Will Getting Stronger Make Me Too Tight or Bulky?

We’ve had an overwhelmingly positive response from readers like you about our myth-busting series. So for this week’s post, I’m taking on another common misconception: that getting stronger with resistance training will make you too bulky and stiff to play your sport effectively. We’ll look at why this myth has endured for so long, whether it has any merit, and what strength training will actually do for you.

The notion that lifting weights will render you “muscle-bound” has been around for time immemorial. Before strength training took off as bodybuilders like Dave Draper, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and Lou “The Incredible Hulk” Ferrigno made their mark in mainstream culture, many athletes shied away from strength work because they feared that it would leave them too bulky to run around the bases, leap high above the basket, or dodge past an onrushing defender.

Once the bodybuilding physique became something to aspire to and weightlifting equipment became widely available – like the Ted Williams Barbell Set at Sears that got legendary coaches like Dan John started – the stigma attached to resistance training began to dissipate. And yet even now, 40+ years later, many runners, endurance athletes, and women continue to give strength training short shrift because they fear it will make them look too muscly and/or adversely affect their sports performance.

I Don’t Want to Look Like a Bodybuilder

The trouble is that both of these assumptions are largely groundless. Sure, certain set, rep, and load schemes will prompt an increase in muscle size (hypertrophy). But unless you’re training multiple hours a day six or seven days a week with a bodybuilding regimen and eating like a horse, you’re unlikely to start looking like you belong on a Mr. Olympia stage, flexing your bulging biceps. And there is no legitimate evidence to suggest that strength training will negatively impact your physical performance either, whether you’re focused on a power or endurance activity.

In addressing the bigger muscles = less mobility myth in an episode of Barbell Shrugged, Cal State, Fullerton muscle physiologist and co-author of Unplugged Andy Galpin said, “Watch the CrossFit Games. These guys are buff as shit, they have amazing work capacity, and they’re mobile.” He went on to say that as long as your training is well-balanced and includes some mobility work, there’s no reason that you can’t get stronger while still moving well.

As Galpin sees when he performs muscle biopsies in his lab, resistance training doesn’t merely prompt hypertrophy. It also improves the quality of the muscle tissue. Instead of having this haphazard mess of fibers, you’re creating more congruence. When you have tissue that is laid down in a well-ordered manner, it’s bound to be of higher quality. Loading your muscles also prompts adaptations in the web-like extracellular matrix (ECM), which acts as scaffolding to support your joints. Regular mechanical loading also leads to improvements in both the strength and resilience of other supporting structures like ligaments, tendons, and fascia.

In other words, strength training isn’t all about your muscles, as you’re not targeting them in isolation when you squat, press, hinge, and so on. Another benefit to resistance training is that it helps you learn how to move better and coordinate complex movements in the correct sequence. This is directly transferable to everyday activities like lifting your baby out of his crib and sports-specific patterns alike. Strength training also teaches your body to recruit more muscle quicker, for those times when you need to move in a fast and powerful way.

There are No Disadvantages to Being Stronger

In an insightful article for StrongFirst, Dr. Michael Hartle wrote, “During my life, I have not found one disadvantage from being strong. However, there are many disadvantages for being weak or not so strong.” He continued to assert that “there needs to be some form of resistance training involved in every person’s regimen. The infinite benefits of performing one or a combination of these three types of training include increased strength, bone density, joint stability, improved proprioception, and better blood perfusion.” As we wrote in two recent articles for the TD Athletes Edge blog, resistance training also improves heart and lung health and offers a broad range of cognitive benefits.  

I often hear new clients complain that they’re chronically sore in a certain area even though they stretch a lot. While some have an injury history that predisposes them to this issue, for many others, the problem is not a lack of mobility. It’s a lack of strength. Whether it’s the adductors, hip flexors, or any other muscle group, if you lack strength, you’re likely going to start leaning on secondary movers to do the job of primary movers and stabilizers to play the role of secondary movers. You might also develop imbalances from front to back or left to right that further exacerbate the issue.

While strength training isn’t a cure-all in this regard, it can certainly go a long way to overcoming such challenges. No amount of static stretching, foam rolling, or massage is going to promote lasting change in soft tissues. These techniques might offer some temporary relief, but this will eventually fade, and your muscles will revert back to what they were before the intervention. Whereas if you apply mechanical load, you can prompt both immediate and lasting adaptations from the cellular level up. Plus, if you start strength training often, it will encourage your muscles to go back to their normal roles instead of either trying to do too much or too little to compensate for a lack of strength.

In short, resistance work will not make you too bulky or immobile. In fact, it will allow you to become stronger and more powerful, increase your movement literacy and efficiency, and make your muscles, joints, and supporting structures more durable. And the good news? You will start to see these adaptations and more in as little as two 20 to 30-minute sessions per week.

Need Help Starting a Strength Training Program?

If you are just getting back into resistance training or have no clue where to begin, the TD Athletes Edge team would love to help. Just click here to get the conversation started.




Timothy DiFrancesco

Tim DiFrancesco, PT, DPT spent 6 seasons as the Head Strength & Conditioning Coach of the Los Angeles Lakers and is the founder of TD Athletes Edge. He is nationally renowned for his evidence-based and scientific approach to fitness, training, nutrition, and recovery for athletes and fitness enthusiasts.

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