How to Get Stronger without Getting Bigger
How are you going to be strong if you look like a string bean!? That’s the mentality most people have when it comes to strength sports or building strength in general. You might hear the saying “mass moves mass” be thrown around the gym, which is true to some extent.
Although, you don’t need to be the size of Jay Cutler or Ronnie Coleman to hit massive weight! Strength comes from adaptations based on training at different intensities. Someone that’s 200 lbs body weight might be able to outlift someone that’s 225 lbs body weight for a number of reasons.
The factors that go into strength are a lot more complex than just muscle size and muscle density. Sure, muscle obviously plays a big role, but you don’t need to be a juiced up bodybuilder to hit a 500 lbs squat or clean and jerk 315 lbs. In this article we will touch on how you can get stronger without being big and some exercises that will make you strong without making you too bulky.
TABLE OF CONTENTS
Does Size Equal Strength?
When you think of a strong person or an athlete, who’s the first person you think of? Probably a ripped football player or a massive weightlifter. It’s human nature to associate with size and muscles along with strength and power. Most of the time, this is a good case. As someone that is just being introduced to the gym and to fitness, it’s not a bad ideology to follow: “The bigger I get, the stronger I get.
Although, there are more factors when it comes to strength than just muscle size. More than that just your weight and how much muscle mass you have will determine how much you can lift. Your height, technique, gender, training age, biological age, body fat percentage, and bone density all play a role.
Long story short, yes and no. The more lean muscle and training experience that an athlete has under the belt, oftentimes they will be stronger. Although, if a 250 lbs high schooler with no training experience and a 25% body fat percentage tries to lift weight, they will be decently strong but nowhere near their maximum potential. That’s why you don’t necessarily need to be big in order to be strong.
What You Need to Get Stronger
If you don't need size to be strong, then what do you need? You need mechanical tension and a good program that meets your specific goals. If you can establish mechanical tension and intensity in your workouts, then you can drive the adaptation to get stronger.
Strength comes from the ability to produce force effectively and efficiently. Without consistent training and stimuli to drive strength adaptations, it is difficult to get stronger.
Getting stronger means doing reps with intensity and purpose so that you can perform at the highest level when you need to. Even as a non strength athlete, as in someone that plays as a team or performance based sport, size does not dictate powerproduction for certain actions. Jumpers don’t need to be 250 lbs and bulky like thrower. A swimmer doesn’t need to do 5x10 bodybuilder rep schemes for their legs just to explode off the block for a race. Understanding hypertrophy and understanding strength are similar, but not mutually exclusive.
Top Exercises for Strength
Strength adaptations can come from a number of movements including, but not limited to, resistance, plyometric, and calisthenic. We are going to go through a workout with senior world medalist, Hayley Reichardt, to see what type of movements she will do throughout the week to get stronger.
The reason we chose one of Hayley’s workouts is because she is the complete embodiment of being strong af without being very big. As an athlete in the 49kg weight class for weightlifting, she needs to cut weight multiple times a year for competitions. Maintaining and even gaining strength while losing weight is a big aspect of her training.
Hang Cleans and Full Cleans
The first exercise is going to be an olympic weightlifting complex using a hang clean and a full clean. By combining technical coordination along with some serious weight, we are able to stimulate that neural drive to lift more weight.
The hang clean and clean are meant to light up your posterior chain and improve that mechanical tension in the body. The pulls in the movements will stimulate the entire core and back while the catch is going to get those legs firing. Hayley is going to need to do other coordinated movements later in the lift, so starting with hang cleans into full cleans is going to be the perfect combination of technical challenge and weight.
The reason we use different variations of cleans for athletes that want to be strong without getting too bulky is because of the focus on power production and force absorption. It’s not a static movement that relies on brute strength, but it is also athletic enough that it can be loaded pretty heavy.
Single Leg Squat
The second exercise in this list, or what we like to call 2A if you’re using a program with us, is going to be the single leg squat. The single leg squat is different from a regular squat because of the focus on unilateral strength. WHen we do unilateral exercises, that is going to increase the time of the set, therefore increase the overall mechanical tension.
We want to use the single leg squat as a driver for hypertrophy. Yes, we talk about not needing big muscles to be really strong, but you still need some muscle! For most of us, especially for a weightlifter like Hayley, legs are going to be the strongest part of our body. So we need to take advantage of developing the strength in them for our overall strength.
With single leg squats, you can do back loaded squats or even a front loaded squat to target more of the quad and hip.
Neutral Grip Pull Up
We talk a lot about building strength in the lower body and needing the legs to build overall strength, but the upper body can’t be ignored. As a super set to the single leg squat, we will add in neutral grip pull ups. You can start with body weight, but as you get stronger, feel free to start loading them up.
Neutral grip pull ups are going to build the entire upper body for pulling power. It will attack your biceps, lats, upper back, and forearms. The neutral grip pull up is going to be an exercise that you can load heavier than a standard pull up or curl up. The reason is because instead of isolating a specific muscle group like the lats of the biceps, it uses more muscle groups efficiently. It is going to be a similar motion to bent over rows or a close-grip seated row.
This is where those cleans and single leg squats are going to come in handy, Since we started the lift with technical movements that required coordination, Hayley is warmed up to do some hurdle hops. After the main strength lifts are out of the way, we can dive into functional accessories.
That first accessory is going to be a jumping exercise like hurdle hops. Plyometrics are going to be a great tool to improve speed and force absorption. The ability to absorb force quickly and efficiently is going to correlate to overall strength gains.
Plyometrics and jumping movements are going to wake up the nervous system and get the heart rate up very fast. That is why we can superset plyometrics with another strength movement or accessory. By keeping the nervous system at a heightened state throughout the lift, athletes can keep the blood flowing to lift heavier without fatiguing too much by doing more sets of a single exercise.
Dumbbell Bench Press
The exercise that we can superset hurdle hops with is going to be dumbbell bench press. If we want to get stronger, we need to focus a lot on rep ranges. Too many reps at a lower weight is going to stray into the realm of hypertrophy work. We want to stay focused on the task of improving strength.
For dumbbell bench, you will want to have an athlete do about 6 sets of 4-6 reps. SInce this is still an accessory, we don’t need to constantly go for one rep maxes. We also don’t want to do too many reps that would fit more of a bodybuilder style of training. Lifting in this range will allow you to get stronger without getting so big that you’re busting out of your sleeves.
Alternating Kettlebell V Ups
To finish out our list of exercises, we will incorporate a couple ab exercises to build strength in that core. The first one of those exercises is going to be alternating kettlebell v ups. This is basically a v up and a controlled russian twist mixed together.
To gain strength and increase our weight lifted over time, we need to have a strong core. Incorporating ab exercises every other day is going to help maintain that rigidity in the core when doing heavier lists. Ab exercises also aren’t going to make you bulky since the abs are not going to grow at the same rate as something like your arms or legs.
Pass the Plate
That last exercise is going to be to pass the plate. Passing the plate from above your head onto your shins while in a seated position is going to work on time under tension. It is also going to hit the entire core as you extend and contract in the crunch position.
This is a great active alternative to russian twists or a plank, where the movements can get frustratingly hard very quick. These types of dynamic core exercises are going to also help Hayley with her balance as an athlete. Balance and core strength are two things that athletes need to lift heavier weight even though they might not be getting bigger in a physical sense.
To recap, lifting does not make you bulky! If you want to get stronger, you don’t always have to worry about getting too big. There are movements and rep ranges that you can use to make sure you are still progressing in the gym without losing your current physique. Who knows, you might even see an improvement in your physique but stay the same weight.
If you want to get athletic or strong af without becoming a mass monster, head over to the Peak Strength app for custom programming right in your pocket. Programs like this are perfect for skill position football players, swimmers, jumpers, soccer players, and any sport where athletes can be hindered by size. If you want to become a beast on the field or just get stronger without getting too big, use these exercises and make the progress that fits your goals!
In this blog, we looked at the 3 basic forms of endurance-based training. We also went into depth about mitochondrial functionality. In addition, we provided four protocols that can be used today to improve overall endurance. Give it a go, let us know how it goes, and comment below!
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Yo, It's Dane
Welcome to the Garage Strength Blog, where it is my goal to provide you with the experience and knowledge I've gained in the strength and conditioning world over many years of learning from both successes and failures. I train elite-level athletes in a multitude of sports from the high school to professional levels, already producing 5 Olympics and 30+ National Champions. If you want to be the next champion I train, check out my strength programs below!
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