Strength without size – How women can get stronger without getting bulky

By guest author Geoff Girvitz

The first thing I want to tell you is that this article is for women. I am — in case you’re wondering — a man. I hope that’s cool. I’m writing this because you’ve come to this site looking for advice on strength and conditioning (or maybe just getting “toned”), but may not really believe that lifting heavy things will help you. You may actually think that doing so will make you bulky, unfeminine or some other terrible thing. I want you to be clear on what proper training will and won’t do. And I want you to maximize your potential.

Staying weak because of how it might make you look is the same as staying illiterate for fear of appearing nerdy. Stop it. You’re better than that.

I see you made it to the third paragraph. Welcome! This is the part where I tell you that women have somehow been sold a false bill of goods when it comes to working out. Guys certainly have their own douchebag idiosyncrasies, but that’s for another article at another time. In this one, I’m going to tell you that high reps with very low weight do not “tone.” They do not strengthen. They pretty much just waste your time. Below I’ll provide details for some of the things that do not waste your time. If you want to know why flapping your arms around with purple dumbbells is not typically helpful, you should be able to do the math on your own by the end of our magical journey.

I don’t have the space (translate: patience) here to detail an approach to every possible physical goal, so I’m going to focus on the following:

1. Looking better naked
2. Getting stronger
3. Not gaining unwanted muscle

I am going to help you with the items above. But before I do, there is another list of things that we need to be clear on:

1. Lifting heavy things is essential for maximizing strength
2. Looking better naked can be achieved far more efficiently if you’re already strong
3. It’s possible to get strong without significant gains in size
4. Being strong is, in fact, pretty awesome

Now is the time for you to get over any pictures of female bodybuilders you may have been unintentionally scarred by. These women don’t look masculine because of strength training; they look masculine — first and foremost — because they take male hormones. Don’t want to look masculine? Don’t take androgens. It’s pretty simple.

Even if you’re not a fan of bodybuilders, it’s an insult to all their hard work to think that you might look anything like them without years of ungodly dedication, unwavering adherence to programs specifically designed for size gain, great genetics and (most likely) some unnatural supplementation. Without embracing the lifestyle wholeheartedly, the closest you’re ever likely to get will be a bad spray-on tan. So, put that stuff out of your head.

This may come as a bit of a surprise, but most people who train for performance (aka athletes) don’t actually want to put on size. With a few notable exceptions, carrying unneeded muscle around makes about as much sense as strapping a car engine to the back of your bicycle. So instead of packing new muscle onto to their bodies, athletes make the most of what they already have. In other words, they get stronger by becoming more efficient. Like most good training, this involves fine-tuning the nervous system.

To give you an idea of how nervous system-focused work impacts strength development, I’m about to drop science on you like a clumsy chemist, so if your eyes are going to glaze over, just skip the next section. If not, here we go…

the science of strength

Signals from your brain travel from your spinal column into motor neurons. Motor neurons connect to multiple muscle fibers. This little assembly is called a motor unit. Bear in mind that multiple motor units comprise any given muscle. If your brain is the boss and your muscle fibers are workers, then motor units are middle managers – overseeing numerous team members. If one of them isn’t working, then their entire team (in this case, the entire group of muscle fibers) won’t work. There’s no halfway here; it’s all or nothing.

In an untrained person, motor unit recruitment is generally pretty lackluster. The brain will send out the signal for a certain movement (the ubiquitous biceps curl, for example), but only about half of the motor units assigned to that movement will be activated. By tapping into these dormant muscle fibers, we are able significantly increase strength with a minimum of outward change. Cool, no? It’s kind of like discovering a superpower. Before we start jumping over buildings, though, we need to understand why so much strength has been lying dormant within you.

To further stretch out an already fatigued analogy, your middle managers have been taking three-hour lunch breaks for years and no one has even noticed. Why? There’s been no need for adaptation. If you don’t consistently challenge your muscles with enough weight to require full recruitment, this adaptation will never occur. No heavy weight with any consistency = no need to lift heavy weight. It’s simple.

If we truly want to get stronger, we’re going to change the way we do things. Especially if we want to put down the purple dumbbells and reap the benefits of powerful, efficient workouts. Since the progression of motor unit recruitment (what gets turned on first) follows the transition from light stuff to heavy stuff, to access the whole workforce, we’re going to need something heavy. How heavy? The research tells us 80% or more of capacity (what you can lift for one repetition) {kat note: Cathe’s new STS series of dvd’s deals with the 1 Rep Max}.

In absolute terms, this translates to a big difference between, say, what a mighty lumberjack can lift vs. a self-cutting emo vegan. However, in relative terms, both should find their respective loads to be extremely challenging. Remember this: no matter who you are, these workouts will be tough. Strong people don’t get off any easier.

“Wait. Wait! Wait! Wait! How can all this not make my muscles bigger?”

Okay, I’m not going to lie to you. If you are weak and have never done any real strength training, you will see some adaptations pretty quickly. For example, you’ll need stronger forearms just to hold onto enough weight. Listen. Please. The gains you’ll experience will not be linear. They will not continue forever. Do not freak out about them or delude yourself into thinking that you will turn into She-Hulk overnight. Unless your mom and dad were both Olympic shot-putters or you gained superpowers in a freak atomic accident, the odds are far, far lower than you think. Far lower.

“Are you sure I won’t get bigger after this initial period of adaptation?”

Emphasizing or de-emphasizing size gains comes down to the following factors:

* Caloric surplus: If you don’t exceed your daily caloric needs, you will not have the raw material to build new muscle. Although it’s rare to meet a female athlete who takes in enough protein anyway, suffice it to say that if you’re getting less than a gram of protein per pound of bodyweight per day (what is, in my opinion, the minimum required for maintenance), Ms. Olympia will not be calling.

* Density: Two parts here:
o Trying to lift maximal loads while fatigued is kind of like practicing chess while drunk. After months — even years — of this approach, you will still suck. As such, it’s essential to ensure that ATP (the fuel for muscular contraction within the cell) is completely replenished before you lift. This process takes between four and five minutes so I’ll give you some details on how to best make use of your downtime in Part 2 of this article.
o Most of the stresses responsible for hypertrophy (increased muscle size) come from creating a stressful intracellular environment. Lowered PH (more acidity) and increased accumulation of waste products impair performance. Your body will respond by increasing its capacity to restore balance. It’s these adaptations that are largely responsible for size. So, to avoid them, you need to avoid stresses. By sticking with rest periods long enough to facilitate full ATP recovery, you will have also waited long enough for the cell environment to normalize.

* Volume: Once again, the root of adaptation is stress. There are a number of peripheral factors (including the degree of damage inflicted on your muscles) that will accumulate in spite of lengthened rest times. To avoid these, we’ll reign total volume in somewhere between 24 and 30 total reps (that’s the total number for all sets of any given exercise). We’ll get into actual set numbers in Part 2.

* Intensity: As stated above, we need loads in excess of 80% of our single-rep maximum for neurological improvement. You don’t need to be scared of big weights, but you need to be respectful and train safely.

* Tempo: There’s a lot to be said for slow, controlled reps. I emphasize these for beginners because of what they bring to the table in terms of coordination and control. With those skills as a prerequisite, people training for performance, not size, should move fast. How fast? If we go by Canadian strength coach Charles Poliquin’s recipe for hypertrophy as being 30-70 seconds of time under tension, then having the total time for your set come in at under 30 seconds will be fine. For the type of lower-rep sets that we’ll be getting into, a fast lift and controlled eccentric (lowering) motion will be more than enough to ensure this.

* Training frequency: Since training your nervous system for strength is similar to practicing a fine motor skill, there’s only one way to get to Carnegie Hall. Instead of practicing scales, though, you’re going to squat, deadlift, press and pull. The low volume of your workouts will help minimize the accumulated factors that contribute to hypertrophy.

Do you feel better? Do you at least believe that you can add strength without size? I hope so. There’s not a whole lot more that needs to be said. However, you may still have some questions about how heavy weights relate to looking hotter. Fair enough.

It’s like this: the amount of energy you expend correlates directly to the total amount of work you do. If you are so weak that you can only move itty-bitty weights and your fastest sprint is a lame jog then your workout productivity will be limited and you will be sad. However, if you are so strong that you can move great big weights and that your fastest sprint can blister the paint off of nearby houses, your workout productivity will be great and you will rejoice. In practical terms, when strong people perform energy-intensive work, they get more done in the same amount of time. These workouts are not easier, but they are superior.

Put into the framework of circuit training (performing groups of exercises), your strength development will translate into highly effective workouts that absolutely blow any kind of low-weight, high-rep program out of the water. Instead of performing bad cardio with minimal strength gain, you will be stronger and leaner in less time. You will develop the kind of muscle tone you’ve always wanted with strength to go along with it (surpass it, actually). Most importantly, you will begin your transformation into a bad-ass.

This concludes Part 1 of this article. We’ve gone over all the conceptual stuff. I’m hoping that any remaining questions you have pertain to the nitty gritty of working out. We’ll get to those details in Part 2…

In the first part of this article, we discovered why lifting weights for strength is not going to turn you into a she-beast. To this end, I provided several ways to minimize size gains just in case there was any residual paranoia. In the second part (you know, the one you’re reading now), I’m going to give you some concrete examples of how to put the theory of getting stronger into practice.

Safety first… information a distant third

One of the main barriers to mainstream advice about women’s strength training is fear. Not fear of angry Amazons roaming the streets and flipping over parked cars. Rather, a fear of litigation. After all, the potential for injury certainly can rise alongside the number of plates on a barbell. The amount of detail that goes into teaching proper lifts is substantial. In Starting Strength, Mark Rippetoe’s primer on core lifts, 40 dense pages are dedicated to the squat alone. Even with all that information, a whole bunch of supervision and guidance is needed for most people. It’s easier (and far less contentious) for magazines to include an adorable dumbbell complex that will let you hit those stubborn spots, you saucy, saucy modern woman. Saucy!

Well, guess what? I don’t want to get sued either. So, before you attempt to squat your bodyweight, you’re going to need to get things right with broomstick weight. Proper exercise technique is beyond the scope of this article, though, so if it’s still something you’re working on, please continue to do so until you (and your body) are ready to start lifting heavy.

The truth about program design

Designing custom programs for any one of you unique snowflakes out there is something I really enjoy. It’s an exercise in creative problem solving . . . one of my favourite things. That’s why it’s kind of a bummer to have to generalize for a wide audience. It’s like a lottery where I offer up six digits and you have to check your ticket (in this case, your specific physical status and goals) to see if they match. Some people will find the program template below closer to what they need. Some people will find it farther. For a tiny number, it might even hit their needs exactly. We all just hope it’s not some a-hole who already has a six pack and 400 lb push press.

The good news is that there are a few things we can do to ensure you’ve got most of those numbers right before you buy your ticket.

1. You need to have been lifting consistently for at least a couple of months. This foundational stage is necessary to help develop connective tissue and tendon strength, proprioception, technique and enough neuromuscular activation to even make this worthwhile. In other words, your joints need to be strong enough to take this, and your body needs to have at least a good working theory of where your arms and legs are at any given moment.

2. You need to know what muscular failure really feels like. Not muscular discomfort. Not muscular annoyance. Failure. The imaginary scenario I like to use is this: an eccentric man in a coonskin cap wanders into the gym as you finish an exercise. “I will give you $10,000 if you do one more rep,” he says. When your student loans go unpaid, that’s failure.

3. You need to have your technique down pat. If you’re still at a beginning stage, don’t worry. This is the perfect time for you to be practicing squat and deadlift technique with low intensity (just enough to keep you honest). Don’t rush things. Progressing at the right times will be the fastest long-term approach anyway.

4. Don’t be [a] baby. Think carefully about starting this program. If you’re going to start it, see it through. Don’t second-guess yourself every couple of steps. I can honestly say that you will get more out of sticking with a less-than-ideal program than faffing around with minimal consistency. In fact, learning (with confidence) what doesn’t work for you can be well worth the time investment over the long haul.

5. Understand that it’s impossible to get big overnight from lifting weights (unless you drop one on yourself). Give yourself a chance to maximize strength. Even if we wanted to get as huge as possible, it would still be a slow progression. So, know that if you’re unhappy with any muscle you might be putting on, you will be able to stop at any step of the way.

6. Know when to push yourself and when to rest. Session to session, this means sucking it up when you need to and leaving enough rest time for full recovery. Week to week, this means sticking with programming, but deloading when prescribed.

While many people fail to work anywhere near hard enough, there are always a few hardcore nutcases (if you’re reading this article, you’re more than likely to be one) that have trouble getting in enough recovery time. For the latter, if you do happen to feel very fatigued, you may want to either lighten the load or take a day off. Don’t be a tough guy until it’s time to be a tough guy.

Primary concepts

Here are a few basics to know.

Circuit training

The primary fuel your muscles use for contraction is ATP. How much gets eaten up is based, in part, on how long your muscles are contracting. For maximal work, you’ve got about 8-10 seconds worth of this stuff. That in itself is an interesting fact.

Once your initial stores of ATP and CP are taxed, your limit strength drops to about 70% of what it was. Longer lifts, despite feeling like more work, do not help you maximize strength development. To keep your total time under tension to be under 11 seconds, sets have to be shorter. That’s why, as a general rule, sets for strength development are typically 5 reps or under. This is important for maximizing strength while minimizing the stresses that trigger hypertrophy (aka muscle mass gain).

The time requred for ATP/CP stores to fully recover is 4-5 minutes. Since we’ve all got better things to do than sit around admiring our guns in the mirror for 4+ minutes after every set (most of us, anyway), circuits are a great way to make use of this time. While we challenge one muscle group, another can rest.

Muscular failure

You actually won’t be going to failure on every exercise. That would be too fatiguing – especially for the frequency of training in this program. However, you should periodically push yourself to failure on different exercises (one per session is plenty) to give yourself a clear idea of whether or not the weight you’ve selected is adequately challenging.


Try to change up the exercises you’re doing in a specific circuit every 2-3 weeks.

The fall of the machines

I promised myself I wouldn’t write an 18-page diatribe against machines, so let’s just say this: try to do as much as you can with free weights.

Boulders, leopards and dudes at clubs are all examples of things that need to be periodically shoved away from (or off of) you. Clearly, there is no fixed track or external stabilization to rely on when this happens. That’s why free weights offer better carryover.

Yes, there are some places where lifting with machines can be helpful. These are the exception, not the rule. Let’s just agree to stick with free weights whenever possible.

Compound exercises first

When it comes to real strength – the kind that carries over into our lives – training compound exercises are essential.Any single-joint movement that people may default to, from biceps curls to leg extensions is automatically integrated into a compound movement, such as pull-ups or squats. For those trying to minimize time spent in the gym, this is an essential fact.

Selecting the appropriate intensity on your primary compound exercises may be tricky. Knowing your actual 5RM (what weight you can perform 5 repetitions – and no more! — of) will help a lot. Ideally, you’ll build through your first three or four sets (including the warm-up) to find a weight that you’ll go to failure at within six or seven reps (even though you’ll only be completing five). Your final set should be closer to a true 5RM as long as you have sufficient safeguards in place.

Many people will start too low (or build too slowly). The result will be insufficient intensity. That’s no good, so you may want to add an additional set to bring you up to the appropriate level. At the very least, record your totals so you don’t make the same mistake twice.

Unilateral exercises next

Not only is it important to balance strength development from front to back (you’ll notice our primary and secondary circuits do just that), it’s important to balance things from left to right. Often if one side is lagging, the other side will pick up the slack, which maintains – and sometimes even exacerbates — the strength imbalance.

There’s absolutely no problem in choosing unilateral (one-sided) exercises for your primary lifts. However, this program ensures weak links are addressed by emphasizing this approach for the second circuit of each workout.

Single joint exercises later (if ever)

You can add isolation exercises to supplement strength development in your primary lifts. As a matter of fact, we do that in this program. However, there’s a reason that compound exercises come first: the type of neurological adaptations we want work best when you’re fully rested.

Single-joint exercises certainly do have their place. They can help clean up some of the weak links in a movement. However, for the reasons above, they need to come later in a session. In our program, they’re going to be integrated with energy system work. This will translate into more bang for your buck, both in terms of strength development and caloric expenditure.

If you’re ever stretched for time (on any workout, really), it’s the isolation movements that should go first. Many programs, in fact, do just fine without them.

What’s this energy systems training of which you speak?

Technically, everything we’re doing is energy system training. If we skip past my bitching about semantics, though, we can focus on what we’re really going to accomplish: burning through as many calories as possible. This isn’t the main focus of our program, but training in this manner will allow you to experience how increased strength translates to increased energy output (and efficiency). For those looking to lose weight, these strength gains will pay off hugely when translated to weight loss focused-programs.

The gist of it all

Now that we’ve gone over the details of what will emphasize or de-emphasize size gains, I’m going to give you the kind of program that I think will work best as a bridge to intermediate strength development. There are a few things here that prevent it from being ideally configured to stave off size gain so, if that’s still a concern for you, the next section will show you how to modify the program accordingly (pro tip: don’t bother).

I still fear the thickening!

If you’re still truly afraid of putting on any size, there are a few adjustments you’ll have to make to this program (review Part 1 for the logic behind them).

1. Ensure a full four minutes rest (anything over 5:00, however is overkill) before repeating the same exercise. I recommend starting a stopwatch after completion of the first exercise in a circuit and then waiting for it to hit 4:00 before starting a new circuit.

2. Maintain the same intensity for the exercises in Circuit 2, but drop the number of reps down to 6-8.

3. Maintain the same intensity for the exercises in Circuit 3, but drop the number of reps down to 8-10.

4. Skip either the second or third circuit OR do only one of each.

5. Don’t get a full eight hours sleep every night, don’t eat adequately (especially protein) and do let day-to-day stresses really get to you.

How to build

This program is designed for four workouts per week. I’ve included a spreadsheet detailing a progression. You can download that here. (PDF)

The basic progression details are as follows:

* Alternate between Day 1 and Day 2
* Do two workouts a week for two weeks
* On Week 3, you’ll begin building a third day, one circuit at a time (per week)
* By Week 5, you’ll be up to three days per week
* On Week 6, youll begin building a fourth day, one circuit at a time (per week)
* By Week 8, you’ll be up to a full four day per week
* Week 9 will provide a de-loading week (use it!)
* After week 9, the four day per week program (as in week 8) will be repeated until week 14
* Instead of de-loading in Week 14, you can try a different activity altogether, as long as it’s relatively light in intensity
* If you wish to resume this program, you can simply repeat the cycle between Weeks 8 and 14

4 workouts a week!? Fuhgedaboudit!

If you are only able to work out three times a week, add one more circuit to the first two groups. This would add up to 3-4 x 5 reps (not including warm-up) for Circuit 1 and 3 x 7-10 reps for Circuit 2.

If you are only able to work out twice a week, add two more circuits to the first group and one more to the second. This would add up to 5 x 5 reps (not including warm-up) for Circuit 1 and 3 x 7-10 reps for Circuit 2.

Finally: the program
Day 1
Circuit 1

4-5 circuits: warm-up (8 reps) plus 3-4 circuits with 5 reps per exercise
A1: Deadlift variation
A2: Pull-up variation
A3: Overhead pressing variation
0-1 minute rest between sets for a total of 3-4 minutes before repeating any given exercise
Circuit 2

2-3 circuits, 7-10 reps per exercise
B1: Split squat, lunge or step-up variation
B2: Single-arm rowing variation
B3: Single-arm chest pressing variation
B4: Core work: reverse crunch variation
No rest between sets for a total of 3-4 minutes before repeating any given exercise
Circuit 3

2 circuits
C1: Sprint, push or drag (20-25 seconds) + core stability work (20-30 seconds) + elbow flexion
C2: Jumping variation (10-12) + rear delt or low trap work + elbow extension
Record your total time for both circuits and try to beat it during your next workout
Day 2
Circuit 1

4-5 circuits: warm-up (8 reps) plus 3-4 circuits with 5 reps per exercise
A1: Squat variation
A2: Row variation
A3: Bench or dumbbell press variation
0-1 minute rest between sets for a total of 3-4 minutes before repeating any given exercise
Circuit 2

2-3 circuits, 7-10 reps per exercise
B1: Single-leg hip extension variation
B2: Single-arm overhead pressing variation
B3: Single-arm pull-down variation
B4: Core work: stability variation
No rest between sets for a total of 3-4 minutes before repeating any given exercise
Circuit 3

2 circuits
C1: Lateral movement variation (20-25 seconds) + side planking variation (20-30 seconds) + external rotation (10-12)
C2: Kettlebell or dumbbell swings (5 each hand) + crunching variation (10-12) + wood chopping variation (10-12)
Record your total time for both circuits and try to beat it during your next workout