On the podcast this morning, we got on the topic of how muscle size relates to strength. Many do not realize this, but size of a muscle is very, very closely related to the strength of the muscle or amount of tension that muscle can produce. So why aren’t the biggest bodybuilders the strongest athletes? Well, strongest at what?
This is an interesting question and the answer is part physiology, and part physics. The physics part is pretty straightforward. The human body applies strength through a system of levers, or bones. The arrangement of these levers is just as important to how much force can be applied in any movement as the amount of tension the muscles involved can generate.
Let’s look at an example. Donny Shankle is a pretty strong guy. He also has an extremely long spine as a proportion of his height. For a lifter proportioned like Donny, flexion/extension of the torso is always going to be difficult. If you have trouble imagining why this would be, imagine you tried to hold a 1 meter stick with a 10 pounds attached to the end perfectly vertical. Not too hard, but now imagine you tried to hold it at a 10 degree angle. What about a 45 degree angle? The 1 meter stick represents Donny’s spine, or the spine of anyone built like him. Imagine how much easier it would be to hold the stick either at either angle if it was a 1 FOOT stick instead of 1 meter.
This is why Donny is a superior front squatter, where the torso is kept very close to vertical, a reasonable back squatter where the torso has a moderate forward lean, and a terrible deadlifter where the torso developes lots of forward lean. Do you ever wonder why the world record holder in the squat rarely also holds the record in the deadlift? Same reason.
Luckily for Donny, he chose a sport (weightlifting) that utilizes the body God gave him very well. But the reason why the biggest muscle isn’t always the strongest has a physiological basis as well as a physics basis. The weightlifting snatch and the powerlifting deadlift at first glance would seem to be very similar lifts. Yet one regularly leads to the development of pretty big muscles, and one rarely does. Now I love Weightlifting as much as anyone, and more than most, but let’s be honest. A big snatch doesn’t automatically mean big muscles. Developing a big snatch is as much about speed as it is about strength. Applying force at high rates of speed is a neural adaptation more than a muscular one, and developing motor patterns is more important to snatching big than big muscles are.
Bodybuilding and weightlifting are two activities at opposite ends of the spectrum, and powerlifting is somewhere in the middle. But just as you will never see a 500 pound bench press and a 5 minute mile done by the same person, you will never see a 20 inch arm and a 200kg snatch by the same person either.. Some things are just mutually exclusive.