Bulky Muscles or Bulky Brain

By: Coach DP

How often have you sat at the dinner table and wondered how you could double your deadlift from lets say 200lbs to 400lbs without you yourself doubling in size? My guess is never, right?

Chances are that you haven’t thought about this over dinner because, well, only nerds like myself, J, Vince, and Sammie think about this type of thing and there’s a common worldview, as misguided as it may be, that strength and size are synonymous. The reality though, is that its just not that simple. More than likely, the most accurate way to talk about that issue is that size and strength are, for lack of a better word, coincidences. Meaning bigger doesn’t make moving larger loads inherently easier, and getting stronger doesn’t automatically mean you are getting bigger. Don’t believe me? Search “neural adaptation to resistance training” in PubMed. I dare you to do some nerdy strength training reading.

The number one concern that people have when seeing barbells being used in a gym is that they will suddenly pack on instant muscle and bulk, which, by the way, if you know where to find such a side effect, let me know (I’ve been looking for muscles for years). Not only does this concern sound a lot like not eating carrots because you don’t want to turn orange, it prevents you from breaking away from a life that has been limited by a lack of strength.

Strength training (whether you believe me or not) is arguably to most valuable tool available to both men and women regardless of their individuals goals. This statement is even more true if the individual’s lack of strength is a liability in both usefulness (being able to pick your children up) and safety (being strong enough to pick yourself off the floor). Having strength doesn’t mean you need to use it, but there’s nothing that can replace strength. To add to its importance, strength is an asset that is mostly neurological. Yes. Our central nervous system is the key thing that we are training when training strength. 

The adaptation of strength is mostly invisible and takes place deep in the hardware of our nervous system. If that wasn’t true, the math problem at the start of this blog would have a simple answer, you need to double your mass to double your lift. Yet, we see athletes actually adding weight to their lifts while losing mass. Clearly, this would be impossible for those that believed that lifting weights (especially for women) means massive and bulky muscle growth. The strength gains made during weight loss are possible because of improvements in that athlete’s nervous system.

As long as we avoid lifting weights out of fear of getting too bulky or growing in size, two truths will remain:

  1. A little hundred pound female lifter from China will wonder why your maxes are 25% of hers and,
  2. You’ll continue to miss out on the asset that strength is and its application to every corner of your life.

To put it neatly and simply, grab a barbell and join in, we’ll be over here lifting in the mind gym, gaining strength both mentally and physically.