As an ectomorph (someone who naturally carries little muscle and has skinny arms and legs), my instinctive reaction when someone says, "I don't train with weights because I don't want to bulk up" is to roll my eyes. To me, that is like someone saying, "I don't work because I just get too rich". Many people, especially women, are afraid of bulking up and as result they will not even touch a weight. If that is you, please check out part 1 and part 2 of why women don't have to fear bulking up. However, because I have trained a lot of different people over the years with all different body types, I know that some body types (we call them mesomorphs) have a naturally higher-than-average amount of muscle and can pack on new muscle quite quickly. Also, some athletes are in weight-restricted sports (e.g. MMA) or need to stay at an optimal training weight to maximize injury and minimize performance. This leaves them with the need to get stronger without getting bigger.
|Wang Mingjuan of China wins Olympic gold at London 2012|
Crazy strong and powerful, but not big!
Photo source: sports.yahoo.com
If you truly are someone who gains muscle easily or who has to get stronger without getting bigger, then you would benefit from having a program that is suited for your body type and needs. However, before I get into that, here are 2 very important things you need to know:
The number one thing we tell someone who does want to gain muscle is to eat more. You almost always need a surplus of extra calories to gain extra muscle. If you do not want to gain weight, then keep your calorie intake at maintenance levels (i.e. if you are gaining weight week-to-week you want to decrease your daily caloric intake). In addition to this, be sure to limit sweets and reduce starches. These raise insulin which causes not only fat gain, but also has an anabolic (muscle building) effect on the body.
Do NOT Decrease the Weight:
Most people looking for non-bulk strength training make the dreaded mistake of using light weight for high reps. This is a really bad idea. If you are a mesomorph, this high rep training causes fatigue which can actually increase muscle size! If you are an athlete, light weight and high reps are a waste of time. Sure they may build some local muscle endurance, but they will not improve your relative strength or power - two things very important for an athlete. Also the fatigue you get from high rep training can mask your ability to display your strength & power.
Now, here are some ways that I would modify a typical strength training program for you:
Sets are one of the top training variables that I manipulate based on training goals. If someone gains muscle easily or has to be careful not to, one of the first things I typically do is reduce the number of sets as a way to reduce total training volume. You see, the body is lazy and it will make the easiest type of adaptation possible. If you do heavy, low-volume training (e.g. 3x3 - 3 sets of 3 reps), the body will make more nervous system adaptations (i.e. the nervous system will learn how to use more of the available muscle fibres in a muscle at the same time and how to team-up different muscles so they work as a more efficient team). When you have higher training volume (e.g. 10x3 - 10 sets of 3 reps), the body has to adapt to not only the stress of the weight, but also the stress of the volume and this forces the muscle to get bigger and stronger.
Next to sets, reps are also important. Sets of 6-12 reps are usually considered the hypertrophy zone (note: as mentioned previously, you can do lower reps for hypertrophy if you increase the number of sets and the amount of food eaten). For non-bulk strength training, keep the reps lower (e.g. 3-5 range).
Decrease Number of Exercises:
One strategy that bodybuilders often use to increase training volume is to add more exercises. With non-bulk strength training, you want to limit the number of exercises per muscle group (usually just do one).
Increase Rest Intervals:
Shorter rest-intervals can also create an exhaustion in the muscles that stimulate hypertrophy (size increases). By giving more time between sets or arranging non-competing exercises in circuits, you can diminish the stimulus.
In extreme cases with true muscle-building genetic out-liers or busy athletes, I may also decreases training frequency. For example, if an athlete was training 3-4 days per week, I might bring it down to 2.
Note for Trainers: check out my upcoming workshop Train Right for Your Body Type to learn more about how to adjust training programs for different body types.