How to Build Strength Without Size

Bench Press Female (2)

There are two types of lifters: those who want to be bigger, and those who don’t. Yes, the second group does exist, and with good reasons.

For competitors like powerlifters and fighters, weight classes matter. Having more muscle is often an advantage for you, but going up against competitors who also have more muscle may not be such an advantage.

And, of course, there are those of us who don’t want more muscle because we like the way we look without it. I know, bros, that sounds crazy. But to our broettes, maybe not so much.

Anyway, here’s a simple strategy for increasing strength without increasing size.

Step 1: Limit Volume

Training volume refers to the total amount of work you subject your muscles to over a certain period of time. Usually we refer to this in the context of a single workout or throughout a week’s worth of training. As a general rule, an increase in volume causes an increase in the training stimulus and an increase in results across all axes: more strength, more skill, more stamina, and yes, more muscle.

However, a lot of strength and skill can be accumulated with low volume, and giving the muscles involved a relatively light workload means that there is less of a demand for increased muscle mass. An important note to make here is that a “light workload” in this regard does not mean that light weights are being used, but that 1 set of 5 reps at 100kg puts far less burden on the muscles involved than 5 sets of 5 at 100kg with the same exercise.

Step 2: Spread Volume

Once the total training volume has been reduced to an amount that is still useful for strength but not as useful for hypertrophy, spread the volume out throughout the week. In a classic bodybuilding split, you might do 20 sets of a body part all in one workout, and then rest those muscles for a week before doing it all again. After limiting volume above, you might only have 10 sets of a body part, and now we’re going to spread them out over several workouts.

This method allows heavy weights to be used often without accumulating much fatigue. The effect on strength sans hypertrophy is threefold. Firstly, strength is a skill, which means the more often you practice it, generally the better it becomes. Secondly, the low levels of fatigue make it easier to train with heavy weights more often. Thirdly, as discussed above, it gives the muscles very little to need to recover from, which limits the stimulus for growth.

Step 3: Use Assistance Exercises to Improve Movement Patterns

In strength training, we normally break a program down into main lifts and assistance exercises. The main lifts are the ones that matter most to us. For a powerlifter, this is the squat, bench press and deadlift. For a weightlifter, it’s the snatch and the clean and jerk. For you it may be some combination of the above, or none of the above. In any case, these are the movements by which we ultimately measure our strength.

Assistance exercises, on the other hand, are all the other exercises we do to support our progress on the main lifts. Often we use assistance work to build the muscle mass that contributes to our main lifts, but if we don’t want more muscle mass, then that option’s out. So how else can we use assistance exercises?

One way is to turn them into drills to improve our technique on the main lifts. An example is the paused squat, used to build tightness and control at the bottom of the squat, and to teach the lifter to really recruit the muscles of their hips and legs to restart movement out of the hole. Another example is the speed deadlift, in which intense amounts of force are applied to the bar in the same form as a regular deadlift, but the muscles are highly stimulated without becoming highly fatigued.

Step 4: Limit Nutrition

A certain amount of muscle mass can be built while your body is in a hypocaloric state. This amount is distinctly less than the amount that can be built in a hypercaloric state. Ultimate, muscle mass is made of energy, which is gained by eating. Maximal muscle gain always occurs while you’re eating more than you need to. So, simply by eating less than that amount, you will reduce the amount of muscle mass you can build.

This is not to say you should starve yourself or do anything drastic. Not at all. But eat to maintain weight, or eat slightly less than that if you have excess fat to get rid of, and you will slow down a lot of the processes that your body goes through to answer the body’s request for more muscle.

Sample Workouts

With that covered, here are two sample workouts you could use to get stronger without building muscle. The first is an upper body workout; the second is a lower body workout.

Upper Body Workout

  • Bench Press 2×5
  • Banded Bench Press 5×2
  • Pull Ups 3 sets, 7-8/10 RPE (rating of perceived exertion)
  • Band Pull Aparts 3 sets, 7 RPE

Lower Body Workout

  • Squats 3×3
  • Pause Squats 2×5
  • Speed Deadlifts 5×2
  • Kettlebell Swings 3 sets, 6-7/10 RPE
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