his mom heaving the car off of him. During the lifting of the car, this mother is way stronger than you. Just prior to the car being positioned on top of the child, she was way weaker than you. This should be clearly obvious. Granted this change in strength is super fast, and there's no way I'm going to be able to make yours match it- but it outlines a very important rule: the ability to increase strength while doing nothing to your size is incredible. It's vastly greater than the ability to increase strength via size. And there's an eventual limit to both, but the sizeless limit is way higher and comes much faster as a result of you training properly. Here's how it works...
Sizeless = predominantly neuromuscular.
Neuromuscular being the ability for your brain to recruit a greater number of (and stronger) muscle fibers simultaneously. Your body does this through motor unit recruitment. A single motor unit will innervate a group of fibers in a particular muscle, so the more motor units you recruit, the more total fibers you're using. And the brain is responsible for activating the motor units, so that's the neural component in our little neuromuscular category here.
The reason people can situationally lift automobiles comes down to the fact that you have a lot more muscle fibers than you're using, and a golgi tendon organ, accounting for why you're not using them. The golgi tendon organ is basically a safety mechanism. You can find car-lifting moms in the hospital alongside their children following the incident. If you use a large percentage of your muscle fibers at once, and your tendons, ligaments, and bones are not prepared to handle that large of a load, they're done. Therefore you have golgi tendon organs preventing you from activating that many motor units at once. This causes the total muscle fiber recruitment to be less, dropping the possible force output, and thus, saving your joints and muscle attachments.
However, through successive proper training or immediate neurochemistry, you can increase the number of motor units your golgi tendon organ will let you recruit in a single contraction. As you can see, there is a natural limit to this neuromuscular component of strength gain, as you have only so many total fibers you can call on. But unless you're routinely lifting cars, that limit is by no means restricting your progress.
Size = mainly increased muscle cross sectional area.
Granted, other physical adaptations occur as well, offering some strength assistance- but we'll cover those later. Hypertrophy is the big one here, and increasing the size of your muscle increases the amount of force it is capable of generating. Increasing size takes forever though. It takes a while to even start, then goes slowly from there. So the rate of strength attained through this is not exceedingly massive. And then to top it off, there's an eventual cap on additional size having the ability to produce further increases in strength. This has to do with mechanical constraints.
In a medium-sized arm, the muscle fibers run longitudinally from the shoulder to the upper part of your forearm. Because this arm is medium sized, the fibers pull between these two points in a fairly straight line- slight curvature. This gives your biceps an ideal mechanical set-up. When your bicep hypertrophies, you get more contractile proteins inside of the muscle fibers. Contractile proteins are what actually cause your muscle to produce force- and hypertrophy is essentially defined by an increase in the size and number of them. That's what causes the increased size in your muscle overall. This is good. But only for a while- because as your bicep continues to hypertrophy, it begins to change the angle the fibers are pulling through. The more your bicep begins to peak, the more the mechanically-advantageous slight curvature becomes a mechanically disadvantageous huge curvature. When this happens, you're increasing the contractile force in your muscle, but diminishing your leverage. So your actual measurable strength output doesn't go up.
In summary thus far
: you'll achieve strength gain from both neuromuscular adaptation and hypertrophy. But if you want to achieve the greatest strength gain possible, you will train to make the neural component your largest contributor- as neural adaptation comes in a variety of ways.
Okay, moving along... As far as adaptation goes, your body responds very
specific to the load that is placed on it. You work out, that takes your body out of homeostasis, the body doesn't like this, so it adapts in a way such that if this identical stress is repeated, it will be able to tolerate it better. And if you think about it, strength gain is actually pretty easy considering it's a much simpler process to produce neuromuscular adaptation than to adapt with hypertrophy. Hypertrophy is the actual construction of a greater volume of muscle tissue in the form of the contractile proteins, which causes a linear increase in accumulative cellular metabolism that your body must then deal with. Adapting with the neuromuscular component is simply increasing the number of muscle fibers used when doing the same task, such that the load each one is responsible for isn't as great. This is actually easier. But people don't seem to train right to take the easy path.
So here's what we're going to make your lifting protocol do: improve the neuromuscular component, improve muscle fiber orientation (also kind of a neuromuscular issue), increase muscle cross sectional area, increase or take advantage of anatomical mechanical leverage, and progress toward more efficient muscle use during the strength tests (essentially neuromuscular as well). If you lift to target these physiological and neuromuscular shifts, you will see your strength gains. So now we'll get into each area.
1: Improving the basic neuromuscular component.
It takes a good 16 workouts on average before physical adaptations actually begin. But you get stronger almost immediately as a result of the workouts. This is you recruiting more motor units. The heavier you lift, the higher demand for additional muscle fiber activation there is. Thus, your golgi tendon organ allows you to chronically recruit more. You don't need to go to failure or feel the effects of lactic acid build-up to get this result. You just need to handle large loads of weight within the constraints of the specific exercise, and your body will begin to recruit more motor units according to demand. Therefore, you're stronger.
2: Improving muscle fiber orientation.
This is your muscle fiber type. There's actually tons of muscle fiber types depending on myosin isoforms (contractile protein stuff), but that's useless to discuss, so we're going to sum it up with three types. Type I, type IIa, and type IIx. If you do a lot of cardiovascular work, you've got a lot of type I. This muscle fiber type contracts with little speed or force, but can work all day long with minimal fatigue. That doesn't matter for strength. Type II fatigues a little faster but contracts with considerably higher speed and force. Then there's a bunch more fiber types between b and x, which are all pretty similar, x just being the fiber type with the highest speed and force generated upon contraction. So does it make sense that you want type II fibers? If you want to become stronger, type I fibers are a waste. They're not helping. You want type II fibers. And luckily, the body has the ability to switch fiber types. But you're not going to progress toward type IIx unfortunately. Furthermore, when you start training, you're not even recruiting IIx fibers. You recruit type I and IIa. As you get faster and stronger, the body will start to recruit the faster and stronger fiber types- but not until then.
So in the beginning, you're using I and IIa, and depending on the speed and force of your contractions, the body will adapt to tolerate the particular stress more effectively. This means switching the fiber type characteristics. If you train aerobically, your type II fibers take on type I characteristics to tolerate the stresses of elongated exercise protocols and the associated aerobic fatigue. If you're working anaerobically, aerobic fatigue is not a factor, so those type I fibers take on characteristics of the type II fibers. Does this make sense? So essentially the main transition is between type I and type IIa. However, if you're training like most people, you're losing your IIx fibers as well during this transition to IIa.
Oxidative and glycolytic. These are important terms right now. Type I and IIa are both oxidative. IIa is exceedingly stronger and faster, but still has a reliance on oxygen. Get any stronger and faster than IIa and you're into the glycolytic fibers. No oxygen. Now there's two ways to train- aerobically (oxidative) or anaerobically (glycolytic). You doing 6 or 8 repetitions slow and controlled with a heavy weight has a mild aerobic contribution. You doing 5 fast repetitions to failure has virtually no aerobic energy contribution whatsoever. So what does this mean? It means IIa is pretty much the minimum in this situation. Thus, you're not losing your IIx fibers. And you're probably not going to build a bunch more unless you were training really badly (aerobically) beforehand. But you will allow your body to actually recruit them do to your whole glycolytic only training protocol- and what does this do? Increase your strength.
So in summary, it works like this: you training with higher force and speed of contraction recruits fiber types that can produce more speed and force. When you continue to train under these conditions, your body begins switching your fiber orientation such that the type I fibers take on characteristics of the type II fibers- while also maintaining your IIx fibers. Thus, you're stronger and faster simply because of this new orientation.
So train heavy and fast. Granted you'll injure yourself badly if you try to move heavy weights around real quickly immediately- so you should work on speed before force. This way, you're making your body accustomed to the proper form of strength gain (relates to the 4th and 5th sections here) prior to wasting your time trying to become stronger.
3: Increasing muscle cross sectional area.
Don't worry. This one will happen to some degree without you thinking about it. And some degree plenty enough. Your fiber type orientation will contribute as type II fibers grow increasingly faster than type I, and if you're training correctly, you're progressing toward type II fibers. Hence, the degree of hypertrophy without your conscious effort is plenty enough.
4: Working with mechanical leverage.
This one will take a second to set up. The more you stress your muscles with heavier loads and quicker eccentric-concentric directional changes, the more you stress the insertion of the tendon on the bone. The tension on the bone causes tuberosities and tubercles (basically bumps where the tendons attach) to increase in size. This gives you a better moment arm (improvement to the angle the muscle is pulling through). So as tension is applied, these little bony bumps grow, and this essentially makes you stronger. This should be further incentive to lift heavy.
Additionally, before we get off the topic of tendon insertion and mechanical leverage, where it inserts in regard to the distance from the joint is going to change your leverage as well. It's strictly a "how levers work" issue. Having your tendons insert well beyond the joint is like having a really low gear on a bicycle. It's not going to go very fast, but you can handle tons of resistance (steep hill). Having tendons insert closer to the joint is like the higher gear: you can go way faster, but as soon as resistance is applied, you're done.
So if your tendon inserts further away from the joint, you're mechanically destined to be stronger and slower. If it inserts closer to the joint, you're faster and weaker. Your joints are a third class lever, just like a door. If you put the handle right by the hinge, you're going to feel kind of weak pulling it, but if you can get the handle-side of the door moving at a decent pace, the end of the door is going to swinging open lighting fast. Move that handle out a ways and move it at the same speed. It'll be lighter, but the end of the door won't be moving nearly as fast. That's exactly how your muscles activate your joints.
There's a linear trade-off: force of contraction vs speed of contraction. And since power (your real strength) is equal to force x velocity, you have an advantage regardless of where your tendon inserts. Because the force-velocity curve (one of the great laws of biomechanics) explains that less force is required as speed increases, those who have the speed-advantageous-near-tendon-insertion can achieve a higher estimated max by doing multiple repetitions at their higher speed. Opposite that, distant-tendon-attatchies have an advantage in true max tests, as speed is hardly a consideration in a single rep maximum weight.
So all you have to do is figure out your advantage and train accordingly. If your estimated max is way higher than your true max, you can probably capitalize on your contraction speed. If not, go with the force end of the scale and up the weight. Regardless of your advantage, you're going to progressively develop better leverage via increases in the size of your bony landmarks that the tendons attach to, providing you develop enough tension through appropriate resistance and/or speed.
5: Improving the execution of the strength tests.
This one deals with specificity. It means improving the force production ratio of the agonist and antagonist muscles during the strength test. The agonists being the muscles doing the movement, the antagonists resisting it under the handle "stabilizer." You've probably heard the overused sentence: "Free weights work your stabilizers more." Here's how it works- let's say you want to improve your squat. The agonists are your quads and glutes- and the antagonist is your hamstrings. Focus on flexing your hamstrings during a squat. It's totally resisting your quads and glutes, so it'll make the squat feel way heavier. Although flexing your hamstrings isn't hurting the contractile force of your quads and glutes, it is hindering the overall net measurable strength because it's flexing to produce force in the opposite direction. And this is what gives you stability. But if you can get your body comfortable with the form on less "stabilizer activation" you're going to be able to lift more weight. Lucky for you, this is easy. All you have to do is practice the exact
exercise. If you want your bench press to go up, do bench press. Dumbell presses won't quite do it for you. And it takes time. Your body being comfortable with the weight such that you can execute the test with minimal stabilizer involvement isn't going to happen after your 6th workout. Give it time.
And while we're still on the subject making form cause strength gain, we're going to get into directional changes. Quicker directional changes from the eccentric to the concentric is going to help you through the recruitment of muscle spindles. This means you're activating more muscle fibers than you're otherwise capable of. It's basically just like calling on more motor units, as groups of fibers fire in response to a dynamic change in length. I say dynamic because if you stretch the muscle, then hold it in that position, your muscle spindles will not fire. Thus, you're weaker. Proof: jump as high as you possibly can. Notice that you bend down and change directions really fast? You doing that activates your spindles, and therefore you're using more muscle fibers during the generation of power. Thus more power. Thus, more height. Now bend down like you're going to jump- sit there for three seconds, then jump. Your jump will be hilariously weak. No muscle spindle contribution. So you obviously don't want to jump without this, why would you want to lift lift without it? Change directions faster. Not only will your strength go up, but the bony adaptation for your mechanical leverage benefits too. You remember me saying that a moment ago correct? Work with it.
So what have we learned?
Warm up well so you don't injure yourself while you lift very heavy and fast, predominantly on the exact exercises you want to develop strength in. And unless you have an extensive weight-training history, you can't jump right into this. So first begin training with speed. Pick a weight you can do 10 with. You should feel comfortable moving that weight faster than you have been. Do just that. Move it faster and work with that weight until you can do 20. Never do more than 7 sets per week of that movement though. As soon as you hit 20, pick a weight you can do 8 with. Move it fast. Go until you can hit 16. When you get that, go fast on your 6-rep weight until you hit 12. By now you should be more than comfortable with the speed component.
The next step comes in the force end of things. And once your force is high, you don't want to do too many real sets- otherwise you'll damage your joints. So do something like this (each number represents a set of that many repetitions- the only sets where you go all out are the bold numbers- all other sets go at about 60-70% of the weight you could handle- full speed, but no fatigue by the end):
11. 8. 5. 2. 4
When you do this, you've got 2 working sets. That's all you need. Any more than that and you're just hurting yourself. By doing the fairly heavy warm-up set of 2 reps, your muscle should be plenty ready to crank the 4's out at a reasonable speed. When you're pressing the first 4 for 8, move to this progression:
10. 8. 6. 3. 1. 2
Same rules of the previous apply to this one but after you get the 2 for 4, go easy for a couple weeks. Give your joints, tendons, muscle-tendon junctions, and the little bony bumps a chance to recover and adapt. After this couple week period, start over with turning your new 8-rep max into 14, then 6 into 10. In these ones you're really going for speed. You've had your hack at the force end of it for a while- your muscle should be plenty ready to up the speed even more at these lighter weights. Do that, and once you've got that 10, repeat the previous force-focused trials.
By this point, you should be hugely strong. So that's it. Do it like this, and you'll have every neurological and physiological adaptation that could possibly improve your strength being exercised to the highest level science can explain. If someone suggests to you that your bench will go up more by doing decline bench, or your squat will go up by you lunging gymnasium lengths, understand that this person doesn't understand anything of how the human body works. So if you're too lazy to use the methodology I've written out for you, you probably won't ever increase your strength by any legitimate margin. I gather you understand why. If you don't, re-read.
What do I do if I want to get stronger at arm-wrestling?
You change your goals. I promise that you'll find nothing in the world more ridiculous than arm-wrestling. Aside from the fact that it has no resemblance to actual strength in any facet of the human body, it thoroughly damages your joints. Shoulder in particular, though I still have one pin in my elbow from my old arm-wrestling days. Two pins, two surgeries and my bones were reconnected. But realistically, that probably won't happen to you. Odds are a shoulder injury that involves a 9-month recovery program will though. And for what reward? The good feeling of winning a game of forceful handholding with a man? Please. Why don't you just give each other backrubs? It's exactly
as heterosexual but the risk for injury is vastly lower.
You actually broke your arm arm-wresling?