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Training for Strength Without Mass?


Hey guys, I'm in need of advice. I want to build a 3 day per week program. My goals are the following:

  1. Increase functional strength (including core strength, that's pretty important). I should mention that by "strength" I don't mean only improving power/olympic lifts, but overall muscle strength - strong biceps, triceps, forearms, calves, etc. included.
  2. Gain a limited amount of muscle mass (no more than 20 lbs, tops).
  3. Retain speed and agility (that's important to me for football/soccer) - not necessarily improve in those areas, but also not worsen.

I'm 5''9', 140-145 lbs, 23 years old, with limited experience in the gym.

So, now that you know the important info about me, I'll share with you my thoughts on the matter.
I read a lot and the general conclusion seems to be that the best programs for improving strength are the ones that are composed of low-rep, high-weight compound exercises. Things like 5x5 (be it Bill Starr's or Stronglifts) or Jim Wendler's 5/3/1.

A conclusion that I made is that 5x5 is better for beginners, as it wields results faster, and 5/3/1 is for when you get to the really high weights and start plateauing. However, I'm pretty new, so I'd prefer starting slow, say doing only 3 sets of the basic exercises (3x5) and some assistance exercises (tell me if that's a good idea). Question time.

  1. How should I go with constructing my program? I know for sure that I'll include Bench press, Deadlifts, Squats, OH/Military presses and Barbel rows on 90% of 1RM (right?). What else should I include? The following questions are important for this one.

  2. I read somewhere that isolating certain muscles in exercises like bicep/wrist curls only damage the joints and isn't more beneficial than bodyweight exercises like dips and pull/chin ups. True or false?
    If it's true how can one strenghten all areas of oneself with just compound exercises?

  3. How should I mix chest, back, shoulders, arms and legs? Also, where do deadlifts fit?

  4. Is 2 minutes of rest between sets sufficient when training for strength? And what about between exercises? After all, I don't want to do 2-hour workouts...

  5. Can I do some HIIT cardio (running, swimming) or plyometrics or will it take a toll too big on me?

  6. How much warm-up should I do before exercises? Are 2 sets at 50%, than 70% or 1RM sufficient?

  7. How do I go with increasing weights? Just add 5 pounds every week (2.5lbs plates are the smallest in the gym that I go to) or what?

  8. When do I switch from 3x5 to 5x5?

  9. Lastly, if I want to improve my core strength should I do a separate training for that or just add an abs exercise or two after my workouts?

I know that's a lot of information (questions, and some of them are probably not well formulated), but I'd really appreciate your insight. Thank you in advance!

P.S. I don't know if you get it from my post, but athletic performance is important for me. :slightly_smiling:


To be honest, it isnt hard to strength train without getting 'too big' - most people have the opposite problem. For now, just pick a basic strength routine and follow it. Add a few interval sessions for cardio, but usually conditioning is easy to maintain.


Why do you not want to go beyond 165?

How is your physique right now? Skinny? Ripped with no fat? Fat?


Lots of questions. Thanks for taking the time to actually formulate things well though, even though I'm certain you won't quite get as nicely formulated answers.

I'm really tempted to say that you should just pick a program that has those in it and use that for awhile. I think one of the Bill Starr 5x5 has those, and/or maybe Starting Strength, but I'm not sure.

I don't know. You can get benefits from all of them. I will say certain isolation exercises are known to be worse for the joints than the others. Heavy skullcrushers is a good example of a problematic exercise.

Yes. In the context of strength training, isolation work is used to bring up the weak areas so that the compound movements stress everything more equally. For instance, with bench pressing, some people might have very strong chests and front delts -- they're able to get the bar 90% up with just those -- but are weak at locking it out at the top. In this case, doing some isolation work for the triceps allows them to progress on the bench.

They both have their place.

This is one of the reasons I think sticking with an existing program would do you some good for now.

This was tricky when I first started out too. What I suggest is that you try to take a short rest and see how you perform on the next set. If you take too short a rest, your body won't be recovered enough and you won't do well on that set. Eventually you'll learn what your body feels like when it's ready for the next set. For some sets, you only need a short rest; for others, a longer break... but basically you just learn when your body is ready.

Since it sounds like athletic performance is really what you're after, I'd prioritize that. As in... if the strength training is taking too much of a toll on you, then you need to adjust your [strength] program.

If you need/want to use cardio and/or plyo to improve your athletic performance, that should be fine.

However, make sure you increase your calories and protein. Strength training requires quite a bit of both in order to grow... then, cardio and other athletics will require even more. So you need to make sure your food is in line for the increased caloric expenditure. And, since muscle is built with protein, you need to make sure you have enough to build new muscle after your lift.

Some light stretching or mobility work... things like arm swings, leg swings, stuff like that... and maybe some light cardio like walking on the treadmill for a couple minutes, just to get the joints and muscles warmed up is always good. I don't always do it, but it's good to do.

I've lifted where I've just jumped directly into work sets without using a lighter weight. I've also used a ramping approach starting light and working my way up.

I prefer the ramping approach personally.

This is where a good program will give you some guidance :wink:

First, core is more than your abs. Second, heavy squats and deadlifts, done with good form, will improve your core strength quite a bit. Your core is basically bridging your upper and lower body and holding them in place, so it gets worked hard.

But, I mean, if you want to do more, I'd suggest doing it after your primary workout. Two suggestions: ab rollouts, and heavy overhead holds.

Good luck.


Soccer players. They think lifting makes them slower/clumsy. It's widely 'accepted' in the community like that.

Yes, that's crazy talk.


my division 1 college soccer coach maintained that taking 'supplemental whey protein' makes you fat.


Well, to be fair, it could make you fat if you're not burning the excess calories away. It's rather easy to eat a lot of calories with whey protein.


Every practice is a 2-hour HIIT session, but the point I was trying to make is that they are mis-informed. He was not saying 'protein makes you fat' because he thought I was in a caloric surplus. He said it because he simply doesn't know any better.


are you planning your routine for the off season or in season?


If you weigh 140 now and get stronger and next season you play at 150 I can almost guarantee you will be a better soccer player. If you play football at 140 you're more than likely the kicker.
Stronger (in your/most case(s)) = faster


You are asking a lot of good questions. I suggest you buy the 5-3-1 book and read it, even if you don't use 5-3-1, because it provides a lot of good answers and a good basic framework for a lifetime of lifting. It also provides a fall-back framework/template to use as a default for the rest of your life. I personally like running different programs for different or specific goals, but when I get lost or lose focus or get off track, I know I can take a week off and go right back to 5-3-1 to get things on track.


You might be good for a couple doubles or a couple singles at 90%+ 1rm as a working set. 90% of 1rm is about a 3rm.

If you are not going to follow an established routine, look to Prilepin's Table for guidance.



magick, I'm pretty slim, not ripped because I lack the muscle mass, but my fat is <10%. About the 165 limit - I'll answer in a few seconds.

LoRez, thank you very much for the advice. I have Mark Rippletoe's "Starting Strength", I'll read that and see if it clears out the basic concepts for me. I'll also check the suggested routine.

Claudan, it's a mix of vanity and, as you said, delusion. Vanity, because I don't want to get buff for my own aesthetic taste, and delusion, because I think that too much muscle will slow me down. 165 pounds is not a hard limit, I'll see how I look and feel and I won't gain 20 lbs overnight, so it's not that big of a concern right now.

1 Man Island, I'm not a professional (I don't know if semi-professional or simply amateur fits better) player, so I don't train daily. Consider everything off-season, I'll just sneak in a day of "rest" if I find it necessary.

chobbs, you're probably right. My concern was that being the fast, technical type of player, extra muscle could slow me down or worsen my dribbling skills, for example. I play soccer, I put in football, because that's how the sport is called. :stuck_out_tongue:

jjackkrash, I have that book too, but I just skimmed over it. I'll give it a more in-depth read.


For what it's worth, I had a friend that was a pretty decent soccer player (all-state hs, full ride in college, etc.). He was about your weight, maybe slightly more, and an inch or two shorter.

When he tried out for a pro-team, they suggested he gain about 20 lbs.


Lol. Definitely crazy considering Rugby players run damn near as much as soccer players and have to tackle (bodily, not sliding) people. Oh and rugby players also tend to be bigger and stronger than soccer players.

Fighters have a lot of the same paranoia too. Fortunately for me, once they discovered how much more power they had in their takedowns and throws after getting bigger within their weight class--and how they weren't any slower and maybe even gained some explosive speed--they bought in to my advice :).


Regarding these two points.

1) It is absolutely impossible for you to gain 20 lbs without really, REALLY trying to gain them as much and as fast as possible. Yes, it is a delusion and you need to come to grips with that. I mentioned above that the fighters (competitive and pro MMA) I trained had the same delusions. What happened instead was that they got stronger AND faster as they got bigger. The key here is a) NEVER dropping your flexibility/mobility training/stretching b) never stopping your conditioning work c) working explosive strength and maintaining form on lifts.

Also, hey who doesn't want to look good? There's nothing wrong with that at all! Go for it as long as your priorities are straight with soccer as #1.

2)Technical playing is a result of skill work. Don't drop your skill work and you won't get worse technically. This is true for fighters as well. Of course if you drop your wrestling/boxing/BJJ skill work you'll get worse. Don't do that! Work skills the hardest. ALWAYS work sport skills the hardest.

Also, and this needs to be said, it will not worsen your dribbling skills AS LONG AS you practice them constantly. Basketball players gain a lot of weight and train a lot with the strength coaches in high school and college--and professional work. It doesn't harm their touch with the basketball. Didn't harm Wade, and it damn sure didn't harm King James. That guy looks like a football player and shoots lights out. What did they do? Shoot and dribble every damn day for long periods of time working their touch while they were lifting weights. That's why you practice your sport--to make the weights carryover to your skills.

Key is though, you can't ever stop practicing those skills. If you stop calibrating your shot or your dribble skills and gain a bunch of strength you're going to be shooting everything long on the court or dribbling poorly in the field--that's not weight training's fault it's your fault for not re-calibrating your touch. It can be fixed, it's a skill like anything else.


Here is how you make your point the most efficiently, Aragorn:

He's #1 or #2 in the world, depending on where you put your alliance.


Hahaha. I really should learn to do this more often. It would save tons of writing and rambling on.


It should be noted that your "ramblings" are of great substance.


[quote]viksenpai wrote:
Hey guys, I'm in need of advice. I want to build a 3 day per week program. My goals are the following:

  1. Increase functional strength (including core strength, that's pretty important). I should mention that by "strength" I don't mean only improving power/olympic lifts, but overall muscle strength - strong biceps, triceps, forearms, calves, etc. included.
  2. Gain a limited amount of muscle mass (no more than 20 lbs, tops).
  3. Retain speed and agility (that's important to me for football/soccer) - not necessarily improve in those areas, but also not worsen.

A strong curl is far less functional that a strong squat or deadlift. The strength from powerlifting would be helpful for soccer in that it works the right muscles, but it wouldn't provide nearly enough muscular endurance. I would recommend doing starting strength for a while to build a very strong foundation and then continuing with something more along the lines of german volume training while working on shortening rest intervals as you get closer to soccer season.