Build Strength Without Adding Bulk
What I'm about to teach you seems counter-intuitive to many people's goals.
Usually, you'll see me writing an article on how to get bigger and stronger. The thing is, some people don't want to get bigger. They're happy with their size, but they just want to get stronger. After all, it's nice to have something to work towards, and the quest for strength will always be there.
On top of this, some athletes need strength without the added bulk. After all, a powerlifter needs to maximize their strength to weight ratio, and extra bulk on a basketball player could negatively affect vertical jump performance.
Muscle Size and Volume
Before I can teach you how to get stronger without getting bigger, you’ll need to know how to build muscle size.
At its most basic form, training for size involves two variables:
- Volume (total number of repetitions under adequate load)
- Excess calories
Generally, increasing training volume will increase your muscle size (assuming you're able to recover). On top of this, you need to be eating enough food to support weight gain. Combine this with the appropriate training stimulus (volume and tension) and recovery, and you'll build muscle.
Maximize Strength, Not Muscle
Knowing these two things, we can manipulate training so that you can maximize strength gains while minimizing muscle gains.
The first logical method is to eat calories for maintenance or just below below. If you're not eating enough calories to support muscle growth, you'll have a harder time building size (although you can still recomp, meaning you can lose fat and build muscle, but your overall body size will not get much bigger). This means eating bodyweight (in lbs) x 14-15. So if you're 200lbs, you'll eat 2800 to 3000 calories per day. If you want to lose weight, eat less than your maintenance calories per day.
This leads us to variable number two: volume. This is a touchy subject because, in order to build strength, you do need some volume. We will call this the minimum effective volume for strength (MEVS).
Contrast this with the minimum volume you need to build muscle. We will call this the minimum effective volume for hypertrophy (MEVH). Depending on how long you've been training, your MEVS and your MEVH could be at different levels, or they could be at the same place. If your MEVS equals your MEVH, then you will get stronger and build muscle. If your MEVS is less than your MEVH, then you have some room to work with. Generally, if you're a beginner, your MEVS will most likely equal your MEVH, and you're shit out of luck if you only want to get stronger. If you look at this logically, you need muscle to lift a weight.
Obviously, if you want to maximize strength gain while minimizing muscle gain, there is a sweet spot: smack dab between your MEVS and your MEVH.
For example, let's say your MEVS is 60 reps per week, and your MEVH is 70 reps per week. This means that in order to maximize strength gains while minimizing muscle gains, you'll need to do between 60-70 reps per week. Depending on your training experience, these numbers could range wildly, and it's very difficult to calculate.
Intensity Over Volume
To make things very easy, I recommend using a program that focuses on intensity over volume. Programs like 5-3-1 and the 3-day per week DUP Method routine are great for this type of training. You could also try something like this:
Day A: Squat Dominant Day
- Squat: Work up to your heaviest set of 5 reps, but leave 1 rep in the tank (this means using your 6RM weight). Then, do 1 backoff set of 5 reps using 90% of the weight you just used. For example, you worked up to a heavy set of 5 reps in the squat and used 315lbs (your 6RM is 315lbs). Your next set of squats, you'll use 280lbs for 5 reps (approx 90% of 315lbs).
- Bench: 3 sets of 8 reps
- Deadlift: 2 sets of 10 reps
Day B: Bench Dominant Day
- Bench: Work up to your heaviest set of 5 reps, but leave 1 rep in the tank (this means using your 6RM weight). Then, do 1 backoff set of 5 reps using 90% of the weight you just used. For example, you worked up to a heavy set of 5 reps in the bench press and used 225lbs (your 6RM is 225lbs). Your next set of bench press, you'll use 200lbs for 5 reps (approx 90% of 225lbs).
- Deadlift: 3 sets of 8 reps
- Squat: 2 sets of 10 reps
Day C: Deadlift Dominant Day
- Deadlift: Work up to your heaviest set of 5 reps, but leave 1 rep in the tank (this means using your 6RM weight). Then, do 1 backoff set of 5 reps using 90% of the weight you just used. For example, you worked up to a heavy set of 5 reps in the deadlift and used 405lbs (your 6RM is 405). Your next set of deadlifts, you'll use 365lbs for 5 reps (approx 90% of 405lbs).
- Squat: 3 sets of 8 reps
- Bench: 2 sets of 10 reps
Looking at the routine above, you only have about 54 quality reps (7 sets) per exercise per week. We're focusing on intensity over volume, and trying to spread the volume out across the week in order to focus on intensity and practice the movement. After all, strength is simply practicing a movement under load.
If you're looking to get stronger without getting bigger, then give this a try.