Sure, lots of guys at your local gym want to get as unbelievably jacked as possible. But believe it or not, not every athlete wants to build massive muscles.
Consider gymnasts, who use their own body weight as their primary resistance. They need strength, but additional bulk can be more of a hindrance than a help. Likewise, athletes who compete in weight classes—like wrestlers, MMA fighters, boxers, and competitive weightlifters—want to be as strong as possible while trimming away any unnecessary weight.
So how to gain strength without the size?
First, remember that strength isn't solely a property of muscle, but rather a property of the neuromuscular system. So going for the "pump"—total muscle exhaustion and complete muscle annihilation—is not the name of the game here. Your body increases its strength by a) recruiting more muscle fibers in a particular muscle group and b) increasing the firing frequency of your motor neurons (neurons and muscle fibers). Apply these methods below to increase your strength without inflating yourself.
1. Lift Heavy
Lifting heavy (greater than 90% of your one-rep max 1RM) will improve strength by recruiting what are called high-threshold motor units. The muscle fibers associated with these motor units have the most potential for increasing strength. However, they fatigue quickly. Maximal lifting is best applied to multijoint exercises (e.g., squats, deadlifts, presses, and pulls). Even though the weight is heavy, your intent should be to move the weight as fast as possible. This will ensure you’re recruiting as many fast-twitch muscle fibers as possible.
2. Lift Explosively
Speed lifts (e.g., box squats, speed deads, and speed bench) are an excellent lifting style to teach acceleration and power development. Loads around 60% 1RM should be used and moved as fast as possible. Accommodating resistance (e.g., bands and chains) can be applied to further challenge your ability to accelerate the load. Obvious explosive exercises that should come to mind are the Olympic lifts (e.g., clean & jerk and the snatch). However, medicine ball throws and kettlebell swings also fit into this category as well.
3. Do Plyometrics
Otherwise known as jump training, plyometric training involves hop- and jump-type exercises that train and develop what’s called the stretch shortening cycle. The stretch shortening cycle teaches the body to better utilize stored elastic energy to produce stronger and more forceful contractions. This improvement in reactive ability can also be explained by improvements in muscle-tendon stiffness. Body-weight or weighted plyometric exercises can be utilized such as consecutive body-weight jumps over hurdles or continuous dumbbell jump squats.
4. Slash the Volume
A common protocol for building size and strength is 5x5; that is, five sets of five reps. But if you want to focus on strength over size, try doing just two or three sets. Lowering the volume and focusing on moving the weight quickly will have a better training effect for improving strength and explosive power rather than the size of muscle. You should also experiment with logging fewer training sessions per week, which will give your central nervous system more time to recover between strength-focused training sessions.
5. Use Sprints and Drills
Nothing builds running speed and quickness on the field than sprinting itself. Performing sprint intervals or hill sprints (linear) or agility drills (multi-directional) will help develop strength and power specific to running and cutting. Being able to accelerate—and decelerate—on the field will make you stand out among the slower, less-coordinated players.
6. Try Contrast Training
Contrast training incorporates heavy strength training with plyometric training in the same workout. The physiological mechanism behind this training method is known as post-activation potentiation, or PAP for short. Basically, you'll start with a heavy strength training exercise (roughly five-rep max). After a 3–10 minute break, you'll do a similar plyometric exercise for about 5-10 reps.
Research has shown an improvement (or potentiation) of the plyometric exercise, in that more force and power can be developed. An example is back squats followed by tuck jumps.
Just be sure to take some time. If the break between the strength and plyometric exercise is too short, you’ll experience fatigue and a decrease in jump performance. It’s not a superset, so don’t perform these exercises like a circuit.
7. Rest Longer
When bodybuilding or training for muscle growth, lifters typically rest for only about 30-60 seconds between sets. When training for strength, though, you should increase your rest period to about 2–5 minutes, depending on the exercise. Because you're lifting heavier loads, your body will need those longer rest periods to ensure you complete the same number of reps in the subsequent sets. Your mental strength and ability to focus on the heavy set will also appreciate the longer break.
8. Hit Weak Links
You’re only going to be as strong as your weakest link. The major muscle groups that perform traditional exercises are known as your prime movers (e.g., pecs, lats, quadriceps, hamstrings, gluteus maximus, deltoids, etc.). Often, an athlete's weakest link will be his behind-the-scenes muscles, (e.g., rotator cuff, middle and lower trapezius, serratus anterior gluteus medius, abdominals, etc.). Incorporating exercises to strengthen these muscles will reduce the chance for muscle imbalances and decrease your risk for injury. The better able you are at recruiting these muscles, the more potential you have of increasing the strength in your prime movers.
9. Prioritize Simple Strength Training
Yeah, we've seen those Facebook videos of dudes squatting on top of hoverboards or stability balls. But here's the reality: Strength training shouldn’t be a circus act. Functional training has its place, and adding instability to your workout isn't a bad option for rehab or accessory balance work. But if you're really focused on training for strength, then just focus on strength! Stand on stable ground, focus on proper form, and make sure you're recovering properly to fuel your progress. Otherwise, you're liable to just waste your time.
10. Don't Static Stretch Before Workouts
Back in high school gym class, your teacher probably told you to static stretch prior to working out. News flash, coach: Dynamic warmups are now recommended to prepare you for your exercise session or competition, especially because static stretching has been shown to negatively influence strength and power production, speed, jump performance, and agility. To better prepare you for your strength and plyometric training-type workouts, save your static stretching for after the session.