5 tips for building strength

5 tips for building strength

I understand that everyone who enters the gym does so with their own goals in mind but whether your intentions are to perform better, look better or some combination of the two, very few people would object to getting stronger. Besides looking better in front of your training partner, strength will make you better at life. It was the great Mark Rippetoe who said “strong people are harder to kill and more useful in general.” -Gospel if I’ve ever heard it. Even if you’re an endurance athlete, you may be a bit behind the times if you think there is nothing to be gained from a great strength program sprinkled into your workout regimen. The fact is that building strength the right way is something that all active people should aspire to in our never-ending battle against gravity. It’ll keep our bones strong, our joints healthy and above all else, a PR in the gym feels damn good. Through my journey through the world of strongman, CrossFit, powerlifting and as of late, the lofty goal of being able to back squat 500lbs. and run 100 miles in under 24 hours, building strength through adversity has been at the forefront of my mind. I have compiled time tested, multi discipline approaches to getting stronger. The following five tips are a result of that time under the iron.

 

  1. Quantify your workouts. What are your intentions when you walk into the gym? Are you going to do the same recycled 4 sets of 10 curls at the weight you have always done? There are tons of different strength plans out there and they all have their own strengths and weaknesses but the one thing that they will all have in common if they are worth their salt is a linear progression. How often are you adding weights on the barbell? I’m a fan of adding weight weekly until you hit a sticking point in form at the same rep structure, then sticking with that until you get through the plateau. And then sticking with that for eight to 12 weeks. Either way, don’t jump around because no plan will work if you do them all for a couple weeks at a time. Remember, a bad plan executed well is worth much more than a great plan executed poorly. TIP: In the absence of a formal plan, write down where you are at, try to progress every week and then test yourself every few months to know if you are making progress or hopelessly moving iron to no avail.
  2. Eat in a way that lends itself to power. If you eat rabbit food it is extremely difficult to move weight like an ox. No exceptions. There are vegan lifters but they are either supplementing what they are missing or they are operating on a short shelf life. Eating whole real food is key to recovery; eating whole real food within a reasonable time of your workout ending that is high in protein is a game changer. Even if you supplement post workout, you should consider getting some kind of real food source (think eggs, chicken etc..) Paying attention to what you eat before hand is extremely important as well. If you are a carb-adapted athlete, it is important that you replenish glycogen stores within your muscles prior to lifting, aka needing that glycogen. TIP: If you are eating something post workout that had parents you are maximizing benefit.
  3. Don’t use machines, be the machine. When it comes to making gains in the strength department, the barbell is king. Period. All of it’s free weight kin (i.e. kettle bells, dumbbells, hex bar, axle bar etc..) certainly have their place but at the end of the day machines are peasants among the free weights. By nature machines tend to be isolating in ways that free weights just aren’t. The barbell not only allows you to bail if need be, making it a safer option; it also forces you to use your body to stabilize the bar which exponentially allows you to build more strength in a much more functional manner. This is not to say that machines should never be utilized but if max strength is your goal, you are short on time or training for something such as an endurance sport, skip the machines and head straight for the big kids table. If time is limited, utilize compound movements. i.e. Squat, bench, dead lift, clean and jerk and snatch. These lifts not only ensure that you are building functional strength, they also help with testosterone production while giving you an all over workout. When it comes to these lifts, no movement is better than the dead lift as long as your form is solid and you don’t end up on the business end of a “Gym Fails” YouTube video. TIP: If you are interested in some of the more technical lifts, get a coach. You will never get great form from an online video and if your form is not where it should be, then some lifts such as the snatch, don’t make any sense from a risk to reward ratio standpoint.
  4. Anything over sets of 5 is cardio. When building maximal strength, aim for sets of three to five in the 70-80% range of your one rep max. Reserve singles for higher percentages. Remember that getting stroger is largely due to time under tension, you just have to make sure it is enough tension. If your looking to get a 500 pound dead life, spend little time in the 225 range as you will unnecessarily tax your nervous system on wasted reps. Reserve your energy and strength for the reps that are in the 80% range and up. Keeping reps low will also help you live to fight another day. Although you will be doing a lot of weight, keeping the rep scheme low will allow you to recover quicker and get back at it. TIP: 7 x 3, building up to max set of 3 is my favorite rep scheme for getting stronger. The load is high but the demand is short.
  5. Don’t worry about over training; worry about under recovering. “Over training,” as so many athletes and coaches have dubbed it lately, only really occurs because of one reason. The person training is not yet recovered from the previous session. Typically, the more deconditioned an athlete is, the more sore they will be from training and often times take that as the standard of measure for weather or not they should work out again. While that is certainly one indicator, full recovery should be looked at like a puzzle with many more pieces needed to see the full picture. Heart Rate Variability (HRV) training for example, allows an athlete to measure their recovery based on the athletes own nervous system response. You can then tailor your next workout based on how recovered you actually are. You can also track weather the recovery that you are using is actually helping or not. You can also utilize cold tubs, saunas (great for stretching,) cryotherapy and a host of other recovery methods that will help you get back on the horse just a little quicker. My point here is that you should know about all of these and more. Recovery for so many is just an ironic afterthought. In reality though, if you focused as much time on your recovery as you did your workout you would not only be able to work out more but with better intensity and when it comes to building strength, that makes all of the difference.