A topic that is often clouded with misunderstanding in strength and conditioning is how muscle size and strength are intertwined. Some believe that a larger cross-sectional area is synonymous with maximum strength, while others believe it carries little relevance. Truthfully, it falls somewhere in between like most of the topics discussed in our industry.
In a paper titled "Is muscle growth a mechanism for increasing strength? Medical Hypotheses" and colleagues concluded that muscle strength is a function of neuromuscular adaptations and likely unrelated to large gains in muscular hypertrophy. Contrarily, another paper found in the Strength and Conditioning Journal titled "What is the impact of hypertrophy on strength and sports performance?" and colleagues concluded that muscle hypertrophy is important for athletic tasks in which strength is an influential factor. These two papers are only a small sample of the contradicting literature available on this topic today.
Mechanisms of strength gain
Maximum strength is the greatest amount of force that one can produce. Greater force equates the ability to light higher loads. In the early stages of resistance training, most of the strength gains seen are purely through neuromuscular coordination and movement efficiency. Research such as the one previously mentioned by Loenekke often examine studies that only include programming of 4-8 weeks in duration. This is not nearly enough time to see the full benefits of hypertrophy and its impact on hypertrophy.
We cannot overlook the role that hypertrophy plays in maximal strength. Increased muscular size results in increased myofibrils per area, thus allowing the more significant potential for fiber recruitment and overall force production. Hypertrophy and strength do share a relationship, but they are also not a 1:1 ratio. Just because an increase in myofibrils occurs does not mean strength will ensue. Bodybuilders are often some of the largest people on the planet in regard to the amount of lean mass they carry. Still, they are usually much weaker than weightlifters and powerlifters who can be substantially smaller. The reason for this is that weightlifters and powerlifters are training their body to increase type II muscle fibers (which are better for sports performance and displaying strength). In contrast, bodybuilders display a much higher ratio of type I fibers. This is often termed "functional" and "non-functional" mass.
The major point that must be understood is that yes, hypertrophy is an integral part of maximal strength, but it only being a part must be emphasized. It can help contribute immensely to overall strength if appropriately trained, but neuromuscular adaptation, synchronization, rate coding, etc. must all be factored in. One must be wary of studies that easily dismiss years of research and study on physiological correlations in human athletic performance. Remaining intelligently skeptical and reading all of the literature, as well as having a basic understanding of human physiology, helps to mitigate a large percentage of the confusion. There are many pieces to the puzzle when aiming to gain strength, and hypertrophy is one of them.
1) Haff, G. G. (2020, February). Training For Hypertrophy. Advanced Resistance Training. Perth. Retrieved from https://www.ecu.edu.au
2) Hornsby, W. G., Gentles, J. A., Haff, G. G., Stone, M. H., Buckner, S. L., Dankel, S. J., . . . Loenneke, J. P. (2018). What is the Impact of Muscle Hypertrophy on Strength and Sport Performance? Strength & Conditioning Journal, 40(6), 99-111. doi:10.1519/ssc.0000000000000432
3) P. Loenneke, J., Dankel, S., Bell, Z., Buckner, S., Mattocks, K., Jessee, M., & Abe, T. (2019). Is muscle growth a mechanism for increasing strength? Medical Hypotheses, 125. doi:10.1016/j.mehy.2019.02.030