Can You Gain Strength Without Gaining Muscle?

“I don’t want to get too bulky.”

I’ve heard this many times from past clients and never really understood what they meant by it.

Getting “too bulky” doesn’t happen overnight! People spend years training hard in an attempt to get bigger and stronger.

Unfortunately, a lot of athletes out there never hit their muscle and strength goals. Simply because as you get bigger and stronger, you usually get addicted and want to continue on your pursuit of strength.

However this brings a question to mind, can you gain strength without gaining muscle?

Absolutely!

Strength is a skill you have to practice over and over again to improve. On top of that, getting stronger through neuromuscular adaptations is the name of the game!

Neuromuscular adaptations are when you recruit additional motor units to improve force production. Basically, by training with higher intensities you recruit more and more muscle which allows you to lift heavier weights.

This is why you see so many powerlifters that are much stronger than bodybuilders out there!

A quick note though: you will build SOME muscle when training for strength. But if your goal is to stay at the same body weight, your diet is the most important thing to ensure that happens.

If building more muscle was the most important thing for strength, every Bodybuilder in the world would be stronger than any other athlete.

While it’s true that a bigger muscle has the capacity to be a stronger muscle, you can still train for strength without building big, bulky muscles like bodybuilders.

In this article, I’m going to go over what you can do to make this happen!

Here we go!

Lift Heavy

One of the best ways to increase strength without building a ton of bulky muscle is by lifting heavy weights.

Lifting heavy weights isn’t a broad recommendation by any means. Sets of 3-6 reps is what you want to focus on for the majority of your main barbell movements.

By focusing on these lower reps, you’ll build more strength without as much muscle mass. For other barbell variations, you can also work in the 6-10 rep range.A great program that focuses on major barbell movements and building strength quickly is Starting Strength.

It’s the #1 book I recommend for getting stronger as a beginner. You can check it out here on Amazon. It also goes more in-depth on technique than any other resource I’ve ever seen!

Focus On Compound Lifts Exclusively

The best way to get stronger is by focusing on compound movements with heavy weights. These compound movements should make up the majority of your training if you want to build strength exclusively.

A lot of times I see people training for strength while using a bunch of isolation exercises.

This is a great way to waste your time!

When maximal strength is the goal, lifting the most weight possible with the most muscle groups is what you want to do. Barbell exercises allow you to do this more than any isolation exercise!

Think about it, how many exercises would it take to build stronger triceps, shoulders and your chest?

At least 3!

We can train all 3 of these muscle groups with just the bench press! And with way more weight too!

80% of your training should be with compound movements in general. If you aren’t sure where to start, try these movements out first.

  1. Squat
  2. Bench Press
  3. Deadlift
  4. Overhead Press
  5. Dips
  6. Pull-ups
  7. Barbell Rows
  8. Dumbbell Incline Bench

These movements cover the entire body and are all you need to get stronger for a long time. Use similar variations and you’ll get stronger for years to come!

Incorporate Jumps And Throws

broad jump

Before each training session, I have my clients start with basic jumps and throws to get ready for the workout and train their explosiveness.

By doing this you can get stronger over time without gaining excess weight.

The more explosive you are as a unit the stronger you’ll become!

The main jumps and throws I recommend are:

  • Broad Jumps
  • Box Jumps
  • Forward Medicine Ball Toss
  • Backward Medicine Ball Toss

By doing these for 10-20 total jumps/throws before a workout, your training will be improved, you’ll get stronger, and it will allow you to properly warm up as well!

Rest Longer Between Sets

When training for maximal strength, you need to ensure you increase your performance from workout to workout. If you treat your workouts like a circuit, you’ll have a very hard time getting stronger each session.

The recommended rest periods between sets of strength training workouts is 3-5 minutes.

ATP (Adenosine Triphosphate) and Creatine Phosphate are the two major energy systems your body use to lift heavy weights. It takes a minimum of 3 minutes for these systems to replenish.

A good rule of thumb that I follow is basing it on your performance in a workout.

If you’re doing your first set and get 5 reps on Squats, you’re in the perfect rep range for building strength.

Then you rest 3 minutes, perform your second set and get around 4-5 reps. This means that means you recovered enough and can continue with 3 minute rest periods.

However, you notice on your 3rd set you only get 2 reps. Because your performance dropped below your target rep range (3-6), you should increase your rest period to 4 or even 5 minutes!

Using your performance in a workout is the best way I’ve found to improve strength over the long haul without just resting 5 minutes between every set!

Lift Explosively

When lifting weights, what do you think gets you stronger? Lifting slowly or lifting as explosively as possible each rep?

Lifting explosively of course!

And I don’t mean dropping the bar on your chest quickly on Bench Press without any control! I mean, a controlled eccentric with a CONTROLLED, explosive concentric!

Here’s what this looks like.

https://www.instagram.com/p/By6qUOrlNH0/

As you can see, he controls the descent with great form and pushes as hard as he can on the way up. This is what it looks like to lift explosively.

You want to do this from your first warmup set until your final set. As the weight gets heavier, it won’t be moving as quickly, but the intent of being explosive should still be present.

The best way to get stronger is by firing more motor units with more weight, by doing this you will build more strength without needing to gain a bunch of weight to do so.

Try this out during your next workout and see if you notice a difference!

Increase Intensity While Lowering Volume

When you’re trying to build muscle, you should be increasing the volume as much as possible. By constantly overloading your muscles with more reps and sets, it has no choice but to increase in size.

With strength training, we actually want to do the opposite! By increasing the weight we use and lowering the overall sets, our performance will consistently improve.

The main driver for muscle growth is an increase in calories as well as an increase in volume. If you aren’t doing enough volume and eating more calories, building muscle is very difficult.

So if your goal is strength without building more muscle mass, increase your intensity and lower your volume over time.

Here’s an example to show you what I mean!

Week 1: Bench Press 6 [email protected] Reps x 200 lbs

Week 2: Bench Press 5 [email protected] Reps x 205 lbs

Week 3: Bench Press 4 [email protected] Reps x 210 lbs

Week 4: Bench Press 3 [email protected] Reps x 215 lbs

Week 5: Bench Press Deload 3 [email protected] Reps x 180 lbs

As you can see, the sets are decreasing, the reps are remaining constant, and we’re able to increase the weight on the bar.

By doing this, the odds of building strength without excessive muscle gain is much higher than increasing the volume and eating a ton of food.

This brings us to my last tip!

Eat At Maintenance Calories

In general, you need to eat in a calorie surplus to gain weight. And just like it is possible to gain muscle and lose fat at the same time, it’s also possible to maintain your weight and gain strength.

This is where eating at your maintenance calories comes into play.

By definition, your maintenance calories are the number of calories required to maintain your body weight.

The easiest way to estimate this is by taking your current lean bodyweight and multiplying it by 15.

For somebody weighing 200 lbs at 10% body fat for example…

200×10%=20 lbs of fat

200-20=180 lbs of lean mass

180×15=2,700 calories for maintenance

Next, you just need to eat at this calorie level for a week and see what your bodyweight does.

Other than the normal fluctuations your body has every day, you should notice a trend in your bodyweight. Either up or down.

If it goes down increase your calories by 5 to 10%, if it goes up, decrease your calories the same amount.

Eventually, you’ll have a good idea of what your maintenance calories are. Stay at that level and keep training hard to build strength. Because your body is maintaining its weight, you’ll lose fat and gain muscle over time.

However, this is perfect for those that want to gain strength without gaining a bunch of body weight.

And with that, we have our recipe for success!

Conclusion

As you can see, it is possible to get stronger without gaining a ton of muscle.

Although it is easier to gain strength over the long haul by building SOME muscle, it’s not 100% necessary,

Eventually, you will need to increase your muscle mass to continue building strength over time.

A bigger muscle has the potential to be a stronger muscle. Neuromuscular adaptations can only take you so far. And when this plateau eventually occurs, building muscle slowly will allow you to break it.

Thanks for reading and definitely let me know if you have any questions below!

Until next time,

-Dante Redgrave

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