In the world of fitness, the concepts of muscle gain and strength are often used interchangeably. Many people just assume that they cannot really gain one without the other. So can you gain strength without gaining muscle?
While strength and muscle mass share a clear correlation, you can adjust your training and diet so that they are more focused on strength gains as opposed to muscle growth.
In this guide, we will break down how some key techniques for both training and nutrition so that you can better focus on strength gains.
How Can You Gain Strength Without Gaining Muscle?
What you need to first understand, is that strength is a skill that can be improved upon and manipulated. I am sure that you noticed some people in your gym that are not all that big but yet can outlift anyone.
The reason for this (aside from genetics) is that the smaller, stronger individual has likely better developed their body’s ability to recruit the muscle fibers more efficiently.
This is known as neuromuscular adaptions. In many ways, strength can simply be defined as the ability of your body to call on muscle fibers and motor units to produce.
With these key principles in mind, these are the main things that you can do to gain strength without gaining muscle mass:
Lift Heavy Weights
As far as training does, one of the best ways to increase strength without building muscle is by lifting heavy weights.
Of course, the exact amount of weight will vary by the individual and the exercise. The important thing though is that you are lifting heavy enough so that you start to fail around the 3-6 rep range.
If you can focus on hitting PRs in this range as opposed to the more hypertrophy-focused 10-12, you will build more strength without as much muscle mass.
Stick To Compound Lifts
If your goal is total strength and not muscle mass, you really have no use for most isolation exercises. Instead, you should be focusing on compound movements since these work multiple muscle groups at the same time. In terms of exercise selection, you should really only be doing the following:
In line with our previous tip, all of these exercises should be done with low reps more max strength gains. There are plenty of free beginner weight lifting programs that follow these principles such as Starting Strength or nSuns.
Do More Pylometrics
All plyometrics means is exercises that are focused on strengthening what is known as the stretch-shortening cycle. If you can improve this, your body will become better store utilizing stored elastic energy for the purpose of force production.
I know this sounds complicated, but for your workout routine, it will basically mean that you incorporate more jumps and throws. The better you get at these, the more you will be forced you will be able to produce when needed.
Here are some basic plyometric exercises that I recommend:
Medicine Ball Toss
Rest Longer Between Sets
When you are training for strength, all you should care about is increasing your performance in the gym during each session. With this in mind, you should be taking longer rest periods to allow your muscles to truly recover.
The traditional recommendation of 1-2 minutes will simply not cook it. This makes sense if you trying to stay pumped up and illicit maximal damage for hypertrophy reasons, but those with the primary goal of strength need to take longer rest periods.
When you lift heavy weights, you are draining your body’s stores of ATP (Adenoise Triphosphate) and Creatine Phosphate. It takes at least three minutes for these two energy systems to fully replenish.
That being said, 3 minutes is the absolute minimum. If you notice that your performance drops off drastically by the second or third set, feel free to take 4-6 minutes.
After a heavy squat or deadlift session, I am not afraid to take 6-8 rests because I know that after such a taxing lift, my body needs to recover if I want to push myself hard again during my next set.
For muscle mass gains, a core principle is a time under tension. You want your muscles to be under tension for as long as possible to cause more damage. You can clearly see this when bodybuilders train. They slow everything down so that they can feel each second of the movement.
The opposite is true when you are trying to gain strength. When it comes to force production, you should be trying to lift the weight up as explosively as you can.
This does not mean that you should get sloppy on your form. Control the weight as best you can on the way down, but then lift the weight as fast as you can during the concentric portion. As you improve with the speed of your reps, your body will gain the ability to fire more motor units at once.
Perfect Your Form
You would be surprised to see how many people are artificially limiting their strength by not doing the exercises properly.
For example, I see many people in the gym that turn pull-ups into a heavily biased bicep exercise. Or others that hardly use their chest while benching.
As mentioned, before strength is a skill. Learning how to engage and activate the muscles that should be the primary movers is a crucial skill.
Cut Your Volume
Adding tons of volume is a great way to put on muscle mass but that is not what we want. Instead, we should be doing the opposite and actually cutting the volume.
This way, although you will perform fewer sets, the sets that are done will be done with maximal strength and effort.
It depends on the program, but do not be afraid to cut your sessions down to 3-4 exercises 2-3 times per week. This is still plenty of volume to gain strength with.
Eat At Maintenance Calories
To gain muscle, you need to be in a caloric surplus so that your body has the energy it needs to build muscle mass. While strength training can also benefit from surplus energy, you do not necessarily need to be in a surplus to gain strength.
If you instead trying to stay at the same weight, you should instead be eating at maintenance calories. This will take some experimenting at this depending on your genetics and activity level. But a good way to get good a baseline is by using an online TDEE calculator or just multiplying your body weight by 14.
Therefore, if you are a 200-pound man:
200 x 14 = 2800 calories should be what you shooting for on a daily basis.
Another good way strategy is to just keep an eye on the weight scale and your numbers in the gym. If you notice that you are gaining weight, then cut your calories. Or if you notice that your strength is going down, consider increasing your calories slightly.
Of course, it goes without saying that regardless of whether your goals are strength or muscle related, you should be eating enough protein to support recovery.
Why Would Someone Want To Gain Strength But Not Muscle?
To the average gym goer, the idea of gaining muscle mass as an issue sounds crazy. In most cases, worries about gaining “too much muscle mass” are often overstated.
Gaining muscle mass is a hard process that involves lifting weights and eating properly for years. You do not just wake up one day with too much muscle. But there are some reasons why it would be a concern for some people:
There are many sports where having more strength is good but more muscle mass is not. This is most commonly seen in sports that are more biased toward muscular endurance like soccer or boxing. The heavier you are, even if it is a muscle, will make it harder to compete.
The same could be said for sports where the goal is primarily to move your body weight like swimming or climbing. If you look at the builds of swimmers or climbers, they are often toned but never too bulky.
Lastly, some sports just have weight caps that limit the amount of muscle that athletes can gain. So while additional muscle and strength may benefit wrestlers, fighters, etc, they are capped by the rules of their division.
Some people also may not want to gain too much muscle because they fear that they will look too bulky due to weight training.
Again, this concern is mostly unfounded. You will not just wake up one day and then all of the sudden have too much muscle. If anything, most people find that packing on muscle makes them look learn thanks to the change in body composition.
For most people, worrying about gaining too much muscle mass is a waste of time. Putting on muscle takes years of dedicated hard work and is not something that happens by accident.
With that said if you really want to just focus on building strength, the tips outlined in this article should help.
Just be aware that a bigger muscle in most cases is going to be a stronger muscle. Following the tips here will only take you so far, if you eventually want to take the next step up, you will eventually have to put on some mass.