How to get stronger (without getting bigger)

This might shock a few teenage boys, but not everyone wants to get swole.

I get it: packing on 30 pounds of muscle can do a lot for your self-confidence when you’re a skinny, unathletic kid. It changed my life. But it’s certainly not for everyone.

Many people avoid lifting weights because they DON’T want to get bigger or heavier.

For most athletes, the real key to dominance isn’t size, but strength relative to bodyweight. Sprinters, wrestlers, gymnasts, cyclists, runners — all of these sports reward the lightest strong person.

And for those seeking weight loss, building strength will dramatically speed up their journey — but not only through the addition of muscle.

The great news: you can get stronger without gaining weight.

When you start lifting weights, the first adaptation is neuromuscular. Think about those home improvement shows where the hunky builder calls the glamorous designer into the messy crawlspace and says, “We’ve got a problem.”

(Happens in every single episode, right?)

Often, the builder points to some old knob-and-tube wiring and says, “This isn’t up to code. We have to replace all of it.”

Well, your neuromuscular connections are like wiring. They transfer the electrical impulses from your brain to your muscles.

The first upgrade, before anything cosmetic happens, is in your wiring. You don’t see it, but the upgrade is profound.

Impulses from your brain reach your muscles faster, and more efficiently. More muscles are switched on simultaneously. And the biggest muscles — the ones that eat up calories like crazy — kick into gear too.

Non-nerds: you can skip the next paragraph. This is just for the skeptics like me.

[What’s actually happening is called Rate of Force Development. Your CNS improves its efficiency at recruiting more muscle fiber, and also escalating across the slow-twitch to fast-twitch spectrum. There are a variety of ways this happens, but it only happens by lifting weights for the first time; or lifting heavier weights; or lifting lighter weights faster. This is impacted by signal strength, disinhibition and neurological efficiency. OK, back to the simple stuff.]

Lifting weights also triggers a hormonal response. Do a few reps on the leg extension and pec deck, and you might feel a bit hungrier. Do 5 sets of heavy deadlifts, and you’ll run through a wall to reach someone’s half-eaten sandwich. Your metabolism goes from mostly dormant to fully alive and awake…and stays that way for hours. That means the food you eat will be less likely stored as fat, and you’ll probably be in a caloric deficit. Boom, 1-2 metabolic punch.

Want a great example? When kids start working out, they get stronger really quickly. But they don’t put on muscle, especially if they’re prepubescent. This is because all of their gains come through wiring, not weight gain.

Gaining a bit of muscle will help most athletes. And long-term, more muscle will help you get (and stay) lean.

But weight gain — like weight loss — doesn’t happen by accident. Our workouts at No Excuses CrossFit are designed to make you strong and powerful, but lean. We like to say “Higher speed, lower drag” to describe our clients’ progress. That means getting stronger, more powerful and more flexible. But we don’t have a “bulking season”.