Reader Q&A – Strength Without Size Plus More

Reader Jeff had a series of questions for me after viewing my 21 Convention talk. I thought it would be a good opportunity to share with you, my amazing readers, the answers as I think you’ll find it helpful. My response will be normal text while Jeff’s questions will be in italics:

Hey Skyler,

Awesome job. Puts things greatly into perspective for me, another tallish naturally lean guy. It is all too easy to get into the “I am not getting huge so I must not be doing it right”.

A couple of quick questions, if you don’t mind:
-How is it that I am consistently getting stronger without getting much bigger? What, physiologically, is happening to allow that? I always assumed that stronger = bigger, but I don’t see how that is the case anymore.
-To gain that ~1#/year do you have a feeling how much one needs to eat to achieve it? Is it required to go surplus to get it?
-What is your take on cycling intake ala leangains to get that measly 1# without gaining fat.

Great job again, thanks.



I’ll cover your questions in order (and thanks for the kind words!):
1. Strength and size are correlative to a large degree. Generally, getting stronger means getting bigger and getting bigger means getting stronger. However the rate of each improvement holds not consistent rate in which it improves the other (e.g. gaining 100lbs on your bench will build lean muscle but how much is genetically mediated). Which brings us to our next topic: thrifty genes vs. spendthrift genes.

The perhaps stereotypical statement of “black men gain size while maintaining leanness” argument has some truth to it. If food supply is variable, seasonal, and frequently in question meant that those who could survive would thrive. A huge muscular body means a lot of fuel to be used; being between the tropics means that food is plentiful and consistent from a variety of sources. This leads to an increased possibility of developing a spendthrift metabolism, that is adapting to the environment in ways that can be considered inefficient in the face of stress or starvation. It should also be of no coincidence that the biggest, fastest, strongest land animals are also from this area of the world.

Juxtapose that with a thrifty metabolism, which would create adaptations that result in the lowest fuel cost to create the desired effect. If stress and famine might be around the corner (or just a harsh winter), the thrifty thing to do is increase neural drive, improve rate coding (how quickly the motor neuron fires), increase insulin sensitivity (so any substrate that adds up to a calorie surplus is stored), and likely reduce sympathetic nervous system output (responsible for neurotransmitter release like epinephrine/norepinephrine) which would lead to a reduced metabolism.

That explains the tall skinny-fat type to a T, doesn’t it? Even if you’re naturally lean and have a hard time putting on muscle in the face of strength improvements, there are other factors involved in gaining strength without size including:

Inter and intra muscular coordination
Motor learning
Motor unit/fiber recruitment efficiency
Golgi tendon inhibition
Fatigue resistance
Postural changes
Connective tissue changes
Improvements in cadence and turnarounds
Pain tolerance
Perception of difficulty

However, so few of those are actionable enough to worry significantly about. Continue to get stronger and that threshold eventually breaks to more size, assuming nutrition is sufficient which leads me to…

2. You need more food but this is where things get tricky. There are plenty of times when there is an increase in lean mass which in turn follows with an increase in appetite/food intake. You can’t “force” muscle gain just by shoving endless food down your throat; rather training should be inducing the desired structural adaptations that create the requirement for more calories. But I also feel that you need a reasonable climate for muscle growth to take place. Nobody is getting jacked on 2000 kcals per day, in other words.

So without micromanaging a whole lot, if you’re hanging around your body fat set point and your set point isn’t 7% you’re likely eating enough. However…

3. You can optimize the process by feeding your body more on days when protein synthesis is higher…after your workouts! This is why Martin Berkhan and John Berardi both make training days “higher” carb days. If you keep them to safe starches plus a little more fruit and let your calories drift up a little bit, you’ve primed the environment to gain as fast as your genes will allow.

If you have any other questions please let me know!


Thanks for the response.

It seems that leangains makes a lot of sense for me then. Since I ain’t getting huge in a hurry, the best thing to do is get really lean(maybe a touch leaner than my current 9-10%) and work to add my 1#/year or so of muscle. To do that a cyclic pattern which is in line with evolutionary patterns of eating more post hunt(workout) while being a bit lighter in eating on non-hunt days seems to make perfect sense for a combo of muscle gains and leanness. That gets the synthesis where it is needed and avoids extra fat building when no workout is going on. That works out approximately 2x/week or so, which is in line with many recommendations of people I respect.

I am currently doing a brutal HIT/SS workout once a week or so( I miss a week from time to time) and in between I do 1, sometimes 2 reverse pyramid training. I am gaining on everything each session, so I don’t think I am overdoing it. What do you think of RPT? It seems interesting to me since it is a much stronger load stimulus than SS as the first set is done when fresh at highest weight. You ever tried that? Any thoughts on that training method? I like the idea of the sequential recruitment once a week along with a simultaneous recruitment at higher load. Injury is my main concern about RPT.

thanks again,


BTW, the answer to the question on fat loss was classic. The 2 exercises of head shakes and table presses was awesome. I will be passing that one along.


I hope you don’t mind but I’m going to post this exchange as a post for everyone to read… a reader “Q&A” if you will.

1. Understand that 1#/year was an average and you might still have a little more in you if the variables are correct and you don’t routine jump too much. This is why some trainers are against variety under most circumstances: it mucks with knowing if you’re improving. That said a few marker exercises (e.g. the big compounds) being consistent allows for a little variety to be used to keep enthusiasm high. Use wisely, however, as one can quickly get focused on the superfluous exercises, not the big, big movements.

2. I like reverse pyramid, which isn’t outside the wheelhouse of old-school HIT. It’s basically an intelligent drop set that allows for maximum performance as opposed to blistering fatigue. If you have an appropriate rep range is allows for a bit more volume of contractions as compared to a TUL-based HIT routine, possibly creating more strain on the tissue as opposed to the SS routine which is going to create more metabolic byproducts (relatively speaking). Both are good for growth.

3. Understand that you’re still sequentially recruiting with the RPT routine, you’re just doing it faster. So while you might not be into the high threshold motor units on the first rep of a SS set (assuming a ~1:30 TUL) you’re likely into by the end of the second rep.

I hope this helps.


There is so much minutia to get caught up in with regards to training. Most of that minutia applies to a very select few at a very high level in order to continue seeing improvement. Most would be better served by focusing on the large, important, actionable items and everything else tends to get in line. Along a similar line, take a look at this map of obesity influences:

Click Me!
Click Me!


So how many of those items can you directly act upon? You can’t control if you mother breast fed you or not, nor can you control the cost of ingredients in the global food chain. So they’re important, very, but if you can’t act upon them why worry about them? Focus on what you can control, control them to the best of your ability, and everything else falls into place.

3 thoughts on “Reader Q&A – Strength Without Size Plus More

  1. Hey Skyler,

    I just started reading “Unlock Your Muscle Gene: Trigger the Biological Mechanisms That Transform Your Body and Extend Your Life” by Ori Hofmekler. One thing he mentions is that you can get stronger without gaining size, possibly, by having some muscle fibers convert to type IIA from slow twitch. I didn’t see you mention that one. Is that legit?


    1. Hey Jeff,

      There are in fact 7 types of known fiber types, and likely more to be discovered over time. Take a look:

      The intermediate fibers take on the characteristics that training dictate to a certain extent. Not 100% change but some shift so his statement is mostly true.

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