How To Get Stronger Without Becoming Bigger

gym weight rack

‘Will I bulk up if I strength train?’ This is still a surprisingly common question that as a strength coach and personal trainer I get fairly often.

Despite better and better public understanding of exercise and training in general, a myth has persisted that slight female runners will become enormous Eastern Block shot-putters if they lift some weights. As ridiculous as that may sound, people (males and females equally) fear training to get stronger as they are convinced it means having to get larger and heavier.

Here I try to rationalise both the science as to why it simply isn’t true, but also address the emotional fear of giving time to something that isn’t your sport.

Firstly, let’s talk about how you do actually get big. In understanding what it takes to gain muscle mass (and weight generally) you can more easily see how illogical the concern is.

Hypertrophy

Hypertrophy (muscle growth) requires continual overload. This is where it’s similar to other physiological adaptations – cardiovascular fitness, strength, flexibility – and this is often why people think it’s the same thing. However, in order to make muscle tissue grow to the kind of levels you’d see in bodybuilding or the average ‘big guy’ at the gym you also have to do a few very specific things;

  • Train with moderate weights that allow long sets of each exercise (more on this in a second)
  • Train with fairly short rest periods (more on this too) to stimulate the right hormones
  • Train with a high number of exercises for each body part – usually split into different sessions
  • And finally, consume far more calories than you are using over the course of a week

The idea is to provide quite a lot of tension for quite a long time, in order to tear muscle and disrupt the immune status. Then the repair process returns cells to levels above the pre-existing mass. Sound like what you thought?

What’s the difference between training for hypertrophy and training for strength?

As stated above, you still have to continually provide more challenging stimulus, but that’s where most of the similarities end. For purely increasing strength you need to;

  • Train using heavy weights that typically allow no more than six repetitions of an exercise
  • Train using long rest periods that allow sustained performance using heavy weights (can be as much as five minutes)
  • Employ a small number of big compound exercises (exercises that require multiple joints to move and more than one muscle group to contract to complete it e.g. squats and deadlifts) that allow heavier weights to be lifted
  • Consume enough calories to allow continued training volumes but not so much that you are gaining weight

 

The idea being that you use the existing muscle mass you have to produce as much force as possible. In turn you learn to recruit (switch on) more fibres than before and can later lift heavier weights. This then helps by raising your ceiling of strength and you become a more efficient runner.

Is strength training worth your time?

At some point in time most people reach a ceiling of how strong they can get at the same level of muscle mass. This takes years of properly planned training and not something you are going to stumble into by accident. Remember that being stronger makes all movement easier. Every effort requires less of your maximum, therefore making you far more economical and changing your perception of pain and discomfort.

Running more will make you a better runner, but the cost is time on your feet, stress on your joints and potentially further decreases in muscle mass. All of this goes against your main aims of being able to run further/faster. The smart choice is to add in just enough strength work to aid your running. You’ll increase your bone density, muscular strength and running economy which will in turn prolong your running life. That sounds like a great deal to me!

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