Hidden Power: How to Get Strong Without Getting Big

By on August 25, 2020

One of the most common requests I get on this channel, is for tips on how to build strength without adding size. We’re talking Bruce Lee, Saitama, or Spider-Man, instead of Arnie or The Hulk.

I am not entirely sure why this request is so popular, but I can guess it’s a combination of aesthetics – a lot of people don’t like the hugely muscled look and prefer to look toned and lean – and performance. If you can get stronger while staying smaller, you can theoretically improve your relative strength, thereby generating surprising forceful movements and enhancing your agility and athleticism.

Get Stronger Without Getting Bigger

So, can it be done?

The fact that at least one of the examples I gave, Bruce Lee, is a real person, should give you a clue! It’s certainly possible to get stronger without adding muscle or size. In fact, one of the strongest men in the world today pound for pound is Dennis Rogers; and he too is fairly unassuming in appearance.

Strength vs Size

Increasing muscle size is what we refer to as hypertrophy. All else being equal, if you trigger hypertrophy in your muscles, they will also get stronger.

This is because most of the mechanisms that lead to bigger muscles, also result in stronger muscles.

Increasing the ratio of type 2 muscle fiber with explosive movements will result in bigger and stronger muscles, as these muscle fibers are both more powerful AND take up more space.

Lean power

Increasing cell volume through high rep ranges will make your muscles appear larger while also increasing “strength endurance.”

And thickening the muscle fibers by incurring stress and damage will of course result in those fibers becoming both stronger and wider.

But there is another way we can get stronger that has no relation to muscle size: through increased fiber recruitment and neural efficiency.

Remember, in any given contraction, you will only ever recruit a portion of your muscle fiber to get the job done. In fact, a typical un-trained individual will only be able to recruit around 30% of their muscle fibres at any given time, whereas the average athlete might get this up to 50%.

With practice, we can enhance our ability to recruit more muscle fiber

The last motor units to be recruited are always those that are largest and strongest too, meaning that a little more neural efficiency could result in a big boost in strength.

With practice, we can enhance our ability to recruit more muscle fiber, and thereby tap into much greater strength. This is something that both Bruce AND Rogers were known to do.

Overcoming Isometrics

To increase your recruitment of muscle fibre, you need to strengthen the signal that you send to the muscles.

One way to do this, is by lifting your one rep maximum. When you do this, you tell your body to recruit as much muscle fiber as it possibly can. This forces your brain to become better and more efficient at sending that signal, which thus allows you to recruit more strength.

The problem? This will result in hypertrophy and make us bigger, due to large amounts of muscle damage and mechanical tension.

Overcoming Isometric Hidden Power

Overcoming isometrics are different. Here, you’re going to push or pull against an immovable object as hard as you can. That might mean pushing a weight that is heavier than your one rep max, or trying to perform a pull up with your feet hooked to the ground. You can even press your hands together, or try to bend something like a metal frying pan.

In these scenarios, you are forcing your body to recruit 100% of your muscle fiber as far as you can: sending the strongest signal possible. But you aren’t going through a range of motion which would trigger hypertrophy. Moreover, there’s no strength curve and you can hold this contraction longer without risk of injury. All these things make overcoming isometrics perfect for building immense power.

All these things make overcoming isometrics perfect for building immense power.

Overcoming isometrics work best when you hold each contraction for around 6 seconds. You also need to vary the joint angles, as research suggests this type of training only affects around 30 degrees of the joint angle.

Inter-Muscular Coordination

Increasing your muscle fiber recruitment this way is improving your “inter muscular coordination.” That means you’re getting better at coordinating motor units toward a single goal.

But another important aspect in developing strength is intra-muscular coordination. In other words: your ability to recruit multiple muscles together in useful ways. To time the contractions properly, and to engage maximum recruitment in more than one place simultaneously.

Intermuscular Coordination

I’ve talked a lot about the standing cable row recently. That’s because developing any real power in this position is actually extremely difficult as you’ll need to try not to pull yourself over. You therefore need to recruit muscle in your core, your legs, your feet, your lats, AND your biceps to be effective. This is how you actually use that strength in the real world.

This is as compared with 90% of movements that have you lying flat on a bench, or lifting straight barbells from a position with both feet placed on the ground.

So, how do you develop this inter-muscular strength? With practice. This is where training movement “patterns” comes in, which results in better neural maps of the necessary muscular coordination, and possibly even changes in the muscle fascia to facilitate this kind of movement.

Strength as a skill

This is what Pavel is referring to when he describes “strength as a skill.” By rehearsing movements like the kettlebell swing or the clean and jerk, you become more efficient at performing those movements. You waste less energy, and the muscles work more effectively together. This is also why a trained martial artist can deliver MUCH more power in a punch versus a bodybuilder with no training.

And it’s how Bruce Lee developed power through his whole body to execute the one-inch punch.

It’s how Bruce Lee developed power through his whole body to execute the one-inch punch.

This is why Pavel recommends rehearsing movements as a way to build strength: doing pull ups every time you pass under your pull up bar for example. The aim isn’t to do so much as to cause lots of muscle damage or the build-up of metabolites, but rather to simply reinforce movement patterns such that you get stronger. Conveniently, this kind of rehearsal won’t make you bigger!

I made a video on this called “Greasing the Groove – Batman Skills Training” which you should check out! That explains how to optimally space your rehearsal throughout the day, too.

Farmer Strength

But here’s the thing: what Pavel is describing will make you stronger for competition. It won’t necessarily make you stronger overall.

Why? Because being lean and mean doesn’t mean being very powerful in just a few bodyweight moves and lifts.

There’s this awesome trope in Anime, where one character will attack another, and that second character will block with a single hand or finger, without changing their position at all. The most famous example maybe is when Goku block’s Trunks’ sword with one finger.

Farmer Strength

Now THAT is what superhuman strength would look like.

In real life, we need to be strong in unstable positions. Like that row with rotation. THIS is what you need to practice, if you want to seem effortlessly strong, without muscle. You need to practice every position.

This goes some way to explaining Farmer Strength, or the similar “Dad Strength.” Many have observed how manual workers, such as farmers, seem to be able to exert amazing strength and endurance despite a lack of formal strength training.

We all remember being caught in the vice-like grip of our Fathers when we were naughty as kids!

Likewise, we all remember being caught in the vice-like grip of our Fathers when we were naughty as kids!

The reason is that both groups are constantly on the go, constantly moving, and constantly working at awkward angles.

Imagine digging a big hole, if you will. Doing this means driving the spade into the ground at a strange angle, employing rotational strength and driving through your feet. You then need to use your own arms to apply leverage, now lifting the mound of dirt at the other end. You’ll be at a stooped angle, and you’ll need to continue exerting this strength for long periods of time.

Lifting Rock Farm Strong

Meanwhile, the hole is going to get deeper over time. This subtly changes the angle you’re working at, while also putting you on even footing. There is nothing like this in the gym, and you are preparing your body to leverage power from all kinds of different angles.

How do you mimic this? One method I use is very slow, unpredictable movement that places me at mechanical disadvantage. You can even train using a kind of inter-muscular overcoming challenge: stand by a wall and take your fingers on one side at about shoulder height. Now try to push the wall over. You’ll of course need to brace through your core to prevent this happening, and will need to dig through your feet.

Slow mechanically disadvantaged movement

You can do the same thing against gravity by moving slowly in a kind of lizard crawl. Only by stiffening the whole body, will you be able to lift yourself at the most difficult angles.

You can also use external objects this way: training with lighter weights, but with slower, more deliberate movement.

THIS training, which I call “slowcomotion” or SANDAM (Slow And Mechanically DisAdvantaged Movement) is what has led to significant improvements in my core strength in recent months – which many people have commented on here! (Thanks for that!)

The other trick is simply to move and train more throughout the day, and to incorporate a wider variety of different types of movement with more chaotic elements. Train outside whenever you can: every tree branch and every rock is different.

Move and train more throughout the day

How does this relate to Dads? I didn’t get it either until I became one. I am not only constantly running and crawling around now, but also regularly picking up my wriggling, 13kg toddler at strange angles, who is only getting heavier!

Grip and Tendon Strength

The other advantage that manual workers and Dads have, is that they are training their grip and tendons. Getting thicker tendons won’t translate to bigger muscle, but it will increase your strength: especially in the hands.

The same goes for your grip strength in general, which increases your strength in every other single movement that involves the hands. Train your grip regularly and you will increase your strength exponentially with no sign of that in your biceps: though your forearms might get bigger.

I have videos on how to do both these things.

Plyometrics

You should also incorporate some explosive training into your routine. This will develop your ability to recruit muscle fiber quickly, which is known as “rate of force development.”

Again, I have a video on explosive training. But simply incorporate plyometric movements (like clapping push ups, box jumps etc.) will do the job here nicely. While you’ll train your nervous system and your stretch-shortening cycle, this type of training doesn’t allow enough “cross bridging” to stimulate major hypertrophy.

Explosive push up

In The Art of Expressing the Human Body, we learn about Bruce Lee’s use of speed training: where he would attempt to complete exercises as quickly as possible. This type of training may have helped him develop some of his amazing speed.

Completing movements more quickly makes any type of training inherently more explosive and plyometric. But if you complete 100 fast push ups, this will still cause you to add bulk, as it will lead to a build up of fluids in the working muscles: called metabolic stress.

This is where varying the movements within each set becomes valuable. If you go from push up, to burpee, to squat, to pike press, to mountain climber… then you’re training your ability to move explosively, while at the same time increasing endurance, WITHOUT gaining bulk.

As an added bonus, this will torch fat, which will strip away those added layers to reveal the pure, unadulterated muscle beneath.

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About Adam Sinicki

Adam Sinicki, AKA The Bioneer, is a writer, personal trainer, author, entrepreneur, and web developer. I've been writing about health, psychology, and fitness for the past 10+ years and have a fascination with the limits of human performance. When I'm not running my online businesses or training, I love sandwiches, computer games, comics, and hanging out with my family.

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