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Here are nine principles for building strength faster, breaking through plateaus, and laying a foundation for personalizing your own strength training routines that will last a lifetime.
1. Focus on a specific lift.
Building “full body” strength is possible, but takes much longer. The advantages to picking one lift in particular to build strength are many. First, it’s easier to get excited about a single lift than multiple lifts simultaneously. Second, focusing on building strength in a single lift enables you to become an “expert” at that lift in a short period of time. You’ll be researching it, watching YouTube videos, and practicing the motion. That’s an expertise you can take with you for the rest of your lifting career. Third, you will build strength faster, because you will be focusing more of your workout time on that particular lift, and therefore giving the relevant muscle groups a greater stimulus for growth. In other words, the more you work a muscle, the stronger it will become.
In terms of picking a lift, it’s best to pick a compound lift that translates into full-body strength as much as possible. For example, if your goal is strength building, you probably don’t want to pick bicep curl for your first strength-focused lifting program.
It would be better to choose a lift like the deadlift (which works legs, back, shoulders, arms, and abs), squat (which works legs and abs), or bench press (which works chest, arms, and shoulders). You could also focus on a specific machine or bodyweight movement. For example, if you can’t do a bodyweight pull-up, focus your time on the weight-assisted pull-up machine and make your goal to be able to do 5 bodyweight pull-ups.
Or, if you’re intimidated by all the complex free-weights, just focus on building strength on a specific machine. You can just set up at the leg press machine, and build strength there for an entire season. You can do the same thing with a chest press machine. The point is to find a lift that allows you to work with as much weight as possible as easily as possible, and start there.
2. Find your 1, 5, and 10 rep max for that lift.
You want to make sure you have a spotter that you trust for these exercises. When building strength, generally speaking, you want to have somebody “spotting” you on your exercise, because training for strength often includes butting up against your failure points and sticking points.
Finding your 1, 5, and 10 rep max for your lift means that you find out the maximum amount of weight with which you can perform 1 repitition, the same for 5 repititions, and also for 10 repititions. Naturally, the weight you can lift 5 times is going to be lighter than the weight you can lift only once.
Knowing your “max” lifts gives you barometer for how you should pick your working weight. You don’t want to put your 1 rep max on the bar at the beginning of your workout. Maybe put your 10 rep max on there and do 4 sets of 8. Or put your 5 rep max on there and do 6 sets of 3. We’ll get into that more below.
3. Make a goal for one of those rep ranges.
You want to make your goal specific to one of these rep ranges — 1, 5, or 10. Make your goal to increase the weight you can lift 10 times, or 5 times, or 1 time. When you increase one of these, the others will increase also. But make your goal specific to one of these ranges. A lot of people think that increasing strength means increasing your 1 rep max, but it can also be your 5-rep max. For example, my current goal is to be able to squat 275 pounds 5 times. I’m very far away from that. I can probably squat 275 pounds once or twice right now. For my bodyweight, that’s not impressive at all.
So, my goal is to turn my 1 rep max into my 5 rep max. That will probably take 6-9 months for me, since I’ve been lifting for a long time. But it might only take a few months for you to turn your 1 rep max into your 5 rep max, or your 5 rep max into your 10 rep max, if you’re new to strength training.
4. Work that lift for at least 10 sets twice per week.
Generally, the more you train a certain lift, the more weight you’ll be able to lift. Obviously, if you work the same lift every single day, you won’t gain in strength for long, because you’re not giving your body any time to recover. But the optimal amount of training time for a specific lift is 10 sets, twice per week, plus adjunct exercises.
For example, if you are focusing on squats or leg press, go to the gym, perform 10 sets — meaning, you pick up the weight and perform a certain number of reps and put the weight down, you do that 10 times — and move on to the leg extension or leg curl machines.
Do this twice per week, and you’ll see your leg press numbers growing very quickly.
5. Progressively overload the weight you use.
You might be wondering how you actually increase the weight you use. This is called “progressive overload” and it means that you add more weight to your exercise every time you lift. Now, this isn’t practical advice for every lifting session, since the increase in weight would rapidly outpace your growth in strength. Instead, as a litmus test for whether your should increase your weight, you simply need to use weight that’s just heavy enough to prevent you from finishing your set and rep goals for every exercise.
For example, if you choose to leg press 200 pounds for 5 sets of 5, you should only be able to get 4 sets of 5, and maybe one set of three. The day you’re able to complete 5 sets of 5, you know that the next time you come to the gym, you need to increase the weight by 5 or 10 pounds, depending on how easy it was. When you lift the heavier weight during your next exercise, you’ll no longer be able to get 5 sets of 5. If you are, you didn’t increase your weight enough.
That’s how you implement progressive overload — always work with weight that keeps your program’s prescribed set and rep ranges just out of reach. And when they are in reach, increase the weight.
6. Use strategies that enable you to exceed your max for your goal, such as half-reps, cluster sets, negative reps, etc.
There are a few strategies that you can use to overload your muscles with more weight than they are able to perform a single rep with. The goal of using these is to help your body adapt to heavier weight so that your working weight will feel lighter. It’s important to note that for all of these strategies, you should use a spotter. I’ll give you a few of those strategies here.
First, there are half-reps. A half-rep is just like a full-rep, except you stop halfway and push the weight back to the top of the rep. For example, if you’re bench pressing, you’d bring the bar down to 6, 9, or 12 inches above your chest, and push it back up, instead of bringing it all the way down to your chest. The goal of this strategy is to be able to put more weight on the bar so that your chest and triceps get used to working with heavier weight. The lift isn’t limited to the weight you’re able to push off from your chest. This allows your arms, shoulders, chest, and even your mind to adapt to weight that you won’t be able to use otherwise.
Second, there are cluster sets. A cluster set is when you force yourself to lift a certain max record you hold for more reps than you’re able to lift it by implementing times breaks. So, for example, I’ve done this before with barbell military press. For a long time, my 5 rep max for seated barbell military press was 205 pounds. But I couldn’t ever get 225 pounds for 1. So what I did was this:
Instead of performing 1 set of 5 with 205 pounds, I performed 5 sets of 2 with 15 second breaks. This is called a “cluster set.” In this instance, instead of performing 1 set of 5 with 205, I performed one “cluster set” of 10 with 205. So I doubled my volume, meaning I increased the stimulus I’m giving my body to give strength, doubling my likelihood of breaking my strength plateau. Russian Olympians use this to try to break through strength plateaus. You can do it with any rep max and with any rep range, but the point is to to take a rep limit and double the amount of times you can lift it by inserting timed breaks.
Third, you can try negative reps. Every lift has two phases — the eccentric phase and the concentric phase. The eccentric phase refers to the lengthening of the muscle, which is the negative part of the rep. The concentric phase refers to the shorting of the muscle, which is the positive part of the rep. Think of it this way: the eccentric part of the lift is lowering the weight, and the concentric part of the lift is squeezing your muscle tightly.
Your muscles are always stronger on the eccentric part of the lift — for example, whatever your 1 rep max is, that really refers to the weight you can perform concentrically once. But whatever that number is, you could probably lower that weight 5 times. So, on bench press, for example, I could probably lower my 1 rep max to my chest in a controlled fashion 5 times if I didn’t have to push it up again.
This is where a spotter really comes in handy. For a negative rep, you can lift weight that exceeds your one rep max, and perform 3-5 negative reps of that weight, having your spotter give you significant aid in lifting the positive part of the rep.
7. Don’t rush your rest times between sets.
This is very important. If you rush your rest time between sets, you’ll end up lifting less than you could, and really handicapping your potential for strength gain. Give yourself a few minutes. Walk around the gym. Get a sip of water. Don’t use 30 second breaks in a strength building program. Give yourself at least 2 minutes between lifts. If you’re really working with heavy weight that helps you build strength, you’ll need every second of rest you can get to recuperate.
Before you perform the next set, really ask yourself: “Do I feel ready, or am I still winded?” If you’re still winded, wait another minute or two. You don’t want to put your heartrate in a “fat burning zone.” That’s not the goal of strength building. You’re not trying to lose weight. You’re trying to gain strength and muscle. Make sure your strength training doesn’t feel too much like cardio. Straining your muscles with mechanical tension by lifting heavy weight, which is the method you should be using to build strength, is very different than fatiguing your body through mitochondrial exhaustion by expending as much energy as possible. Focus on strength building, not muscle fatigue.
8. Work with higher weight and lower reps.
It is possible to gain strength by lifting lower weight in higher rep ranges, but only if you’re a new lifter, and even then, your strength gain will be slower than if you work with heavier weight for lower reps. That doesn’t mean you should go too heavy. In fact, when you begin a strength building program and start practicing a certain lift, you should get comfortable performing that lift with light weight as often as possible.
When I’m on a strength program, I will do 4-5 warmup sets of a lift with light weight. I might even do a couple sets with just the bar, or with no weight at all. It’s important to ease your body into heavy lifting by warming up with lighter weight. Only increase the weight when you’re comfortable. Even light weight sets help you get stronger, because they’re conditioning you for the lift.
So if you want to build strength, focus on lifting heavy, but sometimes, the best way to lift heavy is to lift light for 70% of the workout so that you can feel comfortable performing 2-3 really good sets of heavy weight.
9. Consume more calories than you expend, and consume a sufficient amount of protein.
It’s hard to think of “eating more” as discipline, since we’re so conditioned to think of “eating less” as really disciplined. But to build strength, you have to eat a caloric surplus and a sufficient amount of protein. You can count your macros, your calories, your weight watcher points — it doesn’t matter. The important thing is that you’re in a positive energy balance — that you’re giving your body more than it needs so that it can enter into an anabolic state, and so that it is not energy deprived when you’re performing lifts.