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Increasing Stength: How much is related to adding lean muscle mass

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  • Increasing Stength: How much is related to adding lean muscle mass

    Quick background: I was the painfully skinny kid growing up (weighing 130 lbs at 6'1" when I graduated high school). Over the course of the last 25 years, my weight has increased to as high as 185 lbs (but usually about 175 lbs). After 8 years of a crappy vegetarian diet, I found out about Weston A. Price, and have been eating that way for 4 years. About 3 months ago I made a few modificationd to my diet to eliminate grains and all sugars. I went from 176 down to 162 lbs within a month and have stabalized there. Ideally, I would like to weigh more, but only if I can add back muscle.

    As I have started to exercise again, I am discovering how woefully weak I am. My question is how does functional strength relate to % of muscle mass? Said another way, can I reasonably gain a good deal of strength (albeit from a low starting point) without adding very much muscle mass? I will happily add muscle mass if I can (and will modify diet to increase calories as appropriate); however I am hoping that I can make some decent strength gains independent of that.


  • #2
    Yes you can gain strength without gaining mass. I've actually gotten smaller in the last few years but have become functionally stronger along the way. You might find this article interesting.
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    • #3
      I think it depends on what kind of "strength" you want, what your purpose with it is. A big part for certain movements is learning the motor patterns which can lead to strength gains quickly without muscle gains (especially technical lifts like the olympic lifts). If you want to increase maximal strength in certain movements then you will need to gradually increase the load and work near your maximum capacity often. This may not be the best method for muscle gains, but there will be some. Training muscle endurance (many repetitions with light weights) will probably increase your functional strength, and I think muscle gains will peak fairly quickly. I think sprinters actually train for leg strength/power without gaining size (as this limits the speed of treading), but I don't know the specifics.

      Long rant? You can gain both maximal strength and endurance independent of muscle gains, but unless you have some goal of being skinny (some sport issue) then I don't see why you wouldn't try to achieve both in unity.


      • #4
        @Al - Thanks for the thougts/article. I like the perspective of increasing skill vs. simply increasing load. That idea seems to fit in well with the structure of Mark's Primal Blueprint for Fitness (the progression within each of the 5 basic moves).

        @Panda - Definitely don't desire to be long term skinny, but am hoping that the strength gains can come at a bit faster rate than the muscle mass gains. Sounds like that should be the case if I train correctly.


        • #5
          HiHigh resistance + low reps + eating at maintenance levels = strength gains without too much muscle mass gain. The accepted standard is anywhere from 3-5 reps of HEAVY weight though. Obviously heavy is subjective, but if you can do more than 5 reps (say, up to 10) then it’s not heavy enough.

          Similar to Al, I’ve gotten “tighter” while getting progressively stronger but definitely NOT bigger. I don’t always train in the fashion I described above, I like going for higher reps on certain exercises but the biggest factor in growth is going to be food intake. You can train FOR growth but if you don’t eat accordingly you won’t put on the size. Keep your food as you currently have it (which I’m assuming is around maintenance) and just start training with heavy weights.

          Before going primal I used to train in a bodybuilding scheme because I knew nothing and that’s what my friends were doing. At that time we all wanted big muscles so we would eat a ton of garbage mostly, train in upward pyramid schemes (1st set: lowest weight for 10-12 reps, 2nd set: increase weight, reps up to 8, last set: heaviest weight: up to 6 reps or failure) and we all stayed FAR away from any cardio work. The result: I got fat, but I did have big muscles! I didn’t gain all that much strength though surprisingly.

          Now I train the opposite way, if I’m doing a pyramid I do a reserve pyramid. Heaviest weight first for 3-5 reps, next heaviest for 5-8 reps and bodyweight only for 10-12 reps. I do that once a week usually, but I also have a “strength” workout in which I do strictly 3 sets of 5 HEAVY reps. I also do ‘cardio’ by way of surper-setting, sprinting, sledgehammer work and other fun stuff.

          D’oh. I just re-read your question regarding functional strength. It really depends on what you consider functional, but suffice it to say that some of the most functional athletes are NOT big and bulky, so there’s your answer. Think about rock climbers, gymnasts, traceurs (people that practice parkour) swimmers, sprinters, etc… they’re all powerful but typically aren’t characterized by having huge bulging muscles, though gymnasts and sprinters sometimes come close.

          Hope that helped.

          Oh, and try to find PDF files (or purchase) of "Power to the People" and "The Naked Warrior" by Pavel Tsatsouline he explains the concept of big strength without big mass quite well, especially in PTTP.
          I used to seriously post here, now I prefer to troll.


          • #6
            Unless you're competing in a weight class sport, why wouldn't you want the muscle to match the strength... muscle is cool.


            • #7
              Originally posted by arthurb999 View Post
              Unless you're competing in a weight class sport, why wouldn't you want the muscle to match the strength... muscle is cool.
              I think we all have this erroneous idea that becoming very strong means becoming huge like Arnold. I don't think he's against having muscle mass, he's more wondering if it's absolutely necessary to be "big" in order to be strong.
              I used to seriously post here, now I prefer to troll.


              • #8
                oh... then no.


                • #9
                  @iniQuity - Yep, that definitely helps. By functional, I mostly mean "life related" as opposed to any specific sport need. I have twin 8 year old boys and would to have some chance of keeping up with them for at least a few years... I am mostly spending my time on body weight exercises, but will definitely look at the reverse pyramid idea (which makes a lot of sense) during free weight time.

                  @arthur - Yep, what iniQuity said. I would not mind the visable muscles (that would be cool), but functional strength is much more important should any tradeoffs between the two be required. Plus, I am fine with increasing my calories a bit, but have no desire to do something more extreme like GOMAD.

                  Thanks for all of the help so far.


                  • #10
                    As has been said, it is certainly possible to add strength without significant size as cross sectional area and the size of a muscle is just a small part of the overall picture.
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                    • #11
                      You would need to train for years with the sole purpose of building mass to become "unfunctional" and even then with a conditioning workout here and there, you'd be fine.

                      Look at the heavyweight athletes like football players, boxers, strongmen, mma fighters, etc.


                      • #12
                        Eat to support recovery and not in excess to gain mass. You will be fine.
                        If your food is fast, maybe you should fast.


                        • #13
                          Thanks Kaeden.