How to Get Stronger, Without Getting Bigger

by Sabina Skala

“Size matters not. Look at me. Judge me by size, do you?” – Yoda, Star Wars

Can you get stronger without getting bigger and heavier? Most combat athletes need to cut weight before the fights. Weight control is often crucial for them, so this question of size versus strength becomes important. Therefore my focus in this article is to give you simple training tips of how to get stronger without getting bigger.

You can find thousands of articles on neuromuscular adaptations to strength training. The adaptations are called neuromuscular for a reason. A lot of people associate strength with size. If I tell you that X is the strongest man I have ever met, what picture comes to your head? Would it be big man with huge muscles protruding through his clothes, or medium-built, athletic guy? Probably the first one. It may be, but does not necessarily have to be true. Size matters if you want to be the strongest man on earth. Strongman competitors are big for a reason. However, if you remember my fellow countryman Mariusz Pudzianowski, five time World’s Strongest Man winner, you will know that he was probably one of the smallest guys out there.

Your body adapts to training and gets stronger/bigger/faster/smaller because of the neural, muscular, hormonal, and skeletal changes that are the result of chosen training stimulus. Is it possible, then, to get stronger without getting bigger? Yes, it is. It all depends how strong one wants to be. I came across an article on the Internet a while ago. The author described strength as a “skilled act.” I really liked this description, as it implies you can teach your body to be strong.

To start, let us focus on sports that require great amounts of strength and/or power and at the same time involve weight limitations – combat sports (i.e. boxing, MMA, BJJ), gymnastics, ballet (Yes, I do consider ballet dancers athletes), ice skating, and climbing. While sports like boxing or MMA have explicit weight groups, in other sports like ice-skating, climbing, dance and gymnastics the lighter and stronger you are the better off you are.

Training all of the above, or even training women (“I don’t want to get bulky” is probably what personal trainers hear first from most female clients) should focus mostly on the neural adaptations to strength training. Let me make it clear – research shows it is not possible to induce onlyneural or only muscular changes. Both always take place, but there are certain protocols that allow increases in strength without or with minimum increase in the muscle cross section.

The initial strength gains when you start strength training come mostly from neuromuscular adaptations rather than hypertrophy. If you notice your muscles “pump up” during or shortly after the session, don’t panic or be too happy (depending of what your goal is). This is a short term increase in size caused by fluid retention. It should fade away within 60-90 mins after the training.

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