How To Get Stronger Without Getting Bigger

Wait, did he just say what I think he did?

Get stronger without getting bigger?

But Why?

Well my friends, not everyone wants to be big.

There are plenty of sports that require strength without packing on too much bulk.

Think combat sports, gymnastics and even a lot of track and field events. 

Not only that but if your main form of training contains a lot of bodyweight movement, then the extra weight you gain from added muscle mass will actually work against you. 

Being big and being strong are too different things.

If you didn’t already know, muscle is actually heavier than fat.

A lot of people find this out the hard when starting with weight training. 

So if size isn’t as important for you as strength then you need lift heavier less times basically.

3-5 sets of 3-6 reps at a heavier load with longer rest between sets and you’re well on way to getting stronger. 

You also want to make compound lifts your focus rather than isolated movements.

We’ll get more into compound vs isolated soon.

But for now, put down the dumbbells and pick up a barbell!

When I have new clients, and especially beginners to training, the first thing we do is talk about their goals.

Weight Loss is usually a goal for people starting out with a trainer. 

A lot of times though people are reasonably happy with the overall size of their arms and legs, they just want to be toned.

And of course, to become more toned you need to burn some fat. 

But you also need to build muscle.

I’ve seen it so many times where people get stuck into their new diet and training and burn a lot of fat.

They hit their goal weight only to find they now look very skinny! 

They then proceed to putting some muscle back on to get back to back to a size that looks more healthy.

But this time with the lean build they were chasing. 

I always explain this to new clients when talking over the plan for their training moving forward.

I tell them the first step is to work on their strength and build a little bit of muscle. 

Once training is a habit and we can see the improvements in strength and we can feel muscle building we start to make diet and burning fat a big focus. 

Even while focusing on fat burning, building strength is an ongoing focus.

Once we’ve developed muscle in the places they were lacking, we make those muscles strong! 

And building strength over size or vise versa isn’t too completed. It’s simply a matter of calories and reps x load. 

Hypertrophy Vs Strength Training

 Hypertrophy is the increase and growth of muscle cells.
If bodybuilding is your goal then hypertrophy training is for you, and there are plenty of tried and tested methods for doing this. 

But the basic principle for building muscle mass is reps, reps, reps!

Big sets of big reps.

To do this you would be lifting lighter weight then the person next to you training for strength. 

Sets and rep ranges, the more the better.

Aim for 4-6 sets of 8-12 reps with about 30 seconds to a minute rest between sets.

You can start doing things like slowing down the movement, spending more time under tension. 

You would typically start a workout with the barbell and get all your big compound lifts done.

Compound lifts are movements that use more than one joint. 

Think Bench press, when you perform a bench press you are bending at the elbows and shoulders.

And when you use more joints you are using the muscles that move that joint. 

So while being predominantly a chest movement, bench press is also using your triceps, shoulders and core.

Making this a very effective way to start your chest workout.

Next you would move onto dumbbells.

Using a chest or push session as an example you could follow up bench with dumbbell flyes or skull crushers. 

After finishing up a few movements with the dumbs you could finish off the muscles over on the cable machines.

If you haven’t already done flyers you can do them with the cables or possibly tricep pull overs. 

Finishing up with the cables is what’s going to really exhaust your muscles.

As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, cable machines keep tension on your muscles for the duration of the movement.

More time under tension = more work for the muscles!

But don’t forget, if you’re not eating enough you won’t gain weight! 


Training for strength is a different kettle of fish.
And the extra calories in your diet aren’t necessary.
You won’t be doing nearly as many reps or exercises. 

If you’re training for strength compound lifts is all you really need to worry about.

Squats, Deadlifts, Bench press, Overhead Press, Bent over rows and Pull ups. 

You can add in olympic lifts, gymnastics movements and kettlebell for sure.

But to keep it simple for a beginner you only need to focus on the main compound lifts. 

So when you train for strength a typical rep range is 3-6 reps.

You would aim to be doing 3-5 sets per exercise with heavier weight.

But because you’ll be lifting so much heavier you want to have longer rests between sets. 

The 5×5 strong lifts is a great place to start with strength training.

This is actually where I started out when I got into training at a gym. 

The 5×5 strong lifts program has a few versions now but the version I would encourage trying is as follows


Work out A

Squats 5×5

Bench 5×5

Bent row 5×5


Workout B

Squats 5×5

Overhead Press 5×5

Deadlift 5×1-3


So if you were to do 3 sessions per week it could be split up like so.


Week 1

Monday: Workout A

Tuesday: Rest

Wednesday: Workout B

Thursday: Rest

Friday: Workout A

Weekend: Rest


Week 2

Monday: Workout B

Tuesday: Rest

Wednesday: Workout A

Thursday: Rest

Friday: Workout B

Weekend: Rest


Start lighter than you think with the weights for each movement but every day you do the movement again add 5lbs/2.5kgs but 10lbs/5kgs for deadlift. 

This is how we apply progressive overload. So keep notes on your training numbers.

The weight for squats is going to build but fast, so when you hit a plateau or can’t make it through the full 5 sets keep a note of that. 

If you can’t finish the sets on a movement for 3 sessions in a row, drop weight back down again. 

Why Do I Gain Strength But Not Size

This is a question I hear all the time, and something I struggled with myself when I first got into training.

And sometimes the problem is as simple as using the wrong rep ranges. 

But typically the problem is food.

You’re not eating enough of it!

You need to fuel your body and give your muscles enough protein to ensure they are recovering correctly from the workout. 

The best way to do this is by tracking your calories and macronutrients.

But remember its one thing to eat a lot.

It’s another thing to eat clean and fuel your body to build lean muscle.

Check out my article on tracking what you eat here. 

Another big problem people have is not resting enough.

You need to let your body recover, you can’t train every day and expect your muscles to grow.

It just doesn’t work like that. 

When you sleep your muscles start knitting back together bigger and stronger so they can handle the load easier next time.

So make sure you get a good night’s sleep in. And have a rest day from training if not 2 per week. 

There’s a good chance that you, like so many others are missing the 3rd ingredient for successfully achieving the body you want.

The first 2 are diet and exercise.

The 3rd a final part is discipline and building the habit you need to sustain healthy eating and exercise routines.

That’s why I created The Grizzly Method.

I put all 3 things together to help you take back control and finally achieve the body you want.

To find out more, book your FREE evaluation call with me now!