Physical strength and muscular size are two variables that are inextricably linked; after all, it is muscle tissue that produces force and the more of it you have, the more force can be produced. For decades, this was reflected in physical culture. Bodybuilders, powerlifters and even olympic weightlifters often trained in similar spaces and would routinely borrow from each others training books.
Old-school bodybuilders could be seen doing some iteration of power cleans and push presses, since the physical benefits were obvious in the physiques of elite Oly lifters. Powerlifters would often incorporate bodybuilding protocols to develop size in the off season and to encourage physical symmetry that would make their lifts more efficient. It was obvious to bodybuilders that strength would allow for more volume, which meant more size, just as it was obvious to strength athletes that more muscular size would always lead to more weight lifted.
There are, however, some circumstances that favor high force production at relatively low body weight. Sports such as rock climbing, MMA, parkour and calisthenics all require a high ratio of strength to body weight, as do careers that require any amount of labor for long durations of time. There are ample examples of athletes who could display immense feats of power without being hindered by the excess mass that one might typically associate with it. So, how can these categories of lifters alter their training to maximize strength and power development without gaining muscular size that may be counterproductive to their end goal?
Find the right amount of mass
This point has to be addressed before we talk about training modifications, since it doesn’t matter what your approach is if your expectations aren’t reasonable. To summarize, virtually all new lifters who are concerned with maintaining low body weight DRAMATICALLY underestimate how much muscle they need for optimal performance. You can’t solve a problem if you misdiagnose it and, for the problem of developing competitive ability, most start way off the mark with unrealistic goal setting. This is why I have gone on many a rant about the necessity of prioritizing basic muscular development in any routine.
For strength sports, the ideal amount of mass to compete will depend on your frame. If it is your goal to become a highly competitive lifter in the 132lb class, know that this will not happen if you are average height. To stand at 5’10”, there is a certain amount of mass that will be taken up by bones, organs, skin, etc. which leaves less mass to be dedicated to muscle tissue at such a light weight. What you end up with is a very little amount of muscle for any lifter on a bigger, clunkier frame. It’s like trying to power a work truck with the motor off a lawn mower. You aren’t winning any races that way.
Most in western culture are sedentary and that means we start artificially weak and under-muscled. Do not use your current starting weight as the bench mark for the weight class you want to compete in 5 years from now. If you are overly fat, you may benefit from dropping weight over time just as being underweight means you will likely have to fill out into higher weight classes. You will not become competitive if you force yourself into a weight class that your frame cannot accommodate, so give your body permission to grow and change as needed.
If you have other reasons for strength training than competing in powerlifting, weightlifting or strongman, then you may be justified in not wanting to gain mass as aggressively, but you are still likely overestimating how easy it is to grow muscle by using the physiques of grotesque 300lb bodybuilders as a reference point. Accidentally gaining too much muscle is like getting accidentally too rich; it’s literally never happened to anyone. Even when you are on point, muscle growth happens very slowly (and gets slower every year) and you will never add an ounce of it you didn’t intend to put there.
My recommendation is to find a role model. Find an athlete or public figure who looks the way you want to look at a similar height and frame size (this is important). Crunch the numbers on how much lean mass you have compared to them:
body weight – (body weight x % body fat) = lean body mass
You might be surprised to find that they have 20lbs or more lean mass than you have. Ask how committed you are to reaching that goal then look at 5lbs of beef on a butcher block and ask yourself if you can afford to hit the brakes on how quickly you gain mass.
Establishing that some mass is part of the equation is important because it will prevent you from developing counterproductive training habits or, worse, an actual eating disorder. Now that we have that out of the way, we can talk about the realities of high strength to body weight ratios.
Every training goal is going to require a different skill set to reach competitive levels of performance. Let’s start with the skills needed by strength athletes, such as strongmen, powerlifters and olympic lifters to compete in lighter weight classes.
We covered this one, but let’s drive the point home. Lamar Gant was the best 132lb lifter in powerlifting. He was 5’1”. The best 198lb and 220lb lifter range from 5’8” to 6’1”. Competing in lighter weight classes is about optimizing strength to body weight and that ratio gets screwed quickly when you get too light for your frame. You can always add enough muscle to become competitive in a heavier class, but you can’t train to have a tinier frame.
Lamar Gant is another good example for this one, since he had amazing leverages for deadlifting. Not only was he short, but he had extremely long arms, a short torso and severe scoliosis that improved pulling mechanics. The man locked out the deadlift bar on his kneecaps, which is an advantage you need if you want to deadlift 5x your body weight.
Keep in mind that every leverage disadvantage you have requires more muscle to make up for it and makes high strength-body weight ratios harder to reach.
This is one few talk about and it’s something you can’t very well train for. How deep tendons attach across the joint they move will determine how much force gets generated with the same amount of muscular contraction. If you have deep tendon insertions, you can move a lot more load at the same effort as someone with more shallow insertions. This disadvantage can only be compensated for by padding those areas with more muscle.
There are a lot of variables that affect how efficiently your nervous system recruits motor units and some of them are innate. You can work to improve your efficiency over time, and discussion of optimizing strength without excess size will revolve mostly around training the nervous system. Keep in mind that this isn’t nearly as trainable a quality as something like increasing muscle mass. This is one of the reason things like jump height was used as a tool to recruit young talent for Olympic sports.
You can always train to move more efficiently which will give you the best performance relative to your actual levels of physical strength. This can give you an edge against other opponents but you will still be capped by your leverages, muscle mass and neurological efficiency.
Notice that the qualities we just discussed are either untrainable or limited in their trainability. I went out of my way to paint a picture so that your expectations will be reasonable. You may have all of these qualities in spades and will go on to do big things at a light body weight. But it is more likely that you are missing one or most and will see meager strength gains for as long as you are keeping your weight low. If you are in a sport or profession where strength is useful but secondary to keeping a light body weight, it’s not such a big deal. You have to prioritize the most important needs first, so schedule your training as follows and do the best you can.
If you are in a sport that prioritizes strength first, make an honest evaluation of where you need to be and work to get there. If other factors like aesthetics are influencing your decision, just acknowledge that becoming competitive isn’t really that important to you. That’s perfectly ok. In fact, your decision making will be better for it.
So, here’s the recipe for gaining strength while keeping body weight low.
- Keep your body fat percentage down
At a given body weight, we want as much muscle as possible, so don’t sacrifice pounds of it by storing excess fat. Clean up your diet, know what your daily protein and caloric intake should be and hit your marks. Weight class competitors have to eat like bodybuilders, which means eating is training.
For lighter classes, 10-13% represents a sweet spot that any dedicated trainee can reach and perform at if they are diligent with their diet. Those who compete under 10% are likely genetically predisposed to staying lean and you may sacrifice performance if you try to stay that lean. Over 13% and you have room to clean it up.
- Keep reps low
Low reps represent strength specific work. Low reps stress your nervous system’s ability to recruit A.) a lot of motor units at once and B.) to do so quickly. By working through repeated sets at low reps, you increase how much force you can produce from the same amount of muscle, which is what we are after. Muscle growth is still results, but it’s not as aggressive as higher rep/volume protocols will be.
1-3 is highly strength specific and should represent most of your working sets but you can certainly get up to 5s and 6s on some sets without accidentally jumping 2 weight classes. The extra variety will help avoid stagnation and the bit of rep endurance will be useful for general training conditioning.
- Keep it to compound movements
Aside from representing the competitive powerlifts, compound barbell movements are great developmental movements on their own. The fact that they are free-standing and involve the movement of many different muscle through complex coordination furthers our mission of targeting the nervous system so that we can train it to do more with less. As you adapt to compound movements, communication between muscles (intermuscular coordination) and between motor units within the same muscle (intramuscular coordination) increases. This creates efficiency that allows more load to be used which, in turn, provides further stimulus for strength gains.
Smaller isolation movements should be limited to keep overall volume low. Restrict them to those that target obvious weak areas that might be killing your efficiency.
- Limit eccentric motion when possible
The lowering phase of the movement is generally thought to be the source of most of the muscle damage that occurs during a workout and that trauma is thought to be responsible for much of the hypertrophy that results from training. This is why concentric-only work like Oly lifts and sled drags are easier to recovery from and can be handled with greater frequency.
You can shift the emphasis towards pure force development by putting all of your effort into the concentric phase. Deadlifts can be lowered in a controlled drop, you can work towards a more reactive, explosive squat descent and you can even do presses in a ‘bottom-up’ fashion by starting them on the pins. You don’t have to go crazy with eliminating the eccentric, as it will be unavoidable in some scenarios and generally beneficial in others. This is just a small tweak to bias you towards prioritizing strength over size.
- Train for speed
If optimizing nervous output is the name of the game then we need to keep our actions aggressive and explosive. I’m not recommending Westside-style speed work (low percentages for fast, low reps) but rather using compensatory acceleration on all of your compound lifts. Where most lifters will ‘coast’ by only putting out as much force as is needed to lock the weight out, compensatory acceleration is a tactic where you push as hard as you can throughout the entire repetition. It requires much more focus and effort but the returns on your ability to execute heavy attempts at heavier loads is undeniable. By keeping your foot on the gas from start to finish, your nervous system will adapt by recruiting more motor units at once and doing so in a shorter period of time. The result is more force produced by the same amount of muscle.
- Keep rest periods long
Strength-specific work requires longer rest periods. Our goal is to train in a low-rep threshold to specifically condition the nervous system for force production; if we allow fatigue to creep up by not giving enough time to recover energy stores in between sets, we will be training strength endurance as opposed to pure force production. For most trainees, fatigue is fine because it triggers hypertrophy but we are trying to avoid that and keep adaptation strength-specific. 2-3 minutes is fine if the working sets are an RPE 7 or lower, but once the efforts get to 8 or 9 territory, do yourself a favor and set the clock to 5 minutes. A sprinter won’t get faster by doing 100m sprints when he’s tired and you won’t be training strength specifically if you are gassed from your last working set.
- Learn how to periodize
Our prescription so far involves sticking to a few narrow rules: compound movements, low reps and explosive efforts. This doesn’t give as much room for variety when it comes to restructuring training periodically to avoid stagnation. To keep your workouts from turning into the same grindy singles at the same weights with the same exercises for months on end, plan out blocks of training 4 to 6 weeks at a time and make a point to deliberately change them when the block is up.
You can change the exercises to different variations (switching bench grip or squat stance), you can alter how much effort you put into each set (going from a block that uses 7 RPE to 9 RPE), you can change volume (multiple sets of easy singles to few sets of hard triples) and you can tweak frequency (whole body workouts to one lift each day).
- Train for efficiency
Efficiency can mean a lot of things and you want to concern yourself with as many of them as possible. The first obvious one is technique. Powerlifting specialists have perfected several different setup approaches that maximize the amount of weight that can be lifted within the confines of the rule. The sumo deadlift, the low-bar squat and the high-arched, tucked elbow bench press are examples of these. Now, subtle technical cues are going to change from person to person and it will take time to find what works for you, so all of your work now has to keep that in the front of your mind so you can start experimenting as fast as possible.
Keep in mind that these tactics optimize how much weight you can lift given your current level of musclularity and strength, but the improved leverages and limited range of motion limits their ability as developmental tools. If you are only concerned with powerlifting glory, then fine. But if you want functional strength that transfers to other sports, you need to incorporate different ranges and patterns that involve more than sheer overload through a short distance.