What exactly does it mean to be strong? People will have varied definitions based on their rep maxes, body weights, training techniques, and so on. Others will shout their maximums from the rooftops (or the YouTube comments area, which is the basement), but stare at the elevator itself and…you may go blind.
This system does not necessitate maximum effort. It is what I use as a guide to assist clients define attainable strength benchmarks for an able-bodied individual.
- Deadlift: 1.5 times your body weight for 10 reps
- 10 rigorous reps of chin-ups with body weight
- Squat: 10 repetitions at body weight
- Strict press: 3 repetitions at 3/4 body weight
As you can see, these figures aren’t worth calling the Olympic Committee about. They just allow a lifter to be able to hold his or her own in the weight room, develop some foundational musculature and a good physique, and set the platform for anything they want to achieve next. If you’re looking for science, there isn’t any. It’s simply what I’ve found to be effective as a trainer and with my clients.
So, what will it take to get you there? Here are my five principles, learnt in the trenches, to guarantee you’re doing everything you should to build strength—and, more importantly, not getting in your own way. If you aren’t already doing any of these things, you should start right now.
Eat Enough and Properly to Gain Weight
When training towards a certain objective, you will almost always have to compromise another aim to some extent. If you want to be big, you may have to sacrifice some mobility, at least in the short run. If you’re after athletic training, your bulk will most likely deflate slightly. When training for greater max strength, you can expect your conditioning will suffer. It’s just the way things are.
If you’re a long way from those benchmarks and expecting to preserve those xylophone abs while scoring PRs left and right, you’re probably dreaming—and not eating enough. Building strength is difficult, and when you’re pursuing it, you must consume enough amounts of protein for muscle recovery and growth—as well as adequate calories in general.
In other words, it’s fine to gain weight as the weights increase. More surface area is always a good thing! You will gain muscular mass and, as a result, strength. Worry about getting rid of any excess fat until you’ve gained more muscle.
I won’t tell you what to eat; it is entirely up to you. But I’m also not saying you should batter-dip your body on your route to a deadlift PR. If you do, your chin-up stats will alert you when things are out of control!
Strengthen one large lift per workout.
You’re feeling terrific in the gym today, but your self-designed plan has you attempting a new 3-rep max for overhead presses, deadlifts, and bench press—all in a single hour-long training session.
What’s the issue? Your neural system can only generate a specific amount of max-effort lifts in a short period of time. However, CNS exhaustion does not appear as a significant burn or “hitting the wall” in the same way that muscles fatigue when they are tired. Instead, it manifests as lower max lifts, poor recovery, and deteriorating performance. You can call it “overtraining” or anything you like, but the main point is that it will make you weaker, not stronger.
Of course, there is a time and place for a test day to assess where you are with things like the overhead press and deadlift. But don’t mix up a test day and a training day; they’re two completely different beasts.
Going hard with one big lift on a training day will leave the other two hanging out to dry when you get to them, resulting in a mediocre exercise that doesn’t deliver a strong enough strength-building stimulus. A better option would be to focus on one big, heavy lift every workout and train the other activities for higher rep ranges—especially if they’re also huge lifts. That’s the kind of intelligent periodization that elevates intermediate lifters to advanced levels.
You should pull more than you push.
You’ve probably heard strength trainers give this advice before, generally while berating you for your terrible posture and hacked-up shoulders. But if you’ve been ignoring it, it’s time to change your tune. Pulling strength is more important than pushing strength. Please bear with me.
Upper- and lower-body pressing exercises rely on healthy, functional joints to carry high loads in an effective, pain-free manner across the whole range of motion. (In other words, pain is not normal!) And those joints, especially sensitive ones like the shoulders and hips, rely on having balanced musculature on both the anterior (front) and posterior (back) of the body.
The bench press is a nice example. A good bench press is dependent on healthy shoulders and strong, stable rotator cuffs, which come from the scapula. Strengthening the upper back with row and reverse-fly variations can actually enhance bench-press strength, even if it means reducing total bench-press volume.
The same is true for glute- and hamstring-dominant “hinge” exercises like deadlifts and RDLs. They’re lower-body “pulls,” and you’ll need both if you want to squat as powerfully as possible while avoiding knee and hip problems.
Track Your Progress And Adhere To A Program
“Lee, so what’s the perfect workout already?” There isn’t one, for the simple reason that you don’t need a flawless program to reach those strength goals. A solid one will suffice, and Bodybuilding.com has a plethora of programs that are up to the task. It also does not have to be sophisticated; simple software structures can suffice. Just make sure to stick to the regimen and keep track of your progress.
The tracking aspect is more significant than you probably realize. Aside from simply being more organized (since strength loves organization), it can also provide the psychological benefit of knowing what you’re capable of, making your objective for any given day more feasible.
When you get into the thick of it, you’ll quickly realize that structure is more crucial when it comes to strength than it is when it comes to size. When the goal of an exercise is to fatigue specific muscles, there are several approaches you might take. Strength is more picky. A systematic process is required.
Don’t Get Preoccupied With The Minor Details
Structured programs, Internet articles, and YouTube videos can all give a plethora of useful information, but they can also be a double-edged sword. Remember what I mentioned earlier: strength training assaults the nervous system, and it is your responsibility to keep it from overworking.
So this is when I urge you to get out your stopwatch and rest at least 3 minutes between sets, right? Sure, if that feels right. You undoubtedly want every single rep of loaded work to be of the finest possible quality. However, the rest duration prescribed by your program may not be exactly what you require.
This is truly about a wider issue, which I explored in depth in my article “What You Can Learn from An Old Gym Rat.” Basically, some lifters are glued to the minute minutiae of their program, even if it limits their genuine lifting capacity in a given workout.
So, while exercising for strength rather than size, you need more rest in general. But there’s nothing wrong with establishing your own rest interval duration and proceeding to your next hard pull or press when you’re ready. Of course, there are limitations to this. Nobody gains from waiting 15 minutes and becoming stone cold between sets.
Lift Largely And Wisely
Make sure your program, diet, and mentality are all in order today, at the outset of your strength adventure. Don’t let this stuff sneak up on you; take charge and devise a strategy as strong as the physique you’re attempting to construct. Best wishes!