Learn The Secret Of Increasing Strength Without Increasing Mass
Different types of workouts lead to different results. In this article, I want to focus on how to increase strength without increasing size.
Although there are many different factors associated with increased muscle strength, this article will focus primarily on what is called neural adaptation. Neural adaptation is defined as a change over time in the responsiveness of the sensory system to a constant stimulus. In simpler terms, the more we perform a certain motion, the better we become at that motion.
This is often seen when beginners start to lift weights. The increase in strength is substantial within the first couple weeks of lifting, despite any noticeable size change. How can one be stronger without increasing size? It makes no sense… right?
Before getting into all the details, some information on the physiological mechanisms on how our muscles work, can be of great use.
Every muscle in the body has many motor units, with the amount varying from muscle to muscle and individual to individual. Each motor unit contains a bundle of muscle fibers. When you are lifting weights, these muscle fibers are recruited by what is called the “all-or-none” principle.
What this means, is that when a motor unit is recruited, either all the muscle fibers are activated, or none of the muscle fibers are activated. There is a direct correlation between increased strength and increased motor unit recruitment.
Here is a good example of how the whole process of increasing strength without size works. Let us say that your glutes have 400 motor units. At this present moment, due to a lack of training, repetition, and need, we are only able to recruit 50 motor units. This means that we are not using the full potential of our muscle.
The other 350 motor units are there, but they simply are not being recruited. As one continues to train in certain regimens, however, the nervous system adapts, increasing the utilization of the motor units, and, as a result, increasing strength without increasing size.
A study published in the American Journal of Physical Medicine, showed the effects of neural adaptation at work. The subjects of the study trained their bicep muscles via elbow flexion, or in simpler terms, a basic bicep curl. However, each subject trained only one of their arms while the other arm was considered to be the control. After the completion of the study, the strength of each of the subjects’ biceps were measured.
The results of the study proved to be interesting. As was expected, the size of the muscle in the trained biceps increased by over 9%, thus, showing that the increase in strength was a result of an increase in size of the muscle.
The untrained arm, however, showed increases in strength as well, despite any increase in size. Throughout the course of the study, the untrained arm experienced a 20% increase in strength. An explanation for this increase in strength is related to the nervous system.
For starters, this type of workout is not your typical workout. You will not be lifting until fatigue, or even close to it. You are not training your muscles to get bigger, but rather your nervous system, to allow for better motor unit recruitment.
Each repetition done should be done very explosively. If you cannot explode up with the weight, it is too heavy. Every repetition should be lifted as if it were a maximum repetition, in order to recruit as many motor units as possible.
In essence, you will be performing a maximum lift on each rep, using sub-maximal weight.
The lifts performed during this type of workout should be compound lifts, such as bench press, squats, lat pulldowns, seated rows, deadlifts, ect. Isolation movements, such as bicep curls, seated leg extensions, hamstring curls, triceps pulldowns, ect., are okay to do as well, but it is much more efficient and effective to perform compound lifts.
As far as order of lifts, it is a good idea to perform Olympic-style lifts before conventional lifts. Examples of Olympic lifts would be clean-and-jerks, or snatches, while conventional lifts would be like lat pull-downs.
It also recommended to workout larger muscles before smaller muscles. Thus, you would lift legs before back, and back before chest. Also, it is best to lift squats after deadlifts, and primary exercises before secondary exercises. An example of a primary exercise would be squats, while a secondary exercise would be leg press.
– This should be about 3-5 minutes!
There is a long amount of rest between sets as you want to have full recovery before performing each set. If you are like me and hate resting between workouts, you can pair exercises together. For example you can pair a pulling exercise, like bent over rows, with a pushing exercise, such as bench press.
Make sure, however, you are still resting at least two minutes before every exercise. So even if you are pairing bench press with seated rows, you are still resting at least two minutes before every set. So it would be about 4-5 minutes of rest, before performing two sets of bench press.
Ideally, you would perform about 9-12 sets per movement. Movements include pushing, pulling, hip-dominant, and quad-dominant. Examples of pulling movements include seated rows, barbell rows, lat-pulldowns, and one-armed rows. Examples of pushing exercises include presses, such as bench press and incline press. Quad-dominant exercises include squats and leg press. Hip-dominant exercises include deadlifts.
If you are performing 9-12 sets of pushing exercises, you could do 6-7 sets of flat barbell bench press, and 3-4 sets of incline barbell bench press.
You can perform different types of workout splits, depending on your needs. You could divide up the workout into upper body and lower body splits. For example, you would perform 3 pushing movements and 3 pulling movements on upper-body day, and 3 quad-dominant movements and 3 hip-dominant movements on lower body day.
You could also do full body workouts in which you do 2 pulling, 2 lower body, and 2 pushing movements per workout. Because you are working your entire body, 2 exercises per movement is plenty of variation.
It is important to have multiple days off a week to allow a full recovery of your nervous system. About 3 days off a week should be sufficient. Ideally, if your schedule allows for it, you would perform a full body workout 3-4 times a week, so that you can workout each muscle group 3-4 times a week, for optimal performance.
Because these are not hypertrophy-style workouts, you can lift more times a week.
Barbell Back Squats – 6-7 sets of 1-5 reps
Leg Press – 3-4 sets of 3-5 repetitions
Bent Over Barbell Row – 6 sets of 1-5 repetitions
Seated Rows – 4-5 sets of 3-5 reps
Flat Bench Press – 4-6 sets of 1-5 repetitions
Incline Dumbbell Press – 3-5 sets of 3-6 reps
About Danny Maman My name is Danny Maman. I have a real passion for health and fitness and enjoy having a life that revolves around this. I have my bachelor's degree in exercise science with a minor in allied health. I am also a certified personal trainer with ACE and am a former college basketball player.