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How can I get strong without getting big?
February 26, 2012 9:54 AM   Subscribe

WorkoutFilter: More Bruce Lee, less Schwarzenegger. More Pacquiao, less Tyson. How can I get strong without getting big?

Most of the literature that I find regarding workouts for men have titles like "BLAST YOUR BICEPS!" or "DETONATE YOUR DELTS!" or some other violence to my anatomy.
The same goes for fitness nutrition. I know my body needs protein to regenerate muscle tissue, but I am not looking to add "SLABS OF MUSCLE!" anywhere on my person - my clothes wouldn't fit.

Male, 5'6", 135 pounds, 31 years old.
I like running.
I like weightlifting.
Martial arts lessons, group sessions etc. are out of the question for the moment.
I work out at home and in public (running), not really the gym.
I tend to eat lots of veggies and not much meat.
I like Clif Builder Bars (especially mint, they taste like girl scout cookies!).
I am impecunious.

Bottom line:
I would like to be as strong as possible without getting bulky.
What kind of workouts would suit my goal?
What kind of nutrition would suit my goal?
What works for you, personally?
Where can I get more information?
posted by damo to Health & Fitness (17 answers total) 16 users marked this as a favorite
 
It is really, really hard to get big. Bodybuilders devote huge chunks of time to eating and working out in ways that specifically make them big. People who look like Schwarzenegger are usually using supplements or steroids. Bottom line: you will not look like Arnold by accident. Your body will develop muscle based on the work you put in and your genetics, but unless you structure your life and habits on purpose to look like a bodybuilder, that won't happen. Lift heavy weights, eat good food, do cardiovascular exercise to protect your heart and health, and you'll look strong and healthy, but you will not get super-bulky unless you do it on purpose.
posted by decathecting at 10:03 AM on February 26, 2012 [10 favorites]


Check out Starting Strength.
posted by lizifer at 10:03 AM on February 26, 2012 [3 favorites]


also, it's really hard to build muscle (let alone get bulky) on a low protein diet.
posted by lizifer at 10:04 AM on February 26, 2012 [1 favorite]


Just lift weights. Bench press, squats, something else for your back and biceps and core. If you don't have access to these things, do body weight exercises including pull ups, push ups and ab exercises (ideally ones that required using your entire body weight not just a crunch or variation thereof).

Eat healthy but don't stress about what to eat. You'll be strong and lean.

High reps will tone and low reps will build strength. You'll want to do both.
posted by OnTheLastCastle at 10:11 AM on February 26, 2012


Try Convict Conditioning.
posted by MoonOrb at 10:13 AM on February 26, 2012 [4 favorites]


High reps will tone and low reps will build strength.

There's not really any evidence to support a difference between "toning" and "building." Muscle definition is primarily about body fat levels (how much fat covers the muscles).
posted by decathecting at 10:25 AM on February 26, 2012 [9 favorites]


You're not going to put on slabs of muscle unless you work very hard at doing so. You're also going to be less and less able to as you grow older. If anything you should try and gain some more muscle/strength now so that you'll be in a better shape as you age.

Sandbags are pretty good for working out at home and on a budget. I have some, but I don't bother with tossing them around like a maniac like you see some people recommending. I like them better as weight replacements for traditional exercises (squats, rows, overhead presses, etc...) and they last longer this way.

I have two of these Duffle bags. It's hard to see from the picture, but they also have grips on the side of the bags. I have one "small" and with sand it weighs about 35 lbs. Another is "medium" with about 100 lbs. Fill contractor garbage bags with 5/10/25 lbs of sand and you've got a fairly flexible set of weights.
posted by Homo economicus at 11:14 AM on February 26, 2012 [1 favorite]


How many guys in the gym do you see who actually have muscles like the big guys? I never see any, and the reason is because to get big muscles like that, you have to basically dedicate your life to it. If you trained as hard as you could and had perfect nutrition for the next 5 years or so, you might start to look like a muscle man, but it would take dedication. If you just go to the gym and workout to increase your strength, doing all of the stuff that the big guys do, but you don't push yourself to the absolute max, and you don't have your nutrition exactly perfect, than you will gain muscle but you will never get huge like that.
posted by markblasco at 11:37 AM on February 26, 2012


A lot of climbers look like this guy. Is that what you have in mind?
posted by jet_silver at 12:10 PM on February 26, 2012


Personally, what works for me is: kettlebells, one-legged squats, and one-armed push-ups. See Pavel for more details.

I eat no meat or animal products at all these days (I supplement with veggie protein), weigh 140lbs at 5'8", and work out with a 55-lb kettlebell, although I can use 70-lbs for some exercises.

And as you are impecunious (thanks for that word, by the way), a single 35-lb kettlebell will put you back about 50 US$, and last the rest of your life.

On a shoestring budget, you could also give the shovelglove a try.

Otherwise, bodyweight exercises, working up to using a single arm or leg, are pretty awesome.

Being strong is somewhat, but not entirely, independent of your appearance. Muscular recruitment goes a long way towards making you functionally stronger without making you bigger, although you will find your appearance changing as your training induces muscle hypertrophy.

But as decathecting says, you gotta train like a bodybuilder to look like a bodybuilder, so don't train like that and you'll be fine.
posted by edguardo at 12:57 PM on February 26, 2012 [2 favorites]


Wow! So many great responses in such a short time, thank you so much.

I think I may have been a tad glib in my phrasing, so I'll try to clarify a bit.

1. When I say "big" I don't mean it in any absolute sense, but I mean "noticeably much bigger than I am".
2. Whatever the cause may be, genetics etc., I've always been naturally strong and generally do gain muscle "readily" and it's visibly noticeable. I've gone through weight training phases before but quit because I didn't like the direction I was going in.
3. I _like_ intense weight workouts and I _like_ being a stickler for nutrition and I always make sure to supplement my protein to take full advantage. I only do this because it's the way I've been taught and the only way I know.
4. I'm Gimli. I have the chest and torso of a much taller man and a short inseam length that's never in stock (I've become very good at hemming pants). As it is there are some stores I can't even shop at because my chest is too broad (this is outside the US). I also have lots of nice, tailored shirts I can't afford to replace. I know it may seem silly, but there it is.

@OnTheLastCastle and @decathecting:
I am very keen on learning about High Reps VS. Low Reps, but I never can get a straight answer nor can I find any workouts based upon the High Rep concept.

@Homo economicus
That sandbag idea sounds pretty cool. I have plenty of weights (Goodwill is excellent for this) but for one thing that sounds far less clangy. Is this the right idea?

@MoonOrb
That looks great!

@jet_silver
Yes yes that's right along it. If I wasn't such a wussybaby I'd take up climbing.

@edguardo
Great information, I'm still plunging down the wikipedia-vortex.

Once again each and every response so far has been immensely appreciated.
posted by damo at 1:25 PM on February 26, 2012


decathecting is mostly right on, but with a small caveat: certain rep schemes are better for hypertrophy than strength and vice versa (hypertrophy: muscles getting bigger). That's why a program like Starting Strength, which uses a fairly low rep scheme (three sets of five repetitions), is going to help you get stronger without causing undue growth from a size perspective, whereas a bodybuilder type program would call for much higher reps (e.g. sets of twenty repetitions) in order to stimulate the most hypertrophy (bigger muscles).

Most programs that you read about in Men's Health or whatever are going to be hypertrophy focused, because people you want to sleep with are looking at your bulging biceps, not your ability to squat 500 lb (grumble grumble), hence your "slabs of muscle!" experiences.

That said, I said "undue growth", not no growth.
posted by telegraph at 2:28 PM on February 26, 2012 [2 favorites]


Great answers above. As a few others have suggested, be creative! The specific exercises and tools are much less important then consistent effort. Short sets done at high intensity is what you're looking for to boost strength and power. You might want to do a little reading on how about how various armies and lower weight class fighters/wrestlers train as well (can't think of any good resources off the top of my head).

On the nutrition side, the most important thing is to keep your intake under control. Your body will only add mass (muscle or fat) if you're taking in enough calories to support your activity, recovery and new growth. You do want to be consuming a reasonable amount of protein to compensate for the beating your muscles are taking; all athletes need higher than average amounts of protein, not just bodybuilders, and the increase scales with intensity. The 'right' amount gets debated a lot, but the general consensus seems to suggest staying above ~1.2g protein/1kg lean body mass is ideal for a high level of activity (source). Anything over 1.8g/kg is probably necessary.

And you might be interested in:
-A video on some changes the USMC is making to physical training, found on Men's Health.
-ExRx Exercise & muscle directory: a good resource for connecting exercises with muscle groups, and learning proper form.
posted by vohk at 3:29 PM on February 26, 2012 [2 favorites]


Bruce Lee rarely ate baked goods or any processed carbohydrates-- he considered them empty calories. So eating less of that would definitely help.
posted by devymetal at 6:23 PM on February 26, 2012 [1 favorite]


> decathecting is mostly right on, but with a small caveat: certain rep schemes are better for hypertrophy than strength and vice versa (hypertrophy: muscles getting bigger). That's why a program like Starting Strength, which uses a fairly low rep scheme (three sets of five repetitions), is going to help you get stronger without causing undue growth from a size perspective, whereas a bodybuilder type program would call for much higher reps (e.g. sets of twenty repetitions) in order to stimulate the most hypertrophy (bigger muscles).

Most programs that you read about in Men's Health or whatever are going to be hypertrophy focused, because people you want to sleep with are looking at your bulging biceps, not your ability to squat 500 lb (grumble grumble), hence your "slabs of muscle!" experiences.

That said, I said "undue growth", not no growth


If you want more information about this distinction, the google terms you'll find useful are sarcoplasmic hypertrophy vs. myofibrillar. If you look at Olympic weightlifters and even powerlifters, a lot of them don't look anything like bodybuilders (admittedly, as someone upthread mentioned, probably the biggest distinction has to do with bodyfat; strength athletes tend to care a lot less about being super cut as that goal tends to interfere with strength gain goals). It would stand to reason, as others have said, to just avoid bodybuilder training (which does tend to be higher rep as mentioned, combined with periods of cutting, i.e., extreme dieting to get a superlow bodyfat percentage) and focus on a program that is about improving your sheer 1RM PR. So, you know, 5x5 compound lifting, or something similar. Some of how big you get on such a program will depend on how much you eat. Based on your relatively low protein macro intake, it sounds like it'd be very hard to get bulky in the muscley sense, though you might gain fat.
posted by ifjuly at 6:41 PM on February 26, 2012


One of Lee's favourite meals was beef in oyster sauce, so eat plenty of that.

Pavel, Ross Emanet and Convict Conditioning are great.

There's a good book on Lee's workouts called The Art of Expressing the Human Body.
It goes over the phases in Lee's training - which was always changing - the isometrics, barbell work, machines and contraptions. The man was so ahead of his time.

Obviously, training at a good jkd gym is what you want to do aswell.
posted by the cuban at 7:27 AM on February 29, 2012


So much information! I'm revamping everything and I'm super excited. Thanks again to all of you.
posted by damo at 5:49 PM on February 29, 2012


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