What Is the Meaning of Muscular Strength?

Boy lifting weights

Muscular strength is a phrase used liberally in the fitness and athletic world. Strength refers to a specific physical ability, as well as a unique set of training goals. Understanding the components of strength can help you design an effective resistance training program.

Force and Velocity

Muscular strength refers to the "maximal force that a muscle or muscle group can generate at a specific velocity," write Thomas R. Baechle and Roger W. Earle in "Essentials of Strength Training and Conditioning.” It's important to note that strength does not simply refer to muscle size. While larger muscles can improve strength, the relationship between muscle size and strength is not linear.

How It's Developed

Gains in muscular strength occur because of several factors. For untrained people, early gains in strength occur primarily due to neuromuscular learning, or the ability to recruit more motor units and muscle fibers to work together. For the trained athlete, strength occurs due to increases in the size of muscle fibers (hypertrophy), more optimal arrangement of muscle fibers, improvements in bone, tendon and ligament strength, and the velocity at which the muscle can contract.

How It's Measured

For practical purposes, you can measure the strength of a particular muscle group by conducting a one-repetition maximum test. This test provides a fairly accurate estimate of your ability to move a particular load, compared against normative data. You can perform a 1RM test for just about any lift, although 3RM and 10RM tests are recommended for smaller muscle groups and beginners, respectively. Some exercise physiologists advocate calculating the amount of work being performed, which is a product of the force and distance of the exercise being performed. This somewhat complicated formula provides an estimate of the amount of volume involved in a particular workout and provides an indication of strength.

Training Strength

For untrained people, just about any type of resistance training leads to improvements in muscular strength. Begin with light weight and perform all exercises with the proper technique for more than 10 repetitions. As you progress, increase the weight to about 85 to 100 percent of your maximal load for a particular exercise. Perform one to three sets of one to five repetitions, resting two to five minutes in between sets. Increase the load by 5 to 10 percent when you can successfully complete two repetitions beyond your target number for two consecutive sets.