Strength training for GS, Part 6. Getting stronger without getting bigger.

GS is a strength endurance sport. So increasing strength is an important factor for many people, especially if you wish to move up in kettlebell weight. A potential issue with increasing strength is a gain in muscle mass, general not an issue, however if it pushes you into the next weight category then muscle gains may not be desirable. The main questions you should ask yourself are – is strength a limiting factor and are you lean? If you have a powerlifting or weightlifting background, absolute strength is unlikely to be an issue and specific strength/strength endurance or endurance alone will be areas you should work on first. Additionally, if you are worried about gaining weight from strength training and you are not lean, it will be better to address your diet first, before worrying about this kind of stuff.

Put simply, strength has two basic components: central (think central nervous system) and peripheral (think the muscle itself). The goal of training to increase strength without increasing/or minimizing increases in muscle mass is to focus on the neural changes. In the figure taken from an AWESOME paper by Per Aagaard called ‘Training-Induced Changes in Neural Function’, neural changes have a large impact on maximal muscle strength, rate of force development (RFD) and eccentric muscle strength. All three of these qualities are very important for GS, whilst increases in muscle mass have a large impact on maximal strength, moderate on RFD, small effect on eccentric strength. Movements in GS typically take less than 0.6 seconds, which is the roughly how long it takes to reach maximal force production. So if you want to have a fast efficient jerk you need to be able to quickly reverse the downwards phase of your first dip and apply your force quickly on the upwards phase. This makes both eccentric strength and RFD breaking strength important parts of the puzzle. Maximal strength is still important because if you have a larger maximal strength you should be able to apply force quicker. So we want to try and optimise and peak these neural factors, whilst avoiding gaining weight. However, some changes at the level of the muscle may still be useful partially for RFD. Musculotendinous stiffness is trainable and will help you store and use elastic energy in the tendons. The amount of energy you can store and utilise is known as your eccentric utilisation ratio. We want to maximise the amount of elastic energy we can store and use because this will increase the efficiency of the lift. Also, please bear in mind that if you are very weak you will need to gain some muscle mass to improve your overall strength levels.


This figure was taken from ‘Training-Induced Changes in Neural Function’ by Per Aagaard

So to try and design a program that tries to minimise gain is muscle mass we should first investigate what causes the muscle to grow. Brad Schoenfeld suggested that there are three mechanisms behind muscle gain. They are: metabolic stress, mechanical tension and muscle damage. Novel stimulus and eccentrics generally cause more muscle damage, so training lifts consistently and in a similar manner may be useful in reducing muscle damage. This is known as the repeated bouts effect. Also, isometrics can be a useful option to help avoid muscle damage. You can’t avoid metabolic stress in GS, however, hopefully your body is quick to become accustomed to it so you get diminishing returns from this pathway. High mechanical tension is for building neural strength and you can try to avoid any unwanted muscle mass gains by reducing the volume you perform.

Below is a list of some key points we can address that may help us increase strength without gaining muscle mass. To avoid gaining weight and improving your GS specific strength we can:

Stay in a negative energy balance

Building muscle requires lots of energy, if you can stay in a negative energy balance it may reduce the energy availability for building muscle. Additionally, training fasted or in a low carb state may help with this.

Use low dosage strength/power exercises

There may be a threshold of volume you need to reach to build muscle, however lower dosages may be required to cause improvements from the CNS. So you may wish to do 9 or less heavy reps total volume of a strength exercise to try and avoid gains in size.

Training tendons (plyometric/isometrics)

Plyometric and isometrics are some of the best ways to increase musculotendinous stiffness . Plyometrics may cause muscle damage, however there is very low time under tension. Whilst isometrics may have a longer time under tension, they don’t have an eccentric phase, thus may not cause large amounts of muscle damage and hopeful don’t cause muscle gain. Increased musculotendinous stiffness, will help you store and use elastic energy, thus in turn increase efficiency.

Program training to increase interference (peripheral)

Muscle building doesn’t start until you start your recovery. So performing endurance training after strength training may effect muscle energy levels. Low energy in the cell may increase its shift towards endurance and hopefully reduce muscle gain. For the nerds feel free to do further reading on – ADP +ADP = ATP + AMP (myokinase reaction/there are others) – low glycogen and AMP increases AMPK which signals PGC1-aphla (pathway for mitochondrial biogenesis) which may block mTOR (pathway for muscle growth) (this is a very basic look at this complex pathway and it’s never that straight forward, but should put you on the right path for further reading).

Take advantage of the principle of diminishing returns/avoid novel stimulus

Be realistic, beginners many gain size, however over time this will settle and you will    find it harder to gain. You might find it too hard to fight this initial gain, but once           you are over this you can take advantage of the principle of diminishing returns and       repeated bouts effect.

Avoid training areas you don’t need

If you don’t need to train a muscle group, then don’t.

I hope this gives people some ideas on how to program your training to help avoid gains in muscle mass, whilst increasing strength. This will in turn hopefully help lean athletes improve performance and stay in the same weight category.


Extra reading:

Training-Induced Changes in Neural Function

The effect of plyometric training on distance running performance



Musculotendinous stiffness: its relationship to eccentric, isometric, and concentric performance.

Strength and conditioning biological principles and practical applications


My name is James Ross, I’m a qualified personal trainer, strength & conditioning coach and sports scientist. I am a founder and coach at The Richmond Gym in Melbourne and started the website

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