How to Gain Strength without Gaining Weight with Paleo Workouts

By Kellyann Petrucci, Melissa Joulwan, Patrick Flynn, Adriana Harlan

This could also be called “Gaining Strength with the Option of Gaining Weight with Paleo Workouts,” because for those of you who want to add some muscle mass, your ability to do so increases in direct proportion to your absolute strength. To say it another way, the stronger you are, the more potential you have to add muscle mass.

The reverse is also true to a large extent; that is, the stronger you are, the more potential you have for total body leanness. Either way, it pays to be strong.

The key to gaining strength isn’t found in gaining muscle, although the key to gaining muscle is found in gaining strength. Really, the key to gaining strength is found in gaining movement efficiency, or to put it more succinctly, fine-tuning your nervous system.

Your nervous system is your operations manager; it dictates how hard your muscles are allowed to tense. And tension is strength, loosely speaking. So the harder you can tense a muscle, the more strength you can display.

Tensing (and relaxing) muscles to develop strength

There are really only two ways to go about generating more tension. The first is to lift more weight. The second is to lift the same weight faster. Both of these options are viable for gaining strength. But there’s more to it than that.

The body will allow only so much tension to be generated at any given time. This is a safety mechanism, to be sure, designed mostly to protect your joints. But, unfortunately, this mechanism typically kicks in far too soon — long before you’re in any real danger of harming yourself from tensing too hard. So you have to teach the nervous system that it’s okay to generate more tension, to push back the tension threshold. That is strength.

Flexibility is achieved in much the same way, but instead of teaching the nervous system that it’s okay to tense up, you must teach the nervous system that it’s okay to relax. And it’s between these two spectrums (tension and relaxation) that all human movement lies. It’s important to practice both because too much of either one (tension or relaxation) isn’t a desirable thing. Ideally, you want to be tense only when you have to be.

While tension is strength, relaxation is speed. Most athletic movements, such as a punch or a jump, are a blend of tension and relaxation.

Combining heavy weight and low reps

The secret to building strength is heavy weight and low reps. If you can work high reps, then the weight you’re using isn’t heavy enough. Simple as that. You pick a lift — any lift you want — then find a weight you can lift for no more than five repetitions at a time, and then you work multiple sets, resting as much as you need to between each set.

So here’s the strength equation you should use to focus your workouts:

  • Strength=Heavy weight + Low reps + Multiple sets

  • Heavy weight is relative to you, but you shouldn’t be able to lift it for more than five repetitions.

  • A low rep range indicates sets of five repetitions or less.

  • Multiple sets may be anywhere from 2 to 12 sets, depending on the structure of the program.

This formula is at the heart of primal fitness programs, and with a solid understanding of this equation, you can design your own strength program.

Deciding on your training frequency

Training frequency answers the question, “How often should I train?” The answer is, if you want to get stronger, train pretty often.

Strength is acquired through practice, so wouldn’t it make sense to practice as often as possible? Well, sort of, but not entirely. The human body needs rest. It needs time to recover and to adapt. Rest is done outside of the gym, so more isn’t always better in this regard.

Furthermore, you must keep in mind the Paleo fitness principle of doing the absolute least amount to reach your goals. So what’s the least amount of practice you need to hit your strength goals? The answer varies for each individual, but you’ll likely need somewhere between three and five days a week of strength-training practice.

If you’re new to weight lifting, gains will come quickly, and you may be able to get away with a little more. If you’re a veteran, then you’ll likely need more recovery time to get to the next level and would probably do better with less. Either way, the goal should be to practice as much as you have to but as little as you need to.

Working the best strength-building exercises

Are some exercises better suited for building total body strength than others? Most likely, yes. Typically, the bigger the movement, the higher the strength return.

For example, the squat is often hailed as the king of all strength-building exercises, with the dead lift trailing close behind. Both of these movements allow for a tremendous amount of stress (weight) to be put on the system.

A classic starter strength-building program may typically be comprised of the following lifts:

  • Dead lift

  • Squat

  • Bench press

  • Pull-up

  • Loaded carry

This list is fairly simple but somewhat lacking. Humans are meant to move in all ways, so don’t think you should restrict your strength training to just these five exercises.

But constructing a good exercise program is a lot like building a delicious recipe. The ingredients (exercises) are only part of what makes it successful. The success of a recipe depends largely on the ordering, the pairing, and the preparation of the ingredients. So, too, does the success of an exercise program depend on how you mix, match, and serve the exercises. It’s a delicate art.

But you need not concern yourself with any of that, really. All you need do is follow them and make sure you master the form.