By Sabina SkalaCan you get stronger without getting bigger?
You can find thousands of articles on neuromuscular adaptations to strength training. The adaptations are called NEUROMUSCULAR for a reason. A lot of people associate strength with size. It may but does not necessarily be true. The size matters if you want to be the strongest man on earth, Strong Man competitors are big for a reason. However if you remember my fellow country man Mariusz Pudzianowski, 5x World Strongest Man winner – you will know that he was probably one of the smallest guys out there and yet he won 5 Strong Man titles - more than any other athlete in the history of the sport).
Is it possible then to get stronger without getting bigger? Yes it is… it all depends how strong one wants to be. If we talk about maximum strength - the size is important, however if we talk about relative strength (absolute strength to body weight ratio/ or maximum force exerted in relation to body weight) - it is a different story.
I came across an article on the internet a while ago. The author described strength as a “skilled act”. I really liked this description, as you can TEACH your body to be STRONG.
Lets focus on sports that require great amounts of relative strength and /or power and at the same time there are weight limitations involved. Sounds familiar? Some examples are - combat sports (i.e boxing, mma, bjj, etc), gymnastics, ballet (yes – I do consider ballet dancers athletes), ice skating, climbing. Sports like box or MMA – have their weight groups, ice –skating, climbing, dance and gymnastics – the lighter and stronger you are the better.
Training all of the above, or training women (“I don’t want to get bulky” is probably what PTs hear first from a female client) should focus mostly on the neural adaptations to strength training. Let me make it clear – research shows that it is not possible to induce ONLY neural or ONLY muscular changes. Both always take place, however there are certain protocols that allow increase in strength without or with minimum increase in the muscle cross section.
What exercises are best for strength development. My 6 “fundamental” exercises are:
Pull Up (weighted or not)
Shoulder Press/or & Push Up (weighted or not)
Once and athlete’s form is proficient in all of the above - then we can start playing with variations. Note that all the above are multi-joint, compound exercises.
** Mel Siff “Supertrainng”
1RM – 1 Rep Max – maximum weight you can lift/push / pull etc 1x only
Even more detailed guidelines as per “The Kinesiology of Exercise” by Michael Yessis’:
1-4 reps per set @ 2-4RM increase pure strength but do not increase muscle mass
4-9 reps per set @ 5-9RM increase strength together with muscle mass
10-15 reps per set increase muscular strength, muscular endurance and muscle mass
16-30 reps per set increase muscular endurance with little to no increase in muscle mass
31-50 reps per set or circuit increase muscular endurance with no effect on muscle mass
50-100 reps per set or circuit increase muscular endurance, cardio-respiratory endurance, and there will be a possible loss of muscle mass (or fat) but absolutely no increase in strength
With all the guidelines above – just stick to the numbers and be consistent and honest with your training. Be honest with yourself – of poor technique or mobility hinders you from lifting heavier – don’t stack more weight on the bar, work on technique and mobility as this is the problem. Changes will happen, as long as you are smart about your training.
Why are the numbers of sets and reps and RM% so important?
The answer is - that certain ranges of reps result in greater neural adaptation. When an athlete is a novice to strength training we can be certain that the initial strength gains will come mostly from neuromuscluar adaptations rather than hypertrophy. If you notice your muscles “pump up” during or shortly after the session, don’t panic or don’t be too happy (depending of what your goal is). This is a short term increase in size caused by fluid retention. It should fade away within 1hr – 90 mins after the training.
Lets look at the main mechanisms of neural adaptation:
1. Increased Motor Unit recruitment - neural adaptation to training that rapidly increases the strength of a novice who hasn’t yet experienced hypertrophy. What is a motor unit - motor unit is made up of a single motor neuron as well as all of the muscle fibers that neuron activates. This refers to our skeletal muscles, which are made of hundreds of thousands of fibers. These muscle fibers are activated by motor neurons when they receive signals from the brain to contract the muscle. A single motor neuron can control several hundred muscle fibers at a time, depending on the size and function of the muscle. Why is it good to recruit more motor units and how it relates to strength gains? Even when you engage in very low intensity activities like lifting glass to your mouth, your brain recruits motor units that have a smaller number of muscle fibers to allow you to lift the glass. However when you are lifting something extremely heavy or applying a lot of force your body will contract more available motor units to allow you to perform the activity. It is a very clever mechanism, imagine what would happen if your brain told your muscles to contract fully when lifting a glass up, you’d be knocking yourself in the face every time you want to have a drink. Motor unit recruitment is a TRAINED and LEARNED ability. The more motor units you can recruit the more muscle fibres you can activate – the more muscle fibres you can activate – the more force you can apply. Training not only increases the frequency of motor unit firing, it also increases the total number of motor units that effect a muscular contraction. In other words, more motor units work together, and they all fire more rapidly. Trained individuals can recruit more motor units than novices.
2. Coordination of Motor unit recruitment – as mentioned above – as the athlete training progresses, their ability to utilise MULTIPLE motor units increases. Please note that each muscle fiber in a motor unit is functionally identical (which means it is either slow twitch or fast twitch, never both in the single motor unit).
3. Following on the previous point another adaptation is enhanced Motor unit activation. The frequency of motor unit firing increases with the training, as well as the total number of motor units that affect a muscular contraction. More motor units work together and they fire more rapidly (faster).
4. Improved technique and skill acquisition – out of the two similarly sized men the one whose technique is competent will be able to generate more force than the novice. Also will do it in a safe manner.
5. Cross education - and increased involvement of the neural pathways contribute to strength gains too. For example, an untrained arm will gain significant strength in concert with a trained arm, because of interaction between the nerves of either arm at the spinal column. This cross-education is one of the clearest demonstrations of neural adaptation.
Understanding how your body works and adapts to training is the key to a successful program design. Before trying to make your training look fancy etc, stick to the basics and follow basic principles. Classics is never overrated - once the sound fundamentals are in place, you can play with your training more.