Can Muscles Get Stronger Without Getting Bigger?

Can muscles get stronger without getting bigger? This question seems to cause confusion, but it’s not complicated. Naturally, many species associate strength with size. They assume each other’s strength from their physical size. And humans are no different. So when we see a big man with muscles, we think that person must be very strong, but we are often wrong.

The strongmen in the world’s strongest man competitions are always big and not necessarily well-defined. Yet, they have pretty big muscles. Does that mean getting stronger means growing your muscles bigger? We will explore just that in this article, and we will also tell you how you can make your muscles stronger.

Everybody wants to get stronger, but not necessarily bigger. Everyone has different reasons for it. Many athletes want to be stronger without gaining weight to stay in the same weight class and have an advantage. Some people want to be stronger but avoid bulking up to look attractive. But are bigger muscles stronger? Let’s get into it.

Does increased strength mean muscle growth?

The answer really depends on many factors. In general, bigger muscles tend to have more strength potential. This is because someone with bigger muscles can lift more than someone with smaller muscles if they train correctly. But it is not necessary to make your muscles bigger to gain strength.

We don’t utilize the full strength of our muscles. Average humans use only 60% of their muscle strength to avoid causing any injuries. Trained athletes can utilize up to 80% of their muscle strength. That means we can train our muscles to use more of their potential. But training in the gym causes muscles to grow bigger, right? Don’t worry – we will help you avoid that.

A photograph of a bulked-up young man with big and strong muscles.
Credits: Preillumination Seth

One’s muscle size cannot be determined solely by their strength. Many other things besides size affect a person’s strength. Genetics also plays an essential role in your overall strength. You can customize your workout to focus on strength and not size, and as a result, you can get stronger without gaining weight.

Why am I getting stronger but not gaining weight?

Have you been training for a while and noticed that you are getting stronger but not getting bigger? We might have an explanation for that. Some people try to gain weight and start working out for it. But they get frustrated when they don’t gain more muscle despite setting a new personal record every week.

So, how do our muscles get bigger when we work out? They get damaged when we make them work with resistance and strength training. And when they get repaired, they rebuild bigger and stronger. A lot goes on behind the scenes, but this is the simplest explanation.

A photograph showing a man working out from the back, doing an exercise to build muscle and grow stronger.
Credits: Karsten Winegeart

One of the reasons you might not gain more muscle is the type of workout you are doing. Your exercises might focus more on stamina and strength building and less on making your muscles bigger. More on that later.


Sometimes, having fat can make you look bigger. For example, it can make your arms look more prominent and create the illusion of having more muscles. However, when you work out, all that fat is burned, and your body size seems to decrease. So even if your muscles grow during that period, losing a lot of fat can make you lose weight while gaining strength. However, that doesn’t have to be a bad thing.

How can I make my muscles stronger?

So how can you make your muscles stronger? First, you will have to do strength training for it. Workouts for muscle gain focus on using less weight but having many reps and sets. Strength-building workouts are the opposite. You have to train with heavy weights, but keep the number of sets limited and reps as low as six per set.

When we try to lift something heavy, our brain decides which muscles to use. It usually utilizes the smaller muscles more unless, the bigger ones are necessary. Lifting heavy weights makes our brain activate the bigger muscles more, and we get stronger overall.

Increasing grip strength can also make a big difference. Having a better grip lets us use our strength better when lifting things. Grip strength exercises also don’t make your muscles bigger, at least not noticeably.

Staying physically active is also very important if you want to gain strength. Regular participation in sports helps you lose weight and strengthens your bones and muscles.

Nutrition is another factor that will help you gain strength and use it to its highest potential. Knowing the principles of a healthy diet is crucial before making your own food plan, but we have made a cheat sheet you can use, so here it is.

10 quick muscle-building foods

A photograph of a table filled with healthy muscle-building foods such as salmon, green vegetables, salads, broccoli, chicken,  peas, smoothies and more.
Credits: Shayda Torabi

To bulk up quickly, you must eat a high-protein diet or foods with high calories. So what quick muscle-building foods can you promptly implement into your diet and eat regularly? Here’s our list:

  • Protein powder: Make protein shakes or smoothies, and add to oatmeal or baked goods for added protein.
  • Chicken: Grill, bake, roast, or boil and use in salads, sandwiches, wraps, stir-fries, or soups.
  • Bananas: Eat as a snack, add to smoothies, or use in baking (e.g., banana bread).
  • Eggs: Scramble, fry, boil, or use in baking, or add to salads and sandwiches for added protein.
  • Peanut butter: Use as a spread on toast or crackers, add to smoothies, or use in baking.
  • Brown rice: Add it as a side dish, to soups or stir-fries, or as a base for grain bowls.
  • Soybeans: Boil or roast and use as a snack, add to salads or stir-fries, or use to make tofu or soy milk.
  • Milk: Use as a beverage, add to cereal or oatmeal, use in baking or cooking, or add to smoothies.
  • Cheese: Use it as a topping on pizzas or salads, add to sandwiches or wraps, or use it in baking.
  • Fish: Salmon, tuna, and sardines can be grilled, cooked, or used raw to make sushi, sashimi, pasta, wraps, and salads.

Combine these in any way you want and please – make shakes, smoothies, wok, or whatever else comes to mind. Also, don’t forget to drink plenty of water – it is essential for hydration and optimal physical performance.

The bottom line

So, can muscles get stronger without getting bigger? Absolutely. It’s all about how much and what kind of effort you put into it. You can quickly get stronger without gaining a lot of mass. Of course, you will have to show dedication and make some lifestyle changes, but there’s nothing you can’t achieve with a little effort.


Keep in mind that there will be a limit to how much strength you can gain, and also, as you train, your muscle size won’t stay the same. Even if it doesn’t increase in size significantly, it will, in fact, get bigger. So make sure not to push too hard and lift weights beyond your limits, as safety always comes first in the gym. 

Muscle strength and size are somewhat correlated, and we can’t break that correlation – it’s all about finding the right balance.


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