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How to Build Strength Without Bulk

“I don’t want to look like a bodybuilder” is the most common phrase I hear as a personal trainer for women. And even though most women I coach want to become stronger, many are still somewhat apprehensive and fear that they will bulk up and look like bodybuilders if they lift too heavy.

So they pick a weight that’s barely challenging and stick to the moderate repetition range of 8-15 repetitions per set. 

Unfortunately, many hold the erroneous belief that the heavier weights you lift, the more muscular you become.

The truth is that you can become stronger without adding much muscle mass if you so wish.

And to understand why and how you should approach your training if strength without size is your goal, we first need to understand the basic principles of training to build muscle versus training to build strength.

Training to build muscle.

Training to build as much muscle mass as possible is also known as hypertrophy training. And while you will get stronger using this type of training, the focus of this training style is not to get as strong as possible but to make your muscles bigger.

Bodybuilders and everyone who trains predominantly for aesthetics commonly use this training style.

The most widely used repetition range is 8-12 per set. However, the repetition ranges vary. What matters most is the “time under tension” a muscle is under for a specific period and the total amount of weight lifted.

Rest periods are usually shorter than training styles focusing primarily on strength and power. The total amount of weight lifted in a training session is generally higher.

Training for maximal strength.

Guess who the strongest people are in the gym?

If you have guessed bodybuilders, try again.

The strongest people in the gym are not those who train to build as much muscle mass as possible but those who train to get as strong as possible.

While there is some overlap between the two approaches, they differ.

When training for maximal strength, you try to become stronger while keeping your size. The main goal is not to pack on muscle but to improve the strength of the muscles you already have.

When you train for strength, you train the ability to contract all of your muscle fibers at once, so you can lift as heavy as possible for 1 repetition.

Does that mean you won’t gain muscle when training for maximum strength? Not necessarily. But you minimize hypertrophy by reducing a muscle’s time under tension and the total load you lift during a session.

How to build strength without adding bulk.

First, it takes a lot of work for a woman to gain too much muscle.

“Getting bulky” is a process that takes many years, even for most men.

Besides, muscle is critical for health and longevity, so I wouldn’t fixate on having as little muscle mass as possible.

However, if you still want to minimize muscle gain while getting stronger because of aesthetic reasons or you are an endurance athlete who wants to be as light as possible, then you can follow a few basic principles.

1. Focus on compound lifts.

When training for maximum strength, choose compound lifts over isolation exercises. Compound lifts are exercises that use multiple joints and muscle groups simultaneously.

For example, the squat trains every muscle in your legs, your butt, and your back. Compare that with the leg extension on the machine, an isolation exercise for your quadriceps muscle.

The isolation exercise only trains one muscle or muscle group. It does not teach your body to move as a unit.

Compound lifts teach your body to move as nature intended because they more closely mimic natural movements.

For example, deadlifting makes you stronger at picking things up. Heavy carries, like the farmer’s carry, build strength to carry your groceries home. Carries are one of my favorite exercises for building strength. They train (almost) every muscle of your body and build true “functional strength.”

Does that mean you should never do isolation movements?

Of course not.

But most of your training program should focus on the big compound movements if your goal is to become as strong as possible without gaining muscle.

2. Use heavy weights in a low rep range for more sets.

 If you want to become as strong as possible, lift as heavy as possible. That means you must pick a weight at least 85% of your 1-repetition maximum.

In case you didn’t guess this already, a 1-repetition maximum is a maximum weight you can lift for one repetition.

Various methods for determining a 1-repetition maximum (1 RM) exist. Unless you are already very experienced and have excellent spotters, you should use indirect methods to assess your 1-rep max.

One example is the protocol published by the American College of Sports Medicine. Use this to estimate your one repetition max for compound exercises as follows:

  1. Lift a weight to failure and multiply the number of repetitions by 2.5. 
  2. Subtract that number from 100. This gives you the % of your 1 RM.
  3. Divide this number by 100.
  4. Divide the weight you lifted by the decimal value to get your estimated 1RM.

Let’s look at an example. You picked a barbell and squatted 50 kg for 5 repetitions. You had to really fight for the last rep, but you managed to lift the weight with solid form. 

  1. 5 repetitions X 2.5 = 12.5
  2. 100-12.5 = 87.5
  3. 87.5/100 = 0.875
  4. 50 / 0.875 = 57

Your estimated 1 RM would be 57 kg. 

As you already saw from the example, the repetition range is lower than for hypertrophy training. You could lift 87% of your one-rep max for 5 repetitions only. If you want to focus on building strength, your should primarily lift in the 1-3 rep range.

3. Include long rest periods between sets.

Training for strength and training for hypertrophy require different rest periods between sets. The general recommendation for hypertrophy is to rest between 1-2 minutes between sets, and for strength, to rest between 3-5 minutes per set.

Please note that these are just general guidelines, and people differ in their recommendations. However, training for hypertrophy usually means shorter rest periods, and strength training usually means more extended rest periods.

To understand why we have longer rest periods for strength training than for hypertrophy training, we need to understand what happens to our body’s energy stores when we lift weights.

During high-intensity exercises, such as strength training, your body’s ATP and Creatine stores get depleted.

You may remember from biology class that APT (Adenosine Triphosphate) is your body’s energy currency. Every muscle contraction requires ATP availability.

And weightlifting, as it turns out, depletes ATP stores extremely fast.

Resting between sets allows our bodies to replenish ATP. And how do our bodies replenish ATP? By resynthesizing it from our creatine stores. When you rest, you let your muscle’s creatine stores fill up and replenish ATP.

What has this short physiology lesson to do with rest periods? Simple. Studies have correlated rest time to ATP replenishment.

Generally speaking, the longer you rest, the more ATP you replenish. As a result, you can lift more weight in your next set if you rest longer, compared with short rest intervals.

For example, this study used a 3RM load to evaluate the effect of varying rest times on the lifter’s performance in subsequent sets. The researchers found that participants who rested for 5 minutes between sets could perform better in the next set than participants who rested 2 minutes between sets.

To optimize your time in the gym, you should rest for 3- 5 minutes when doing big compound movements, such as the squat or bench press.

If you have more time, err on the side of resting longer. If you are pressed for time, rest for 3 minutes to maximize strength development.

Gaining strength without muscle is possible but not indefinitely.

Following the basic principles described in this article can build strength without adding muscle mass. However, note that you can only gain strength by building muscle indefinitely.

At some point, you need to increase your muscle mass to continue gaining strength.

That’s why powerlifters, who train to become as strong as possible, not as big as possible, still go through hypertrophy phases. They build muscle because a bigger muscle can be a stronger muscle.

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