What does muscular strength mean to you? Looking around the beach in summertime, you're bound to see at least a few guys who spent the winter pumping iron. They're big, indicating they possess certain muscular strength. But if you caught the lifters in the latest Olympics, you probably noticed that many of them look considerably less impressive than the oiled-up beach dudes, yet hoist incredible amounts of weight over their heads that the physically larger guys can only dream of. Clearly, there's more to the concept of muscular strength than just how thick your biceps are.
How the Muscle Works
The muscle is not a solid chunk of mysterious mass that somehow contracts when you try to lift things. If you look closer, you'll find that it is a bundle of tightly packed, hair-thin fibers working in unison. Ever seen a rowing team pulling together, with a number of oars lining the sides of a long and narrow boat? Each fiber is kind of like that, using tiny, tiny oars to contract when your nervous system fires off the electrical impulses to do so. By themselves, each fiber is quite weak. But bundle them up and have them pull at the same time, and you have a decent end-result.
Bigger Muscle Fibers
There are two primary ways of getting stronger. The first is to have the muscle fibers get bulkier, kind of like upgrading the tiny rowers from middleweights to heavyweights. This is accomplished by repeated damage (training) followed by sufficient recovery, since the body tends to overcompensate so as to prepare for your next workout. Simply put, by regularly lifting weights you give your team of rowers a good beating, and every time you suffer through the post-workout soreness, they respond by growing a little tougher. The result is larger muscles -- often the primary goal of regular weight training, at least among the guys.
The second primary way is the sheer efficiency of the muscle fibers themselves. If the former was about brute force and horsepower, this part is about priming the control systems. In truth, the body isn't all that good about coordinating all those tiny muscle fibers, especially when you're new to weightlifting. This brings us to why those smaller Olympic lifters can push weights Arnold and his ilk can't budge -- the Olympic guys have consistently focused on efficiency and technique rather than brute strength. Nobody can train themselves to have 100 percent of their muscle fibers fire simultaneously (except possibly in extreme situations, like those stories where mothers miraculously find the strength to lift a car off their kids and such), but the closer you get, the stronger you become.
There is a third way that is not without debate, and that's involving the total number of muscle fibers. Generally speaking, we're born with a set number of muscle fibers that can be either grown larger or more efficient. Those who have a lot are blessed with greater natural strength (more rowers = more power), while the rest of us simply have to work harder. Some believe you can train so that your muscle fibers split, thus increasing your total number and boost strength that way. More research is needed, and frankly, it's more of an academic discussion for the vast majority of people going to the gym anyway.
What Does Muscular Strength Mean for You?
Circling back to the original question, what does muscular strength mean for you, we can now see that it's not just a question of sheer size. Many women don't desire thick, veiny arms, but don't want to rely on others to do manual tasks; that's when a program emphasizing the second method above may be attractive. The two methods are far from exclusive, on the contrary, but there are steps you can take to shift the focus on one end of the spectrum or another. Ask a local personal trainer for help designing a program to meet your needs.
Furthermore, muscular strength is not only good for lifting heavy barbells, but works as the best and last line of defense against joint damage, bad posture and the myriad of long-term health hazards facing us in our increasingly sedentary lifestyles. Ultimately, the most important step you can take is to get started on a regular weightlifting routine, regardless of what angle you want to emphasize. Good luck!