As I start towards exercising to gain strength, I want to avoid gaining a lot of muscle.

I don't know how accurate it is, but I have heard that muscle size is not related to strength, i.e. the more muscles you have does not mean relate to the stronger you are.

I have a slim build that I would like to maintain.

How can I avoid getting physically bigger yet gain strength?

4 Answers 4



Compound exercises like squats, deadlifts, presses and chin-ups are better than isolation or machine exercises like curls or leg extensions for building useful strength. You might also have success with gymnastic strength training, like Coach Sommer's Building the Gymnastic Body.


If using weights, lift heavy with fewer repetitions will build the most strength while avoiding hypertrophic (mass-building) effects. One to three repetitions of a maximal or near-maximal weight are commonly recommended. This answer is relevant. (If you go with gymnastics instead, ignore this paragraph; it's a different story.)

  • I thought a repetition is the amount of times I would lift the weight. So if I have a very heavy weight I should only lift it 1-3 times? Also, great answer, thanks. Feb 27, 2012 at 6:53
  • You're absolutely correct about repetitions. You only want to do a few repetitions in each set, in each exercise, not including warm-ups. For example, I can probably squat 250 once, but not twice. So I'll warm up with sets of 3 repetitions at light weights (45, 95, 145, 195). Then I'll do three sets of 3 repetitions at 230, resting for five minutes between each set. Feb 27, 2012 at 12:51

Barring some kind of genetic abnormality, you will find almost no examples of a person accidentally gaining too much muscle. In fact, the vast majority of people who want to gain a lot of muscle still find it very difficult to do, because it requires not only an extended dedication to working out, but also a diet consisting of the right types of food -- often more of those foods than they would normally prefer to eat.

To put it simply, avoiding muscle growth is not something that requires any special effort. If your current diet allows you to maintain a "slim" build, simply maintain that diet while following whatever strength training routine you choose, optionally adding a healthy snack to offset the energy you're burning during exercise. The biggest threat to your appearance is probably increased appetite and how you choose to respond to it. If you're not eating specifically to gain, you will most likely gain very little, and what you do gain will come gradually.

There's some fine advice here already on exercises, but make sure you don't ignore the role food plays when it comes to any fitness goal.

  • I have bit of doubt in this regard. If one wants to increase strength but not interested in hypertrophy, then is it ok to depend on appetite to decide how much to eat? I have read in some articles that not eating enough and lifting heavy is a dangerous prospect. Is eating according to appetite 'enough' in this case? Oct 26, 2013 at 5:56

I have heard that muscle size is not related to strength

This is not true.

When lifting increase the speed and number of repetitions. Do not add weight; instead focus on muscle confusion (see p90x).

Also look up, interval training and cardio.

But before anything else speak with your doctor. See what he/she recommends.

  • Yes and no. Initially strength gains will happen with no increase in muscle size, because it's neuromuscular. Then strength gains will happen along with increases in muscle size. After that, size will plateau unless you're deliberately working on size, and strength gains will continue, albeit at a slower rate than before.
    – Robin Ashe
    Jun 29, 2012 at 8:40

Maybe you could exchange the gym for some martial art... maybe you already have a good amount of physical strength and you need some psychical (inner) stregth

Update: I am not proffesional of martial arts yet, its just my opinion.. I now realized that if you wanted to improve only your strength on the bench (and to maintain the weight category on the competition), than maybe my answer is not the right one for you. It was just my first thought as you write to get strength without big muscles.

I think that martial art can prepare you in a little bit other way to use your strength than weightlifting.. it improves your reflexes, concetration, speed, discipline and makes your body to use to the fighting moves automaticaly without first think of the move and to the pain from the punching and kicking (i know its not all about punches..). Maybe the weightlifter can have his punch as strong as muay thai fighter, but by this punch (if he even manages to punch as he is slow) he can broke his fingers or palm if he is not used to it...

Update 2 Maybe you should look for myofibrillar hypertrophy from this article

  • Can you elaborate on how learning a martial art will improve strength? What are the physical characteristics about it that facilitates strength but doesn't build muscle? The more details you can provide in your answer, the better.
    – user241
    Feb 28, 2012 at 16:35
  • updated my answer by realizing something :)
    – Zavael
    Feb 29, 2012 at 7:22
  • 2
    otherwise i thing that Dave Liepmann got the right answer by high weights and few repetitions
    – Zavael
    Feb 29, 2012 at 7:24

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