Getting Stronger Without Bulking
By Jon-Erik Kawamoto, C.S.C.S. Flex
Believe it or not, not every athlete wants to build massive muscles. Think about wrestlers, MMA fighters, gymnists or athletes who use their own body weight as their primary resistance, they need the strength, but the additional bulk can be a hindering than helpful.
What’s important to consider is that strength is not solely a property of muscle, but rather a property of the motor system (brain and neurons). So going for the pump, total muscle exhaustion and complete muscle annihilation is not the name of the game here. You should focus on training methods that target adaptation of the nervous system that increase your relative body strength and explosive power. Your body increases its strength by a) recruiting more muscle fibers in a particular muscle group and b) increasing the firing frequency of your motor neurons (neurons and muscle fibers). You can’t consciously control these two mechanisms, but focusing on the tips below will do the trick.
Strength is a skill and movement and velocity specific. Months and years of lifting like this will improve your coordination, movement efficiency, your strength and overall athletic potential. Remember, train slow, perform slow.
Apply these methods below to jack up your strength, but not your size.
1/ Lift Heavy
Lifting heavy (> 90% 1RM) will improve strength by recruiting what are called high threshold motor units. The muscle fibers associated with these motor units have the most potential for increasing strength however, they fatigue quickly. Maximal lifting is best applied to multi-joint exercises (e.g. squats, deads, presses & pulls). Even though the weight is heavy, your intent should be to move the weight as fast as possible. This will ensure you’re recruiting as many fast twitch muscle fibers as possible.
2/ Lift Explosively
Made popular by West Side Barbell, speed lifts (e.g. box squats, speed deads & speed bench) are an excellent lifting style to teach acceleration and power development. Loads around 60% 1RM should be used and moved as fast as possible. Accommodating resistance (e.g. bands and chains) can be applied to further challenge your ability to accelerate the load. Obvious explosive exercises that should come to mind are the Olympic lifts (e.g. clean & jerk and the snatch) however, medicine ball throws and kettlebell swings also fit into this category as well.
3/ Do Plyometrics
Otherwise known as jump training, plyometric training involves hop- and jump-type exercises which train and develop what’s called the stretch shortening cycling. The stretch-shortening cycling teaches the body to better utilize stored elastic energy to produce stronger and more forceful contractions. This improvement in reactive ability can also be explained by improvements in muscle-tendon stiffness. Bodyweight or weighted plyometric exercises can be utilized such as consecutive body weight jumps over hurdles or continuous dumbbell jump squats.
4/ Slash the Volume
A common protocol for building size and strength is 5x5 however; this set/rep scheme can be dropped to 2-3 sets to lower the muscle building potential. Lowering the volume and focusing on bar speed will have a better training effect for improving strength and explosive power rather than muscle growth. Also, your training frequency will drop from the traditional 4-5x/week for bodybuilding to 1-3x/week for strength training depending on the time of year.
5/ Use Sprints and Drills
Nothing builds running speed and quickness on the field than sprinting itself. Performing sprint intervals or hill sprints (linear) or agility drills (multi-directional) will help develop strength and power specific to running and cutting. Being able to accelerate and more importantly decelerate on the field will make you stand out among the slower less coordinated players.
6/ Try Contrast Training
Contrast training incorporates heavy strength training with plyometric training in the same workout. The physiological mechanism behind this training method is known as post-activation potentiation or PAP for short. Basically, the heavy strength training exercise (~<5RM) is performed first, followed by a long break, usually 3-10 minutes. A similar movement pattern plyometric exercise is then performed (5-10 reps). Research has shown an improvement or potentiation of the plyometric exercise, in that more force and power can be developed. An example is back squats followed by tuck jumps.
If the break between the strength and plyometric exercise is too short, you’ll experience fatigue and a decrease in jump performance. It’s not a superset, so don’t perform these exercises like a circuit.
7/ Rest Longer
When bodybuilding or training for muscle growth, short rest periods are recommended between sets, such as 30-60 seconds. When training for strength, increase your rest to 2-5 minutes depending on the exercise. The loads lifted will require longer rest periods to ensure you complete the same number of reps in the subsequent sets. Your mental strength and ability to focus on the heavy set will also appreciate the longer break.
8/ Hit Weak Links
You’re only going to be as strong as your weakest link. The major muscle groups that perform traditional exercises are known as your prime movers (e.g. pecs, lats, quads, hams, delts, etc.). Commonly, your weakest link will be the muscles behind the scene (e.g. rotator cuff, middle and lower trapezius, serratus anterior gluteus medius, abdominals, etc.). Incorporating exercises to strengthen these muscles will reduce the chance for muscle imbalances and decrease your risk for injury. The better able you are at recruiting these muscles, the more potential you have of increasing the strength in your prime movers.
9/ Stand Stable
Strength training shouldn’t be a circus act however; a picture of someone squatting on an exercise ball seems to surface on Facebook from time to time. Lately, it has been trendy to “functional train,” which means standing on unstable surfaces to activate more core muscles. This type of training is unsafe and best left in the rehab realm (but, not squatting on an exercise ball!). It reduces the load you can use and the amount of force you’re able to produce. Full body coordination takes precedence, which reduces the training effect for increasing strength. For the best strength and power training results, stand on stable ground.
10/ No Static Stretching
Traditionally, we were told to static stretch prior to working out to increase our flexibility, which was thought to reduce our injury risk. Unless you’ve been living under a rock, warm ups consisting of dynamic exercises are now recommended to prepare you for your exercise session or competition. Static stretching has been shown to negatively influence strength and power production, speed, jump performance and agility. To better prepare you for your strength and plyometric training-type workouts, save your static stretching to after the session.