How To Get Much Stronger Without Getting Huge and Heavy

Strength is an old word with rich emotional content and meaning. You’ll hear how “only the strong survive”. You can talk about the strength of an army, the strength of an oak tree, or the strength of a singer’s voice. We see all our heroes as having it in one form or another, and we all aspire to have it ourselves.

"What Is Strength, Exactly?”

Since it’s such a widely used word, there’s some understandable confusion about exactly what it is from an athletic standpoint, because the word is tacked on to many different aspects of training and performance.

In fact, there’s at least ten forms of strength discussed in different corridors of athletic training. (Don’t stress if you don’t recognize them.) They are:

  1. Concentric strength
  2. Static strength
  3. Eccentric strength
  4. Explosive strength / speed strength
  5. Starting strength
  6. Acceleration strength
  7. Reaction strength
  8. Strength endurance
  9. Maximal strength / limit strength
  10. Absolute strength

With that many “kinds” of strength, how’s anyone going to answer the question, “what can I do to build my strength?”

So let me clean all this up for you really quickly, in plain English.
I’ll start by defining strength very specifically. When I say “strength”, without any modifiers, I’m talking about your ability to overcome resistance. In training, that means your ability to move heavier loads--whether those loads are free weights, kettle bells, stones, cars, or drunk guys mouthing off.

I’m not talking about lasting longer, going faster, or doing more work. I’m only talking about how heavy a load you can move.

It’s Not About Speed

A big handful of the “strengths” I listed up there actually have to do with certain aspects of speed, like how explosively you can start, how much you can accelerate a load once you’ve started, and how quickly you can forcefully react to an impact.
But since the measure of all of those forms of “strength” actually involves increases in speed and not increases in load, I’ll leave all of that to the article on speed.

It’s Not About Endurance

If, instead of doing a heavy load, you choose to do more repetitions at a lighter load, you may have increased the amount of work done, but you haven’t increased your strength building stimulus. Instead, you’ve trained your endurance under that resistance.

When people talk about strength endurance, they’re usually talking about trying to last longer while under load. (The load is what distinguishes it from normal endurance training.)

Since the real measurement is lasting longer, it’s not really strength training either. We’ll get into that in an article on endurance.

The “Strengths” that Are About Strength

Maximal strength and limit strength measure how much resistance you can overcome voluntarily in a single, all-out effort. What gym rats say, “hey man, what’s your max bench?” This is what they’re talking about. It’s you pushing or pulling at your absolute hardest.

But, interestingly, this is still not actually the greatest amount of force you’re capable of producing. That’s reserved for something called absolute strength. This is something that can only be created in laboratory conditions by electrically stimulating muscle fibers to their maximum capacity. If you’re nervous system could do that at will, you’d tap a reserve that would make you significantly stronger. (Maybe that’s what gets tapped in emergencies when women lift cars off of babies.)
So, maximal strength is the closest measure of strength for the way we’ve defined it. Now that you know what I mean by it, let’s look at where strength comes from in your body, so you can understand how to get more of it.

What Makes You Strong?

Contrary to popular understanding, muscle size plays a very secondary role in strength. Bodybuilders are much larger than power lifters, but power lifters are much stronger.

Your strength resides in your nervous system. Muscle size is involved, but probably not in the way that you think. To explain the relationship between muscle size and strength, I want you to think about a water balloon. The vast majority of the size of the balloon is relative to how much water is in it. The thickness of the rubber pales in comparison, but it’s the thickness of the rubber than makes the balloon strong.

What Do Strength, Muscle Size, and Water Balloons Have In Common?

As it turns out, the kind of training (and feeding) that leads to bodybuilder style muscle mass works it magic by increasing the size of the fluid portion of muscle cells, called the sarcoplasm, where muscle fuel is stored. The extra fuel helps you to do more work, but it doesn’t increase your force output. So most of that extra size is just like water in the balloon, and it’s not related to strength.

The kind of increases in muscle mass that actually make you stronger are completely different. They are increases in the actin and myosin protein chains that contract when your nervous system turns them on. Making these bigger is like making your balloon have thicker rubber. It will be slightly bigger, and it will be a lot stronger, but the changes in size that affect your strength are nothing compared to the overfilled water balloons of professional bodybuilders.

(Granted, bodybuilders are still much stronger than the average Joe, but that’s because they also improved their nervous system and built more contractile proteins along the way.)

Who Needs to Train for Strength?

#1: All Athletes Need a Strength Base

Every athlete needs a strength base, because strength comes before speed and power and agility. How much strength you need beyond that base depends on the intensity of your sport. The more your sport is prone to high intensity bursts, the stronger a base you’ll need. A golfer will need less than a baseball player, who will need less than a football player.

How Strength Supports Speed, Power, and Agility

The base you build with strength training is highly convertible to speed. Stronger and faster are next door neighbors. Both abilities use the same fast twitch muscle fibers, and those fibers use the same energy system (ATP/CP.)

So strength is the perfect preparation for speed. The difference is that strength training occurs with slow, controlled movements, which are safer and more accurate than explosive, high velocity movements. So it’s better to build your structural foundation and your pattern mastery in slow-motion, so to speak, and then transform it into greater degrees of speed, power, and agility.

#2: Anyone with Strength Deficits Needs to Bring Them Up to Snuff

Strength deficits are weak links in otherwise strong chains. They come in two forms:

1)    Common: Functional Imbalances. These occur when one part of your body is significantly weaker than its opposite or its mirroring part. If your left hand hits twice as hard as your right, or if you can push twice as much weight as you can pull, you have a functional imbalance. These are the most common form of deficit. Targeting the weaker portion with carefully designed strength exercises can fix that up relatively quickly.

2)    Rare: Nerve-to-Structure Imbalances. These occur when you have strong tissues, but an underdeveloped nervous system, like someone with an iron fist that can withstand a stronger punch than their arm is capable of throwing. Because your body likes to adapt as a unit, this sort of thing only tends to occur if you’ve been doing some kind of impact specific training with minimal force production—like if you were to condition your shins with wooden rods but never train your impact strength with kicks on a heavy bag.

How to Increase Your Strength

When training for strength, the focus is always on increasing the amount of resistance you have to overcome. Whatever you did last time, you make it heavier this time and do it again.

Multiple Short Sets with Long Rest Periods Are Essential

Your maximal strength will always rely on the ATP/CP fuel system, which means that you’ve got 20-30 seconds to finish a set, and 3-5 minutes to refill the tank before trying again. Because sets are so short, strength training requires more sets than some other kinds of programs.

Most elite strength training routines prescribe 5 sets of 5 heavy repetitions averaging 4-5 seconds each, with long 3 minute rest periods in between sets.

Don’t Jump Right To It – Periodize It

However, everything maximal needs a build-up. This is why most elite strength training coaches have also recommended something called periodization as an essential method for building your foundation. Periodization is a fancy word for strategically changing your routine over time to accomplish your goals.

If you’re just starting out, a simple linear periodization program will work great for you. Just like going slower is safer than going faster, going lighter is safer than going heavier.

So when you’re just starting a strength training program, light and slow is best. Because your body is exquisitely sensitive to changes in load, each time you increase the load, you’ll get a significant adaptive response from it.

In a linear periodization program for strength training, you should start with a load you can do for 12-14 reps.  Each workout, you increase the load no matter what. As it gets heavier, you won’t be able to do as many reps, so you should also add more sets along the way, so the overall workload doesn’t decrease. Keep increasing until you get to that optimal strength training zone where you can only complete 4-6 reps before failure, in less than 30 seconds.

For example, it might look something like this:

Workout # Load Sets Reps Per Set Total Reps
1 100 2 12 24
2 110 2 11 22
3 120 3 10 30
4 130 3 9 27
5 140 4 8 32
6 150 4 7 28
7 160 5 6 30


As You Increase the Load, Don’t Cheat With Your Form

As thing get heavier, you’ll be tempted time and again to cheat with your form. Don’t do it. If you can’t do it right, then you can’t do it. If you did a slow, deep “ass to grass” squat with 250 lbs on your back, don’t assume you increased your strength because you did a quick shallow bend of the knee with 300 lbs.
Instead of cheating, just take the failed rep as feedback, and use one of the specialized reps below to help break through your plateau.

Using Special Reps to Break Sticking Points

Some of the other kinds of strength listed at the beginning involved the relative strengths of different parts of your movement. For example, you can handle more weight when holding something still (called static strength) than you can when you’re trying to lift it (concentric strength). You can handle even more when you’re lowering it (eccentric strength.)  You can take advantage of these differences to launch yourself out of a strength plateau.

Here’s how: pay attention to any joint angle that fails. If you notice that you consistently fail in the same place, add some extra training to strengthen that exact joint angle. Whatever load you’ve been using, add some more, and instead of trying to do the complete motion, do static holds right in your sticking point, for 20 seconds if you can.

There’s plenty of ways to riff on this idea. You can do tiny pulses of movement, sometimes called partial reps, in the area of your sticking point. You can load up even more and do negative reps (these can be difficult to set up and handle safely without a spotter.)

What Exercises Are Good for Strength?

There’s no short list here. It depends greatly on your needs and your goals. To briefly answer the question though, I’ll draw a broad distinction between “corrective” strength training and regular strength training.

Corrective strength training should always come first, because you need to fix all the weak links in your chain before you try to use the whole chain together. If your body has already learned to compensate for a weak muscle with another muscle, doing exclusively compound exercises is likely to deepen the compensation instead of fixing it.

It’s better to re-activate the muscle, retrain it in isolation, and the re-integrate it into the compound exercise so that it starts pulling its own weight. No pun intended.
If, for example, you have a strong back and weak biceps, you should first isolate your biceps with an exercise that doesn’t use your back – like curls. If however, you have a weak back and strong biceps, you should try and isolate your back from your biceps, which can be more difficult, but not impossible. (TIP: Use wide overhand grips, and lead with your elbows.)

This can be true for any number of muscle chains. If you have a strong chest and weak shoulders, you should isolate your shoulders with an exercise that does not recruit the chest (lateral dumbbell raises.)

However, once you’ve isolated, you must integrate, and that means using the classic compound exercises that strength training is known for.

Classic Strength Training Exercises

Some “classic” compound exercises useful for strength training include:

  • Dead Lifts
  • Squats
  • Bench Press
  • Leg Press
  • Dips
  • Wide Grip Chins
  • Military Press

There are many others, and many variations on all of these, far more than I have time to go into in this article. There’s also no shortage of descriptions and demonstrations online that can clear up any questions you have about how to perform them, so I won’t regurgitate that information here.
Coming up next: all about speed. Stay tuned!

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