I’ve churned through over 150,000 emails, social media comments and messages, and blog comments in the last 6 years.
And that means I’ve fielded a ton of questions.
As you can imagine, some questions pop up more often than others, and I thought it might be helpful to take a little time every month to choose a few and record and share my answers.
So, in this round, I answer the following question:
- How Do I Gain Strength But Not Size?
If you have a question you’d like me to answer, leave a comment below or if you want a faster response, send an email to [email protected].
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What did you think of this episode? Have anything else to share? Let me know in the comments below!
Hey, Mike Matthews here and welcome to another episode of Muscle for Life. Thank you for joining me today. Now, as you can imagine, I have fielded a lot of communication and a lot of questions over the years. I’ve easily gone through over 200,000 emails, social media comments and messages and blog comments since I got into the fitness racket back in 2012.
Some questions pop up more often than others, and some are very topical. Sometimes they are related to things that a lot of people are talking about, and so I thought it would be helpful to take some time on the podcast now and then and answer. Questions that people are asking me, ones that I think all of you out there may benefit from or may enjoy as well.
So in this episode, I’m going to answer one question instead of three like I normally do, because as I mentioned in the last Q and a, I’m trying a new format based on feedback that I get from people, which is that the episodes are consistently too long. Many people. I would like there to be some shorter episodes as well, and I thought that this would be an easy way of doing that.
Breaking up the q and a episodes into one topic each, so then each are around 10 minutes and just releasing them more frequently. Let me know what you think. Do you like this new way of going about it or do you prefer the old way? One episode longer, you know, 30, 40 minutes, three topics or three questions answered in each email me, mike muscle for life.com.
And today’s question is, how do I get stronger without getting bigger, without gaining more muscle? And you may be wondering why somebody would want to do this, but this is something that I’ve been asked many times over the years, sometimes. The question comes from women who want to get stronger, want to get fitter, but don’t want to get any more muscular.
These women often ha have already gained a fair amount of muscle and they like where their muscularity is at, but they would like to also continue progressing and have something to strive for in their training. Uh, in this case though, the person is asking because they are into climbing, and in that case of course, you want to be as.
And strong is possible. So you want a very low body weight and a very high amount of relative strength. But other people who have asked this have been athletes, because in many cases, the less body weight you have, the less wear and tear on your body. Or in certain endurance sports, having a lighter weight is just generally better, like cycling for example.
And then of course you have sports where there are weight classes like wrestling for example, where you want to not necessarily be as light as you can be, but you need to hit very specific weight targets. And sometimes that means weighing a bit less than you would if you were simply optimizing your body com.
And so many of these types of people have asked me this, how do you get stronger without getting bigger and heavier? And so in this podcast, I’m going to share what I tell them. Also, if you like what I’m doing here on the podcast and elsewhere, definitely check out my v i p one-on-one coaching service because my team and I have helped people of all ages and all circumstances lose fat, build muscle, and get into the best shape of their life faster.
Than they ever thought possible, and we can do the same for you. We make getting fitter, leaner, and stronger. Paint by numbers simple by carefully managing every aspect of your training and your diet for you. Basically, we take out all of the guesswork, so all you have to do is follow the plan and watch your body changed day after day, week after week and month after month.
What’s more, we’ve. That people are often missing just one or two crucial pieces of the puzzle. And I bet a shiny shackle, it’s the same with you. You’re probably doing a lot of things right, but dollars to donuts, there’s something you’re not doing correctly or at all that’s giving you the most grief.
Maybe it’s your calories or your macros. Maybe it’s your. Selection. Maybe it’s your food choices. Maybe you’re not progressively overloading your muscles, or maybe it’s something else, and whatever it is, here’s what’s important. Once you identify those one or two things you’re missing, once you figure it out, that’s when everything finally clicks.
That’s when you start making serious progress. That’s exactly what we do for our clients. To learn more, head over to www.buy legion.com. That’s b y legion.com/v p and schedule your free consultation call, which by the way is not a high pressure sales call. It’s really just a discovery call where we get to.
Know you better and see if you’re a good fit for the service. And if you’re not for any reason, we will be able to share resources that’ll point you in the right direction. So again, if you appreciate my work and if you want to see more of it, and if you also want to finally stop spinning your wheels and make more progress in the next few months than you did in the last few years, check out my VIP coaching [email protected] legion.com/vi.
Now, you may be wondering why people ask this question. Don’t you just do strength training as opposed to hypertrophy training or body building training? Don’t you just pick a popular strength program, maybe like starting Strength or one of Wendler programs or one of the other many. Time proven strength training programs out there, which by the way, if you want to learn more about, head over to legion athletics.com, search for strength training, and you’ll find a very comprehensive article that talks about not just the theory of strength training, what makes strength training.
Work, but also gives an overview of the most popular programs and how to follow them. And so while that approach of just picking a strength training program and following it may seem reasonable, chances are it will. Result in muscle gain, which again, is what we’re trying to avoid now, we may not be able to avoid it all together because once you are an intermediate or advanced weightlifter, once you are fairly strong and you’ve gained a fair amount of muscle, the most reliable way to continue gaining strength is to continue gaining muscle.
The correlation between muscle gain and strength gain becomes a lot stronger as you get strong. When you’re a newbie, for example, you gain quite a bit of strength initially without gaining all that much muscle because you’re learning the exercises and your skill at the exercises is improving. But after your first three to six months, you’re gonna be good enough at the exercises unless you are very unathletic or unless you did not learn them properly in the first.
You are going to have reaped most of your skill gains, so to speak, not all of them. You can continue to refine your ability to squat and press and deadlift, and thereby get stronger on the exercises, thereby be able to move more weight. But most of the strength you’re going to gain from let’s say year two or three and on is going to.
From gaining muscle. Now, that is why many popular and effective strength training programs they have. You lift a lot of heavy weight. You do a lot of sets of 5, 4, 3, 2, even one rep maxes, but they also include volume in higher rep ranges, sometimes with the same exercises, the primary exercises. Sometimes with accessory exercises, you know, other exercises that aren’t as difficult and that allow you to target specific muscle groups as opposed to just your entire lower body with a squat, for example.
And the reason for that is to continue gaining muscle. You need to get in a fair amount of volume. As an intermediate or advanced weightlifter, something around probably about 15 hard sets per major muscle group per week, and you simply can’t do that if you are only lifting very heavy weights. If you are only doing sets of, let’s say, five and below.
You are just not going to be able to consistently do enough of those heavy sets per week, about 15 for each major muscle group that you want to progress on before things start to go wrong, before the wheels start to fall off, and specifically with your joints. That’s what you’re gonna find is that your joints just start to hurt more and more If you consistently try to do again, let’s just call it 15.
Some people need to do a bit. 16, 17, even upward of 18 hard sets for a major muscle group to continue progressing. Some people can get away with a little bit less, but let’s just call it 15 hard sets per week for, let’s say a squat movement, a bench press, an overhead press, and I will exclude deadlifting because we’re talking about pulling here.
So of course you would never want to do. Hard sets of deadlifting per week at least not with heavy weight. I mean, if you’re doing very light stuff and moving the bar very quickly and just practicing the movement and getting used to exploding off the ground, stuff like that is fine. But muscle building sets hard sets.
No, no, I, I would not recommend probably more than four or five hard sets of deadlifting per week. But we can include other pulling exercises in there. So let’s say between deadlifts and barbell rows and dumbbell rows. And if you’re gonna do about 15 hard sets, Pulling per week. If you are only working in, let’s say the rep range of four to six reps, again, you are going to run into problems.
And a very simple workaround to this is to periodize your training to work in different rep ranges, to use higher rep ranges, to accumulate effective volume without beating up your joints and without stressing your body to the same degree as with lower rep ranges and heavier weights. And that is one of the reasons.
My programming for intermediate and advanced weightlifters is periodized. Why? For example, over the course of a 16 week macro cycle, you progress on your primary exercises from starting at doing sets of 10, so hard sets of 10 on the squat, on the deadlift. Yes, those are very hard things to do. They are not fun.
Uh, bench press and overhead press and then you progress. Eights and sixes and fours and twos, and then the macrocycle culminates with a set of 95% of your one rep. Max has calculated at the beginning of the macrocycle for as many reps as you can do an AMRAP set to see how much strength you have gained over the course of that macrocycle to see what four months of work has produced.
And the primary reason I set it up that way is it allows you to get in enough volume. Per major muscle group per week to continue progressing in both your muscle building and your strength gain without burning you out physically or psychologically. And so what does all of that have to do with gaining strength and not muscle?
Well, the key to getting stronger without getting bigger is high intensity. So high. Low frequency and therefore low volume training, and specifically I’m talking about just one or two strength training workouts per week. If it’s one workout, obviously it would be a full body workout. If it’s two, it could be two full body workouts, or it could be an upper workout and a lower workout.
It just depends on where you’re at. And what you need to do to get the result you are after. And of course, you still have to focus on progressive overload. You still have to focus on adding weight to the par over time. Uh, that’s how you get stronger. Right? And research shows that you can train like that and maintain your current level of lean mass while slowly gaining strength.
So for example, in one study that was conducted by scientists at the University of Alabama at bi, Participants lifted weights three times per week and did nine sets per workout for five months, and then were assigned to one of three groups for the next eight months. One group was no exercise at all.
Another group did one weightlifting workout per week that consisted of nine. Sets. And then another group did one workout per week that consisted of three sets. Now, over the course of the next eight months, the first group lost muscle, of course, but both groups, two and three were able to maintain most of the muscle they had gained in the first part of the study.
And. Increase their strength as well. So let’s get to some specific recommendations here. If you can train twice per week, that is going to be better than once per week. If you are wanting to gain strength, if all you are wanting to do is maintain your lean mass or most of it and maintain as much strength as you can, then you could get away with one workout per week.
Two would be better. So in either case, I recommend. Two. And if you can do two workouts, I would recommend that you blend the upper, lower, and full body approach. So what I mean is, and this is what I would do, I would do an upper body workout that is pushing and pulling, and then I would do a lower body workout that has some extra.
Upper body work? Not much. It would mostly be a lower body workout, but there would be a few additional upper body sets at the end of the workout. Now what would that look like exactly? Well, it would change over time. I wouldn’t do the same workouts indefinitely, but for example, a push pull workout could start with a deadlift.
That’s where I would start that one. And I would warm up and I would do three sets of four to six reps. So that would be 80 to 85% of one rep max. And then I would move on to the bench press warm up. Do the exact same thing. And then I would go back to a pull. I would do a barbell row, for example, and same approach, three sets, four to six, bigger, leaner, stronger style, basically.
And then I’d go back to a push, or in this case a press write, a military press, it could be seated, it could be standing. I like to alternate between those. And again, bigger, leaner, stronger style. Three sets, four to six. And then we move on to a legs slash push workout. If you wanted to emphasize. Push muscles if you wanted to work on those more than your pull muscles.
Or it could be a legs slash pull. If you want to emphasize your pull muscles, your back, and your biceps more than your push muscles, and that workout could look like this. Start off on the squat, back squat, front squat. Safety bar squat, whatever squat variation you’re doing, warm up three sets, four to six, 80 to 85.
Then move on to the bench, press warm up and do the same. Move on to something like the hack squat, the sled, not the barbell exercise. That’s a good. Accessory leg exercise, so to speak. Or it could be the leg press, or it could be walking lunges, or it could be a split squat or a Bulgarian split squat. And again, three sets of four to six, and then end with some hamstring targeting.
Do an exercise that emphasizes the hamstrings, because so far we’ve done exercises that have emphasized the quads, and so maybe it’s a Romanian deadlift, three sets of four to six, 80 to 85% of one rep. And I would use double progression of course, because we’re working in rep ranges now as opposed to specific amounts of weight on the bar based on percentages of on rep max, which is how beyond bigger lean or stronger handles the primary exercises, for example.
So in this case, what I would do is I would work up to two sets of the top of the rep range, two sets of six, before adding weight to the bar or to the dumbbells. Now in bigger, leaner, stronger, I recommend working up to one. At the top of the rep range. And the reason being is that book is primarily for people who are new to this style of training.
It’s for people who have a lot of muscle and strength to gain. And when that’s the case, it’s easier to make progress stick. It’s easier to increase weight and then be able to continue working in your rep range. So for example, let’s say somebody who is relatively new to proper weightlifting is benching 180.
Pounds and he gets one set of six reps and then he goes up to 195 pounds. Most of the time he’s going to get four reps with 195, and he can then continue working with 195 until he can get one set of six there, and then he can go up to 2 0 5. And if that doesn’t work, he can probably. Decrease the increase to five pounds instead of 10.
So in the case of 180 5, go up to one 90 and then get four versus 1 95. Now, if we fast forward a couple of years, and this guy is quite a bit bigger and he is quite a bit stronger, what is probably gonna happen is if he continues the same way, he’s going to get his one set of six, he’s gonna add weight to the bar five.
10 pounds, and he’s only gonna get, let’s say three reps or maybe even two reps. And if he tries to just stick it out, stick with that heavier weight, there’s a good chance that the next time he does that exercise, he’s only gonna get two or three reps. And so now he’s not really working in the four to six rep range, right?
So what does this guy do? Pretty simple. Instead of adding weight to the bar, when he can get one set of six, he can add weight to the bar. When he gets two sets of six, which of course requires a bit more fitness, it requires a bit more strength. And if that doesn’t work, he could work up to three sets of six and that.
Is certainly going to be enough. Now, that is not how I would program all instances of double progression in beyond bigger lean or stronger. For example, I recommend that you don’t increase weight on your accessory exercises until you get. Four sets of the top of the rep range that you are working in, but that’s only because of how much I’m asking of you in the primary exercises where you’re lifting heavy weights and you are doing a lot of volume.
And what I’m asking of you, Globally in the program, it is a fairly difficult program. It is not the most difficult that you could find. Certainly not, but it is quite a bit harder than bigger. Leaner, stronger. And so what I didn’t want is for people to get overly zealous in progressing in their accessory exercises because that could get in the way of progressing in their primary exercise.
Anyway. Coming back to the workouts here, these strength workouts for gaining strength but not muscle, or at least gaining as little muscle as possible. If you can only train once per week, you could set it up like this. You could start with a squat, warm up, three sets of four to six, and then you could do a deadlift, warm up, three sets of four to six, and then move over to the bench press.
Same thing. Warm up three sets, four to six. Come back to a pole, do like a barbell row, three sets of four to six, and then end with a military, an overhead Press three sets of four to six. Now one other important component of this plan to gain strength and not muscle. Is gonna be diet. So if you want to maintain your weight, really is what we’re talking about, right?
You need to keep your calories around maintenance. I would recommend calculating your maintenance calories and just eating that amount each day. And if your physical activity fluctuates a lot day to day, then your caloric intake should match that. It should reflect that. So on the days that you are very active, you should be eating more.
And again, the goal is to just be around the. Amount of calories burn for the day. Then on the days where you are moving, a lot less those days should entail less food intake. What you don’t want to do is to be in a calorie surplus. You don’t want to be consistently in a significant calorie Surplus is probably a, a better way of putting it because of course when you are trying to eat maintenance, you are not eating exactly the amount of energy you are.
Every day because you don’t know exactly how much energy you’re burning every day, no matter how thorough you are on your calculations, it’s still just, uh, an informed guess. And so what happens in practice is some days you’re gonna be a little bit over. Some days you’re gonna be a little bit under, and that’s fine.
That’s the art of eating at maintenance. Right? But what you don’t want to. Is for example, be in a five to 10% surplus five days per week, and then a 20 to 25% deficit, two days per week. That is a good way to lean, gain, so to speak. That works well if you’re trying to gain muscle and minimize fat gain. But in this case, that’s not the goal, right?
It’s to minimize muscle gain and continue gaining strength. And again, for that as far as your diet is concerned. Safest way to go about it is to just shoot for maintenance calories every day. So that’s calories. And as far as macros go, there’s really nothing special to note here. Eat plenty of protein.
Eat plenty of carbs to fuel your training and whatever other physical activities you’re doing, and eat enough fat to stay healthy. All right, well, that’s all I’ve got for you today. Thanks again for joining me. I hope you liked the episode. And next week I’m gonna be talking about the best supplements for women.
I have an interview coming with one of legion’s newest athletes, Adam fau, who shares his thoughts on program hopping, finding reliable information. Reliable experts and staying motivated, particularly as an advanced weightlifter who doesn’t really have any muscle or strength left to gain. And then I have a couple of q and a episodes coming.
One is going to be regarding fitness for shift workers, how to make it work, and the other, how to increase the sense of urgency and necessity. All right. Well, that’s it for this episode. I hope you enjoyed it and found it interesting and helpful. And if you did, and you don’t mind doing me a favor, please do leave a quick review on iTunes or.
Wherever you’re listening to me from in whichever app you’re listening to me in, because that not only convinces people that they should check out the show, it also increases search visibility and thus it helps more people find their way to me and learn how to get fitter, leaner, stronger. Healthier and happier as well.
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I read everything myself and I’m always looking for constructive feedback. Even if it is criticism, I’m open to it, and of course you can email me if you have positive feedback as well, or if you have questions really relating to anything that you think I could help you with, definitely send me an email.
That is the best way to get ahold of me, mike Muscle life.com. That’s it. Thanks again for listening to this episode and I hope to hear from you soon.