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Is Muscle Mass Important For Power Lifters?

April 28 2010

Powerlifters are usually looked as strong athletes with little muscle compared to bodybuilders. A recent study looked to see what differentiates the weaker lifters from stronger lifters.

What Is Power Lifting?

Three Lifts: Powerfliting involves three basic lifts the Bench Press, Deadlift & Squats. Olympic lifting, on the other hand, involves the clean and jerk and snatch.

powerlifting and muscle

1RM: It means one repetition /maximum or the maximum amount of weight that you can lift for one rep.

The person who can do the most amount of weight for 1 rep (1RM) wins the competition. Basically, the strongest person wins the competition.

Muscle not important for power lifters?

Most people think powerlifting or strength has nothing to do with muscle . A few reason why they think are:

Powerlifters are Fat:  Bodybuilders are muscular and ripped. So people think it is the training that makes them look like that.
Heavier Weights: Powerlifters usually train with very low reps (1-3) and hence the weight they lift is almost double what they can do if they did 8-10 reps.

Bodybuilders usually train with high reps (8-12) and the weight they use are much lighter. So people think strength is not really related to muscle.

Nervous system: Strength is all about nervous system adaptations and has little to do with muscle.

A recent study looked to see if muscle mass can predict powerlfiting performance.

What was the study design?

The study compared weaker lifters and stronger powerlifters who had competed in powerlifting competitions. None of the lifters tested positive in drug test in the past 2 years.

Stronger lifters were defined as lifters whose wilks score were greater than 417 here as the weaker group were defined as lifters who had a wilks score of less than 370.

They compared anthropometric characteristics like limb lengths, muscle girths, bone breadth and muscle mass.

  What were the Study Results?

The study showed that the majority of the significant differences were for muscle mass and muscular girths per unit height and the greater muscle mass contributed to the greater strength levels in stronger lifters.

The study recommends powerlifters should spent more time training to the development of muscle mass most relevant to the three lifts.

Practical Applications

• Strength is highly correlated with muscle mass. You cannot magically gain strength without putting on muscle or vice-versa.

• If your strength is climbing, you are definitely gaining muscle too.

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Karky | Wed April 28, 2010  

It’s an interesting study, but I disagree with the practical implications.

You can gain strength without noticeable size gains because of nervous system adaptations, specially if you’re a beginner. However you will probably get some size gains even if you’re mostly gaining nervous system efficiency, since pretty much all training will lead to some size gains.

There is not a correlation of 1 between strength and size.

Anatoly | Wed April 28, 2010  

Is it Franco Colombo on photo?

Anoop | Wed April 28, 2010  

Hi Karky,

Agreed in beginners you can get strength gains and also if you are calorie restricted diet, most strength gans will be neural. There are also muscle architectural changes like increased pennation angle and muscle fascicle length which can increase strength without adding muscle. But the important thing is that all these adaptation can only take you so far. Finally, only adding muscle mass can get you stronger.

This is by D. G sale one of the pioneers in neural adaptations “After years of training, I suspect that there is little or no neural adaptation that can increase strength further, apart from a change in technique. Strength in the highly trained state is almost entirely a function of muscle mass. This would explain why athletes ultimately resort to anabolic steroids - increasing muscle mass is the only way to increase strength further (Personal Communication).”.

Anoop | Wed April 28, 2010  

Hi Anatoly,

It’s Franco Columbo. Hope he won’t sue me for that picture grin

According to Roger Enoka, the greatest neural adaptation to strength training is intermuscular and intramuscular coordination. And how much you an increase your coordination in a simple lift like bench press? An olympic lift is lot more complicated than a lift like bench & squat.

Anatoly | Wed April 28, 2010  

About neural adaptation and adding muscle mass.
Are we positively sure that process of adding mass starts only after neural adaptation
they starts immediately together, only neural adaptation is much faster process?

Jim@TBF | Fri April 30, 2010  

That is Franco Columbo in the pic. I actually bought his book on gaining strength and he rcommended the Big 3 for reps 5,4,3,2,1.

Solid article Anoop!

Anoop | Sat May 01, 2010  

Hi Jim,

Thanks. I might have to check out that.

Hi Anatoly,

Both go hand in hand. In beginners, neural adaptations are much larger.

Anoop | Mon May 03, 2010  

Here is what I wrote in another forum:

In powerlifting, you can increase without adding muscle:

1. Tweaking technique and cutting range of motion. For example, tucking your elbows in and making that insane arch will almost cut your range of motion to half and hence your weights will go up like crazy.

2. Leverage. Barrel chested and short arms individuals are perfect for bench because of the short range of motion.

3. Tendon attachment to your bone.Where your tendon attaches to your bone can make a big difference in strength.

3.Coordination: The more practice, the better you get at your lift.

The above are the most definite ways that can contribute to strength. BUT these are limited. Once you are done with your technique and coordination, you are done. Only adding more muscle will now get the weights to go up.

There is a good reason why powerlifting is divided into weight categories based on the maximum FFM people can gain. If powerlifting has very little to do with muscle, why not just have one weight category?

Also there is a good reason why elite power lifters are juiced. Steroids won’t improve your coordination or technique. also the reason why they came with those suits and shirts. Your muscle mass is limited.

If you can keep your technique same, one sure way you can guarantee muscle growth is by increasing strength.

And a good analogy: You will find a lot of skinny guys who struggle to put on weight even after eating tons of food. That won’t make us say that food has very little to do with weight gain right. Logically, if he wants to gain weight, his only option is to eat more.

The same way lot of skinny guys lifting heavy weights doesn’t automatically make strength not important for muscle growth. If those skinny guys want to put muscle, their strength has to go up further from what they are at. That means eating more to put on more muscle. And that’s when they fall in a higher weight category.

Jim@TBF | Tue May 04, 2010  

I could not agree more. Many do not realize how much technique plays a part of max lifts. Example, I have a good friend who drug free benched over 700 lbs. Now, he is big (390 lbs and 6’3”) but you watch his range of motion when he benches is incredible. It is so short, maybe the same as mine at 5’10”.

Anoop | Thu May 06, 2010  

And their big belly helps too.

If a power lifter uses a bodybuilding technique and trains with a 10-12 rep range, I wouldn’t see too much difference in strength. And I am sure they wouldn’t look much different either if you strip of their fat.

Jim@TBF | Thu May 06, 2010  


NLV | Sat May 15, 2010  

Anoop quit over-analyzing this shit. How do chinese lifters or boxers like Manny Pacquiao get stronger without adding muscle or taking steroids?

Anoop | Sat May 15, 2010  


I am guessing you are the same poster in the other forum I replied to.

I am just copy-pasting the post which i made in the same forum. I hate re-typing hence:

In the study, they could have compared powerlifters and regular gym goers. But instead, they compared stronger powerlifters to weaker powerlifters.And what they found was that the most significant difference which could contribute to strength was muscle mass.

The reason they compare power lifters to powerlifters is to make sure they are normalizing the technique, leverages and neural adaptations. So they are minimizing all that variables.

For strength, if you keep the technique, leverages, tendon attachments same , the important variables are neural adaptations and muscle mass. The neural adaptations plays a large role in beginners and the muscle mass becomes more prominent as they get advanced. Hence the reason why steroids help. Hence the reason why they have weight categories.

Nick Outlaw | Thu June 10, 2010  

More muscle does not mean bigger size.  Muscle is more dense than fat.  You can get stronger while losing inches if you are replacing fat w/ lean muscle.  Body composition is the barometer of intrest.  The quality and type of muscle fibers that you are building will dictate strength and vascularity.  Body builders look muscular, but are not neccesarily strong.

Karky | Fri June 11, 2010  

That’s why you measure muscle size with stuff like MRI, not just circumference. If you gain muscle and lose fat on your upper arm, your circumference might stay the same, but the cross section you get with an MRI or measure from a biopsy will increase.

And most BBers are pretty strong.

Andy Walsh | Mon June 14, 2010  

I had the same passionate debate with a colleague recenty. I heard the opposite from Jay Cutler actually:


He says something like “weight is irrelevant in bodybuilding” meaning ‘how much you can lift’.

I have a friend who keeps going for heavier and heavier weight rather than size and he’s lifting more than he ever has in about 8 years of going to the gym. He has noticeably shrunk in muscle mass.

Anoop | Sat June 19, 2010  

Jay Cutler is not a good person to take advice from unless you are dipped in steroids.

Dave | Thu July 15, 2010  

Hi Anoop,

I really question the notion of getting stronger in order to gain muscle mass. 

I’m not sure if you’re familiar with High Intensity Training (one set to failure).  However, I am others have tried really limited protocols to the point where we are only training a muscle every two weeks.  Despite gaining significant strength for months and months, we’ve noticed our muscles gettings smaller.  This has been verified through body composition tests as well as through tape measurements.  A lot of us are quite advanced, as well.

So, I think there is always a strong neuro component to training and that ultra brief and infrequent training styles (also known as consolidation training) can lead to significant and long term strength increases, but lack of muscularity.

I think optimal hypertrophy requires more work and frequency where as optimal strength requires less volume and freq. in comparison.  Just my experience.

Dave | Thu July 15, 2010  

Just to add….

I do think bigger muscles will lead to strength increases.  However, I just wanted to point out that gaining strength - even as an advanced trainee - doesn’t mean bigger muscles necessarily.  Never underestimate the CNS factor. smile

Anoop | Mon July 19, 2010  

Hi Dave,

Thanks for the comment and I do agree that strength has a strong neural component. All I am saying that the neural compoenent plateu and soon you will have to tap into your muscles to keep your strength increasing.

Here is a quote from Digby Sale - one of the pioneers in neural adaptations research - “After years of training, I suspect that there is little or no neural adaptation that can increase strength further, apart from a change in technique. Strength in the highly trained state is almost entirely a function of muscle mass. This would explain why athletes ultimately resort to anabolic steroids - increasing muscle mass is the only way to increase strength further (Personal Communication)”

Norcal Rich | Fri October 08, 2010  

I have some experience in high school wrestling, and this reminds me a little of comparing the lower weight divisions with the heavyweights. The lower weight divisions try to make the lowest weight class possible, and almost always under 10% bodyfat, sometimes much lower (<4% bf). They looked ripped.

The heavyweights, on the other hand, generally have slacker-looking muscles, big but not well-defined. But they are beastly strong.

Part of the difference is that so much of wrestling strength is in the hips, and thus not easy to see. But the difference in appearance is, I think, due to the heavyweights’ use of very heavy weights/low reps, and a higher fat content of the muscles, more like a powerlifter, while lighter weight wrestlers use higher rep/lower weight, producing more tone, and they have less fat on and in the muscles.

Might this tone, combined with NO-enhancing and creatine supplements, make the bodybuilders look bigger for their strength levels than the powerlifters?

Anoop | Fri October 08, 2010  

Hi Norcal,

Correlation do not mean causation. It could very weel be that skinny guys were skinny to begin with and heavier guys were heavy to begin with.

Training and exercise has very little to do with how toned you look. It is usually your diet and genetics.

Sprinters look muscular because they had more Type 2 fibers to begin with and were more suited to short burst of activity and hence gravitated towards sprinting.The same for long distance runners runners.

All good questions!

Dan | Mon November 15, 2010  

Norcal, The rep scheme and weight used has minimal effect on the body composition of the athlete. Olympic weightlifters in ligther classes cary very little bodyfat, and yet train with weights in the 1-3 rep range, sometimes up to 5. It has more to do with the metabolism, body type, endocrine system, frame etc of the individual.

The rep scheme will basically train your muscles to be strong in that rep range. If you are competing in a 1 rep max contest, then you should probably get used to training with 1 rep loads. If you are in a sport that demands more muscular endurance, you should probably use higher reps in your training. Genetics will determine you potential for certain types of strength.

Another thing to keep in mind is the strength continuum. It is an analogue scale from absolute strength to absolute speed. Each side builds on the opposite side. You cannot move huge weights without being fast, and you cannot be explosively fast without being very strong. A powerlifter may look slow when doing a 1 rep max, but his nervous system is driving the weight not only as hard as possible, but as fast as possible too.

The reason bodybuilders use lighter weights and higher reps is to increase sarcoplasmic hypertrophy, as well as handle the huge volume that their already muscular bodies need to add more muscle. What would be safer for a depleted dieting bodybuilder to do: 30 overall sets of 10-15? or 100 sets of 1 rep. Often, pro bodybuilder, especially ones on steroids, are so strong, that many of the exercises just become too dangerous to do on a regular basis for the volume that they require.

It’s still better to think of things in terms of “getting stronger builds muscle” instead of “building muscle makes you stronger”. Bodybuilders are a bad role model for an average joe to emulate, even if his goals are the same.

jesse | Sun October 09, 2011  

the CNS plays a HUGE role in gaining strength over mass. I should know I started powerlifting at a BWT of 145lbs with a 120lb 1RM now i have a 270lb 1RM and 152lb BWT. You NEVER have to gain muscle mass to gain strength the platue is all in your head. How do you explain Alex Pocu`s 435lb RAW bench @ 145lbs BWT? He trained for years with steady strength gains never leaving that weight class

Anoop | Thu October 13, 2011  

Thanks for the comment.

We have talked about all this in the previous comments. And it is not just ‘cns’ that is helping a powerlifter. It is the same cns that works when a bodybuilder workout too. How come they don’t see such strength increase?

Joe Nicholson | Sat January 14, 2012  

I guess it all depends on what kind of muscle mass increase we are talking about.  There is a huge difference between sarcoplasmic hypertrophy and myofibral hypertrophy.  Sarcoplasmic hypertrophy is conducive to size increases yet does nothing for strength since it does nothing to increase the actual size of the muscle fibers.  Myofibral hypertrophy will result in an increase in strength as the contractile fibers are actually increasing in size.  However, myofibral hypertrophy is much harder to come by and it results in far less increase in size.  It’s a lot easier to blow your arm measurement up by pumping and increasing sarcoplasm than it is to actually increase the size of your muscle fibers enough to make a significant size improvent.  I say focus on strength increases and real muscle mass (myofibral hypertrophy) and take whatever size comes with it.  Being big without the strength to back it up makes you into a walking joke.

Anoop | Sat January 14, 2012  

Hi Joe,

Thanks Joe for the comment.

Sarcoplasmic hypertrophy is limited by your myofibrilar hypertrophy. And it is just water, glycogen and such. 

And who really cares how much you bench on a bodybuilding stage?

What do you think?



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