Let me tell you a little story about the first time I got serious about getting stronger.
I’d trained for years, following the typical Muscle and Fiction workout of the month. I spent four days a week training my upper body and convinced myself that since I was athletic, I didn’t really need to train legs. I thought I was serious; in reality, I wasn’t.
After interning in the athletic weight room at Ball State University for a semester, I realized that I needed to be much stronger if I was going to work in this industry. I joined the powerlifting team and initiated my journey into the land of big squats and deadlifts.
My first real workout was geared toward developing a base — I was doing 3 sets of 10 reps with 185 pounds, and it was my first time really trying to squat to an adequate depth. The sets weren’t brutal, but they weren’t easy or pretty, either.
As I finished up my last set, I noticed everyone watching the girl in the squat rack next to me. Now keep in mind, this was no ordinary girl. This was Michelle Amsden, an IPF World Silver Medalist, and owner of one of the most aesthetically appealing squats you can ever imagine.
There she was, cranking out rep after rep of beautiful, below parallel squats — with 225!
It was that day that I realized two things:
1. Getting stronger was no longer an option. It was a necessity
2. Strong chicks are friggin’ cool
The moral of the story is this: You can absolutely be strong and feminine!
If you’re serious about getting stronger, here are five tools you can apply right now to take your strength to new-found levels.
1. Quit isolating!
The first rule to getting stronger is to forget the bodybuilding dogma for a while. No more isolating. No more pumping. No more cramping. Simply put, you need to put a premium on the big, compound movements.
It frustrates me to no end when someone comes up to me and says they can’t get stronger. Sure, I’ve seen some elite lifters in my day who’ve probably closed in on their genetic ceiling, but they are few and far between. Most simply have no clue how to train, and it begins and ends with hard work on big, basic movements.
If you’re going to hit a leg workout, you better have some version of either squats or deads in there. If it’s upper body pressing, some version of an overhead press, bench press or loaded push-up should be included. And if your goal is to develop a strong and aesthetically pleasing back, don’t shy away from rows, chins, and all the variations of these great exercises.
Make it a goal to not only include these exercises, but really push yourself on them as well!
Taking it a step further, these exercises shouldn’t be buried in your workout; they should be the first exercise you hit! Its common sense that the exercise you tackle first (while you’re freshest) will be the one you reap the most gains performing.
Strength coach Dan John often states that the first exercise you do in your workouts accounts for 80% of your gains. Think about that the next time opt for deltoid isolation work over some heavy overhead presses!
2. 5’s: The Magic Rep Range
Focusing on the big lifts is important, but the rep range you train in is critical as well.
One of the biggest mistakes trainees make, is not changing their rep ranges often enough. They fall into the pack mentality and end up doing years and years of work in the 8-12 rep range, when on the inside their body is craving a workout that pushes their limits a little bit more.
|Strength, Speed or Power|
As the table above shows, the more reps you do in a set, the more likely you are to get bigger — but not necessarily stronger. 8’s, 10’s and 12’s are great for building muscle and stripping away body fat, but they’re sub-optimal if your primary goal is getting strong.
At some point, you have to take advantage of that muscle accrued using higher reps and focus on your nervous system. The continuum below should help:
If you think about training in lower rep ranges (i.e. the left side of the continuum), you’re going to focus on becoming more efficient via your nervous system. World class powerlifters and Olympic lifters can often improve upon their lifts for years (while maintaining the same body weight) because their nervous systems have become extremely efficient at the competition lifts.
Fives are almost legendary for their ability to take trainees’ strength to newfound levels. While the rep range itself definitely isn’t magic, it forces you to use heavier weights and get stronger in the process.
Try this for the next month and let me know how it works out for you: Take your first big exercise of the day (squats, deads, chins, etc.) and perform it for 3 to 5 sets of 5 repetitions. If you’re pushing yourself, it should lead to some serious improvements in total body strength.
Our very own Molly sure knows how to push herself!
3. Take More Rest
People who aren’t familiar with getting stronger often take pride in taking short rest periods. After all, resting is for the weak right?
If your goal is serious strength development, though, it’s flawed thinking.
While the muscular system recovers quite quickly, the nervous system takes much longer. Did you ever wonder why powerlifters or Olympic weight lifters take so long in between sets? It’s not because they’re lazy or out-of-shape. Well some are, but definitely not all of them!
Instead, they’re waiting to fully recover from a neural perspective. If you’re training in the 4-6 rep range, take a minimum of three minutes between sets, and as long as five minutes if you’re really pushing it. Lower rep ranges should be accommodated by even longer rest periods.
In a competition setting, you’ll often get anywhere from 10-15 minutes between lifts. It sounds like a lot, but trust me, you need it!
4. Push Your Assistance Lifts
This may be somewhat counter intuitive to what I wrote up front, but hear me out.
Quite often, we miss lifts because a specific muscle group is weak in comparison to others. For example, you may miss a bench press at the lockout because your triceps aren’t strong enough. Or, you might get caved over in a squat because your lower back isn’t up to snuff. Your goal may be to put 20 pounds on your squat, but you’re limited by your weakest link.
Finding a good coach or training crew (which I’ll discuss next) can go a long way to helping you determine your weaknesses. If this isn’t an option, at the very least try and videotape your sessions so you can see where you may need some work.
The Figure Athlete forum would be a great place to get feedback on your lifting. Worst comes to worst, you can always post something in my thread and I’ll do my best to help you out!
Once you know your weaknesses, attack them with a vengeance! If your triceps are holding back your bench, board presses and floor presses will get them stronger in a hurry. If you get caved over while squatting, try some heavy good mornings or RDL’s to help maintain your arch throughout the lift.
Bringing up your weaknesses may not be sexy at the time, but if it results in a 10, 15 or 20 pound PR next time you test your lifts, don’t forget to thank me!
5. Get a Crew
This tip has nothing to do with programming. It’s not about sets, reps, rest periods, or anything of the like. Instead, it’s all about attitude.
I’ve gone on record as saying the best years I’ve had training-wise were when I had a ton of freakishly strong people around me. Not only is it great motivation on a day-to-day basis, but you also feel the need to constantly push yourself.
If you train by yourself all the time, there are plenty of days when you don’t feel 100%, or at the very least don’t feel like pushing things. When you have a great training crew, it’s a rare day when no one feels like training; there’s always that one guy or girl there to push the group.
Nothing like a crew to keep you motivated and balanced!
Their motivation and energy then leaks over to the next person, and then another. Next thing you know, half the gym is setting PR’s. This is exactly what you need!
Make it your goal to seek out other people who are serious about getting strong. Powerlifting great, Louie Simmons, often recites the passage, “Run with the lame and you’ll develop a limp.” Quite simply, if you want to develop your strength to its fullest potential, you need to get around people who are stronger than you.
I hope this article has given you the basic tools to start getting stronger now. Ultimately, however, getting stronger is more about attitude and hard work than fancy set/rep schemes and the like. Dedicate yourself now to getting stronger, and I look forward to hearing some success stories in the coming months!
About the Author
Mike Robertson, M.S., C.S.C.S., U.S.AW., has helped clients and athlete from all walks of life achieve their strength, physique and performance related goals. Mike received his Masters Degree in Sports Biomechanics from the world-renowned Human Performance Lab at Ball State University.
Mike is the president of Robertson Training Systems, and the co-owner of Indianapolis Fitness and Sports Training in Indianapolis, Indiana. Don’t forget to check out all of Mike’s products in the Biotest Store.