For some, the more muscle they have, the better. A 19” arm just isn’t good enough for some men – they want to follow the inspiration of Mr. Olympia Sergio Oliva who sported biceps larger than the height of his head! And for some women, being called “thunder thighs” is a compliment. These exceptions aside, is it possible to get stronger without getting bigger?
It’s unfortunate, but many women shy away from weight training thinking that it will cause them to add slabs of bulky muscle quickly and that they will take on a masculine appearance. In fact, many early Pilates advertisements would capitalize on this fear, along with claiming that their training would make the muscles long and lean, like those you would see on a ballet dancer.
It’s true that professional bodybuilding competition, especially women’s bodybuilding, has created the impression that becoming stronger requires the development of maximum muscle mass. Although there are many bodybuilders who are incredibly strong, powerlifters and Olympic-style weightlifters tend to possess considerably less muscle mass and are stronger. This is because much of the size created by bodybuilding does not contribute to muscular contraction. There is also the question of muscle fiber types.
The muscles that increase in size in bodybuilding training are primarily Type I “slow twitch” fibers whereas the type that are increased in weightlifters and powerlifters are primarily Type II “fast twitch” fibers. Type I fibers have more endurance than Type II fibers but are less powerful.
In a study published in 2004, researchers looked at the muscle fiber types of weightlifters, powerlifters, and bodybuilders. The bodybuilders had the highest percentage of Type I fibers and the lowest percentage of Type II, and the weightlifters had the highest percentage of Type II and the lowest percentage of Type I. The powerlifters fell more in the middle range in that they had more Type II fibers than the bodybuilders but not as much as the weightlifters, and they had more Type I fibers than the weightlifters but not as much as the bodybuilders.
Overall, powerlifters tend to possess more muscle mass for their height than weightlifters (especially in the upper body), but also tend not to perform as well in tests of explosiveness such as the vertical jump or short sprints. Also, consider that with the three powerlifts (bench press, squat, deadlift) the athlete has a much longer time to express their strength compared to the Olympic lifts (snatch, clean and jerk). As such, their sport enables them to utilize more muscle fibers, so the additional mass could be considered functional hypertrophy.
Another factor to consider with increased muscle mass is that too much of it can adversely affect endurance. A study published in 2005 looked at the body types of elite runners in eight events, ranging from 100 meters to 10,000 meters, over a period of 13 years. It was found that the athletes in distances between 100 and 400 meters possessed the most muscle mass, which was needed to apply maximum force into the ground to run faster. This level of muscle mass, however, would be detrimental in those competing in the longer distances because of the increased burden the extra bodyweight places on the cardiovascular system.
So how do you get stronger without getting bigger? Start by adhering to the following relative strength (i.e., strength per unit of bodyweight) loading parameters in your workouts:
Intensity: 85-100% (of 1-repetition maximum)
Rest Intervals: 4-5 minutes
Concentric Tempo: 1-4 seconds
Eccentric Tempo: 3-5 seconds
Total Exercises per workout: 6-12
As a simple guideline, if a set takes you longer that 20 seconds to perform, you’ll be taping into muscle fibers that are less powerful and that will create more muscle mass. Here are three relative strength training protocols using different repetition prescriptions while maintaining 20 seconds or less of time under tension (TUT) per set:
A. Bench Press, 4x4, 40X1, rest 180 seconds [total TUT, 20 seconds]
A. Bench Press, 5x3, 40X2, rest 240 seconds [total TUT, 18 seconds]
A. Bench Press, 6x2, 42X2, rest 240 seconds [total TUT, 16 seconds]
To reduce the total rest time, you could superset exercises. Here is an arm workout designed to improve relative strength:
A1. Scott Close-Grip Barbell Curl, 6 x 2-4, 4010, rest 120 seconds
A2. Close-Grip Bench Press, 6 x 2-4, 4010, rest 120 seconds
B1. Standing EZ Bar Curl, 6 x 2-4, 4010, rest 120 seconds
B2. Rack Lock-Outs, 6 x 2-4, 2210, rest 120 seconds
Some people like muscle, and the more muscle they can pack on, the better—and that’s fine. But the truth is, you don’t have to look like the Incredible Hulk to become incredibly strong. Follow these guidelines and see just what relative strength training muscle can do for you!