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.