Contrary to popular belief, getting strong without having to bulk up is possible. Although your lifting bros probably think it’s not, we know it does, and we will guide you through how to do it, and by the end of this article, you’re not only going to prove them wrong but also explain to them how you did it.
Let’s preface with this. To learn any movement or create changes in your body, you must understand the following: Stimulus-Recovery-Adaptation. Your body adapts to what you put it through. I, for one, adapted into the Hunchback of Notre Dame (Adaptations) from all the desk writing I do (Stimulus).
Notice how I left out recovery? Well, that’s because 99% of people don’t even think about it. You wouldn’t even think it’s important if I hadn’t mentioned it again. Most people think that to get strong you go to the gym, and in 3 months you’re carrying your own car to work.
Well, here’s the catch: your body will not get the proper adaptations if you don’t recover.
Before we start, please do not skip ahead on the following part; if you skip it, you will have unrealistic expectations and will constantly be going in circles without any progress. I promise it will pay off.
Strength VS Muscle Mass
When it comes to muscle hypertrophy, increased muscle size also will increase strength. But here’s the catch: Increasing muscle cell size through high rep ranges will only improve your endurance. A bigger muscle does have the “potential” to produce more force; hence it could be stronger. But you don’t have to get bigger to get stronger. It has a lot to do with motor development, your neuromuscular system’s (muscles + brain) ability to recruit more muscle units.
Another thing that is a lifesaver: you won’t have to spend loads of money to eat 5000 calories as powerlifting athletes would. Just eat at maintenance or even deficit, and you won’t induce any hypertrophy effects. Gaining muscle and becoming powerful are two different types of workouts.
Training for Strength, a.k.a Lifting Heavy
The million-dollar fitness question, how to get stronger without getting bigger? It’s training that involves resistance exercises specific to increasing strength, and it could take various forms. Here we break down how you could be gaining strength but not size.
You do not need to build muscle to gain power. It has to do more with how your training; my old coach used to tell me, “It’s not what you’re doing; it’s how you do it.” Muscles are connected to the brain through motor units that send signals to the brain, allowing for muscle contractions.
A lot of people associate intensity with running very fast, sweating or doing HIIT training. While that’s a valid association, weightlifting intensity is about lifting heavier. Volume is measured by how much weight you’re lifting and for how many sets and reps.
The common misconception is that if you lift heavy weights, you will get bigger: this is only true on the condition that you reach a certain amount of volume while lifting heavy.
The bottom line is, using heavier weights implies high intensity. Low volume implies low reps (1 to 5 reps). By slowly increasing the weight using low reps and sets, you will get stronger: Now you know what progressive overload is.
Another component of resistance training is the technique: if you improve your technique, you become more efficient; thus, you will be able to add weight to the bar. This is essentially teaching your brain to coordinate movements better.
Speed and Power
Now let’s dive into the different ways to get stronger and not look bigger in the process. The following concepts are the most underrated and overlooked components of training for power without building muscle mass.
It all comes down to the neuromuscular connection: your brain’s ability to send strong signals to recruit more muscle fibers so they can fire up more frequently and generate power. This is what we call the Rate of Force Development.
It’s physics, really: Force = Mass x Acceleration. Do you want to get strong? Mass implies how heavy you’re lifting, acceleration being how fast you can lift it. This is what most people neglect: speed and power.
How fast can you move a weight from point A to point B? You can do that by picking up a relatively lightweight: perform an exercise with a timer and go through it as fast as you can, and as soon as you see your form slightly breaking down, you stop. The goal is to recruit more motor units.
So previously, we talked about gaining strength using conventional weight training. There is still more to strength than what meets the eye. You can get stronger even from the comfort of your own home and without weights.
Sure it’s a little bit trickier to figure out, but that’s what we’re here for! It’s straightforward and could come in handy if you’re stuck at home during this pandemic or even later on if you’re short on time. In the end, there is more than one way to skin a cat.
- Strength to weight ratio – How strong are you for your bodyweight?
- Overcoming Isometric – Trying to move immovable objects at different joint angles.
- Inter-Muscular coordination – the better coordinated you are, the more you build total power output.
- Farmer strength – despite farmers not doing any other sports, the repeated physical work will get stronger.
- Explosive Movements (plyometrics) – This will help increase your RFD (Rate of Force Development). Train your muscle fibers to produce more force.
The goal is to build a better mind-muscle connection and efficiency in terms of power exertion.
As we’ve mentioned before, strength is a neuro-muscular adaptation; the goal is to strengthen the signal you send to your muscles to produce force.
You can accomplish this by lifting 1RMs. This method is successful because it forces your body to recruit as many muscle fibers as possible. As a result, you have a better signal which then leads to power development. But here’s the catch, but it will also make you bigger because there will still be muscle damage and mechanical tension (i.e., resisting an external force).
Overcoming isometrics takeaway movement and muscle damage. How? You will attempt and move an immovable object using 100% of your muscle’s power output. This is even more efficient than a 1RM because you’re going all out while staying risk-free.
When you’re trying to push a wall or pull a weight that will not move, you’re sending the strongest signal tolerable to your motor units. These are made of motor neurons that send the motor signal to the intended muscle group. You can even hold it for longer than you would; for instance, lift a 1RM.
Overcoming isometrics work best when you hold the contraction for 6 seconds, longer than that and you would be working endurance. Another caveat for this method is the angles: vary the angles to get strong in different positions.
Inter-Muscular Coordination: Strength is a Skill
Inter-muscular coordination is the ability to fire up the right muscles together to be more efficient. This is why compound movements such as the deadlift and the squat are great strength builders because they involve multiple muscles, and you can load them heavily.
How to go about it? It’s simple. Practice. One of the first proponents of kettlebell training, Pavel Tsasouline, described strength as a skill, and he couldn’t be more right. The more movements you train, the better you get at coordinating your muscles.
Repetition of those movement patterns makes you more efficient at them. You use less energy, and therefore you get stronger.
The method is called “greasing the groove”: it means doing a movement pattern repeatedly throughout the day without reaching failure, which will improve technique and power output in that pattern—no need to worry about muscle mass gains here.
While the previous approach was sound, it is only applicable for competition or specific sports. It won’t increase your absolute strength. It will just make you more efficient at using the strength you have, which is still an outstanding achievement to aim for!
Why is the farmer so strong, although he doesn’t power lift or practices a specific sport? Because he’s put in unstable positions that he cannot practice in a weight room. He is practicing strengths in all planes of motion: digging, lifting tires, etc.
You can use very slow and unpredictable movements that place you at a mechanical disadvantage to mimic this. For instance, you could do your wrestling or BJJ drills at a very slow pace and stiffen your body to lift yourself in the most difficult position. Another option would be to use light dumbbells and move them slowly and intentionally to a hard position (straight arms to overhead press etc.)
Strength to Weight Ratio: Calisthenics
Why do calisthenics? You might be wondering when you can head straight to barbell training. Well, you can’t cheat a rep simply because at the end range of motion of those exercises, there’s nothing to allow you to get out. It’s either you can do it or not.
As we’ve said before, relative strength is essential if you want to gain strength without bulking up. A great way to work on that is by using calisthenics. How agile you are and how you handle your body weight is the goal. You want to start increasing your number of bodyweight pull-ups, push-ups, dips, and squats.
It would help if you had a pull-up bar for starters: using the “greasing the groove” method, you can rep out pull-ups, push-ups, dips, and bodyweight squats throughout your day. You do not want to go to complete failure, leave 3 to 4 reps in the tank.
Always try to keep a number in mind so that you increase it day by day. This is a good way to become powerful without lifting weights if you’re on a budget as well.
If you have access to a gym and want to take it to another level, buy a calisthenics weight belt and build upon the previous movements.
Being powerful with your bodyweight doesn’t have to be just brute strength; you can be explosive: This is plyometrics. It will develop your ability to recruit muscle fibers quickly; that’s the RFD we mentioned earlier.
We highly recommend you include explosive movements like clapping push-ups and box jumps into your routine.
Explosive movements train your nervous system and stretch-shortening cycle. Plyometrics don’t allow for a full contraction-relaxation of your muscles, which won’t make your muscles bigger.
Do not perform 100 fast pull-ups or jumping lunges. This will cause a build-up of lactic acid and cause metabolic stress as well as hypertrophy. Instead, vary movements to be able to explode in different positions.
Hit two birds with one stone: plyometrics is very taxing; that’s why they’re also great fat burners. Strip away that dead weight to improve your relative strength!
Intensity is about choosing the right intensity for you to make improvements; this section will set you on the right track by showing you how you can manipulate your workouts to become stronger. By following those workout guidelines, you will stay lean, be powerful, and look amazing.
Choosing the Appropriate Weights
So how do you choose how heavy you lift, the reps, sets, and appropriate progressions?
50% of your 1RM (12-15 reps) is the recommended intensity for speed. Keep your power exercises at the beginning of your workout. If you’re dedicating a whole day for power, try and make them as early in the week if you can when you’re fresh. Rest periods should be as long as it took you to perform 1 set.
We recommend using Prilepin’s Chart for Power training.
70-85% (4-6 reps) is usually the norm for maximal strength development. Strength is rather taxing for the nervous system, so make sure your rest periods are between 3-5 mins to be fresh during each set. Strength training will make you slightly bulky compared to power training but don’t worry, you won’t look like a powerlifting athlete, so women should not fear the bulky look CrossFit athletes have.
The following template is just an idea of what you can do with the training modalities; it is by no means a definitive way to train.
Monday: Speed and Power
Tuesday: Maximum Strength
Friday: Farmer Strength
Conclusion & Considerations For Best Results
Heavier weights could cause muscle mass growth when you’re fatigued, for example, and the weight is moving a bit slow. But if you focus on moving this weight as fast as possible, you will have enough neural drive to train explosive muscle fibers.
The reality is you need both. If you have never lifted a heavyweight in your life, you won’t reach your true strength potential. On the other hand, if lifting heavy is all you do, chances are you’ll hurt yourself. Heavyweights are very taxing on the nervous system and take a bit of time to recover from.
Why? Because your tendons, ligaments, and muscles cannot handle that load all the time. The optimal way is always found in balance.
To be more powerful and avoid gaining fat or inducing hypertrophy, you have to understand your body burns a certain number of calories. If you eat less (calorie deficit) or the same number (maintenance) of calories you burn, you will not gain mass. No need to bulk up; you want to stay lean while becoming powerful.