Strength Without Size

by Will Safford, C.S.C.S
Performance360 Coach, CSCS, USAW, StrongFirst SFG

Get strong and you’ll be better equipped to build muscle, burn fat, run a race, play your sport. In other words, all fitness goals are capable when you are strong first.

Absolute strength should be a goal on everyone’s list. There’s a saying by Brett Jones, “Absolute strength is the glass. Everything else is the liquid inside the glass. The bigger the glass, the more of everything else you can do.”

Another legendary strength coach, Mark Rippetoe, once said “Strong people are harder to kill and more useful in general.” And although we no longer fend off predators in the wild, this idea still holds up. When you’re strong you’re more resilient to injury. You’re more likely to live longer. You burn more calories. You have better bone density. You have better body mechanics. You’re better connected to your nervous system. You’re just better, dammit. But before you go racing to the squat rack, let’s clear some things up.

Thanks to the bodybuilding craze of the 70’s and 80’s, strength training is often inappropriately coupled with gaining size. In fact, this is why many guys start weightlifting but also why many women shun the iron and steel. To the former, the illusion is to lift heavy things long enough and one day don the physique of Arnold at Muscle Beach. For the latter, even look at a weight and you’ll have the traps of an MMA fighter and the legs of a thoroughbred.

Neither are likely to happen.

Don’t get it wrong, lifting weights is your best route to increased size, but a combination of factors play into how much meat you’ll actually pack on. It’s difficult to put on serious mass without having either some genetic gifts, a prescription from Barry’s doctor, a ravenous, unwavering appetite, and/or a high dose of moderately heavy compound lifts for many reps and sets.

So yes, weights can put on mass, but true strength training will build just that; strength, not necessarily size.

Now, there are two ways to get stronger – you can make a muscle bigger, which we just talked about, or you can make a muscle contract harder. The latter, also known as neurological efficiency, is the key to amazing feats of strength, crushing PRs, and has absolutely nothing to do with building muscle size. Training with this type of strength in mind, which we do frequently at P360, instead strengthens the connections between your muscles and your brain.

Each muscle has many motor units. At a very basic level, motor units include neurons, which connect our muscles to our spinal cord and brain. Strength training increases the recruitment of these motor units, which when repeated over time, will make us stronger. It also increases the rate at which motor units fire, again adding to our strength.

So, what’s the recipe for this type of strength training?

First, lifting heavy weights will contribute to your neurological efficiency. Loads in the 80 to 95% range of your 1RM for low reps will train this type of strength. Low reps include sets of one, two, and three, maybe four. Five reps is where strength and hypertrophy (muscle growth) begin to meet. Six to ten reps will yes, add to strength, but more directly encourage muscle growth.

Weightlifting for Fat Loss

Second, lower volume and longer rest periods will contribute to strength gains. When training with near maximal loads the demand on the Central Nervous System (CNS) is high. Remember the nerd talk on neurons and motor units? That’s your CNS, and when too heavily taxed it will send your performance fleeing in the opposite direction. The CNS responds best to high intensity for low volume, where volume equals the amount of reps x sets x load. On the contrary, muscle growth responds better to higher volume.

To recruit the most motor units possible and give your best effort for each rep and set, your muscles need the appropriate amount of time to recover. The optimal rest period between sets for strength training is 3 to 5 minutes. This amount of time allows your energy systems to recover and for you to give that maximal contraction of your muscles. Anything less than this will train a different quality like hypertrophy or strength-endurance.

Finally, developing strength in this style needs to be practiced. As mentioned, we’re training the nervous system here, which much like the highway system, is all interconnected. Learning to tense your entire body for a lift will help add to your strength for that lift. For example, when doing a bench press, if you squeeze your quads, glutes, core, lats, biceps, triceps, shoulders and chest, you’ll be much stronger than if only pushing with your chest and arms alone. This principle is called hyper-irradiation, and essentially means hacking into surrounding muscles for added strength via the nervous system.

Tapping into hyper-irradiation can be practice and developed through total body tension drills. The next time you do a plank, try tensing your entire body to the point of shaking to work on total body tension. This is a skill you’ll be able to bring into your strength lifts like deads, presses, and squats, that will not only make you stronger, but also less susceptible to injury.

So if muscle takes a back seat to strength in this type of training, what kind of physique can you expect? Gentlemen, expect hard, functional, athletic looking muscle that will serve you well in most all pursuits; in the gym, on the court, in the field, on the water. Ladies, lean, toned legs, glutes, and arms are in your future, with no expectation of a bulky back or boulder shoulders.

Both can expect improved bone density, increased tendon and ligament strength, preservation of muscle mass, better posture, increased performance in the gym, and a leap in your personal strength numbers.

So, the next time you see 5×2@90% on the board rack up the weight and get ready to get strong.

Will Safford is a coach at Performance360, San Diego’s Best Rated Gym. He is a former NCAA athlete and is certified through the CSCS, USA Weightlifting, StrongFirst Kettlebell and is a Purple Belt in Jiu Jitsu.

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