Do We Need to Gain Weight if We Want to Get Stronger?

Prevailing wisdom suggests that we need to gain weight if we want to build physical strength.

At first glance, this makes a lot of sense. After all, big people tend to be stronger than small folks.

But is that genuinely the case, or have we been looking at things the wrong way?

The Relationship Between Weight And Strength

If you’ve ever watched powerlifting or Olympic weightlifting competitions, you’ve probably noticed that strength tends to scale as the weight classes go up. A 270-pound powerlifter will typically achieve a greater total than a 242-pound one, who will naturally lift more than a 205-pound one.

The question is, why is that? Well, there are two primary factors at play.

For one, larger people tend to have more muscle tissue. More muscle means more contractile units that can produce force. Another factor here are our leverages. The chubbier one gets, the better their leverages typically become. This is especially beneficial in movements like squats and bench press.

What Does Physical Strength Depend Upon?

Aside from muscle mass (and the number of contractile units), physical strength also depends on neural efficiency, skill, anatomy, fatigue, stress, excitability, and more. Let’s take a look at some of these:

1) Neural efficiency

It refers to our ability to use the muscle mass we have effectively.

2) Skill

This refers to how skilled we are on a given movement. The more often you practice a given lift, the better you get, and the more weight you can hope to lift.

3) Anatomy

Depending on your structure, you might be built for some exercises and excel more easily. For example, folks with long arms tend to be good at deadlifting, but they usually tend to be weaker on exercises like the bench press.

4) Stress & fatigue

Our stress and fatigue status heavily influence the amount of force we can exert at any given time. If you’ve had a tiring and stressful day at work, you will more than likely exert less force during your workout afterward.

How to Get Stronger Without Gaining Weight

There are many strength programs out there. While each is unique in its own right, most of them share some common characteristics. Namely:

1) Train more often

Because skill and neural efficiency are significant components of strength, training lifts up to three times per week will likely help you become stronger more quickly. 

2) Do enough quality repetitions

Many trainees are under the false impression that they need to push incredibly hard to build strength. 

But, the truth is, you need to do enough quality repetitions in a moderately-fatigue state. Meaning, you should always leave a couple of repetitions in the tank, and make sure that you’re resting enough to do all of your prescribed sets and reps in each workout.

3) Train with heavier weights

According to research, training with weights above 80 percent of your 1 RM is much better for building strength than using moderately-heavy weights. In other words, do more work in the 2-6 repetition range.

4) Vary the intensities from time to time

Research suggests that doing various intensities during the week is beneficial for strength gain. For example, if you want to squat three times per week, it can look like this:

Monday - 75 percent of 1 RM @ 4 sets of 5 reps

Wednesday - 80 percent of 1 RM @ 5 sets of 4 reps

Friday - 85 percent of 1 RM @ 4 sets of 3 reps