The mainstream media, as well as the sport industry, have embedded in our heads the idea that strength and muscle mass represent a happy couple for which separation is not an option. That’s how strong the connection is.
More muscle mass equals strength, and more strength equals muscle mass. That’s the general rule. For the majority of the cases this is completely true, but after a certain threshold is passed, things change and the equation is not as simple. Once you have a decent base, which is much lower than people think, more strength will not equal bigger musculature. This phenomenon is proved by the existence of individuals who are incredibly strong and yet not quite big.
This makes me wonder – how strong get one get without gaining muscle mass?
More muscle mass equals more strength
Physical strength is the ability to exert sufficient amount of force against resistance through dynamic or static muscular contractions in order to move or stabilize an object in a voluntary manner.
Logically, having bigger muscles cannot possibly interfere with that task, unless range of motion is affected negatively by the size of the musculature, and a specific movement cannot be performed as demanded by the circumstances. Obviously, this is rarely a problem.
It helps to think of muscles as the money system in the modern human society. The more money you have, the higher your social status is. In today’s world, and the one of the past, money has been a symbol of strength, freedom, opportunities and success.
Muscle mass operates the same way when it comes to demonstrating strength abilities – the more of it you have, the more potential there is to become stronger and excel. (The more money you have, the higher your potential in the materialistic human world is.)
When you are richer you have the opportunity to use better equipment, go to more places, live longer…etc. However, the keyword here is potential. The fact that there are favorable conditions for something to occur does not mean that it will become reality. Some people don’t ever use their resources to the fullest for various reasons. Muscle mass is one of those. Many small people have developed better ability to employ their musculature more effectively compared to bigger lifters, just like there are relatively poor middle class people, who use their modest income more effectively than a richer person that does not know how to invest properly and constantly buys stupid stuff like Apple watches.
It’s a commonly accepted fact that strength is primarily dependent on the fast-twitch fibers found in muscle tissue. Those are specific muscle fibers that allow us to develop high amount of tension incredibly fast. Activities such as weightlifting, powerlifting and sprinting are fast-twitch dependent, which means that people with higher concentration of those are more likely to reach better performance in similar sports. It also means that bigger muscles could potentially have higher concentration of those bad boys and logically provide more strength abilities.
Tendon and joint strength
“Bone and sinew strength count for much in weight-lifting, and all the above points cannot be taken into consideration in considering a man’s muscular measurements on paper, nor in studying photographs…” ~ Arthur Saxon, The Development of Physical Power
Tendons and ligaments have to be strong too, otherwise the size of your muscles is not important when it comes to displaying strength. The common denominator here is that tendons and ligaments represent connective tissue and as such are considered “static”. There is no contraction.
In general, there are three main possibilities when it comes to muscle/tendon strength ratio.
Having strong muscles and weaker tendons;
Muscles recover and grow stronger much faster than tendons because they have better blood circulation. A muscle pull can heal in a week while a tendon one may require a month. That’s why athletes are sometimes “happy” when their injury turns out to be muscle related.
Thankfully, when you are a natural lifter/athlete you are unlikely to have extreme discrepancy between the strength of your muscles and tendons. This is much more common among steroid users who get strong overnight.
Having strong tendons and weaker muscles;
Believe it or not this is somewhat possible. In fact, one of the main reasons there are skinny dudes on this planet that display incredible amount of strength is tendon and joint strength. When those two are strong, you can do incredible things even if your muscles are relatively small and do not really illustrate what you are capable of. Obviously, in this case genetics represent an important factor.
Having balanced strength ratio between tendons and muscles;
Most people fall in this category. You cannot expect to develop one without the other. Both, muscles and tendons, are part of the same system at the end of the day. However, there are different training methods which can shift the focus to a certain degree.
I’ve seen two very different arguments in the past. Some people say that the best way to get your tendons strong is pure low rep strength training (Bill Starr comes to mind) while others believe that connective tissues need high rep conditioning (think 20+ reps per set) in order to pump them with blood. I think both approaches have value, and you can certainly use them at the same time, if you know what you are doing.
What’s certain is that even when you do high reps there must be decent amount of resistance. After a certain point is reached certain exercises just lose their value when the goal is higher strength level.
Specific exercises for joint strength
There are different exercises that place higher emphasis on the joint (tendons and ligaments) than the actual muscle tissue. A good example would be the various wrist conditioning exercises martial artists and gymnasts do. Movements such as wrist and knuckles push-ups accentuate more on the joint rather than the muscular tissue compared to bodybuilding exercises such as wrist curls.
Another example of a joint orientated movement would be the Hack squat done with the knees traveling forward and the heels coming off the floor. This exercise definitely places more stress on the knee ligaments and the patellar tendon compared to a regular squat.
On the Internet you can see plenty of relatively skinny people doing amazing feats of strength such as bending iron, wrenches…etc. All of this is possible through specific technique and joint conditioning (usually wrists, forearms and fingers). After a joint has been trained the right way, you can do things that would break much bigger and more muscular people.
Powerlifting represents the ultimate strength sport despite its name (power and strength are not the same thing). The whole point of the sport is to lift the heaviest possible weight, which in theory means that the stronger person should win, although that’s not always the case since levers also play a big role.
For example, somebody with really long arms may not be able to bench as much as a lifter with short, T-rex arms, but that does not mean that the person with longer limbs has weaker muscles. It just means that he/she has to do more work, while the lifter with short arms is simply more effective when it comes to pushing barbells.
With that said, you will never see a truly strong powerlifter who does not have exceptional muscular development. That never happened. Sure, there may be some who are not particularly big, but compared to a regular person their muscular development is always superior. The bench press and the squat, which are essentially 2/3 of the sport, are incredibly dependent on bodyweight and muscle size. The minute you start losing bodyweight, regardless of whether it’s fat or muscle, those two will go down. The reason is that the range of motion is incredibly large and the limbs act as pillars. The bigger the pillars, the more stable the surface. Thus, you cannot bench or squat heavy weights with chicken arms or legs.
Some strength authors, like Marty Gallagher, have used the popular bench presser Mike McDonald as an example of someone who was able to push incredibly heavy weights, despite having relatively small arms, and by small Gallagher meant something like 17 inches, which is not small at all. Gallagher described Mike McDonald as a “gazelle among rhinos” in one of his articles. Cool, except that was not really the case. McDonald was not a small man by any means and competed in many weight classes. His bodyweight got up to 232 lbs at 5’9”. That may seem small when we compare him to somebody like Eric Spoto, but he definitely had decent amount of muscle mass and overall bodyweight.
Another interesting fact that people forget about McDonald is his style of bench pressing – super wide grip. This style allows smaller lifters to push heavier weights, by artificially shortening their arms. The wide grip bench press is essentially the equivalent to the wide stance squat. You are more likely to see a skinny person bench heavy weights using wide grip than narrow or close. That’s because naturally skinny people have longer limbs and lengthy tendons (ectomorphs), which limit their strength due to the longer range of motion. You will never see someone benching incredible heavy weights using a close grip while still having chicken arms. It’s very rare.
In the video below you can see McDonald’s style of benching.
When it comes to the squat it becomes even harder to find a skinny raw squatter. People like to use female weightlifters who squat super heavy weights as example, but those girls are not really skinny for their gender and height. They have well developed hips and legs, which is the norm when you are going up and down with a heavy barbell on your back. Try and find somebody who has skinny legs and hips while squatting heavy (over 2 times BW). You simply cannot be competitive squatter when your legs look like sticks. Barbell squats do not favor chicken strength, not one bit.
Finally, we arrive at the deadlift which is heaven for the skinny dudes looking to prove how strong they are. You can be incredibly skinny and deadlift heavy, heavy weights. Why? The range of motion is shorter and your legs and arms do not act as pillars, because your whole body is one. That’s why many skinny people with favorable levers (long arms) can pull incredible weight off the floor.
The classic example is Lamar Gant who deadlifted 688 lbs at 132 lbs bodyweight. This is about 5,2 times his bodyweight. However, there are two very important factors that made that lift possible. His arms are incredibly long, which is the best possible advantage in deadlifting. Second, he is not tall at all, standing at 5’2”. Thus, for his height 132 lbs is not exactly skinny. He had really thick looking physique as you can see in the photo below.
In addition, the smaller guys will always have higher relative strength compared to the bigger lifters who usually display better absolute strength.
In other words, deadlifting 5 times your bodyweight is more likely to happen when you are light. I doubt we will ever see a 200 lbs lifter deadlift 1000 lbs anytime soon. It’s certainly not impossible, but the likelihood is just very small.
In conclusion, powerlifting is not kind to the small guys by any means. Two out of the three lifts are incredibly muscle size dependent and being skinny for your height will not help you at all. You will never be competitive when your bodyweight is too low. There will always be shorter lifters weighing the same who will outlift you.
Let’s say that you are 6′ @ 170 lbs and relatively lean. By powerlifting standards that’s lightweight and you will have harder time competing against people who are 5’7” and 170 lbs, even if they are fatter than you. That’s the reality of the sport. Of course, if the skinnier person works harder, he may be able to do better, but that’s a different story. What’s the value in competing against people who don’t even try? When someone with more favorable levers tries to push it to the limit, those with poor physical stats will be thrown out of the window.
This is why taller people compete in higher weight classes, although bone structure has a lot to do with it. It’s not only about the length of your bones. The circumference and thickness are also very important. You can be tall, but when your bones are somewhat tiny, you may still have to remain in a lighter weight class. There are weightlifters who have the height to compete in the heavyweight division, but prefer to stay in a lower weight class because their joints are small and cannot take the stress caused by the heavy barbells lifted in the higher weight classes. Generally speaking, the worst possible built for powerlifting is being tall while having really thin girly bones. The only lift that you will naturally excel at would be the deadlift. You can still do really well, if you put in the effort, but there is no doubt that you have a disadvantage, the same way somebody who is 5’5” and has short legs has a disadvantage against a sprinter who is 6’2” and has really long legs and Achilles tendons.
Below are general powerlifting standards for naturals:
Bodyweight – decent;
1,2 x bodyweight – good;
1,5 x bodyweight – very good;
over 1,5 x bodyweight – very strong bench presser and probably genetically gifted for the lift;
1,5 x bodyweight – decent;
2 x bodyweight – good;
over 2,5 x bodyweight – very strong; elite level; most people don’t ever reach this naturally unless they are made to squat;
2 times bodyweight – decent;
2,5 x bodyweight – good;
3 x bodyweight – very good;
above 3 x bodyweight – elite deadlifter (with the right levers this is possible naturally)
Note: There may be naturals who reach really high levels in one of the lifts, but rarely a true natural can cover the high standards for all three lifts.
Olympic weightlifting is a power sport and as such relies primarily on the ability to display “fast strength”. The only way to get under a heavy barbell is to be explosive. There is not an Olympic lift variation that can be done slowly. Thus, strictly speaking Olympic weightlifting is not a sport that solely focuses on absolute strength, although that’s a quality that’s very important and developed to amazing levels.
Olympic weightlifting, just like powerlifting, is not exactly heaven for skinny dudes. Try and find Olympic weightlifters with poor leg development who do well in the sport. You will not find any. The two main lifts, clean & jerk and snatch, require the lifter to be able to full squat heavy weights, and you already know how much barbell squats hate skinny lower bodies.
Still, there are some exceptions. A good example would be the Bulgarian weightlifter Zlatan Vanev who was about 185 lbs and 6’1” tall.
Note: If he was to post his bodyweight and height on StartingStrength.com people would call him skinny and recommend GOMAD (diet consisting of one gallon of milk a day).
Regardless, Vanev was able to do quite well and set world records. In comparison, the Russian weightlifter Ilya Ilyin weighs 230 lbs at 5’9”. The conclusion is that your weight is something personal and can vary.
Nevertheless, being skinny is not welcome by any means, especially when it comes to the lower body. There is a level of muscularity below which heavy lifts become impossible and your levers cannot function effectively to reach the podium.
Gymnastics seem to be a lot kinder to the skinny folks out there. Why? Because gymnastic strength training is essentially bodyweight driven. You have to be strong enough to pull/push your own bodyweight and not an external weight. That’s why being skinny helps you – there is just less weight to be lifted. The sport does not tolerate fatso by any means. People over 12% body fat are just at disadvantaged. Most gymnasts are between 8 and 10% body fat, some even lower. Any extra fat on you slows you down. You will never see a fat gymnast that performs well. Never.
It’s true that many gymnasts are pretty muscular, but they are not nearly as big as powerlifters or Olympic weightlifters. In fact, many don’t look as impressive as you may think when you finally meet them in person. That’s because the whole point is to have just enough muscle mass to do the strength elements and that’s it. Gymnasts don’t get extra points for having larger biceps.
Gymnastics and the recently revived street workout movement (there have been parallel and horizontal bars in schools for many decades) could be seen as a strength realm where skinny people can do quite well. Many years ago, I was going regularly to what one would call a strength workout playground. People there were doing fairly advanced drills such as front levers, muscle-ups, one arm chin-ups…etc. I looked at them and though they were monsters. About a year ago I ended up watching a video on the Internet containing a compilation of demo clips of one of those guys. He appeared skinny. Probably 150 lbs at 5’11. Yet, he was doing many advanced moves (one arm chin-ups for multiple reps). While it’s not the same guy, a good example is Andrei Kobelev. The kid looks really skinny and yet can do dips with added 70 kg/154 lbs and one arm chin-ups like it’s nothing. That’s some serious upper body strength for his size.
Another great benefit of gymnastics/street workout is that you are less likely to use steroids. I am not saying that those are not used by people involved in the sports. Many certainly use drugs despite playing it clean and pretending to be saints lost in a workout park. Make no mistake, many of the street workout legends are certainly doping. There’s plenty of evidence for those who have vision to see. With that said, you can do quite well in the sport without ever using. You just won’t look like a bodybuilder who does pull-ups in the park. You will resemble an average person with decent muscular development. That’s it.
Neurological adaptation and strength training
Strength development is achieved through neurological and morphological changes. The first one describe the ability of an individual to effectively use his current strength. Think of it as learning a new skill. For example, getting better at playing the piano will not make your forearms bigger, although some strength and endurance in the fingers must be gained. Still, most of the changes could be considered neurological and skill based. It’s the same thing with strength. You just learn how to generate more tension. Of course, this is only part of requirements to get stronger and as mentioned the other part of equation are structural changes.
The neurological adaptation explains why some skinny people are able to outlift more muscular individuals when a specific movement is not trained. Somebody who has focused on learning how to do the one arm chin-up, for example, will be more efficient compared to another person with more muscle but less training.
So, how strong can you get without gaining weight?
You can get brutally strong, compared to the average person. Just look at the example of Andrei Kobelev. This nerd hope has very impressive upper body strength while still looking quite skinny overall. Unfortunately or not, there are exercises that just do not tolerate the lack of muscle one bit. Those are: squat, bench press, overhead press…etc. You can still develop respectable amount of strength, but in order for that to happen you must be above a certain bodyweight threshold.
You can do fine with less money, but you can’t do fine while being a broke motherfucker. However, if you are one of those naturally skinny guys with light bone structure, don’t torture yourself. Just set realistic goals, follow a progression that makes sense and call it a day.