Strength without size: How to get stronger without getting bulky

By guest author Geoff Girvitz

The first thing I want to tell you is that this article is for women. I am — in case you’re wondering — a man. I hope that’s cool. I’m writing this because you’ve come to this site looking for advice on strength and conditioning (or maybe just getting “toned”), but may not really believe that lifting heavy things will help you. You may actually think that doing so will make you bulky, unfeminine or some other terrible thing. I want you to be clear on what proper training will and won’t do. And I want you to maximize your potential.

Staying weak because of how it might make you look is the same as staying illiterate for fear of appearing nerdy. Stop it. You’re better than that.

I see you made it to the third paragraph. Welcome! This is the part where I tell you that women have somehow been sold a false bill of goods when it comes to working out. Guys certainly have their own douchebag idiosyncrasies, but that’s for another article at another time. In this one, I’m going to tell you that high reps with very low weight do not “tone.” They do not strengthen. They pretty much just waste your time. Below I’ll provide details for some of the things that do not waste your time. If you want to know why flapping your arms around with purple dumbbells is not typically helpful, you should be able to do the math on your own by the end of our magical journey.

I don’t have the space (translate: patience) here to detail an approach to every possible physical goal, so I’m going to focus on the following:

  1. Looking better naked
  2. Getting stronger
  3. Not gaining unwanted muscle

I am going to help you with the items above. But before I do, there is another list of things that we need to be clear on:

  1. Lifting heavy things is essential for maximizing strength
  2. Looking better naked can be achieved far more efficiently if you’re already strong
  3. It’s possible to get strong without significant gains in size
  4. Being strong is, in fact, pretty awesome

Now is the time for you to get over any pictures of female bodybuilders you may have been unintentionally scarred by. These women don’t look masculine because of strength training; they look masculine — first and foremost — because they take male hormones. Don’t want to look masculine? Don’t take androgens. It’s pretty simple.

Even if you’re not a fan of bodybuilders, it’s an insult to all their hard work to think that you might look anything like them without years of ungodly dedication, unwavering adherence to programs specifically designed for size gain, great genetics and (most likely) some unnatural supplementation. Without embracing the lifestyle wholeheartedly, the closest you’re ever likely to get will be a bad spray-on tan. So, put that stuff out of your head.

This may come as a bit of a surprise, but most people who train for performance (aka athletes) don’t actually want to put on size. With a few notable exceptions, carrying unneeded muscle around makes about as much sense as strapping a car engine to the back of your bicycle. So instead of packing new muscle onto to their bodies, athletes make the most of what they already have. In other words, they get stronger by becoming more efficient. Like most good training, this involves fine-tuning the nervous system.

To give you an idea of how nervous system-focused work impacts strength development, I’m about to drop science on you like a clumsy chemist, so if your eyes are going to glaze over, just skip the next section. If not, here we go…

the science of strength

Signals from your brain travel from your spinal column into motor neurons. Motor neurons connect to multiple muscle fibers. This little assembly is called a motor unit. Bear in mind that multiple motor units comprise any given muscle. If your brain is the boss and your muscle fibers are workers, then motor units are middle managers – overseeing numerous team members. If one of them isn’t working, then their entire team (in this case, the entire group of muscle fibers) won’t work. There’s no halfway here; it’s all or nothing.

In an untrained person, motor unit recruitment is generally pretty lackluster. The brain will send out the signal for a certain movement (the ubiquitous biceps curl, for example), but only about half of the motor units assigned to that movement will be activated. By tapping into these dormant muscle fibers, we are able significantly increase strength with a minimum of outward change. Cool, no? It’s kind of like discovering a superpower. Before we start jumping over buildings, though, we need to understand why so much strength has been lying dormant within you.

To further stretch out an already fatigued analogy, your middle managers have been taking three-hour lunch breaks for years and no one has even noticed. Why? There’s been no need for adaptation. If you don’t consistently challenge your muscles with enough weight to require full recruitment, this adaptation will never occur. No heavy weight with any consistency = no need to lift heavy weight. It’s simple.

If we truly want to get stronger, we’re going to change the way we do things. Especially if we want to put down the purple dumbbells and reap the benefits of powerful, efficient workouts. Since the progression of motor unit recruitment (what gets turned on first) follows the transition from light stuff to heavy stuff, to access the whole workforce, we’re going to need something heavy. How heavy? The research tells us 80% or more of capacity (what you can lift for one repetition). In absolute terms, this translates to a big difference between, say, what a mighty lumberjack can lift vs. a self-cutting emo vegan. However, in relative terms, both should find their respective loads to be extremely challenging. Remember this: no matter who you are, these workouts will be tough. Strong people don’t get off any easier.

“Wait. Wait! Wait! Wait! How can all this not make my muscles bigger?”

Okay, I’m not going to lie to you. If you are weak and have never done any real strength training, you will see some adaptations pretty quickly. For example, you’ll need stronger forearms just to hold onto enough weight. Listen. Please. The gains you’ll experience will not be linear. They will not continue forever. Do not freak out about them or delude yourself into thinking that you will turn into She-Hulk overnight. Unless your mom and dad were both Olympic shot-putters or you gained superpowers in a freak atomic accident, the odds are far, far lower than you think. Far lower.

“Are you sure I won’t get bigger after this initial period of adaptation?”

Emphasizing or de-emphasizing size gains comes down to the following factors:

  • Caloric surplus: If you don’t exceed your daily caloric needs, you will not have the raw material to build new muscle. Although it’s rare to meet a female athlete who takes in enough protein anyway, suffice it to say that if you’re getting less than a gram of protein per pound of bodyweight per day (what is, in my opinion, the minimum required for maintenance), Ms. Olympia will not be calling.
  • Density: Two parts here:
    • Trying to lift maximal loads while fatigued is kind of like practicing chess while drunk. After months — even years — of this approach, you will still suck. As such, it’s essential to ensure that ATP (the fuel for muscular contraction within the cell) is completely replenished before you lift. This process takes between four and five minutes so I’ll give you some details on how to best make use of your downtime in Part 2 of this article.
    • Most of the stresses responsible for hypertrophy (increased muscle size) come from creating a stressful intracellular environment. Lowered PH (more acidity) and increased accumulation of waste products impair performance. Your body will respond by increasing its capacity to restore balance. It’s these adaptations that are largely responsible for size. So, to avoid them, you need to avoid stresses. By sticking with rest periods long enough to facilitate full ATP recovery, you will have also waited long enough for the cell environment to normalize.
  • Volume: Once again, the root of adaptation is stress. There are a number of peripheral factors (including the degree of damage inflicted on your muscles) that will accumulate in spite of lengthened rest times. To avoid these, we’ll reign total volume in somewhere between 24 and 30 total reps (that’s the total number for all sets of any given exercise). We’ll get into actual set numbers in Part 2.
  • Intensity: As stated above, we need loads in excess of 80% of our single-rep maximum for neurological improvement. You don’t need to be scared of big weights, but you need to be respectful and train safely.
  • Tempo: There’s a lot to be said for slow, controlled reps. I emphasize these for beginners because of what they bring to the table in terms of coordination and control. With those skills as a prerequisite, people training for performance, not size, should move fast. How fast? If we go by Canadian strength coach Charles Poliquin’s recipe for hypertrophy as being 30-70 seconds of time under tension, then having the total time for your set come in at under 30 seconds will be fine. For the type of lower-rep sets that we’ll be getting into, a fast lift and controlled eccentric (lowering) motion will be more than enough to ensure this.
  • Training frequency: Since training your nervous system for strength is similar to practicing a fine motor skill, there’s only one way to get to Carnegie Hall. Instead of practicing scales, though, you’re going to squat, deadlift, press and pull. The low volume of your workouts will help minimize the accumulated factors that contribute to hypertrophy.

Do you feel better? Do you at least believe that you can add strength without size? I hope so. There’s not a whole lot more that needs to be said. However, you may still have some questions about how heavy weights relate to looking hotter. Fair enough.

It’s like this: the amount of energy you expend correlates directly to the total amount of work you do. If you are so weak that you can only move itty-bitty weights and your fastest sprint is a lame jog then your workout productivity will be limited and you will be sad. However, if you are so strong that you can move great big weights and that your fastest sprint can blister the paint off of nearby houses, your workout productivity will be great and you will rejoice. In practical terms, when strong people perform energy-intensive work, they get more done in the same amount of time. These workouts are not easier, but they are superior.

Put into the framework of circuit training (performing groups of exercises), your strength development will translate into highly effective workouts that absolutely blow any kind of low-weight, high-rep program out of the water. Instead of performing bad cardio with minimal strength gain, you will be stronger and leaner in less time. You will develop the kind of muscle tone you’ve always wanted with strength to go along with it (surpass it, actually). Most importantly, you will begin your transformation into a bad-ass.

This concludes Part 1 of this article. We’ve gone over all the conceptual stuff. I’m hoping that any remaining questions you have pertain to the nitty gritty of working out. We’ll get to those details in Part 2.

geoff_girvitz_headshotGeoff Girvitz runs Bang Fitness in Toronto, which offers personal training, group classes and combat conditioning in Toronto. Bang Fitness is, like, totally sweet. It has tires and sledgehammers and an Olympic lifting platform and a dragging sled and freakin’ Astroturf! If you are in the west end of Toronto, this is definitely the place to train.

Geoff is also one of my favourite boys in the whole world. He introduced me to the epic joy of Rottblott’s, a hardware surplus store — basically a candy store for people who love old-skool strength training toys. Thanks to Geoff I now own 20 feet of thick rope. And I’m eyeing a heavier sledgehammer…