One thing I often hear from clients is they don't want to get too bulky. They don't want to look big like those bodybuilders in the magazines. Maybe you have this same concern.
You don't want to look like a professional bodybuilder.
That's not your style. What a lot of folks don't realize is the amount of dedication, hard work, and consistency over a long period of time that it takes to reach that level of muscularity.
It's not easy building a large amount of muscle mass. Anyone can bulk and get big and fat, but to be big and muscular, with some veins and abs is a whole different level of dedication.
If you don't want that look, you won't get it by chance. You won't get it by doing a few hard workouts for a couple months and drinking a few protein shakes.
What kind of program should you follow to get stronger without adding bulk?
Strength Training Recommendations
To gain strength without getting bulky, you want to keep your volume on the lower side. The exact number will vary from person to person but generally you want to stick to a set/rep range like three or four sets of four to six reps.
Every training program will add some muscle, but you can determine how much by choosing the proper amount of volume. Your training volume is the amount of sets and reps you perform for each exercise. You don't need to do a ton of reps to gain strength. In fact, doing so would be counter-productive. For your goal of strength without adding bulk, keep the majority of your lifting on the lower end of the volume spectrum.
I'm not going to recommend a specific program here but I will give you some recommendations that will help you gain strength without adding bulk.
Perform some variation of squats, presses, pulls from the floor, pullups, dips and fill in the rest with whatever lifts you like to work those areas you want to improve.
Stick to reps between 4-6 for most lifts. If your goal is pure strength, you'll need to mix in some lower rep work on squats, deadlifts, bench presses and overhead presses.
You don't need some fancy complicated routine made for professional bodybuilders or powerlifters. Do some basic lifts, get stronger at them and change it up every few weeks for variety and to keep it fun.
Diet for Strength without Bulk
When you are trying to gain strength without adding size, you need sufficient calories to provide your body with the right amount of fuel, but not so many that will add extra bulk to your frame. You have to find the sweet spot where you can maintain your current bodyweight and still get stronger.
There are many guides online that can help you determine how many calories you require to maintain your bodyweight. In my experience, the best way is to track your nutrition for a week. Be meticulous. Write down every drink, every snack. At the end of the week add up the numbers and take the average for each day. If that's a normal week of eating for you in which you don't gain or lose weight, that will be your maintenance number of calories per day.
In general, you want to eat mostly whole foods with plenty of essential nutrients. Your body needs essential amino acids, essential fatty acids, vitamins, minerals and water. You know what gives you energy and what drains you. There's no need to be perfect with your diet but aim for 90/10 of good foods that energize you vs. junky foods that are harder for your body to process and don't add much nutritional value.
If you are gaining weight, you need to eat less. It's simple but it's almost always the answer. If you have no idea how many calories you consume, it's a good idea to track your diet for at least a week to get a better handle on your numbers.
In addition to your strength training routine and nutrition plan, you also need to include some cardiovascular training in your exercise regimen.
I recommend a daily walk to all my clients. That's the minimum. Beyond that, it depends on your specific goals but let's assume you want to be strong, lean and fit. There are so many options with cardio training that it may seem overwhelming. Should you do steady-state cardio for long distances or high-intensity interval training for short times?
The answer is both.
Each form of cardio has unique benefits. No one way is the best for everyone. What I like to do is pick out two pieces of cardio equipment. For example a rower and an airdyne bike.
For the rower you can do steady-state cardio for longer time and distance, and with the airdyne you'd perform intervals for a much shorter cardio workout. Both options are great and produce a different response in the body.
Long, slow cardio is great for the heart, lungs, organs, stress-relief and general health. It's also easy on the joints. High-intensity intervals are great for increasing fat burning mechanisms, improving athletic performance and are completed quickly.
As a general rule, don't go overboard with the high-intensity interval training. (HIIT) Once or twice a week is plenty. The other days you can do as much cardio as you want as long as it's not interfering with your strength gains.
Some people like to do extra cardio to make up for a few extra calories on the weekend. There's nothing wrong with that approach but you are just adding more time to your workouts. If you're short on time, you may want to reevaluate your dietary habits.
Put it into Action!
If your goal is to gain strength without getting bulky, you now have a blueprint. Keep your volume low with your lifting, track your calories and maintain the correct number to keep your bodyweight the same and perform a few days of cardio each week.
Keep it simple and stay consistent.
Over time you will reach your goals!
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