Myth Busted: Will Strength Training Make Me Bulky And Tight?

Last weekend we did a seminar at Afterburn Fitness on the benefits of strength and conditioning (S&C) for dragon boat.

We covered what S&C is, how it can benefit both recreational and competitive paddlers, busted some training myths, covered what a proper program should look like, and finished with an awesome group workout.

One of the points I would like to elaborate on is a training myth that we received some questions about,“Will I get too big if I strength train?”and the associated myth that training makes you tight and you lose all flexibility.

Although these have been covered in detail in the S&C community, I realize it hasn’t been covered here or in the context of paddlers, so I want to get everyone on the same page.

Getting too big and losing flexibility can be a serious concern in dragon boat.


Unnecessary bodyweight can slow down the boat, excess mass can interfere with the sport, and a lack of flexibility prevents proper positioning for optional force production on each stroke.

I don’t blame people for wanting to keep a more ‘athletic’ body, and one that they are probably currently successful with.

In reality, S&C improves athletic performance, and the fear people have that training will make them a worse paddler is a myth.

So let’s crush these myths once and for all, and get more people training like the monsters they have the potential to be.


First of all, training will not make you ‘too big’ and bulky, regardless of gender.


The people you see on magazines or the internet that LOOK like freaks are just that – freaks.

It is probable that they:

– are genetic anomalies

– are pharmaceutically enhanced

– are both genetic anomalies and pharmaceutically enhanced

– they train to look that way (i.e. not S&C)

– they have been training for a long, LONG time

On top of that, they are on the front of the magazine. That means they are the BEST of everyone who wanted to be on the cover. The absolute best.

It just doesn’t happen.

This is a slide from our presentation that showcases APPROXIMATELY how big people can get, while staying lean, without the aid of pharmaceuticals.


Definitely not “too big” or bulky.

Not only are they the best (they made the cover), they may still be genetic freaks, and they train to look like they do.

I don’t know anyone who would be upset looking like either of these people.

As a dragon boat athlete, you don’t train for looks, and you probably sit closer to the top of the bell curve in terms of genetic potential than near either extreme.

That means if you are fortunate enough to be a genetic outlier, if you quit paddling and focus your training on aesthetics instead of performance, and if you do this for a long time, you MIGHT be able to look like that. Maybe. If you’re lucky.

And this doesn’t address the difference between bodybuilding-style training (training for a specific look) and S&C (training for athletic performance). Not only are you limited by your genetic potential and lack of pharmaceuticals, if you train like an athlete you won’t accidentally look like a bodybuilder.

Aaron Choi

This is because the body adapts to the stimulus it is exposed to. This is known as the SAID principle, or Specific Adaptation to Imposed Demands.

If you employ the proper training to develop the proper qualities, those are the qualities that you develop. Things like strength, power and endurance should be focused on and improved, and things like massive biceps should not.

What will probably happen with proper training is that you will increase both force production and rate of force production, while simultaneously decreasing your risk of injury.

This means you can apply more force per stroke, decrease the time it takes to get to peak force, and spend more time in the boat practising and less time rehabilitating a bad back or shoulder.

What constitutes proper training? Well, I’ll save that for another post.


Now what about getting tight and losing flexibility, that happens when you add muscle, right?


It can, and there definitely are some people who are a bit more ‘muscle bound’ than others, but the only time a loss of flexibility occurs is with neglect.

Neglecting things like a proper warm up and using full range of motion with exercises can definitely lead to flexibility problems (and probably some aches and pains). I wouldn’t consider this smart training in the first place, and for all we know these people lacked flexibility before they started training.

Additionally, strength training might actually bring awareness to your deficiencies.

If you can’t get to depth in a squat or full extension with an overhead lift you are probably compensating to get into proper positions in the boat as well, which will impede performance. You wouldn’t even know it until you tried something other than paddling.

At work I see a lot of “everyday people” who just want to look and feel better. We also have a lot of amateur and professional athletes. We truly have a mix of talent, age and ability. But guess who consistently has more flexibility restrictions?

The everyday people.

They just aren’t in the gym enough or aren’t taking their training seriously enough to address these issues as they come up. Our dedicated athletes on the other hand have great range of motion, are getting stronger, staying injury free, and most important of all are getting better at their sport.


Lots of muscle, incredibly strong and powerful, and definitely not muscle-bound.

The bottom line here is that if you are an athlete, you have to take care of your body, and adding strength training isn’t going to make you tight or less flexible. You might actually gain flexibility as you gain muscle.

But again, that requires smart training, not just the mindless lifting of weights.


Photo Sources: Koklyaev, olympia, squat, flexible, dragonboat

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