Got a great question in recently that I have been asked a number of times before regarding building strength without size. That is getting stronger but not any bigger.
I have been following your site for a couple of years now and am always impressed with what you achieve, but I have noticed one thing: Although you’ve become more muscular, you’ve never been very big. This interested me greatly, first because I have been fixated with the idea of being stronger than people bigger than me as a shot against bodybuilding in general and now because I box a little, keeping my weight down is important to me. So I ask what you think the secret is, is it your diet, is it the way you train, or is it just my dumb genetic luck that every pound I lift seems like another pound of bloated muscle?
In strength (but not size),
To start the discussion I’ll tackle genetics. I am genetically gifted in that I do not put muscle on easily. I suppose you could call me a classic hard gainer. And if you want to use big words I’m an ectomorph (while my two brothers are a mesomorph and endomorph, isn’t that odd?)
But genetics don’t really matter because you can’t do anything about changing them.
That leaves you with two options. Either give up and say I can’t do it because of genetics. Or you say ‘screw genetics’ and figure out how to accomplish your goal anyway. I’m guessing you’re in the latter group Rory, and that you do not have my genetic build.
(Isn’t it funny how we always want what we don’t have. Rory gains muscle easily but doesn’t want to. I do not, but am in the process of putting on some size currently.)
Despite your genetics there are ways to accomplish virtually any goal. I do not have to work hard to stay small but I would also attribute it to a number of things I do.
To keep muscle size down keep your volume down. Use heavier weights for shorter sets and keep the overall volume short. To give you an idea a high volume day for me is usually only 30-50 reps. And most of the exercises I do are shorter than that in both reps and sets. Singles are great for strength without size.
I do higher volume with certain exercises especially in conditioning. But these exercises, like kettlebell swings, snatches and the battling ropes, don’t lend themselves to building mass, in fact they may end up doing just the opposite.
Regarding exercise selection, there are certain exercises that have a reputation for building muscle. Squats for sure. Also bench presses and rows. If you’re trying to keep size down you may want to avoid these or limit your training in them. I don’t bench, favoring putting weight overhead much more. I do squats occasionally and have just started doing rows again.
Doing more bodyweight exercises is a great way to keep your weight down while still getting stronger. If you do pullups (which I always work on) then putting muscle and weight on makes the exercise harder, not easier. In a sense you can trick your body into wanting to stay smaller.
On to nutrition and diet. By eating a more natural and healthier diet you’re likely to lose some weight. You didn’t mention your diet so I can only speculate.
Take a look at whatever you’re eating and whether or not you are adding muscle and weight currently. If you are, all you have to do is start eating less. Cut out a meal, snacks or just down on what you have at each meal. Get to the point where you stay the same size or lose weight if you choose.
That covers all the basics of how to train for strength without size. I could go into more detail but I think that should be enough to get you started.
And for anyone else that wants big strength without looking like it, deceptively strong if you will, then you can follow these same ideas.
I just saw the History Channel’s show with Dennis Rogers, he is only 5’6 and not a big guy, but one of the strongest people in the world.
I also remember at a seminar one strength coach saying that if the biggest and best physiques represented the strongest guys then they wouldn’t have to lift anything; all they would have to do is take their shirts off. Wish I could give credit to the person who said that.
@Doug: There’s no doubt as to Dennis’ strength and he’s even smaller than me. Too bad I missed the show.
Great post, Logan! This is a question that I’ve been investigating in order to optimize training for MMA athletes, who at various times may need to either get bigger, get smaller, or stay the same, while always remaining as strong and powerful as possible.
@Jon Burroughs: Thanks. Glad to be off some help.
Reminds me of my one arm pullup training. When I weighed 140 pounds, I got to the point of pulling 90 pounds on a lat pulldown machine one armed (an under-appreciated oblique builder that actually does assist one arm pullup strength). A giant of a bodybuilder took the machine after me and tried out the same exercise. He reduced the weight to 45 pounds after failing to budge 90 or 70. i guess mammoth pecs don’t replace core stability after all. From that day forward, I never felt intimidated by bigger opponents ever again. In absolute numbers, I pulled twice as much weight with one arm as a person who was one head taller than me and far more muscular.
This is all good advice, the only thing I would tweak is that I would say not to cut out a meal. While cutting down on the size of your meals will lower your overall caloric intake, it won’t shock your body the same way that completely removing a meal will. If you eat small portions and often then your body isn’t afraid to keep cycling through your food and it doesn’t feel the need to hold onto fat, not knowing when its next meal will be.
@Chris: I think it’ll work differently for different people. Cutting out a meal may work for one person but not another. It’ll also have to do with how many meals you regularly eat. From 6 to 5 is much easier than 3 to 2.
Logan, the beauty of the internet is that you can still catch the show. Dennis Rogers starts at 3:35, but all 5 parts are definitely worth watching if you have the time: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=C7ilpFjrAYk&feature=related
@Chris I don’t know the exact case study, but I’m pretty sure they disproved the small meal/after 5 hrs of not eating your body becomes a fat hording machine theory.
@Kevin Greto: Thanks Kevin. I figured it would be available somewhere I just hadn’t look yet. I’ll be watching it for sure.
Thanks Logan! I’ll be taking that advice, starting now!
Good advice, Logan, thanks!