I have previously talked about getting stronger and building muscle when talking about progressive overload and the thinking behind what you need to do to up your training to get bigger and stronger.
This time I’m going to focus on key aspect to lift heavier.
I’m not going to get into reps and sets as this will vary depending on your program and your goals. This is more looking at universal aspects that can be applied over any strength program.
There are so many way you can build strength.
From dumbbells, kettle bells, body weight training etc. All are amazing and have different benefits, which is why it is important not to get bogged down in one specific method.
But you want to build raw strength, powerlifting has that covered.
Squats, deadlifts and squats. All day. That is how you build strength.
Obviously strength comes in different shapes and forms, but for the purpose of this I am going to focus on how much you can lift with your main 3 lifts.
There is a very good reason that these exercises have been a main staple in any strength and conditioning program.
It is possible to build raw brute strength just by a few heavy sets a week on each of these.
This is also good if you’re stuck for time. Strength training is great if you don’t have loads of time. Going in and getting heavy sets done and getting out is great if, for example, you only have an hour max in the gym.
One of the key aspects of strength training is not how much you lift, but how you lift it.
This is something that I focus a lot on with clients. Especially as my clients are ordinary people and not athletes and certainly not strength athletes.
I look at these compound exercises as whole body movements.
Take the deadlift for example. It’s a hip hinging movement which is something that a lot of people struggle to get at the start. Bracing your core is very important. Also bracing your shoulders. Bring your shoulders down and back and keeping them retracted the whole time.
Mastering the body mechanics is key. Now that you’re comfortable with the mechanics and moving in this way, now add resistance.
The whole point of adding weight is to see how much resistance you can deal with while completing the movement correctly.
If the weight is too heavy, then the movement will be compromised. There is too much resistance so you need to scale it back a bit.
But the correct body mechanics is the most important thing.
So what is strength?
Strength is basically how much force you can produce in a movement. This will vary throughout a particular movement. Such as the strength in the lowering in a squat is different to coming up in a squat.
Muscle force and tension change throughout the movement.
The most important aspect is technique. If you want to get bigger numbers on these lifts, you must master the technique. It’s like a skill. And just like any skill you need practice.
Yes there a freakishly naturally string people out there who can walk into a gym and pull a massive deadlift without ever having done it before. These people are very rare but they do exist.
Now that might be impressive at first, but without working technique and skill, they won’t be able to progress to the huge numbers they could do if they put the work in.
As I said before, mastering the movements and understanding the body mechanics is so important.
So let’s go through some key points that you can apply to your strength training.
Now something like this is more aimed at big lifts like if you are in a competition but obviously the same can be applied if you are going for a PB and want to test your strength.
Visualise and feel the lift before you do it. How it should look, how it should feel.
When power lifter and strong men break records, it’s very common that they have gone through that moment in their minds a thousand times.
This also doesn’t just apply to lifting. A lot of top athletes swear by visualisation training. Coming through the event in your mind and going through everything how you want it to play out.
2) Stop Ego Lifting
This basically ties in to what I already said. The movement is the important part. The weight is just how much resistance you can correctly perform that movement under.
It’s better to lift lighter and correctly than heavier and incorrectly.
The weight should be light enough that you can perform the movement with control but heavy enough to force your body to perform the movement correctly.
It is recommend that you use 60-80% of your 1 rep max. Or find the heaviest weight that you can work with and use 15% of that.
I always remember a trainer saying to me, that if I’m doing 5 reps, it should be a weight I can do 8 reps max on. It obviously won’t be easy to do 5 but there should be something lift in the tank for an extra couple of reps if you absolutely had to.
3) Never go to failure
This ties in with the end of the last point. When training for strength you should NEVER go to failure.
I always think of it as working with your body, rather than against it.
When you’re trying to build muscle, you typically “beat up” the muscle. You hammer it with drop sets and super sets making it work overtime.
It’s the opposite with strength. You work with it. Say you’re going for 5 reps and on your forth, you very shaky and barely finish it. Rack it and recover for the next set.
The whole “one more rep bro. It’s all you”, doesn’t work for strength training.
So if you struggle on a rep and know you’ve got 1 or 2 more to do, rack it up, probably lighten the weight so you can get 5 good reps done. Give yourself plenty of recovery time and get back at it.
4) Only Lift Heavy
If you want to get stronger, you gotta train like it.
This means avoiding mixing your training if possible. I know for those who do sports this can be difficult but if possible, put your efforts into getting stronger.
This means no cardio. Or at least very little.
If you try to train strength, speed and cardio all at equal amounts, this will produce less than optimal results.
A study showed that strength and muscle mass was lower on a strength athlete just by doing more cardio even though strength training never changed and stayed at the same frequency and intensity.
If you’re doing such a mix, your body doesn’t know whether to get stronger or fitter.
Now for the average person this isn’t the end of the world. You still will get stronger and get fitter, just
not at the ideal rate.
If you want to put all your focus on strength, then it’s a good idea to ditch cardio or reduce it.
Strength training and endurance training have different adaptations in the body. Doing both blocks each signal to adapt.
5) Tighten Up
Now I don’t mean tight in terms of flexibility. In fact I suggest you work on getting as flexible and as mobile as possible.
What is mean is tighten up your body when you lift.
Get rid of all the slack in your body and make it taught. You want to be rigid and string when lifting.
The tighter you are, the more force you can generate.
When you contract muscles and squeeze them, so do all the surrounding muscles.
This also goes for your hips and shoulders when lifting.
I also tell clients when squatting or deadlifting to think about screwing their feet into the ground.
This will increase glute activation. They will have more of an arch in their foot and better knee alignment.
Same idea for shoulder if you’re doing push up. Think about screwing your hands into the ground and this will set your shoulder and give you a better arm position.
So when you’re deadlifting or bench pressing, the thinking is to imagine you are trying to bend the bar. This will set and brace you shoulders the same way they do for a push up.
Whatever your strength program, if you add in some or all of these ideas, you should notice a big difference in your strength and how you perform your lifts.