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Strength and Size

Getting stronger doesn’t have to mean getting bigger

Chris Ritter | November 5, 2014

Almost every objection I’ve heard about strength training, especially from swimmers, is about the fear of bulking up, but you can gain strength without gaining unnecessary size. I’ve never heard anyone complain about being able to do more pull-ups. And more often than not, the faster swimmers can do more pull-ups than the slower swimmers. Often, getting faster comes down to getting stronger. So increase your ceiling of swimming speed by gaining some strength. Do it smartly and your race times will reflect the difference.

Confusion about size and strength comes from strength training mistakenly being thought of as the same as bodybuilding. This isn’t the case at all. Strength training is a much bigger umbrella that bodybuilding—as a type of strength training—falls under. Bodybuilding is done to increase muscle bulk and the appearance of a person’s body. Strength training is done to get stronger so you can reduce injury and perform with a higher level of power, speed, and athleticism.

The difference of the actual effects of various types of strength training is simple: Strength gains can be accomplished through two types of mechanisms, structural and neurological.

Structural Strength Gains

When structural strength gains are made, the muscle grows in size. This growth allows for more force to be produced and absorbed. The key ingredients for growth to occur are lifting heavy weight for 8 to 12 repetitions, with short rest periods of less than 90 seconds between sets for three to five sets. In addition, a high amount of protein must be consumed for this to happen, usually at least two grams per kilogram of body weight. (To convert your weight from pounds to kilograms, just divide your weight in pounds by 2.2.) Lastly, the amount of testosterone in the body will influence the level of potential muscle growth, hence why males typically gain more muscle mass on average than females with the same type of training.

This illustrates the point that just because you lift some weight or do some strength training doesn’t mean you’ll immediately bulk up. Gaining muscle size isn’t something that you fall into mistakenly, but rather you have to train very deliberately and consistently for it to occur.

Neurological Strength Gains

One of the best potential results from strength training, at least for athletes, is neurological strength gains. When you gain strength in this manner it involves your brain being able to recruit more motor units (motor neurons and skeletal muscle fibers that tell muscles to contract) in your muscles. When this happens, a greater percentage of your muscle contracts, and therefore your strength increases.

Right now you are not using all of the available strength potential in your muscles. You have to let your brain practice getting stronger by allowing it the opportunity to activate more of your muscles’ total potential. After one session of strength training, it is entirely possible to get stronger. This is how powerful and effective the neurological component of strength training can be. You don’t have to lift a special way or even do a special exercise, just allow your brain the opportunity to practice getting stronger. Whenever you strength train you’re letting your brain practice activating muscles at a higher percentage than normal.

Some secondary effects of neurological strength gains include increasing muscle coordination and synchronization, so the muscles will be able to work together more efficiently and therefore become stronger because they’re working in greater harmony.

Practically, gaining strength from a neurological standpoint is pretty simple: avoid the type of training that was described in the structural strength gain section.

If you’re not strength training at all, anything you choose to do will contribute to neurological gains. But if you’re already doing some fairly consistent strength training, start to shift your reps to a lower number (two to six), increase your sets (three to six), and allow your body plenty of rest between sets (two to five minutes).

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About the Author—Chris Ritter

Chris Ritter is the founder of RITTER Sports Performance online training programs and the author of the e-book, SURGE STRENGTH, which details how to strength train specifically for swimming performance. Ritter, a swimmer himself, has a degree in kinesiology and exercise science and he specializes in training athletes of diverse abilities, ranging from beginners to Olympians. Follow him on Twitter @RITTERSP or like his Facebook page for updates and training tips.

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