As I discussed in part 2, one of the best ways to gain strength without size is to train a few reps short of failure.
The closer you train to failure the more potential there is for muscle breakdown…and when a muscle is broken down it has the potential to grow a bit when repaired.
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It doesn’t matter if you lift for 3 reps or 15.
If you train to failure, you create the potential for growth.
A common problem for women, in particular, is that they want firm and slim thighs, without having to go up a size or two in jeans.
These women are told to do sets of 10-15 reps to failure to “shape” the muscle.
This is the wrong approach.
Here’s a song title that captures this approach perfectly:
“Train in Vain” – by The Clash
“You said you love me and that’s a fact. Then you left me, said you felt trapped. Well some things you can explain away, But my heartache’s in me till this day. Did you stand by me? No, not at all. Did you stand by me? No way.” – The Clash
A better approach is to lift short of failure.
…but lifting a light weight, short of failure, isn’t going to do much.
Heavier weights require the muscles to contract harder than lighter weights…and repeated hard contractions are the key to muscle density and definition.
This is also what makes muscles stronger over time.
Mountain climbers are a prime example of strength and extreme muscle density without excess size.
How many sets, reps, etc?
Here are guidelines I typically give as a starting point, for this goal.
- Grab a weight you know you could complete for 8 reps.
- You are going to stop each set, with that weight, at 5 reps.
- Rest around a minute or so in between sets, to ensure the ability to contract the muscles hard each and every set.
- Complete 4-5 sets of an exercise, then move on to the next exercise.
- Choose 2 different exercises per muscle group.
- Each muscle group winds up with 8-10 sets.
- You should feel energized, not fatigued, after your workout.
- This is all covered in much more detail in my Women’s Course and Men’s Course.
I recommend a 2-day split.
- Day 1: Back, Chest, and Legs
- Day 2: Shoulders, Biceps, Triceps, and Abs
Note: So 2 exercises for back, 2 exercises for chest, 2 exercises for legs, etc…
If your legs are already more muscular than you would like, drop the direct leg work on Day 1.
Finishing off your workout with a bit of cardio will maintain muscle tone while you drop a bit of mass on your legs.
Personal Trainers hate it when I give this advice.
…but if a muscle group is larger than desired, why do exercises that will potentially make that muscle group even larger?
Music Break: Time for some classic trance.
This song reminds me of back in the 90’s, when I used to stay up until 4:00AM… dancing in a dark, random warehouse filled with fog from a fog machine (I still remember the smell of that stuff).
What exercises should you use?
What effective exercises do you enjoy?
Honestly…pick the two exercises that you really feel in a muscle group.
Use those exercises to begin with.
It’s fine to use machines, free weights, cables, kettlebells, etc.
I gravitate towards mainly using free weights, with a mix of machines… but seriously don’t get hung up on the type of resistance.
Remember, the goal is hard contractions short of failure.
Many exercises will allow you to accomplish that.
You will still increase the weight as you get stronger.
Although you are lifting short of failure, as you get stronger and exercises begin to feel light…gradually increase the weight.
This is a way to become strong, without adding size.
Remember, you will still be lifting 3+ reps short of failure…only now it will be with a heavier weight (stronger contractions).
Your legs are big, but you want to add size to your upper body?
Whatever muscle group you DO want to add size to, do these things:
- Lift to failure.
- Aim for anywhere between 5-12 reps per set.
- Your muscles should feel fatigued, not energized, when the workout is complete.
Hopefully, this gives you a solid, yet flexible outline to follow.
Increasing strength and density without size is NOT difficult.
The problem is the fact that personal trainers pride themselves on pushing their clients hard…
…on pushing their clients to failure and beyond.
My focus is on helping people achieve their goals, not how painful I can make a workout.
Until next time,
As a former fitness coach to fashion models, I can teach you how to increase muscle definition without adding size.
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