Want to Increase Strength without Adding Muscle?

Posted on 29 Jan 2012 20:14

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Why? I've always wondered about this. Are you such an Adonis but at the same time so weak that you need to work your butt off so that you can become as strong as you look? Even pro bodybuilders are pretty darn strong compared to the average Joe. But let's just stick with the average Joe, not the pro. Let me ask again, why would you want to get strong without adding any muscle?

I wonder this because at least once a month I see a new article explaining how to do this. Why is this concept so popular? Is it because:

You Don't Want to Get Bulky

Well, that won't happen. I know that you may have read articles that tell you that doing strength training will turn you into Arnold faster than Arnold himself became Arnold with bodybuilding, but those articles are, pardon me, full of crap. It will take years of dedicated strength training for you to get all huge. And as I have pointed out again and again, those big old bulky strength dudes who you THINK got their quasi-bodybuilder look from pure strength training, have likely done their fair share of work in bodybuilding parameters, as well as plenty of biceps curls and chest flys. If you don't want to get bulky you will not, unless you are a muscle gaining freak, what is typically referred to as an "easy-gainer".

You Think Big Muscles will Slow you Down

See point one, above. Nope. High force strength training increases speed. Even if you don't train for speed it increases rate of force production. Strength training has become a very important part of athlete's training for speed. Likely you will read that high repetition bodybuilding training will bloat you with big "empty" muscles, decrease your ROM, and slow you down. Well, Flash, if you are so concerned about speed, why are you into bodybuilding? Stick to strength training and you can have your speed and eat it..I mean you can have your speed and your muscular strength. Obviously, those training for speed should have most of their training dedicated to that skill.

You Want Dense Muscles, Not Big Ones

I take it you've been reading Pavel. This goal, nowadays, seems to be the most popular one. To bad it is utterly meaningless. Muscle density is not a clearly defined concept. Some people think that muscle density is something similar to muscle tone, or tonus. I.E. it is how hard your muscles are and is related to…

Scientific Underpinnings of Muscle Tone

Wait a minute. Let's start from the beginning. Some think that the word tone refers to the shape and definition of muscles. This is the origin of "toning exercise" and toning routines. This is an incorrect usage of the word tone.

More correctly, the term muscle tone or "tonus" refers to the tension in the muscles. You can think of it as a state of partial contraction (very slight) in which the muscles are kept, kinda like the muscle is always "ready for action." More specifically, it refers to the slight tension that can always be felt in a relaxed muscle, which is called the muscle's resting tone. Strength trainees, athletes, and active individuals will tend to have increased resting tone. That is the technical explanation.

Problem is, even within this technical arena, it's used differently by different experts and authors (common problem), so that some people may only consider tone by looking at the muscle's resistance to passive stretch and others might only press the muscle (palpation) to test its tone, which is a way of judging its stiffness and consistency. These two different methods do not measure the same property but are both looking for "tone". Different pathological states may change these features relative to one another, making tone an ambiguous term.

Not only does tone lack an exact definition (or true understanding), other words related to it are also ambiguous, like firmness, stiffness, elasticity, and tension. Then comes in muscle density. It goes like this: "I want to have strong and hard muscles without being big. Therefore I want dense and toned muscles." It seems like to get dense and toned muscles you have to go for the same ambiguous firmness, stiffness, etc. to get these two different features. The guys in lab coats cannot even decide on what exactly they mean, but you can?

Density could refer to the actual density of an individual muscle fiber, which for mammalian muscles is about 1.056 g/cm3. You cannot change that.

Or it could refer to the intramuscular fat content or how closely packed together the myofibrils are. If intramuscular fat is decreased or the density of myofibrillar packing is increased, this should theoretically serve to increase muscle tension capacity. When you engage in strength training, these things happen. You don't do resistance training to have these things happen, you do it to increase the strength (tension generating capability) of the muscles. These changes in the muscle, and many others, are part of the explanation of how muscles get stronger. They are a couple of features, among several, that are side effects of the strength training process. The goal of isolating this one component of the results of strength training through a special kind of strength training simply means that you are capping off just how strong you are willing to get.

Why? Because these changes are part of the initial stages of strength training! They happen early on, along with neural change, and simply help explain why there can be such a profound increase in muscular strength in the early stages of training without apparent changes in muscle mass. Eventually, to keep getting stronger, morphological changes become more and more important. You "only" want to have toned and dense, but small muscles, then you only want to get so much stronger, and no more. Period. That is easy. Strength train a little, and then maintain. There is no magic recipe, really.

I cannot imagine a more silly and boring goal than "decreasing my intramuscular fat, increasing myofibrillar and resting tone." If that is your goal, then happy training. If it seems I'm engaging in a bit of hyperbole, perhaps I am. But specific measurable goals are fairly important in training. If I have correctly translated the "tone and density" hoopla into its actual components, then I'll leave it up to you to determine whether these are goals within themselves or simply a couple of components of the outcome of increasing muscular strength.

Strength training is a fairly specific activity. Its goal is to increase the absolute force producing potential of our body. But I have to tell you, when someone starts telling people they should be careful, they don't want to get too bulky! Better train for tone! Increase density! Do body weight only training!…Some of us get a little perturbed. Because these people are implying that developing large strong muscles through strength training is a walk in the park. They are acting as if this happens because we accidentally trained too heavy and too hard. No. It takes years and years of "backbreaking" work to get "big, strong, and muscular" let alone huge and bulky. Many people who do dedicated strength training, past noticing that they seem in shape and "look strong" you would not think of as huge and bulky. It just doesn't work like that. You have to want to get huge and bulky to get truly huge and bulky.

1. Brodal, Per. The Central Nervous System: Structure and Function. New York: Oxford UP, 2010.
2. Brinckmann, Paul, W. Frobin, and Gunnar Leivseth. Musculoskeletal Biomechanics. Stuttgart: Thieme, 2002.
3. Gardiner, Phillip F. Advanced Neuromuscular Exercise Physiology. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics, 2011.

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This page created 29 Jan 2012 20:14
Last updated 29 Jan 2017 00:54

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