How to Get Stronger Without Getting Bigger: Is it Possible?

published by: Debbie Luna
Last Updated:
November 23, 2022

Though quite a few lifters desire to increase their total muscle mass, those seeking a more classic aesthetic or athletes who wish to remain within a certain weight class may instead aim to only develop their strength alone, rather than their size as well.

Fortunately, this is indeed an achievable goal, though only in part. 

It is quite impossible to only develop strength without also developing muscle mass - but it is possible to reduce how much muscle mass is packed on, and to maximize how much stronger you become.

In order to get stronger while minimizing muscular hypertrophy, training methodologies geared towards neuromuscular recruitment, conditioning and advanced lifting techniques are the route to take. 

Picking the right exercises, learning how to make use of your own physical strength and generally reducing workout volume are just some of the methods used to go about this type of training.

How do Lifters Get Stronger?

Though there is no doubt that heavier individuals are more often stronger than their lighter counterparts due to simple physics, it is entirely possible for individuals without large volumes of muscle mass to surpass these heavier individuals through the correct conditioning.

When skeletal muscle is utilized to exert force (such as while lifting weights), the central nervous system contracts the fibers of the relevant muscle groups, with the extent and frequency of this contraction depending on how well-tuned the individual’s body is for such exertions.

Generally, the majority of untrained individuals are not capable of contracting their musculature to the extent that a strength-trained athlete will - even if both of these subjects are of equal amounts of muscle mass.

This strength-trained athlete is capable of such feats because of adaptations they have induced in their central nervous system and muscle fibers, allowing them to consciously dictate the motor recruitment of their muscles to a level that individuals without the same adaptation cannot.

Is Getting Stronger Without Getting Bigger Possible?

Continuing from the previous section; we have established that physical strength is largely influenced by muscular contraction, of which is potentiated by the nervous system - but does this mean that such adaptation can be developed apart from muscular hypertrophy as well?

Like all matters concerning physiology, the answer is that it will depend.

Training for Mass Doesn’t Equal Training for Strength

Individuals who specifically subject their body to the sort of training stimulus that necessitates muscular hypertrophy will, in turn, also achieve hypertrophy alongside their neuromuscular adaptations.

Conversely, lifters who specifically avoid the sort of stimulus that has been established to effect hypertrophy in the muscles will instead develop only strength as a consequence.

This is seen as a ratio in sports science, wherein the strength output of an individual’s muscle mass is far greater than that of another with equal amounts of muscle - of which generally seen as a good thing in many different sports.

So - can you indeed get stronger without getting bigger? 

For the most part, yes - and you can do so by inducing the sort of stimulus that signals to your body the need for strength development, and not for muscular hypertrophy.

How to Load Weight to Get Stronger Without Getting Bigger

Producing the sort of stimulus needed to develop strength without an increase in muscle mass is quite simple; subject the body to exercise that primarily requires muscular strength to perform, rather than endurance or other aspects of muscular ability.

Exercises of this sort are primarily free weight and compound in nature - but are also meant to be performed with a very heavy load in relation to the exerciser’s own personal maximum weight lifted.

This is often described in percentages of this maximum amount of weight - such as 80% of their “1RM” or one-repetition maximum. 

For example, if an individual is performing an exercise with a load of 80% 1RM - and their maximum effort repetition is 100 pounds - then they will be performing the exercise with 80 pounds of weight.

As a general rule, avoiding muscular hypertrophy and solely focusing on neuromuscular strength adaptation means keeping your exercises within the range of 75-100% of your one-repetition maximum, with exercises of lower resistance producing stimulus that is more conducive to hypertrophy.

Keep in mind that the volume of such exercises must also be in-line with the loading percentage, as too little volume can also result in inefficient strength development.

Volume, Lift Execution, and Optimization of Strength

Just as properly structuring resistance is important for getting stronger without getting bigger, so too are the number of repetitions you perform of an exercise - as well as how these exercises are performed during said repetitions.

Factors like isolation exercise volume, small errors in form and even the length of time rested between sets can accidentally induce muscular hypertrophy or otherwise reduce how much strength is developed from your training.

Matching Volume with 1RM%

Matching volume with your chosen resistance load is vital to maximizing strength development, as performing too few repetitions per set can result in poor training stimulus, whereas attempting to perform volume in excess of the point of failure can cause breakdowns in form or even result in injury.

Furthermore, repeatedly performing extremely heavy sets for very low repetitions (95-100% of your 1RM for sets of 1-2 repetitions) can put less experienced lifters at risk of injury. 

This particular form of strength training is better left for when the lifter has already conditioned their non-muscular tissue to the rigors of heavy weightlifting instead.

Ideally, exercisers training for strength will rarely perform more than 6 repetitions per set of heavy compound exercises, with fewer than 8 sets per workout of said exercise.

Of course, this will depend on the presence of other exercises targeting the same muscles as well - and it is generally advised to avoid focusing all your training volume in a single compound exercise, as doing so can result in overuse injuries or poor carryover to other exercises.

To summarize; sets of around 5 repetitions at anywhere between 80-95% of your maximal load are the ideal for strength development without packing on significant muscle mass.

Executing Lifts for Maximum Strength Growth

Now that we’ve covered programming exercises for strength development, we must also look at how these exercises are performed.

Performing strength exercises with poor or inefficient form can easily lead to other muscle groups being unintentionally activated, resulting in these muscles growing bigger despite the exercise not being intended to activate them.

As such, it is all the more vital to perform exercises with perfect form so as to avoid unintentional muscular hypertrophy, and to maximize strength development.

Furthermore, executing exercises with the incorrect tempo can also recruit the wrong type of muscle fibers - resulting in poor strength development and greater muscle mass by mistake.

While these factors are comparatively smaller in impact to resistance and volume, they are nonetheless factors that may contribute to getting stronger without getting bigger.

The “Sweet Spot” for Strength Without Mass

Compiling this information together leaves us with a “sweet-spot” for maximizing your strength development while simultaneously reducing muscle mass growth.

In order to maximize training stimulus targeted towards neuromuscular adaptation, it is important to tax the nervous system through heavy compound exercises performed for low volume sets at anywhere between 80-100% of your 1RM.

Furthermore, these exercises must be performed with perfect form and at a speed conducive to proper strength adaptation.

This narrows down the pool of available exercises considerably, pointing towards movements meant to be performed with high amounts of weight, and generally those that are capable of safely inducing training stimulus without excessive volume.

Picking the Right Exercises for Building Strength Without Mass

In the event that you have decided to train for strength while keeping muscle mass growth to a minimum, the selection of several exercises conducive to heavy repetitions and central nervous system stress are your best option.

These are primarily free weight compound exercises that recruit a large number of muscle groups in a simultaneous fashion - often with significant amounts of resistance and moderately complex form so as to produce the greatest training stimulus for strength development. 

1. Barbell Deadlift

The barbell deadlift is perhaps the most classic strength-building exercise, as it recruits practically every muscle group in the human body to a certain degree. 

barbell deadlift movement

So much so, in fact, that barbell deadlifts are less known for developing muscle mass and more for conditioning the entire body towards strength and power production while under duress.

Barbell deadlifts may be performed most efficiently for strength development by remaining within the volume range of 2 to 5 repetitions per set and training between 80 - 95% of your maximum effort repetition.

2. Barbell Squat

The barbell squat is another classic strength-building exercise, one with a rather variable level of intended volume and resistance.

barbell full squat

While the barbell squat can be programmed a number of ways, individuals wishing to maximize strength development therein will see the best results from sets of 5-6 repetitions at a load quite close to their actual one-repetition maximum.

Furthermore, for the greatest strength development, exercisers will wish to perform the barbell squat to a below-parallel level, as performing multiple repetitions above parallel hip elevation may result in excessive quadriceps hypertrophy and reduced strength development of the posterior chain muscles.

3. Barbell Bench Press

Performing the barbell bench press for the purposes of strength development is somewhat more complex than other exercises, as it is rather easy to perform excessive volume if too little resistance is used.

barbell bench press

Conversely, excessive resistance during a bench press set can be quite dangerous, and easily lead to injury or poor form.

As such, it is better to keep barbell bench press repetitions somewhere between 75-90% of your 1RM, avoiding single-repetition sets unless specifically training for such a purpose.

4. Barbell Military Press/Overhead Press

The quintessential shoulder pressing exercise, the barbell military press is generally best left as a secondary compound exercise due to the significant volume that the deltoid muscles undergo when performing other compound exercises.

military press

As such, reducing the total resistance in comparison to other exercises may be the most appropriate choice.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ)

Can You Get Strong Without Being Big?

Yes - it is entirely possible to develop impressive strength while also developing relatively little muscle mass throughout the course of your training.

This is often by design, and frequently seen in athletes who compete in a sport that features weight class divisions, though individuals that wish to maintain a less muscular appearance may also choose to follow this sort of training style.

Why are Bodybuilders Not "Strong"?

Bodybuilders are not weak so to speak, they simply do not employ the same training methods as more strength-focused lifters. 

This will often feature more volume per set, isolation exercises and a focus on proportionality - all characteristics of exercises that are generally not as heavy as exercises employed by strength athletes.

Furthermore, the specificity of training stimulus employed by bodybuilders is more conducive to inducing muscular hypertrophy than it is at inducing neuromuscular recruitment adaptations, resulting in less force output relative to their muscle mass.

In Conclusion

And with that, we’ve covered the major points of training to get stronger without growing significant amounts of bulky muscle mass.

Whether you wish to remain in your weight class or maintain a lithe appearance, following the general steps outlined in this article will ensure that you go about achieving your goal in a safe and efficient manner.

It is important to temper your expectations however, as there will still be some growth in the mass of your musculature, regardless of what sort of training methods you utilize. 

As of yet, there is no way to separate the development of neuromuscular strength adaptation from its hypertrophic counterpart - at least, not in its entirety.

References

1. Hughes DC, Ellefsen S, Baar K. Adaptations to Endurance and Strength Training. Cold Spring Harb Perspect Med. 2018 Jun 1;8(6):a029769. doi: 10.1101/cshperspect.a029769. PMID: 28490537; PMCID: PMC5983157.

2. Aagaard P, Andersen J, Bennekou M, Larsson B, Olesen J, Crameri R, Magnusson SP, Kjaer M. 2011. Effects of resistance training on endurance capacity and muscle fiber composition in young top-level cyclists. Scand J Med Sci Sports 21: e298–e307.

Debbie (Deb) started powerlifting and Olympic lifting in High School as part of her track team's programming; She continues to train in order to remain athletic. Inspire US allows Deb to share information related to training, lifting, biomechanics, and more.
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