Building Strength Without Muscle Mass?


Got this question from a reader?

“I coach Cross Country and Wrestling athletes. They want to get stronger but do not want to
build lots of mass. I have read a variety of opinions from only body weight to
low rep/high weight to high rep/low weight”

I submitted a version of this to PTontheNet in 2005 and also published similar thoughts on my StrengthCoach.com site.

In order to effectively and honestly develop training programs it is important to revisit what we know or more importantly, what we think we know, about the development of hypertrophy. I must confess that I’m not a hypertrophy expert. I discovered this information mostly by accident. I train primarily athletes and generally don’t worry about hypertrophy to any great degree. I began to question what I had always taken for granted about hypertrophy. Recently I’ve begun to look at some of the accepted ideas about training in general, and about hypertrophy in particular, that many of us in the fields of strength and conditioning and personal training seem to accept as factual. Lets take a look at some of these myths about hypertrophy:

1) Do bodyweight exercises to avoid hypertrophy?

Lets ask ourselves a simple question. Do muscles have the capability to recognize type of resistance? Can a muscle tell the difference between a weight, a band or a spring? How about a dumbbell or the weight of the human body? I don’t believe so. One of my favorite lines of bull is the old “ this exercise or training method will give you long, lean muscles like a dancer”. This is akin to telling people you can turn an apple into an orange right before their eyes. You can no more make a short stocky female client have long lean muscles like a dancer than you make someone taller. Exercise will remove subcutaneous bodyfat and reduce intramuscular fat stores but, changing the source of resistance in a resistance-based exercise will not produce a muscle that appears different and or larger. Muscles can’t tell the difference between resistance generated by a piece of iron, your own bodyweight or by a piece of rubber. Weights can be hard, bodyweight can be hard, bands can be hard.

If weight training had to be done with a free weight to produce hypertrophy then lat pulldowns would be a better exercise than chinups for upper back development. Thousands of bodybuilding articles tell us the opposite but, the resistance in a chin-up is “only” bodyweight. If we don’t want hypertrophy than don’t do light weights and more reps. I think the common prescription to avoid hypertrophy ( light weights, lots of reps) leans more towards a bodybuilding, mass producing prescription than away from it. If I wanted less hypertrophy, I would stay in the 5-6 rep range with higher loads and less sets. Bottom line, you can produce hypertrophy with weights or without.

3) Lift light weights and do more reps?

Light weight is an oxymoron. Why would anyone lift light weights? I often talk to trainees, particularly females who say something like “ I have 8 pound dumbbells and I do the same routine three times a week”. When I ask them how long they have been doing this they often say, “The last two years”. My response is, “Wow, by my estimation you’ve wasted about 100 weeks of training”. Usually their response is, “I don’t want to get too big”. This is one of my favorites. Ask a natural bodybuilder how much time and effort goes into gaining ten pounds of muscle. Most male natural bodybuilders will tell you that it takes about a year to gain ten pounds of quality muscle. For a female this could be two years. Isn’t it great that our 8 lb dumbbell waving female client is concerned about too much hypertrophy. I recently trained a golfer with the same concerns. He didn’t want to gain too much size. He thought it would hurt his swing. I had the same response to him that I do to most female clients, “Don’t worry about it”. Gaining size takes a lot of time and effort. It’s like someone saying “I don’t read, I don’t want to get too smart”.

The Truth About Hypertrophy

The fact of the matter is that hypertrophy may be the goal for some clients and considered an unwanted byproduct of training by others. In either case it should not be a great concern. The reality is that hypertrophy for most, non-anabolic using clients, is in fact hard to come by. An unfortunate problem with hypertrophy training is that our concept of how to train for hypertrophy has been heavily influenced by steroid users. If a client wants to weight train but has no desire for hypertrophy I would perform 5-6 reps per set. I would avoid the conventional three to four exercises per body-part favored by the bodybuilding crowd. I would perform one or two exercises for each movement pattern but, stay in the 5-6 rep range.

The public is uninformed and often as trainers we’re just playing along. We talk to clients about tone, and about changing muscle structure ( long dancers muscles). I just hope that people in the industry can see that this is salesmanship and not science. I have an idea. Why not tell our athletes and clients the truth? When your female client says “ I don’t want to get too big”, tell her the truth. Say, Don’t worry I’m not sure you’ll train hard enough to produce much muscle anyway. Your athletes are worried about getting too big? Tell them not worry about getting big because it takes a huge amount of work and great genetics.

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