Can a muscle get stronger without getting bigger? Can a muscle gain size without strength gains?
If a muscle gets stronger, must it increase in size in some capacity? Even if in a very small amount to handle the additional weight? And vice versa. If a bodybuilder trains for size and accomplishes muscle growth, must that muscle get stronger? In other words, can each one be accomplished without the other?
Back in the olden days, pre the "fitness revolution" that commenced in the 1980s, bodybuilders were "as strong as they looked" because they were less sophisticated and had fewer options and variables.
With the birth of the fitness revolution, resistance machines came into the scene in a big way. Nautilus and Arthur Jones changed all that – for the worse. Jones claimed isolative machines were just as effective as compound barbell and dumbbell exercises and that was a complete falsehood but one everyone desperately wanted to believe.
Bodybuilders worldwide desperately wanted it to be true that sitting on a comfy padded Nautilus leg press device and pushing a payload locked into a frozen groove could possible stimulate the sheer number of muscle fibers that an ultra-deep high bar back squat does: that is a physiological impossibility. Machines with their frozen grooves eliminate the "3rd dimension of tension," the need to control side-to-side movement: a machine cannot match the muscle stimulation potentialities of the free-weight exercise it mimics.
The top bodybuilders before the Rise of the Machines were as strong as they looked because they were forced to use those loathsome and crude barbells and dumbbells. Arnold, Franco, Sergio and further back, Reg Park and Bill Pearl were strong as hell. Franco was a genuine, raw, 525-pound bench presser and 700 deadlifter weighing 180 pounds. Jeff Everson once saw Sergio Olivia (29-inch thighs, 29-inch waist) bench press 255 for 15 sets of 15 reps and super set those with 15 sets of 10 in the wide-grip chin wearing a 50-pound dumbbell. Pearl squatted 600 raw, Park was the 4th man in history to bench press 500 – this in 1959.
Back to your question: some modern bodybuilders make a big deal that they train "old school" and lift weights, big ones, using barbells and dumbbells; Dorian Yates incline benches 435 for 6, Ron Coleman deadlifts 800. As Coleman quipped, "All bodybuilders want to be big – but very few of them want or can lift the big weights." The bodybuilder of 2015 has found a new way to create massive muscles and do so without having to deadlift 800. They create gargantuan mass by coordinating a series of separate disciplines...
- Force feeding around the clock: most elite bodybuilding in this day and age would tell you right off the bat that nutrition is as important and perhaps more important than the training. Typically a competitive bodybuilder will eat eight times a day, ingesting "clean" calories every two waking hours. They will also wake up in the middle of the night and drink a protein shake.
- Aerobics: bodybuilders in the Arnold era did not do cardio. It was thought that aerobics "tore down" muscle. In fact, what the bodybuilders discovered was that by becoming aerobically fit, they were able to weight train longer and more often. The inclusion of cardio such as a brisk walk or through the use of a treadmill or elliptical trainer helps keep muscle mass increases lean and fat free. Cardio actually enabled bodybuilders to become bigger.
- Weight training: it is very in style for elite bodybuilders to perform partial reps, often with big poundage. They will perform set after set, often with forced reps. The goal is to maximally engorge the target muscle with blood; stuff it so full it expands and pushes past current size limits. This type training is superb for size but strength plummets in full range-of-motion.
In 2015, you can grow maximum muscles without getting "stronger" but that is because the bodybuilders no longer practice the classical barbell dumbbell lifts in the old way. How can a man be strong in a below parallel no-gear back squat if he no longer does them and if he does they are likely to be "non-lock partials." Or perhaps he does non-lock hi-rep forced rep partials on the leg press machine. The top guys nowadays are weight training often, 5-6 times a week, doing cardio every day and force-feeding.
In answer to your question, one can be accomplished without the other.
About the Author
As an athlete Marty Gallagher is a national and world champion in Olympic lifting and powerlifting. He was a world champion team coach in 1991 and coached Black's Gym to five national team titles. He's also coached some of the strongest men on the planet including Kirk Karwoski when he completed his world record 1,003 lb. squat. Today he teaches the US Secret Service and Tier 1 Spec Ops on how to maximize their strength in minimal time. As a writer since 1978 he’s written for Powerlifting USA, Milo, Flex Magazine, Muscle & Fitness, Prime Fitness, Washington Post, Dragon Door and now IRON COMPANY. He’s also the author of numerous books including Purposeful Primitive, Strong Medicine, Ed Coan’s book “Coan, The Man, the Myth, the Method" and numerous others. Read the Marty Gallagher biography here.