If you’re involved in martial arts or combat sports, maintaining strength within your weight class is crucial. But how to Get Stronger, Without Getting Bigger? Join with Learn Breakdance as we delve into this topic in the following article.

“Size matters not. Look at me. Judge me by size, do you?” – Yoda, Star Wars

I Don’t Want To Get Bulky

I Don’t Want To Get Bulky
I Don’t Want To Get Bulky

Is it possible to boost strength without increasing size and weight? For many combat athletes who must manage their weight before competitions, this question is paramount. This article aims to offer straightforward training advice on gaining strength without adding bulk.

Numerous articles explore the neuromuscular adaptations that occur with strength training. These adaptations are termed “neuromuscular” for good reason. While many associate strength with size, envisioning a bulky figure bursting through clothing, this isn’t always the case. Consider this: if someone is described as the strongest person you’ve ever met, do you imagine a massive individual or a more medium-built, athletic type? The former might come to mind initially, but it’s not necessarily accurate. While size does matter in pursuits like becoming the strongest person on earth (as evidenced by the size of Strongman competitors), exceptions exist. Take Mariusz Pudzianowski, a five-time World’s Strongest Man champion and notably one of the smaller contestants in his field.

Strength Is A “Skilled Act”

The body adapts to training through neural, muscular, hormonal, and skeletal changes, influenced by the specific training stimuli. Can one become stronger without necessarily becoming bigger? Absolutely. It ultimately hinges on the desired level of strength. I once stumbled upon an article online that likened strength to a “skilled act,” a description I found intriguing as it suggests that strength can be cultivated.

Let’s narrow our focus to sports that demand substantial strength and/or power while also imposing weight restrictions. Examples include combat sports (such as boxing, MMA, and BJJ), gymnastics, ballet (yes, ballet dancers are athletes too), ice skating, and climbing. While disciplines like boxing or MMA have clearly defined weight categories, in others like ice skating, climbing, dance, and gymnastics, being both lighter and stronger can confer a competitive advantage.

When training individuals in the aforementioned sports, or even coaching women (who often express concerns about avoiding bulkiness), emphasis should primarily be placed on neural adaptations to strength training. It’s important to clarify that research indicates it’s not possible to exclusively induce neural or muscular changes—both invariably occur. However, certain training protocols can promote strength gains with minimal increases in muscle cross-section.

Initial strength improvements from commencing strength training predominantly stem from neuromuscular adaptations rather than hypertrophy. If you observe your muscles appearing “pumped up” during or shortly after a session, there’s no need for alarm or excessive elation (depending on your goals). This temporary increase in size is typically due to fluid retention and should dissipate within 60-90 minutes post-training.

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Now, let’s delve into the primary mechanisms of neural adaptation:

Increased Motor Unit Recruitment

Increased Motor Unit Recruitment
Increased Motor Unit Recruitment

This refers to the neural adaptation to training, which rapidly enhances the strength of a novice who hasn’t yet experienced hypertrophy. What exactly is a motor unit? It consists of a single motor neuron along with all the muscle fibers that neuron activates. In the context of our skeletal muscles, which comprise hundreds of thousands of fibers, these muscle fibers are triggered by motor neurons when they receive signals from the brain to contract the muscle. Depending on the size and function of the muscle, a single motor neuron can control several hundred muscle fibers simultaneously.

Why is it advantageous to recruit more motor units, and how does this relate to strength gains? Even during activities of very low intensity, such as lifting a glass to your mouth, your brain recruits motor units with a smaller number of muscle fibers to facilitate the action. However, when lifting something extremely heavy or exerting a significant force, your body engages more available motor units to enable you to perform the task.

Your brain operates with remarkable precision. Consider what would occur if, when lifting a glass, your brain instructed your muscles to contract fully every time—you’d likely end up inadvertently hitting yourself in the face each time you took a sip. Motor unit recruitment is a skill that is both honed and acquired. The greater the number of motor units you can recruit, the more muscle fibers you can activate. And the more muscle fibers you activate, the greater force you can exert.

Coordination of Motor Unit Recruitment

As the athlete’s training regimen advances, their capacity to employ multiple motor units improves. It’s essential to understand that each muscle fiber within a motor unit is functionally uniform, meaning it’s either slow-twitch or fast-twitch, but never both within the same motor unit. Through training, the total number of motor units influencing a muscular contraction increases. In simpler terms, seasoned individuals can activate a greater number of motor units compared to novices.

Increased Frequency of Firing

Through consistent training, individuals experience an augmentation in the frequency of motor unit firing, resulting in a heightened activation level of the total motor units engaged in a muscular contraction. Consequently, this fosters enhanced coordination among motor units, leading to a more synchronized and rapid firing pattern. As a result, this facilitates improved muscular performance, enabling individuals to progressively get stronger over time.

Improved Technique and Skill Acquisition

Improved Technique and Skill Acquisition
Improved Technique and Skill Acquisition

In a comparison between two individuals of similar physical stature, the one who demonstrates mastery in technique will typically generate greater force than their less proficient counterpart. Furthermore, their execution will likely be characterized by a higher level of safety and precision. This highlights the significant impact that refined technique can have on both performance outcomes and injury prevention strategies.

Cross Education

What is cross-education? Cross-education, also known as cross-transfer effect or cross-training effect, refers to the phenomenon where training one limb or side of the body results in improvements in strength, skill, or coordination in the opposite, untrained limb or side. This effect is often observed in physical rehabilitation settings, where strengthening exercises for an injured limb can lead to strength gains in the corresponding limb on the opposite side of the body. Additionally, cross-education can occur in athletes who engage in unilateral training, such as tennis players or weightlifters, where improvements in strength or skill in one arm or leg can transfer to the non-dominant limb.

Increased involvement of neural pathways contributes to getting stronger as well. For example, an untrained arm can undergo significant strength improvement alongside a trained arm due to the interaction between the nerves of both arms at the spinal column. This phenomenon, referred to as cross-education, vividly demonstrates neural adaptation and underscores its role in strength enhancement.

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Best Exercises for Strength Development

Now that you’ve gained a comprehensive understanding of the foundational theory, let’s explore how to put it into practice to get stronger. What specific exercises should be emphasized to facilitate this type of strength enhancement? Below, I present a comprehensive selection of six fundamental exercises:

  • Deadlift: A compound movement targeting multiple muscle groups, particularly the posterior chain, essential for building overall strength and power.
  • Front Squat: A variation of the traditional squat that places greater emphasis on the quadriceps, core stability, and upper back strength, contributing to improved functional strength and athleticism.
  • Overhead Squat: A challenging exercise requiring significant mobility, stability, and strength throughout the entire body, particularly in the shoulders, core, and lower body.
  • Pull Up (weighted or unweighted): An effective upper body exercise targeting the back, biceps, and grip strength, crucial for developing a strong and balanced physique.
  • Military Press: A classic upper body strength exercise that primarily targets the shoulders, triceps, and upper chest, promoting shoulder stability and overall upper body strength.
  • Push Up (weighted or unweighted): A versatile bodyweight exercise that targets the chest, shoulders, triceps, and core muscles, providing a solid foundation for upper body strength and stability.

Additionally, you may consider: Bench Press (optional, but beneficial)

Reps, Sets, Rest, and Load Percentages For Strength Gain

Once an athlete has mastered the form in all the exercises listed above, we can begin experimenting with variations. The following chart (adapted from Mel Siff’s Supertraining) outlines the repetition ranges you should target based on your specific goals.

VariableStrengthPowerHypertrophy(mass gain)Endurance(local muscle endurance)
Load (% 1RM)80-10070-10060-8040-60
Rest btw sets (minutes)2-62-62-51-2

For even more detailed guidelines, as outlined in “The Kinesiology of Exercise” by Michael Yessis:

  • 1-4 reps per set at 2-4RM: These build pure strength without significant muscle mass increase.
  • 4-9 reps per set at 5-9RM: Strength increases alongside muscle mass development.
  • 10-15 reps per set: Enhances muscular strength, endurance, and muscle mass.
  • 16-30 reps per set: Focuses on muscular endurance with minimal muscle mass increase.
  • 31-50 reps per set or circuit: Promotes muscular endurance without affecting muscle mass.
  • 50-100 reps per set or circuit: Improves muscular and cardio-respiratory endurance, potentially leading to a loss of muscle mass (or fat) without increasing strength.

For Best Training Results, Consistency Is Key

With the guidelines provided, it’s crucial to stick to the specified numbers and prioritize consistency and honesty in your training regimen. Be truthful with yourself—if inadequate technique or mobility is hindering your ability to get stronger, avoid increasing the weight on the bar. Instead, concentrate on refining your technique and improving your mobility, as these aspects are essential for progress. By approaching your training intelligently and putting aside ego-driven motivations, you’ll gradually become stronger and achieve your fitness goals.

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