Not everyone wants to get big. Maybe you like the idea of being strong, but you are afraid to go heavy in the weight room because you also want to a thin, slender body. This leaves you with a dilemma – you can’t get strong lifting light weights, but can’t lift heavy weights without getting bigger – or can you?
The truth is you can get strong without getting bigger and I’ll show you exactly how to do it.
Should you really fear getting bigger?
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Many people don’t touch a weight because they are scared of getting bulky. Is this a justifiable fear? Maybe. Think for example about a competitive bodybuilder who is massive. How did he get that way? To understand hownot to get big, you first need to know what it takes to get really big.
To be an elite bodybuilder you need the following:
– Hard work on a high volume bodybuilding program
– Great discipline on a mass gaining diet
– Amazing genetics for muscle gain
– Tones of hard work, discipline and sacrifice outside of the gym
– Bodybuilding drugs
Notice that you can control everything on that list – except for the genetics. Most people can train hard and heavy with the weights and build a lot of strength. As long as they keep the volume of work lower and keep calories at maintenance, they will be just fine. Oh, and skip the steroids.
The one possible exception to this are people who have a body type that naturally gains muscle very easily. If this is you, don’t worry – just keep reading…
Quick note on body type:
Some people naturally are long and lean while others have a broader, thicker build. While every healthy person can gain muscle or lose fat (thus making significant changes to how they look), there are things about your body (e.g. your skeleton size) that you cannot change that do impact how you look.
Be reasonable with your expectations and don’t fall for advertising hype.
Shun the fitness fiction that promises a certain form of exercise will give you long, lean muscles like a dancer. Also, don’t believe all that silliness about weight training giving you short, bulky muscles.
Look to the world of sports performance training
While certain sports (e.g. American football) require athletes to get bigger and stronger, in most sports the goal is not to get bigger, but to get stronger so you have a better strength-to-weight ratio. As a university strength coach, I have lots of athletes who are long and lean yet if you were to watch them lift you would be shocked at how much they can do.
They are way stronger than they look and you can be the same.
Most of mainstream fitness stems from traditions in bodybuilding and endurance sports. This often involves lighter weight, higher reps, lots of isolation exercises and lots of cardio. If you want to be strong and lean, you want to train more like an athlete will heavy weights, lower reps, multi-joint movements and sprints.
Also, over the years I have had many athletes who would be classified as genetic outliers (these folks used to be called “genetic freaks”, but now that’s not politically correct). These gifted athletes can could truly get too big for optimal sport performance, but I was able to train them hard and get them even stronger without getting bigger by simply making a few key adjustments to their training programs.
Training for size and strength vs. strong and toned
The difference between training to get big and strong vs. strong and toned is in your list of ingredients:
Recipe for size: heavy weights + sufficient volume + calorie surplus = bigger, stronger muscles
Recipe for strong & toned: low volume of heavy weights + interval training + maintenance (or slight deficit) calories = strong, lean and hard body.
To add volume, most bodybuilders add sets, reps and/or exercises. Here are some common set and rep combinations (note: these are written as “sets x reps”) for building size that you should avoid if you don’t want to get big:
3×10, 3×12, 5×5, 4×8, 10×10
To gain strength without size, don’t bother doing body part splits (e.g. chest day, arm day) with several exercises per muscle group. Instead choose more whole-body or simple upper/lower splits. Also, keep your volume lower with sets and reps such as the following:
3×5, 2×6-8, 1×10
If you are still gaining size, you can cut things back even more:
2×5, 3×3, 5×2
This will almost always do it, but you can also decrease your weekly frequency down to 2-3 strength sessions per week. Note: as you bring down the weight training you can increase other activities (e.g. sprint interval training).
Don’t let your fear of getting big stop you from getting the results you want and the amazing health, performance and aesthetic benefits that strength training has to offer.
Connect with Expert Andrew Heming.