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Ask the Expert: How can I increase my overall strength without getting too big and bulky?

Q:  I recently started weight training.  How can I increase my overall strength without getting too big and bulky?

A:  We hear this question a lot at H3.  Women and men alike are concerned that when they begin a strength training program that they will inevitably develop large muscles.  In reality, this is not the case.  To see why, let’s begin by understanding the basic factors associated with muscle growth.

First, gender: men produce greater amounts of testosterone, increasing their rate of muscle growth.  On the other hand, women’s bodies do not store high levels of such anabolic enhancers.  Thus, men have the ability to generate muscle development at a faster rate then women.

Next, calories: the number of calories we eat directly influences the enlargement of our muscle cells.  A restricted diet puts the body into a caloric deficit and the muscles do not have enough nutritional supplementation to produce muscle growth.  Therefore, to increase muscle size you must ingest a higher number of calories.

Finally, protein: the amount of protein consumed correlates with the rate of muscle gain.  In most cases, a reduced calorie diet will not include enough protein to produce an increase in muscle size.  During a weight loss program, the goal of strength training is to maintain muscle size and avoid atrophy.

Now that you better understand muscle growth, we can create a long-term weight program to increase strength, but not size.  First, use a lighter weight with a higher number of repetitions.  Choose a weight that will exhaust the target muscle in 18-22 repetitions.  Secondly, strength gain is possible only if you follow the “principle of progression.”  In other words, increase the frequency (number of reps) before increasing the intensity (weight) used for the exercise.  If you implement these two factors you will ensure a steady increase in muscle strength without any growth in the size of the muscle cells.

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