Building Strength Without Mass

by Al Kavadlo on October 29, 2013

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al1 I’ve been getting at least one almost every single day for a while now. In the beginning they were annoying, but after the first few times I actually started to get a kick out of them. I even came to find them flattering. After all, the people who send them are generally well intentioned and often don’t realize they are being rude. Some of them are actually very polite. I’m talking, of course, about emails like this one:

al2_emailIf I had seen the me of today when I was a teen, I probably would have wondered the same thing. After all, the main reason I got into strength training was because I was a scrawny kid who wanted to build some muscle. Fourteen-year-old Al would be very disappointed that after 20+ years of working out I still wasn’t as massive as the Incredible Hulk.

In fact, even though I’m about 30 pounds heavier now than I was at age fourteen (in spite of not growing an inch taller since then), I’m still a fairly small guy. And though my bodyfat percentage sits comfortably in the 8-12% range (I tend to naturally lean out in the summer), at a height of 5’11’’, I’m incredibly small by bodybuilding standards. Good thing I’m not interested in becoming a bodybuilder!
al3 As a kid, however, I desperately wanted to bulk up. Though I managed to beef up to 190 pounds by my early twenties, I eventually came to find that I felt and performed better when I wasn’t carrying so much mass. Though bulky muscle-men seemed ubiquitous to me in my youth, as an adult I soon discovered that to people who weren’t fans of pro wrestling and Arnold movies (which, shockingly, is most people), being overly bulky is a turn-off. It took me a long time to change my perspective, but I’ve since learned to embrace my physique and take advantage of its benefits.

Though there are a few notable exceptions, most advanced bodyweight practitioners tend not to have huge, imposing physiques. Instead, high level calisthenics athletes usually have more of a lean, athletic build. After all, if pound-for-pound strength is the goal, it helps to be relatively light. The higher your muscle to weight ratio, the better off you’re going to be in regard to bodyweight training. Though you definitely need some muscle mass to achieve high levels of strength, it’s more pragmatic to make a little muscle go a long way. At a certain point having too much mass becomes cumbersome. It’s weighs you down more than it helps.

Build Your Foundation

Regardless of whether your aim is to add muscle mass or simply get strong, the first thing you need to do when you begin training calisthenics is build a solid foundation. Though everyone starts at a different place, building to at least 40 bodyweight squats, 30 push-ups, 20 hanging knee raises and 10 pull-ups (those numbers might look familiar) is a prerequisite that should be achievable within a few months (or a few years, depending on where you’re starting).

Women should aim for the same numbers, but with knee push-ups and Australian pull-ups in place of the full ones. This is not an issue of sexism. Biologically, women have a lower propensity for upper-body strength as compared to men. Of course with proper training, women have the potential to develop serious upper-body strength!

al4-adrienne Once you’ve established that baseline of fitness, you’ll have likely built a bit of strength, stamina and muscle along the way. If you aren’t looking to grow your muscles past this point, however, it’s time to start training more advanced exercises and leave the high reps to your warm-ups.

Skill Out

It is often said that strength is a skill, and like any skill, the way that you get better is consistent practice. The goal of a strength workout is not to focus on the quantity of reps, but instead the quality. I recommend sticking with sets of 3-5 reps. However, it is helpful to add additional sets to offset the low rep range and allow for adequate volume. For this reason, I suggest performing 3-5 sets of each movement in a given workout when strength is the primary goal. Remember, you don’t need to do the same amount of volume as you would in a hypertrophy workout. The most you’ll probably ever need to do of a single exercise is 25 reps per workout. We’re not necessarily looking to get a pump, either. In fact, you’ll want to take longer breaks in between sets when you’re doing pure strength work than when the goal is mass-building. I recommend anywhere between 2-5 minutes of rest between sets.

It’s important to understand that strength is as much neurological as it is physical. Whenever you try to get your body to do something that it isn’t used to doing, it has to build a new neurological pathway to make it happen. Even when you ask your body to perform a familiar movement pattern, it will have a hard time if the leverage has been made less favorable than what it’s become accustomed to. Your brain has never had to send that specific message to your muscle before, so it must work very hard in order to arrive there. The message often comes in fuzzy.

Imagine using a machete to chop your way through the thick vines of a jungle. This is how hard your brain must work to get your body to do something for the first time. Now imagine you’ve lived in that jungle for ten years and walked the same few routes over and over, gradually clearing away the brush little by little. Eventually the path would be easy to walk and you’d arrive on the other side much more quickly, and with much less effort.

al-5 The same thing happens in your brain with consistent training. Over time, the pathway becomes clearer and the message arrives faster. The body adapts to whatever stimuli it is consistently exposed to. A body that is regularly called upon to apply force against resistance will get better at doing so.

Lean Machine

Diet may be the single biggest factor that determines whether or not you will increase or decrease in size. If you want to grow, you’ve got to eat a lot. Conversely, if you’re not interested in gaining weight, you shouldn’t be overeating. Though nutrition is a bit more complex than a simple calories-in minus calories-out equation, nobody ever gained significant bulk without the calories to back it up. Conversely, you can’t lose fat without being in a caloric deficit.

Personally, I follow a very simple diet: I eat when I am hungry and stop when I am full. I avoid mindless snacking and stay away from processed foods. I’m not trying to gain mass, but I’m not trying to lose it either. People love to ask me how many grams of protein I consume each day or how I time my carbohydrate intake, but the truth is I don’t concern myself with such trivialities. There is no need for the average person to possess a profound knowledge of nutrition in order to have a lean, strong physique. One need not understand how free radicals and antioxidants work in order to know that eating blueberries is healthy.

al6 Regardless of your ambitions, the most important thing is being consistent with your training. Focus on making regular exercise a part of your lifestyle. Don’t over-analyze the details, especially if you aren’t doing the work physically. Of course if nutritional science is of genuine interest to you, there’s no reason to ignore that yearning.

Just don’t make your life any more complicated than it has to be. When all is said and done, the most important thing is to respect and appreciate the body you have. It’s great to strive for physical perfection, but the journey matters more than the destination.

***

About Al Kavadlo: Al Kavadlo is the lead instructor for Dragon Door’s Progressive Calisthenics Certification. Recognized worldwide for his amazing bodyweight feats of strength as well as his unique coaching style, Al is the author of three books, including Raising The Bar: The Definitive Guide to Pull-up Bar Calisthenics and Pushing The Limits! Total Body Strength With No Equipment. Read lots more about Al on his website:www.AlKavadlo.com.

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  • V Kishore Vancheeshwaran

    Wonderful.. thats all i can say 🙂

    Exactly the way coach predicted. It’s good to have strength and it’s good to have muscle too. It’s even greater to have both of it. I guess thats what gymnasts are made of.

    Ultimately it boils down to the desire of each person, whether they want to be ‘big beefy muthas’ or just lean strength atheletes or maybe both.

    A blend of what you and coach say is what i follow. Its makes fitness… fun 🙂

    A request to you Al. Please bring the PCC to India in the near future, maybe 5 or 6 yrs. I’m very much looking forward to it. (PS: I’ve started saving money for it too)
    Have fun Al. My regards to Danny too.
    Kishore

  • V Kishore Vancheeshwaran

    Wonderful.. thats all i can say 🙂

    Exactly the way coach predicted. It’s good to have strength and it’s good to have muscle too. It’s even greater to have both of it. I guess thats what gymnasts are made of.

    Ultimately it boils down to the desire of each person, whether they want to be ‘big beefy muthas’ or just lean strength atheletes or maybe both.

    A blend of what you and coach say is what i follow. Its makes fitness… fun 🙂

    A request to you Al. Please bring the PCC to India in the near future, maybe 5 or 6 yrs. I’m very much looking forward to it. (PS: I’ve started saving money for it too)
    Have fun Al. My regards to Danny too.
    Kishore

    • Thanks! I would love to do PCC in India!

  • Pau

    Thank you Al! I love how much I am learning about bodyweight lately thanks to you and coach Paul. I hope you don’t mind I ask you a couple of questions to clarify some confusing points for me.

    When you say you don’t want to get a pump, I am guessing you have to pick an exercise that you could do twice the reps? So pick an exercise you can do 10 reps max, but never go above 5, in order to not tire the muscle too much?

    The other question is, with this kind of work out, how many times a week would you say it’s OK to work the same muscles/exercises?

    • Glad you liked the article! There’s a lot of room for individual personalization but for most people, hitting each muscle 2-3 times a week is probably ideal.

    • Carlos

      I think that when Al suggests doing an exercise for 3-5 reps, you should pick an exercise you can do for 3-5 reps (or 3-7, but not too much more). If you can do more reps than that range, it’s time to progress to a harder variation of the exercise.

  • jpujjayi

    great writing Al…… wisdom as usual…

    ” It’s great to strive for physical perfection, but the journey matters more than the destination.”
    we here these words so often we forget how true they are… the years slide by faster than we can realize… if you start a marathon with sprinting… you run out of gas ….
    your dietary info is great.. experience teaches us how to do that.. in the mid/late 60’s. the whole foods, organic, etc was just dawning.. now there is so much clutter…
    look at the overall population… especially the over 50, 60, 70…. fast food was born during our generation… observe the effects and choose the diet wisely…!!
    as we get older..the jewel in the box is health… mobility, stability, flexibility..
    appearance is temporary and fleeting… it’s and inside/out game..
    time slides by faster than we can ever realize… until it has….!!!
    jim perry

    • Thanks, Jim! Proud to have you out there representing PCC!

  • Carlos Palacios

    Great information as usual Al! Huge respect to you. And I can relate very much to your “changing perspective” idea. Life is a journey of self-discovery. When I was young (back in the 90s) I wanted the “big guns” you can see in every Karate movie, JCVM, Steven Seagal and the like. But due to my small frame (my wrists are less than 6” at height 6’1″) I knew I could never get the 15 inch biceps. So I just left my self go into a path of unhealthy living.

    The turning point came when I looked myself in the mirror two years ago and hated my parents for not having the great genetics of muscle magazine models and a faulty low back. I was indeed overweight with 198lbs and 30% body fat. However nobody seemed to notice it (I blame my height). Nonetheless I wanted a change, and that’s when I came across Paleo diets. I dropped 30 lbs in 3 months. I wanted more. I wanted to be in the best possible shape I could. I stopped comparing myself to models, athletes and actors. I compared myself to my “yesterdays’ self”. But, how could I work out with a faulty low back? I found a book; “Convict Conditioning” (thanks for that “Coach” Paul Wade) which introduced me to the world of Calisthenics. And by doing a quick search I found Al Kavadlo to be one of its greatest practitioners.

    So thank you Al for being a great inspiration! I’m still working towards the Century test. But hey I’m enjoying the journey.

    • Thanks, Carlos! Keep doing what you’re doing!

  • Marco Cruz

    Hey Al, cheers from Portugal! You’re an inspiration, keep sharing the wisdom my good man! I’ve been doing calisthenics for a while and trying to follow all your knowledge and try to learn every day.

    Calisthenics has been a special way of life for me these years and I hope I get your level in the near future! I think if there’s a balance, anything is achievable but I agree that your current form is probably perfect for a calisthenics athlete!

    Keep up the good work!

    • Thank you, Marco! Glad I’ve inspired you! We’re Working Out!

  • Ted Fuller

    Hey Al, I just discovered your work and love everything about it. I think the physique you have developed through your programming is ideal and balanced, similar to the most “complete” athletes in sport e.g. an MMA fighter, NFL wide-out, 400 meter sprinter. It would be enlightening and inspirational if you could share one or two typical workouts you are performing these days, exercises, rep counts, set totals, total time. Thanks for the knowledge and inspiration!

    • Thanks, Ted! I’ll keep your suggestion in mind!

  • Ian

    right on, Al. Having a powerful, functional athletic physique is far more impressive to most people. I think cranking out one arm pushups is more impressive than benching a ton of weight, and has a better carryover to most athletic endeavors. I am pretty “big and strong”, and have no problem moving heavy stuff, but as soon as I read CC and your (and Danny’s) works, I really gave some thought about training my body to move more efficiently. I now mix in a lot of bodyweight work into my training and my athletic performance (baseball, martial arts) has responded very well. I can’t do a full clutch flag yet, but just doing that anterior chain training has helped me hit a baseball further. Thanks a bunch!

    • Thanks, Ian! Keep working on that clutch flag!

  • Surry Curry

    Heya Al! Great read, thanks for it! Couple questions for you :
    1. As someone who’s been working out for so long, I’m sure you’ve gotten people that come up to you and don’t believe you’re as strong as you actually are, and instead judge you based on your size. What do you say to those people?

    2. In your opinion, what would be an ideal weight to make the transition from focusing from trying to gain mass to training for strength? I can complete the Century test, but I’m still a super lightweight, weighing in at around 125 lbs.

    Thanks again for the article, can’t wait to read whatever else you put out!

    • Thanks! If you can do the Century with good form, you’re off to a great start. Don’t worry about your size. As for your first question, I let my actions speak for themselves!

  • Beth Andrews Rkc

    Awesome article Al!

  • Jack Arnow

    Hi Al,
    Thanks for sharing your insights on getting strong without gaining mass. You write simply, practically and beautifully. While reading your article, I felt good and it put a smile on my face. I share the same experiences you do. Especially these days, some folks say to me “You had bigger muscles when you were younger?” I reply, no, I looked just about the same. And thanks for introducing me to “the century.” I let my training get to narrow, and now thanks to “the century” and other exercises you mentioned to me, I’ve broadened out my training, giving me more joy then ever. I know I’m far from the first one to recognize what a great trainer you are, but I want to make sure that you know that I’ve learned much from my interactions with you and Danny. Much thanks.

    • Thanks, Jack! This means a lot coming from you!

  • Told you guys you would LOVE this week’s post!

    Knocked it out of the park, Al–more than a blog post, an instant classic article! Great work, Lead Instructor dude!

  • Joshua

    What I got from the article is that you should take long rest and practice instead of just working out if your goal is strength. Practice makes perfect. It is an old cliche but it is true.

  • Karen Lee

    Thanks for the no-nonsense article. Very good read! I love how calisthenics can get your body where it wants to be; and I appreciate the women-specific mention and inspiration with Adrienne. I love that the principles of calisthenics are the same for women and men, but it’s nice to have an ideal baseline to shoot for, noting our obvious differences.

    Also, poor 14-year old Al 🙂 He just had a lot to learn!

    • Thanks, Karen! Luckily I’ve learned a few things in the last 20 years! 🙂

  • Stéphane Giroux

    Hi Al,
    Thank you for your thoughts, it’s a great read.

    So if I understand it correctly, training for mass we should not hit the same muscle more than 2 times per week, with maximum reps on maximum 2 sets. This is to stress the muscles more than the nervous system.

    And training for strength should be more sets (3 to 5), with low reps (3 to 5), 3 times per week. This is to stress the nervous system more than the muscles.

    Good to know, I thought we could do a minimum of push-ups and pull-ups each day! Would you say this would be counter productive?

    • Thanks! There are many different ways to structure your training and there are no strict rules that automatically apply to everyone. Experiment to find what works best for you and enjoy the process.

  • Ines Subashka

    Great post :)) I love the way you write and explain things 🙂 keep up the great work 🙂

  • Malk_Zameth

    Hi Al, great post, the posts on strength and mass gaining from you and coach wade give really complementary insights

    If I understand both articles correctly, the overall takeaway message is

    When building strength, keeping mass: 3-5 sets of 3-5 reps, master form, when you can do 5×5 in a good form you own the exercice, search a more challenging form, don’t overexercice so as to be able to exercice more frequently

    When keeping strength, building mass: stick to the highest form you already own, 2 sets, push the repcount until before the point you are just pumping for endurance, rest a lot.”

    (do correct me if I’m wrong)

    but I have to ask two big questions:

    1. You say to seek the baseline first (the century) before worrying about mass or strength, I just suppose you strength tips are a good way to achieving that baseline at all tho (makes sense to me at least, one works on one’s form a lot following them) but in a distant future where I “own” the squat doing 5×5 in perfect form: how do I know it is time to test for 40 in a single set?

    2. what about us, the obese, fighting in the front lines of the obesity epidemic? 😉

    I mean, my goal is losing weight, losing lots of it (81.6lb gone, 40.2lb to go). I understand, of course, that major overhaul on the “food” department is key, that how I lost the first 81.6, (being followed by a doctor on that part), but now that I started actualy exercicing (with *great* insights from your “pushing the limits” and ross’s “never gymless”) How do I tweak the routines towards helping the weight loss?

    If progressing towards owning harder forms is the path to strength, and pushing for few very long sets while avoiding “pumping for endurance” is the path to gaining mass:
    What is the path towards mass loss? going the step of “pumping for endurance”? Doing More cardio days? Another path I have failed to see? Or there is just no such a thing and I should stick to strength building while losing mass?

    • Hey Malik – Like you noted, weight loss has more to do with your diet than any other factor. Eat clean, train hard and be patient. 🙂

      • Malk_Zameth

        ok 🙂 Thanks
        by the way, as a feedback, your book have shown me something incredible:
        I thought I could do squats, I really did. actually I just had bad form: my heels did not stay on the ground.

        and just that single difference, heels on the ground not in the air changed the exercice completely for me.

        if my heels do not touch the ground I can easily do 5×5 while going all the way down and touching calfs with tighs. with heels on the ground doing a single rep while maintaining form is a painful goal yet to be achieved and going lower than “seating position” is completely impossible.

        a little difference in the form on a small body part, can have a huge impact int eh whole body: I’m impressed, and enlightened.

  • Lisa Watts

    I TRULY ADMIRE U GUYS! YOUR STRENGTH, PHYSIQUES, AND KNOWLEDGE ARE INSPIRING…I CAN FINALLY DO PISTOL SQUATS THANKS TO U! AND YES YOUR PHYSIQUES ARE AS NATURE INTENDED IN MY OPINION!!!!

    • Thanks, Lisa! Congrats on the pistol!

  • M. Ouistiti

    “Just don’t make your life any more complicated than it has to be.”
    This sentence will be my new manthra !

    Thank you very Much Al ^_-

    • Glad you like it! That quote applies to everything – not just fitness! 🙂

  • Great post Al, using this and Coach Wade’s previous posts I’ve rewritten the training plan I’ve been getting my bootcampers to follow, will be testing it out today. I look forward to learning more in February at PCC.

  • Duff_McDuffee

    Keep on workin’ hard, Al. Too many men are hung up about getting hoooge these days in my opinion, when actually being really big is often uncomfortable, and most people would be better off not fretting about their macros and just eating until hungry and having fun with their training.

  • Duff_McDuffee

    Keep on workin’ hard, Al. Too many men are hung up about getting hoooge these days in my opinion, when actually being really big is often uncomfortable, and most people would be better off not fretting about their macros and just eating until hungry and having fun with their training.

  • irrelevant_id

    Al here is an interesting read that I would like to share with you and the rest of the community: “As the science is increasingly showing, resistance training can literally add years to your life — and the earlier you get to it, the better.”

    http://io9.com/5953154/why-getting-physically-stronger-will-help-you-to-live-longer

    And as we all know – you don’t need weights to train your strength…

  • Shaw

    Hello Al, I knew you in convict conditioning, actually I am Chinese, now I am a big fan of bodyweight and you and Hannibal for king (you know him right?) Here I have two puzzles wish you could help.

    1. How could I build Strength With Mass like Hannibal,he’s in big mass

    2. As you mentioned Australian pullup is the basis of standard pullup, I can do 12 standarded pullup above head, why can’t I do 10 chest touch bar Australian pullup ?

  • Goh

    Hey Al, if doing 5 reps/set get too easy, do I need to add weight to the exercise to gain more strength?

    • Jonas

      While Al and the other PCC trainers can probably offer you advice that will make mine seem like a timid whisper in the void of space by comparison of competence, the general idea behind using progressive calisthenics to build strength is to only adds reps to a certain point (such as your 5), and then add resistance (weight) by progressing to another excercise that work the same muscles in similar manners (provided you have mastered the current exercise and perform full range of movement in perfect form). Going from kneeling push-ups to half push-ups to push-ups to close/diamond pushups, working from squats to close squats and further gradually up to one-legged squats, handstand pushups to one-hand handstands push-ups (through intervening steps), replacing head bridges with full bridges, etc.

      So my guess is that Al will ask you what particular excercises you have mastered, and suggest a way to progress by shifting to another exercise that adds resistance to the same movement/muscles.

      I can’t guarantee this will not also build muscle, though (if your purpose is to actually avoid muscle gain but build strength). Butthe basic tenets of weight loss and gain is enough to help ya out there: on a calorie deficit, you will not gain mass, neither muscle nor fat. On a calorie surplus, you will increase in mass (though whether you pack on or loose fat or muscle depends on how you train and live, what you eat, etc).

      So, place your daily calorie consumption close to your daily metabolic rate + calories burned from exercise (daily burn, all together), and you should not grow noticeable in mass but still be able to gain strength from the skill and neurological development of which Al writes.

  • phil

    cheers al, spot-on with your comment about consistency being the most important thing in training, for it is only when we do something consistently that we can then do it harder – took me a while to figure that out, but when i did i started making consistent progress in all areas.

  • Frank Delventhal

    Great article 🙂 that slipped my attention, so thanks to Paul who pointed me here. 😉

  • Ivy Lee

    This is so beautifully written! Thank you, I feel inspired.

    I like this lean strong phisique and would like to acheive it (but my weekness is hedonism and I can’t stand high humidity in which our planet is turning to). So I guess it’s a battle with oneself primarily.

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