How do muscles get stronger without getting “bigger”?

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I can squat 10 more pounds than I could 6 weeks ago, but my body weight hasn’t changed. In the same vein, I’ve seen skinny dudes rip 300 pounds off the floor.

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16 Answers

Anonymous 0 Comments

Using those muscles effectively during lifting is a skill.
With practice you can recruit more motor units in the muscle.

Anonymous 0 Comments

Muscle recruitment. You only use so much of your muscles when you’re working out. As you use them more, your neurons get better at talking to that muscle, and you can get more of those muscle fibers to fire.

Anonymous 0 Comments

A lot of it is just kind of how each individual is made. That being said, doing things like eating right or doing yoga can help with your situation I think. Muscle weighs something like 4 times as much as fat, so as you build muscle your weight can go up without physically getting bigger. And yoga can help make longer stronger muscles to fill in your body.

Anonymous 0 Comments

The size of your bulging biceps is mostly made up of glycogen or some other sort of energy store, covering the muscle fibers and providing protection from wear and tear.

Depending on the kind of exercise you do, it is possible to have muscles with very little of this padding. That’s how you end up with skinny dudes who can lift many times their weight.

Plus, if your visceral fat (the fat on the inside of your body, coating your organs and such) gets burned off by working out and you gain an equal amount of muscle, your weight will stay the same. Your waist should go down, though.

Anonymous 0 Comments

Adaptations in your central nervous system can play a role, especially in novice lifters. As you begin lifting weights you increase connections within your nervous system. Strength training can cause adaptive changes to your CNS which allow you to better activate muscles and better coordinate all the necessary muscles needed for the task. Basically your body says “hmm, I have done this a few times now and when I use muscle fibers from A,B,C it goes a lot better.”

Anonymous 0 Comments

There’s quite a lot that goes into this but to answer the most specifically to your situation. The muscles that go into a squat are some of the largest in the body. So being able to lift 10 extra pounds over the course of 6 weeks is going to result in a much smaller visual or size change than if you said you could bicep curl 10 more pounds than 6 weeks ago. The change needed to move the additional load is fairly imperceptible in this case. (Not to poopoo your gains, get after it). A lot of people focused on this stuff take regular measurements of their body at strategic places to notice the difference. If you had started measuring 6 weeks ago you might notice the difference in the numbers assuming you’re not losing body fat, but only gaining muscle, those numbers would increase by some degree.

Anonymous 0 Comments

As others have said, cns training. But also you may have lost a little fat and gained some muscle, especially if you are a new lifter. It does not take much muscle gain to gain a lot of strength. Furthermore, your form has likely improved, so your movement could be a little more efficient.

Anonymous 0 Comments

In addition to what others have said, mastery of the movement and the mechanics plays a big role. Perfecting your squat form to get better leverage can help you lift a lot more weight, regardless of muscle growth.

Anonymous 0 Comments

In addition to what others have said, there’s also an extent to which mitochondrial density and capilarisation are relevant. These matter much more for endurance than strength, and won’t make a significant difference to a (well-rested) 1RM effort. But if your rest is short, or you’re doing several reps, then it can make a difference.

Anonymous 0 Comments

Like others said, your central nervous system gets better at activating your muscles. You can do specific training to boost that. Such as being as explosive as possible, box jumps and other non-grindy movements.

Your muscles can also be quite a lot more dense.

There’s also your case of 10 pounds not being very much – your beginner gains from simply learning how to activate your muscles and using what you already have will far outweigh any growth in muscle.
Muscle growth is slow, and you will not be gaining 20 or 40 pounds of muscle in 6 months like bogus training programs and apps will try to trick you into.
On top, you are likely to be redistributing your weight, so that less of your body will be made up of fat – there’s a bunch of things going on in the beginning phases of starting to lift.

I’m personally a lot stronger at a 10kg lower weight now than 10 years ago when I’d been going for some years. Well… now, not so much, because I became a parent and my gymtime died, but just 10 months ago I was on my way back from lockdown gym-closure and so close I could taste it to that 100kg over bodyweight squat. Doing sets 5 of 5 for 150kg (330 pounds) squats, at 82kg bodyweight – felt pretty good! Now It’s like… 100kg is super heavy.