Skip to main content

The Globe and Mail

How to get stronger (without getting bulky)

The question: I want to get extremely strong and more powerful for my sport. Is it possible to do that without getting bulky?

The answer: Absolutely! I completely understand your desire. As a triathlete, I have a similar goal.

The trick? If appropriate, do "relative" strength-training. I describe relative strength as being strong and lean like a gymnast, not bulky and impenetrable like a linebacker. To do that, try multijoint exercises like squats followed by bench presses with a weight that is challenging to lift for fewer than seven reps.

Story continues below advertisement

Doing fewer than seven reps will result in a relative strength response, but such heavy weight-training is also hard on the body. It is not appropriate for beginners or for anyone currently recovering from an injury. If you are healthy and have strength-trained regularly for a minimum of six months, go ahead and try it. When counting your six months, don't confuse regular cardio workouts with regular strength-training. Even if you are a cardio fanatic, you should spend six months building a strength-training base.

As a triathlete I struggle with this. I feel like I train all the time, but since I prioritize running and cycling for my sport I constantly have to remind myself to perfect my lifts.

Start with two sets of 12 to 15 repetitions of common multijoint exercises like squats and rows. Build up to four sets. Next, use a heavier weight for eight to 10 reps.

Once you have perfected your form and are comfortable lifting a heavy weight, only then should you start working with an even heavier weight within the relative strength zone of seven or fewer repetitions. Round out your workout with exercises that focus on your smaller muscles. Think lateral raises, reverse flys and external shoulder rotations. Do more repetitions with a lighter weight.

To avoid injury and burnout, cycle through different phases of training. You can prioritize relative strength-training overall, but don't do it year-round.

Trainer's tip: Be mindful not to accidentally engage in a hypertrophiy workout rather than a relative strength one. Hypertrophy training is a way of adding muscle bulk, which is a result of doing a high volume of training with weight appropriate for eight to 12 reps. You have to begin in that zone in order to familiarize yourself with heavy weights, but don't inadvertently allow the majority of your training to linger there.

Kathleen Trotter has been a personal trainer and Pilates equipment specialist for 10 years. Her website is www.kathleentrotter.com.

Story continues below advertisement

Report an error
Comments

The Globe invites you to share your views. Please stay on topic and be respectful to everyone. For more information on our commenting policies and how our community-based moderation works, please read our Community Guidelines and our Terms and Conditions.

We’ve made some technical updates to our commenting software. If you are experiencing any issues posting comments, simply log out and log back in.

Discussion loading… ✨

Combined Shape Created with Sketch.

Combined Shape Created with Sketch.

Thank you!

You are now subscribed to the newsletter at

You can unsubscribe from this newsletter or Globe promotions at any time by clicking the link at the bottom of the newsletter, or by emailing us at privacy@globeandmail.com.