If you think that being skinny and strong are mutually exclusive, then think again! This article explains why and how it is possible to be both skinny and strong.
Skinny people can have a high degree of relative body strength. Building strength is best achieved by lifting heavy weights in a low rep range. It is also important to consume enough calories and protein to fuel muscle repair, recovery, and growth.
Keep reading to find out more about skinny strength, why you can be skinny but strong at the same time, and how to do it!
- Skinny people can be strong- muscle size and strength do not follow a direct correlation.
- The neuronal component of muscle activation explains the dissociation between size and strength. This explains why powerlifters can be skinnier than bodybuilders and still be able to lift heavier weights.
- Optimize your training for strength by focusing on compound lifting using weights that are over 85% of 1RM and lifting in a low rep range of <5 reps per set.
- Ensure a sufficient calorie intake and high protein intake to maximize strength gains from training.
Can You Be Skinny and Strong?
The short answer is yes you can be small and skinny but strong at the same time!
In fact, one of the biggest myths about skinny people is that they’re automatically weak and frail. This couldn’t be further from the truth.
Whilst untrained skinny guys often lack strength and physical fitness, trained athletes can be skinny but also extremely strong for their size.
This is commonly seen in powerlifters.
Take a look at Derek Ng below. He weighs 59kg (130lbs). He’s not exactly jacked but instead has a small and skinny frame. Yet he managed to lift a whopping 527.5kg (1,163lbs) in the 2018 IPF Powerlifting Championships.
Here are Derek’s numbers:
|Lift||Weight||Relative To Bodyweight|
|Squat||170kg / 375lbs||2.8x|
|Bench press||97.5kg / 215lbs||1.7x|
|Deadlift||260kg / 573lbs||4.4x|
These 3 exercises are some of the best lifts for skinny people to build strength and muscle
These numbers put Derek well within the top 5% of lifters (all training levels) in terms of relative strength.
Take home message?
Skinny people can be extremely strong and athletic. In fact, skinny people often have a naturally fast metabolism which makes it easier to build muscle and maintain a lean body composition.
This combination of lean mass and low body fat can contribute to skinny strength.
Why Some People Look Skinny But Are Strong
Yup, you can appear thin and skinny but also be strong and lift heavy weights. Here are some of the common factors that contribute to skinny strength and how you can get strong as a skinny guy:
1) Favourable genetics
This is one of the biggest factors that explain how someone can be extremely strong but skinny at the same time.
Just like how everyone has a natural predisposition to a certain body type (mesomorphic, ectomorphic, and endomorphic), genetics also play a role in body composition.
It’s often easier for skinny guys to maintain a low body fat percentage to muscle mass ratio. And this contributes to skinny strength.
2) Strength-optimized training
Your training style is another common factor that explains why you can be skinny but very strong.
The way you lift your weights affects how your muscles respond.
To emphasize strength and power, you would generally lift heavy weights (over 85% of 1RM) in a low rep range (less than 5 reps per set).
In comparison, hypertrophy-style training emphasizes muscle size and typically focuses on slightly lighter weights and higher rep ranges.
If you’re interested, you can check out my other post for a 3-day barbell strength program.
3) High-protein diet
Nutrition is another important factor for skinny strength.
People who are skinny but strong usually eat just about enough calories to support muscle hypertrophy (growth) whilst also maintaining a low body fat percentage.
Their diets are also typically high in protein, healthy fats, complex carbs, fruits, and veg.
Protein is especially important because it serves as the raw material for muscle growth. Additionally, protein only contains 4 calories per gram. This can help skinny people stay lean and build strength at the same time.
I recommend eating a minimum of 1g of protein per lb of body weight per day to build skinny strength.
4) Relative Body Strength
I’ve already mentioned relative strength. It’s an important concept to understand.
Comparing outright strength between skinny vs muscular people can be deceiving. Take the two examples below:
- 130lbs skinny guy deadlifting 200lbs. This represents 2x body weight and is considered to be a high level of relative strength.
- 200lbs muscular guy deadlifting 300lbs. This is the same weight but it only represents 1.5x their body weight and is therefore considered to be a much lower level of relative strength.
Measuring strength in relation to body weight means skinny people can be extremely strong despite having less muscle mass.
It’s for this reason that Powerlifting competitions have different weight classes.
The Science Behind Being Skinny Strong
To understand why you can be small and skinny but strong at the same time, you need to understand that a muscle contraction has two components:
- Neuronal component. Your nervous system fires a signal from the brain to your muscle telling it to contract. The stronger the neuronal activation the stronger the muscle contraction and the greater the muscular strength.
- Muscle component. Your muscle fibers contract after it receives stimulation from your neurons. But the number and size of fibers in a muscle can vary greatly. The more numerous and larger the muscle fibers the greater the post-neuronal muscle contraction and the greater the muscular strength.
Therefore skinny people with low muscle mass can still be strong if they have a strong nervous system.
This concept was demonstrated in a 2020 study that demonstrated a dissociation between muscular strength and size.
In other words, a muscle can get bigger without getting stronger and vice versa.
This explains why a skinny powerlifter can lift more weight than a bulky bodybuilder.
It’s also why powerlifters often perform “nervous system priming” exercises prior to a big lift.
An example of a nervous system priming exercise:
- Load a barbell with 20% more weight than you are expecting to lift (if you’re aiming to squat 200lbs then load 240lbs).
- Unrack the overloaded barbell as usual, but do not proceed with the rep.
- Hold this position for 5 seconds.
- Rerack the barbell.
- Repeat 5 times.
This simple exercise helps you to activate your neuronal component in preparation for a big lift. In other words, you’re warming up the nervous system.
How to Become Strong As A Skinny Person
Here are 4 essential tips for you to build strength as a skinny guy:
1) Optimize your training for strength
Focus on lifting heavy in a low rep range. I recommend lifting in a 3-5 rep range using a weight that you find challenging for the chosen reps. Complete 3-5 sets per exercise. Work on the main compound lifts such as squats, deadlifts, bench presses, rows, and shoulder presses.
As a beginner with no experience in lifting heavy, you may want to first try my home workout plan for skinny guys before optimizing for strength. This will be much safer and it will prepare your body for heavy lifting!
2) Perform HIIT on active recovery days
People who are currently skinny do not need to follow this tip.
This is for people who aren’t currently skinny but looking to build a strong and skinny physique (skinny-fat guys are prime candidates).
Active recovery days are short and light workouts performed on days that you’re resting from your primary strength routine.
You can do high-intensity interval training (HIIT) on recovery days to help burn fat, work your fast-twitch muscle fibers with explosive movements, and improve your overall body composition. You can even try weighted HIIT workouts for maximum effect.
3) Optimize your nutrition plan
Skinny people should increase protein intake to at least 1g per of body weight per day to maximize the benefits of strength workouts.
For example: a 130lb skinny guy should eat a minimum of 130g of protein each day.
Additionally, determine your maintenance calories using a TDEE calculator and aim to eat at or just above your TDEE to avoid putting on too much weight.
The goal is to eat just enough to build strength, but not so much that you become bulky.
Benefits of Being Skinny and Strong
- Better athletic performance. A low body fat and high muscle mass ratio often translate into athletic capabilities such as running, lifting, and jumping.
- Higher metabolism. Lean mass is active tissue that burns calories even at rest. This can help you maintain a healthy body weight.
- Increased confidence. Nothing improves your self-esteem more than out lifting someone who is bigger than you!
- Foundation for bodybuilding. Building strength gives you a strong foundation for bodybuilding in the future should you wish.
- General health and fitness. Daily activities become much easier when your muscles are stronger.
It is completely possible to be skinny and strong at the same time. The classic example is a lightweight powerlifter.
You can build skinny strength by lifting heavy in a low rep range.
Don’t forget that nutrition is also essential. Make sure you consume your maintenance calories (or just above) and eat at least 1g of protein per lb of body weight.
You may also be interested in the downloadable Kalibre Blueprint PDF which details exactly how I gained 40lbs of lean muscle (it’s 100% free!). It details the exact exercises and nutrition (with printables) I used to go from skinny to ripped!