Get Strong, Without Getting Bigger

Can you get stronger without getting heavier? Any athlete that competes in a specific weight class will tell you making weight for a fight is a constant concern. The ability to get stronger without gaining size is crucial for these athletes. There is so much garbage information floating around about how to get into a strength routine its difficult to navigate. My goal here is to share with you some tried & true methods of building strength, not size.

 Its time to stop associating strength with size, a large part of developing strength is creating effective neuromuscular adaptations. 

If I asked you to close your eyes and picture a man doing a bench press of 400 pounds, what does he look like? Would it be a large man with an obvious bodybuilding physique. How about a this 150 pound guy. Strength is not about size! 

Building The Skills of Strength

The body is an adaptation machine, but it needs to be taught. We need to unlock your strength potential by training your neural connections (to avoid size gain). Now to be clear it’s not possible to train just neural or muscular Both always take place, but there are certain types of training that allow increases in strength with minimum increase in the muscle. 

A closer look at creating favorable neural adaptations.

A great way to get stronger without gaining size is to Increase your recruitment of motor units, UGGHH I know, boring, okay remember when you first made it into the gym and you got stronger really fast. ALL NEURAL BABY. this happened because you increased your use of motor units, all muscles are made of fibers that can contract when the brain tells the motor unit to. Some motor units are attached to lots of fibers, some less. So when your bicep curling that cup off coffee vs a barbell at the gym, you can guess what movement is recruiting more motor units. Long story short, the more motor units we can recruit in a movement, the more muscle fiber we have working for us = Strength 

Fact – Athlete’s that strength train have more motor units.  

Fact – Increased Training = increased number of motor units

Fact – Muscle fibers in a motor are either slow twitch or fast twitch, never both

Fact – Motor unit firing increases with the training = More units work together

Broke your arm? Train the other!!!

an untrained arm will gain significant strength in concert with a trained arm because of interaction between the nerves of either arm at the spinal column. 

BAM! Crystal clear demonstration of neural adaptation. 

Best Exercises to Develop Strength

Now that you understand what we are going for, its time to put in the hard work. My top 7 exercises for strength are:

  1. Back Squat 
  2. Deadlift
  3. Pin Press
  4. Bench Press 
  5. Barbell Row
  6. Lunge
  7. Clean

 Example Workout

Power CleanOverhead SquatHang Clean 
Front SquatCleanBack Squat
DeadliftIncline/Decline PressDeadlift (stiff leg)
Bench Press Barbell Row UnderhandBarbell Row
Barbell Row LungeBench Press
123-5M70% – W80% – F90%
233-5M75% – W80% – F90%
342-4M75% – W85% – F90%
442-4M80% – W85% – F90%

 Put in the work and results will follow

The main reason a lot of people aren’t getting the results they want simply comes comes down to consistency in training, training form and previous injury / mobility issues. Setting a proper baseline and building a foundation is key. Ego lifting with bad form will get you nowhere fast. Stick to the basics, take your time and listen to your body. 

Who / What is this for

Any sport or activity that requires a great amount of strength without the desire to gain weight. Immediately combat sports come to mind (BJJ, MMA, Boxing) weight classes are very well defined and a strength advantage is a powerful advantage to have. Other activities such as climbing, dancing & gymnastics benefit heavily from a high strength / low weight athlete. Not to mention the age old “I don’t want to get bulky” statement. The neural adaptation of strength training is the best way to go for everything / everybody above.

There is nothing worse than being the second strongest person in a competition of two, If your looking to take all the guess work out of your routine and desire upping your strength without building size, Click here.

Written by: Derek Frohlich

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