Do you have to build muscle to get stronger?
The Short answer is no.
However if you know me I am never happy with the short answer. Increasing strength without building muscle can be done and is done all the time. Let’s dive into how we can increase strength without building muscle.
The best and fastest way to get strong is lifting heavy. We want to lift around 90% of our 1RM (1 rep max). Lifting this heavy helps recruit more high-threshold motor units. Motor units coordinate the contraction of muscles.
Motor units have the potential to help us increase strength, they do fatigue fast causing the need to take longer breaks, more on breaks later.
We will also need to use multi joint movements like squats, deadlifts, bench press, and pull ups. These movements are the backbone of true strength. We can lift heavier if we use multi joint movements.
This would include a few things like speed lifts, olympic lifts and plyometrics.
Speed lifts are something that were made popular by a powerlifting gym called WestSide Barbell. Speed lifts are exercises performed as fast as possible at around 60% of your 1RM. You even add other resistance like chains or bands for a different type of resistance.
Olympic weight lifting is another type of explosive lift. These lifts are similar to the speed lifts in which you are moving the weight as fast as possible. Olympic lifts are typically only the cleans and snatches.
Plyometric movements, this will be anything like jumps, throws, and kettlebell swings.
Do less reps during your workout sessions. A popular method of getting stronger and building muscle is the 5x5 program. This is 5 sets of 5 reps done at 80% of your 1RM.
You can take the same idea and lessen the reps to 3, 2, or 1 rep, allowing you the strength benefits without the muscle gain.
Also do less workout during the week. Instead of following a traditional bodybuilder split of 4-5 days. Do a fitness model where you do 1-3 strength workouts working your full body every workout. Sometimes less is better.
Take longer breaks between lifts. When bodybuilding it is recommended to rest 30-60 seconds in order to cause as many micro tears to the muscles as possible. When repaired this allows the muscles to see as much growth as possible.
Instead rest anything from 2-5 minutes, if you are lifting heavy weights you burn a lot of energy. It takes time to rebuild these energy stores. This does depend on the movement you are performing.
Cleaning up and imbalances or weaknesses will help make you stronger almost instantly.
Think about it, if a muscle is not firing properly or is weaker than the other side, you have to work more to lift the weight.
Rotator cuffs, traps, and glutes are typical areas that are weak.
If there is a movement that is under utilized in the gym it is heavy carries.
Think about it, we go to the gym and train for functional reasons. We squat, we pick things up off the floor, we bench press, overhead press, run, and walk. All great movements, however the one thing we do all day every day, carry, we never train.
Pick up heavy things and carry for a distance will make you stronger almost overnight.
This is only a few ways we can increase our strength without putting on a ton of muscle. To quote Mark Bell “Strength is never a weakness and weakness is never a strength”. Building strength is alway going to be a benefit. Just like muscle is beneficial, however it may not be the ideal look for everyone.