More muscle mass equals more strength?
Physical strength is the ability to exert a sufficient amount of force against resistance through dynamic or static muscular contractions in order to move or stabilize an object in a voluntary manner.
Therefore, bigger muscles cannot possibly interfere with that task unless the range of motion is affected negatively by the size of the musculature.
When it comes to strength, muscles share some similarities with money (the modern source of strength, freedom, opportunities, and success).
When you are rich, the world seems open to you. However, the fact that there are favorable conditions for something to occur does not mean that it will become a reality. Some people don’t ever use their resources to the fullest.
Muscle mass could also be an example of this phenomenon. Some relatively small lifters have developed an ability to use their musculature more efficiently than bigger lifters. Instead of buying stupid things like Apple watches, those guys are investing their money wisely and doing wonders with a small budget.
In other words, more muscle mass equals more strength when your training is optimized for strength development. Otherwise, you will be “leaking”.
Tendon and joint strength
The strength and size of your muscles are irrelevant when the connective tissues (tendons and ligaments) are weak.
In general, the relationships between muscles and tendons divide into three types:
1.Strong muscles and weaker tendons
Muscles recover and become stronger faster than tendons because they have a superior blood supply. A muscle pull can heal in a week whereas a tendon one may require a month.
Thankfully, natural lifters are unlikely to have an extreme discrepancy between the strength of their muscles and tendons.
This situation is common for steroid users, though. The drugs make the muscles very strong in a relatively short period, but the connective tissues need more time recuperate and adapt. As a result, the tendon strength of many roid users lags behind.
2.Unusually strong tendons and average muscle size
Strangely, this is possible too. Many skinny dudes display exceptional strength thanks to their resilient tendons and ligaments that can handle a significant amount of abuse.
3.A balanced strength ratio between tendons and muscles
Most people fall into this category. You cannot expect to develop one without the other. At the end of the day, the muscles and the tendons are part of the same system.
Specific exercises for joint strength
Some exercises place a higher emphasis on the joints. A good example would be the wrist conditioning exercises performed by martial artists and gymnasts.
Unlike bodybuilding movements such as curls, wrist and knuckle push-ups focus on the joints rather than the muscular tissue.
Another example of a joint orientated movement would be the Hack squat done with the heels coming off the floor. This exercise definitely places more stress on the knee ligaments and the patellar tendon than a regular squat.
On the Internet, you can see plenty of relatively skinny people doing amazing feats of strength (e.g., bending iron, wrenches…etc.) This result becomes a reality thanks to a carefully practiced technique and joint conditioning.
Powerlifting represents the ultimate strength sport despite its name (power and strength are not the same). The whole point of the activity is to lift the heaviest weight possible, which in theory means that the stronger person should win, although that’s not always the case since levers play a big role.
For example, somebody with really long arms may fail to bench as much as a lifter with 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.
Having said that, you will never see a truly strong powerlifter who does not have exceptional muscular development. There are lifters who aren’t particularly big but compared to a regular person their muscular development is always superior.
The bench press and the squat (2/3 of the sport) are incredibly dependent on bodyweight and muscle size. The minute you start losing bodyweight those two lifts go down. In short, you cannot bench or squat heavy weights with small upper body or legs.
Strength authors like Marty Gallagher often present the popular bench presser Mike McDonald as an example of someone benching unreal weights despite his modest muscular development. Gallagher described Mike McDonald as a “gazelle among rhinos” in one of his articles. Cool, but this wasn’t exactly the case. McDonald was not a small man by any means. His bodyweight got up to 232lbs at 5’9”. That may seem tiny when we compare him to somebody like Eric Spoto, but he definitely had a decent amount of muscle mass.
Another interesting fact that people forget about McDonald is his style of bench pressing – a super wide grip. This technique allows smaller lifters to push heavier weights, by artificially shortening the arms and taking advantage of the powerful pectoral muscles. Yes, McDonald didn’t have monstrous arms, but according to lifters who have competed against him, his pecs were thick.
In the video below you can see McDonald’s style of benching.
When it comes to the squat, it’s even harder to find a skinny raw squatter. People like to use female weightlifters who squat super heavy weights as an 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 the back.
Finally, we arrive at the deadlift which is heaven for the skinny dudes looking to prove how strong they are. You can deadlift heavy weight while being incredibly skinny. Why? The range of motion is shorter and your legs and arms do not act as pillars. That’s why many slim individuals with favorable levers (long arms) pull bending barbells off the floor.
For example, Lamar Gant who pulled 688lbs while weighing 132lbs.This is about 5.2 times his bodyweight. However, there are two very important factors that made the lift possible. First, Gant’s arms are incredibly long (the best possible advantage in deadlifting). Second, he is very short 5’2”. Therefore, at 132lbs, he is not exactly skinny. He was pretty thick and lean.
In addition, the smaller guys will always have a higher relative strength compared to the bigger lifters who usually display better absolute strength.
Deadlifting 5 times your bodyweight at 132lbs may be possible, but doing at 200lbs seems unreal.
In conclusion, powerlifting is not kind to the small guys. You will never be competitive unless you are as thick as a brick wall in the right places.
For example, a 6’1″ lifter won’t be competitive if he weighs 135lbs. By powerlifting standards similar numbers equal weakness. A lifter with those stats will have a hard time competing against shorter individuals who weigh the same. This is why taller people compete in higher weight classes.
A Note On Bone Thickness
The bone thickness of a lifter has an impact on his weight class too. You can be tall, but when your bones are somewhat tiny, you may do better 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 produced by the heavier barbells lifted in the higher weight classes.
How Much Can I Lift as a Natural?
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 – elite
1.5 x bodyweight – good
2 x bodyweight – very good
over 2.2 x bodyweight – elite
2 times bodyweight – decent
2.5 x bodyweight – good
3 x bodyweight – very good
above 3 x bodyweight – elite
Olympic weightlifting is a power sport relying on the ability to display “fast strength”. The only way to get under a heavy barbell is to be explosive. The Olympic lifts and their variations cannot be done slowly. Thus, strictly speaking, Olympic weightlifting is not a sport that focuses solely on absolute strength although that’s an important quality developed to amazing levels.
Olympic weightlifting, just like powerlifting, is not exactly heaven for skinny dudes. The two main lifts (clean & jerk and the snatch) require the lifter to squat heavy weights. This is not possible when your legs are toothpicks.
Nevertheless, there are some exceptions. A good example would be the Bulgarian weightlifter Zlatan Vanev. He is 6’1” tall and competed in lighter weight classes (e.g., 185lbs).
If he was to post his bodyweight and height on StartingStrength.com, people would call him skinny and recommend GOMAD. Regardless of his inferior composition, Vanev set world records. In comparison, the Russian weightlifter Ilya Ilyin weighs 230lbs at 5’9”.
Gymnastics welcomes skinny brahs with open arms – the lighter you are, the easier it is to play with your bodyweight.
Besides, the sport does not tolerate fatsos. People over 12% body fat are at a huge disadvantage. Most gymnasts are lean and mean because every extra gram of fat slows you down.
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.
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.
A good example would be Andrei Kobelev. The kid is skinny but that does not stop him from doing dips with 70kg/154lbs and weighted one arm chin-ups.
Another great property of bodyweight training is the reduced need to take steroids. Many bar athletes pin their glutes, but technically, you can excel at the sport without injecting. You can acquire every skill naturally. However, you can’t develop the mass of the heavyweight athletes without drugs. I am sorry but the natural potential of the body does not allow it.
Neurological adaptation and strength training
Strength development is achieved through neurological and morphological changes. The first one describes the ability of an individual to effectively generate power and is dependent primarily on the central nervous system.
An “amped” central nervous system can produce a better strength performance. Yet neurological adaptation cannot overcome physics. Sooner or later, structural changes are required reach higher strength levels.
So, how strong can you get without gaining weight?
You can get brutally strong compared to the average person. Just look at Andrei Kobelev. This nerd hope has very impressive upper body strength despite his build.
You can do fine with less money, but you can’t do fine as a broke motherfucker. If you are one of the naturally skinny guys with a light bone structure, don’t torture yourself. Just set realistic goals, follow a progression that makes sense and enjoy your life.
Lamar Gant had another advantage. He had a spinal condition which stopped him reaching his full height. Had he not had this condition, he would have been perhaps 4 inches taller. This explains why he has a huge upper-body.