What are your resistance training goals? Many people begin working out without a specific idea of what they want to accomplish or have vague goals like “tone up” or “lose weight.” Goals matter because they determine the structure of your workouts. If your objective is to get as strong as possible, grabbing a pair of light dumbbells won’t get you there.
At one time, you rarely saw women using barbells or heavy dumbbells. These days, more women are choosing to train heavy to build strength. You’ve likely heard the popular slogan, “Strong is the new skinny.” No doubt it is. Strong is healthier than skinny and having functional strength helps you avoid many of the pitfalls of aging like frailty, bone loss, and falls.
Still, some women cling to the idea that heavy lifting will make them “bulky” or “boxy.” For MOST females, lifting heavy weights won’t lead to large, bulky muscles but will instead build a firm, toned physique. There is a subset of women who develop muscle easily, usually due to genetics and women who have a mesomorphic build or higher levels of testosterone. Females who have a condition called polycystic ovary syndrome produce more testosterone and build muscle easier than the average woman.
At the other end of the spectrum are women who are naturally lean and have an ectomorphic build. If you fall into this class, you’ll have to lift heavy, work harder, and eat more protein and calories to gain significant muscle. In fact, not consuming enough calories is a common reason women who lift hard don’t see gains. It’s hard to build muscle in a calorie restricted state. Just as men have different propensities to develop muscle based on genetics and hormones, women do too.
What if your goal is to get a lean physique without noticeable muscle size, but you still want to be as strong as possible? In other words, you want to be strong and slender. Are the two goals incompatible?
Can You Build Muscle Strength without Size?
It IS possible to build muscle strength without developing size. Remember, most women aren’t going to get big and bulky from lifting heavy anyway, but if you are an easy muscle gainer, you can become stronger without developing size. Strength doesn’t just come from an increase in muscle size – it has a neurological component. Most of the initial gains in strength you experience when you first start training are neurological adaptations – your brain is essentially “teaching” your muscles how to contract more efficiently. Muscles get their working orders from motor neurons, nerve cells that carry information from the brain and spinal cord to muscle fibers and tell them to contract. Motor neurons can connect to many hundreds of muscle fibers or only a small number, depending on the size of the muscle and how it functions.
A motor unit is a single motor neuron and the muscle fibers it innervates. Each time you lift something, you recruit motor units, which in turn activates muscle fibers. If you lift something heavy, you activate more motor units than when you’re lifting something light. One reason you get stronger is that, in response to training, your brain becomes more efficient at activating these motor units. Through training, you learn to activate more motor units, which calls more muscle fibers into action. Even though your muscles haven’t changed size, you can lift more weight.
In response to training, motor units also fire more rapidly. These are all neurological adaptations that come from your brain and have nothing to do with muscle size. Not that increasing the size of a muscle doesn’t make you stronger, but it’s not the only determiner of strength. Have you ever seen a small guy or girl with little muscle definition who can lift a lot of weight? They probably have very efficient motor units that work well together to generate lots of force.
If you want to get stronger without increasing muscle size, focus on maximizing neurological adaptations so you recruit more motor units and, in turn, more muscle fibers. The way to target neurological adaptations without building mass is to work with heavy weights and do fewer reps. Choose a load 80% to 90% of your one-rep max, one that you can do no more than 5 reps without fatiguing. Use long rest periods between sets, 2 or 3 minutes and go to failure or near-failure on some sets. Keep the volume low. Higher volume training and more time under tension favor muscle hypertrophy while low-volume lifting with heavy weights promotes strength development.
Another way to activate as many motor units as possible and favor strength development is to do explosive lifting using heavier weights. When you move a heavy weight in an explosive manner you recruit a maximal number of motor units.
Why You SHOULD Train for Strength
If you don’t want more muscle definition, you might be tempted to skip the weights – big mistake. Even if you’re satisfied with the amount of muscle you have, muscle mass and strength decline at a rate of around 5% every decade after 30. You need muscle strength to retain functionality as you age. Here’s another compelling reason to strength train. A study showed quadriceps strength and grip strength are both strongly associated with mortality. Weaker grips and quads are linked with premature death. Strength is one of the smartest things you can do to offset the effects of aging.
Resistance Training Gives You a Metabolic Advantage
Even if your only goal is to get lean, resistance training can help. The metabolic boost you get from resistance training can help you get leaner, and if you do gain muscle tissue, you’ll have more metabolically active tissue to burn calories. Strength training has other positive metabolic effects – research shows it improves insulin sensitivity. In response to strength training, muscle cells can more effectively take up glucose, leading to better blood glucose control. Yes, just like aerobic exercise, resistance training lowers your risk for type 2 diabetes and help diabetics manage their blood sugars.
The Bottom Line
Yes, you can get stronger without building larger muscles. Strength training is important even if you don’t want more muscle definition. Strength training offers metabolic benefits and helps protect you against loss of muscle and bone tissue as you age, not to mention it helps you stay functional. So now you have no excuse not to pick up a pair of weights.
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Medscape Family Medicine. “Resistance Training Benefits Type 2 Diabetics” March 2013.
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