Why You Gain Strength Before You Add Muscle

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You're new to weight training, but you work hard, never miss a session, eat right and do everything it takes to get faster, stronger and bigger. After a month, you see great strength gains, but you're wondering when muscle size will come. You may start to get discouraged, but don't!

Although you might not see bulky muscle, your strength increases will be rapid in the first six to eight weeks of a lifting program. This comes from neuromuscular adaptations, rather than from muscles actually getting bigger.

Neuromuscular adaptation is how the brain "talks" to the muscles. During training, the pathways that deliver signals from the brain to the working muscles adapt. The more you do, the more the signals improve. After a period of training, nerve impulses between the brain and the muscles are better able to convey information, leading to gains in training.

All this means one thing to the weight room rookie—you'll get a lot stronger before you add sizable muscle. Below, we list a few reasons why.

Motor Unit Synchronization Muscle fibers work better together. Think of a group of athletes who have never played together. After practicing for a few weeks, they start to play better as a team, because they know everyone's strengths and weaknesses and how everyone moves and reacts. It's the same with your muscles. When you first start a training program, your muscles begin to work together, resulting in higher levels of strength. When you train long enough [a month or two], you will start to see those muscles put on size.

Motor Unit Activation More muscles are activated. Again, think of getting a group together for a tug-of-war contest. There are two separate aspects to consider:

(1)  You have 10 people on your team, but when the competition begins, only five of them actually pull. If you can get all 10 to pull at the same time, you have a better chance to produce power and win. Muscles work similarly; the more you train, the more the brain talks to the muscles to recruit more force for the team.

(2) You still have 10 people on your tug-of-war team. When the competition begins, five pull right away, then relax and let the other five pull. Everyone is pulling, but they're not pulling together. With weight training, the more time you spend doing the right exercises, the more your "team" of muscles works together. So, like getting your tug-of-war team to pull at the same time, by getting all appropriate muscles activated at the same time, you will at first see a huge impact on your strength levels, then, a bit later, increases in muscle size.

Skill Acquisition – to practice better lifting technique. The more you train and perform different lifts, the better you become at those exercises. The first time you do a Bench Press, you have to learn how to balance the bar and control your movement pattern. Within a few weeks, your Bench technique is better and your skill level allows your muscles to work together more smoothly. As they work together, more muscles are recruited, resulting first in additional strength and then in size gains.

Remember, beginner lifters have to get through the neuromuscular adaptations of training before they start packing on muscle mass. Until you learn how to lift correctly, size increases will not happen.

Photo:  flickr.com


Photo Credit: Getty Images // Thinkstock

Topics: ADAPTATION | TRAIN | BENCH | WEIGHT TRAINING