How to Get Strong
Strength is at a premium nowadays. I remember about 10 to 15 years ago it was all about becoming more muscular (for guys) and losing fat (for women). Strongman was still more of a spectacle than a type of training that was popular among gym rats, powerlifting was a fringe sport at best and meets with 10-15 lifters were the norm, and weightlifting (Olympic lifting) was even less common and mostly something that people were aware of for a few weeks, every four years.
Over the past five years or so, things have changed and performance is now as popular of a goal, if not more so, than aesthetics. Why? I see several possible factors that have driven that change of direction:
- CrossFit: Like it or not, I would say that nothing did more to democratize heavy lifting on the big basics than CrossFit. It made the deadlift, clean, snatch, squat and overhead press look “normal” to average gym rats. While a large proportion of the people doing CrossFit to get in shape (not the competitors) use less than stellar technique, they are aware of these lifts and develop the mindset of lifting heavier on them. Take my wife for example: when I trained her, we would almost get into an argument when I tried to have her go from 30 to 35kg on the power clean. The first week she did CrossFit, she was super happy to tell me that she power cleaned 60kg during a WOD and a few weeks later she did 70kg.
- Social media: Facebook and Instagram is not only about “glute shots”, you can actually see some pretty good lifting being done. We used to see mostly lifts from elite lifters, but now almost all recreational lifters post their bench lifts on their social media. This is of course motivational for the people posting the videos, but it also shows that deadlifts, squats, clean, etc. are not some strange animals than only a select few can do. This increases awareness of these lifts and makes more people want to do them.
- Athlete’s training: I remember when I started training athletes 20 years ago, those of us who used strongmen drills like farmer walks, yoke, stone lifting, sled pulls, etc. were few and far between. But nowadays, everybody is using these exercises in the training of athletes. And, once again because of social media, Youtube and television, we get to see elite athletes bench, deadlift and squat heavy. And if there is one thing I learned over the years it’s that there a lot more people who want to “be” or at least “feel” like athletes (IMHO, it’s one of the reasons behind CrossFit’s popularity). This desire to be athletic will drive many people to strength and power training now that they can see elite athletes do it.
- Getting stronger is easier than getting more muscular: It is much easier to increase strength than it is to build an impressive physique. And gaining strength is also more rapidly achieved than building a significant amount of mass. Building muscle tissue takes time. Under the best possible circumstances, someone can probably achieve an average muscle gain of 1 -1.5lbs per month. While at the end of the year it will give you 12-20lbs of muscle, which is a big deal and changes your look completely, at first it can be demoralizing to not see your body change. Furthermore, if you are over a TRUE 12% bodyfat you can gain that 12-20bs of muscle and still not look good. Getting stronger happens a lot more rapidly when you know what to do. It is also objectively measured which can keep you motivated. As such, a lot of people who are discouraged by their lack of physique change can become easily attracted to training for strength.
I’m sure there are other reasons playing a role too, but the fact is that getting stronger is now one of the main goals of people who decide to train hard.
How can we achieve our goal of getting stronger?
THE FOUR WAYS OF GETTING STRONGER
Getting stronger is more complex than simply doing low reps and trying to lift more weight every workout. While that can work in the short term, it never leads to optimal long term progression and often leads to injuries.
If you want to get stronger, you must understand the various factors involved in increasing your strength level. Then you need to know which factor to focus on in your training.
There are four main ways of getting stronger and depending on your level of development, one or two will be the ones you need to focus on.
Technical efficiency: Improving your lifting technique to be able to better transfer your muscles’ strength potential to the barbell. I’ve seen a lot of guys with a high level of muscle strength under perform on the big lifts because their inefficiency didn’t allow them to showcase all of their potential.
Hypertrophy: Increasing the size of your muscles will increase your strength potential. I say potential because simply getting bigger is not a guarantee that your strength will go up. Imagine your body as a car factory: if you get a bigger building and have more employees you have the potential to produce more cars. But what if those employees are lazy? What if they don’t work together or if they don’t do their job properly? The production will not increase up to its theoretical potential. The same thing is true for strength. Bigger muscles give you more strength in theory, but if you are not efficient at using those muscles your strength will not go up as much as it should.
CNS efficiency: If muscle size is the factory and number of employees, the CNS efficiency is the foreman that leads the employees. The better the foreman is at directing the workers, the closer the factory will be at functioning at its full potential. Improving CNS efficiency will make you better at utilizing the muscles you already have.
GTO desensitization: GTO, besides being one of the sickest muscle cars of all time, refers to the Golgi Tendon Organs. They are what we could call your muscle/tendons protective mechanisms; the safeguard against excessive force production. Basically, they are “sensors” that tell your nervous system when the muscles are about to produce too much force for your own good. The intent is noble: avoid producing so much force that you tear a muscle or tendon. But they can severely diminish performance because they tend to be way too conservative. The result is that the average adult can produce voluntarily about 30-40% of his force potential. A well-trained athlete might go up to 70% and a world class strength athlete up to 90%. Desensitizing your protective mechanisms can increase strength simply by allowing your muscles to function at a higher proportion of their full potential.
Working on the elements
Technique work is best done with moderate weights and non-maximal reps. If the weights are too heavy (85-100% zone) you are likely to fall back onto default or compensatory motor patterns, making it harder to voluntarily make modifications to your technique. On the other hand, if the weight is too light you don’t really “feel” it properly and it will become harder to transfer the improved technique to heavier sets.
The best training zone to work on technique is 70-80%. I recommend starting closer to 70% and gradually adding weight while maintaining perfect form. Reps per set should be in the 3-5 range and the number of sets should be fairly high (5-6 or even more). But remember that none of these sets have a high level of stress because you’ll be lifting at a RPE (rate of perceived effort) of around 7. For more on RPE read Alex Babin’s articles on the subject (https://thibarmy.com/rpe-based-training-part-1/) and (https://thibarmy.com/rpe-based-training-part-2-rpe-based-training-can-worst-enemy/).
Ideally, the frequency of practice should also be very high because frequency, not quantity, is the most important principle of motor learning. So, if you are in a technical development phase, hitting each lift 3 times per week or even more is recommended.
But remember it is important to practice the proper technique because practice doesn’t make perfect, it only makes permanent. And practicing the wrong pattern will only make that bad pattern more difficult to correct.
TECHNIQUE WORK PARAMETERS
Reps per set: 3-5
Sets per exercise: 5-6
Rest intervals: 2-3 minutes depending on recovery capacities
RPE: 7 – 7.5
Making muscles larger via higher volume (creating more muscle fiber fatigue) is another way of becoming stronger. It does so via a few mechanisms.
The first one is the thickening of the muscle fibers themselves. This is done by adding more contractile elements to the muscle fibers. More contractile elements means more contraction strength.
Another thing that can impact strength is a change in pennation angle. This refers to the angle of the muscle fibers. When a muscle gets bigger, the pennation angle becomes more pronounced spreading the tension over a larger surface which can give you a mechanical advantage (along with a more favorable orientation). However, this has some limits, if a muscle becomes too large it can start to have the reverse effect by giving the fibers a less favorable angle.
Lastly, hypertrophy work (higher volume, lighter weights, longer time under tension, more eccentric emphasis) can have a positive impact on tendon thickening, making the tendons more resilient and stiffer. The stiffer tendons can accumulate more potential energy making the stretch reflex stronger (helping you lift bigger weights) and more resilient tendons will also have an impact on desensitizing the Golgi Tendon Organs: the tendons being stronger, the body feels “safer” and will allow you to use a higher proportion of your strength potential.
Of course, we could talk about all the possible “bodybuilding methods” to trigger hypertrophy (drop sets, pre-fatigue, post-fatigue, rest/pause, etc.) and they do work and they have their place when working on low stress exercises. But since this article focuses on getting stronger (presumably on the big basic lifts) we will talk about how to train for hypertrophy using the big lifts. Since these have a higher neurological demand than isolation, machine or cable exercises, the typical bodybuilding methods might not be your best options. Straight sets with as many good reps as possible (not going to total failure, but getting to the maximum number of reps possible in good form) is your best option here. For maximum hypertrophy, sets lasting between lasting 40-60 seconds seem to be the most effective. So, a controlled repetition speed (3-4 seconds to complete a rep) is normally recommended.
HYPERTROPHY WORK PARAMETERS
Reps per set: 8-12
Sets per exercise: 3-4
Rest intervals: 90-120 seconds
RPE: 8 – 9
NERVOUS SYSTEM EFFICIENCY
Big muscles with a lousy nervous system will only give you limited strength gains. An efficient nervous system means recruiting more muscle fibers, recruiting them soon in a set, making them twitch faster (thus producing more force), having better coordination between the recruited fibers within a muscle and also making the various muscles involved in a lift work better synergistically.
In other words, the more efficient your nervous system is, the better you can use the muscles you have.
CNS is mostly stimulated by three types of work:
– Lifting heavy
– Lifting/moving explosively
– Doing high skill movements
When it comes to the strength lifts we will use mostly the first two types (heavy/explosive) and even more so the first one (explosive work is mostly effective with neurotypes 1B and 2A).
This doesn’t necessarily mean maxing out. As soon as the load is around 85% of your maximum, you will get a maximal muscle fiber recruitment. So, neural work is done in the 85-100% range. The higher the load, the less volume you can do (when we are talking 95-100% weights we cannot do more than 2-4 lifts in a session). This is why to develop the neural factors it is often better to train in the 85-90% range because that allows you to do more volume, and the higher volume of work leads to more stable neural improvements. Work in the 95-100% zone give you really quick gains, but they are much less stable.
Normally, I say that you build strength in the 85-90% zone and you learn to demonstrate it (or peak it) in the 92-100% zone.
NEURAL WORK PARAMETERS
Reps per set: 1-5
Sets per exercise: 3-5
Rest intervals: 2-5 minutes depending on recovery capacities (and neurological profile)
RPE: 8 – 9 (9.5 – 10 only on test/maxing out days)
GOLGI TENDON DESENSITIZATION
When you submit your body to very heavy weights, over time your body’s protective mechanisms become less and less conservative, allowing you to use a greater proportion of your potential. The great Dan John once said that “your body already has the capacity to lift the heaviest weight you’ll ever lift, you only need to convince it”. This is basically what we are doing when we are desensitizing the Golgi Tendon Organs.
While all types of heavy lifting will lead to a gradual desensitization of the GTOs, and that even hypertrophy work has a positive impact (by thickening the tendons), the method that has the greatest and most rapid impact is moving or holding supramaximal loads (weight that are heavier than your max on a lift).
The best way to do this is to use overloads on partial range of motion lifts. You can either do a regular lift but only lowering the weight 1/4 or 1/2 of the way down prior to lifting it or you can start the bar from pins (e.g. pin pulls from just below the knees). High box squats and board press also fit in that category.
Basically, by shortening the range of motion you will be able to use more weight than you normally use in a certain movement pattern. While this will lead to strength gains mostly in the range of motion being trained it also (over time) has the effect of desensitizing the GTOs which after a while will lead to strength gains over the full range of motion.
Supramaximal overloads are very demanding on the nervous system, so the volume cannot be high. I normally recommend 1 or 2 sets after the full range heavy work.
I use three main approaches:
- Partial range for reps: Here use 100-105% of your max on the full range lift but only use around 1/2 of the range of motion. Do as many reps as possible for 1 or 2 sets.
- Partial range for weight: in this second approach, stick to low reps, 1-3 but use the heaviest weight possible in the shortened range of motion. Only one maximal set is done but you might need to use up to 3-4 gradually heavier sets to reach that max.
- Supramaximal holds: I first read about this method in Fred Hatfield’s program 80 days powerlifting cycle. After your heavy sets on your main exercise you would use 105-110% of your max (squat and bench), unrack the bar, slightly unlock the knees or elbows depending on the lift and hold for 6 seconds then you would rerack the weight. 2-3 sets of 6 seconds are used.
Another method that I really like (but requires a power rack with pins settings every 1-2″) is a standalone one (you don’t do it after the main lift, it is the main lift): Neurological Carryover Training method by Paul Anderson. In this method, you start the lift from pins doing around a 1/4 range of motion. You load up the barbell with 105-110% of your max and perform as many reps as you can from the pin setting of the week. Doing 2-3 sets.
Every 1 or 2 weeks (1 week if your pins are every inch, 2 weeks if the pins are at every 2″) you lower the starting position. You use the same weight every week and still try to get in 2-3 sets of as many reps as possible. If you ever reach a point where you can’t get at least 1 rep from the new setting, got back up one step for 1-2 weeks, but it shouldn’t happen.
This approach works very well on the bench, deadlift and squat. BUT for it to work you MUST maintain the exact same technique as you would in the full range of motion exercise. This also means that you need to lower the eccentric under control. A mistake that many people make when lifting from pins (a mistake I made myself in the past) is to not pay attention to the eccentric. Control the weight all the way down to the pins using the same bar path as you would on the full lift.
This method will get the body comfortable at using a certain weight, one that exceeds your current max. Your body will adapt to that load gradually and after 6-8 weeks you will be able to do it over a full range of motion.
After reading this article you will be tempted to use all four methods at once to get the fasted progress possible. This would be a huge mistake for most people. A fully concurrent approach like that will only work with advanced athletes who have a natural gift for recovery and who don’t break.
For more than 90% of the population, you should cycle these methods. The ones that are right for you also depend on the level of experience. Here are some tips:
- With beginners, focus on technical efficiency and hypertrophy. These lifters need to build a foundation first and foremost. Using CNS methods will not be optimally effective with these people because they don’t yet have an optimal amount of muscle, and CNS methods will merely make them effective at utilizing the muscle they already have. What they need is make the muscles and tendons bigger and develop top notch technique.
- Beginners and intermediate lifters should stay away from GTO desensitization methods. They don’t have the structure and CNS efficiency to handle that type of training and progress optimally from it. Furthermore, they don’t yet need it: the mere introduction of CNS methods will start the desensitization process.
- I recommend focusing on 1 or 2 factors per block of training. When I say focus I mean put a large emphasis on it via work on the big lifts. For example, once you are done working for hypertrophy using the big lifts for 8-12 reps you can still include a small amount of hypertrophy work using less demanding exercises. You also need to keep working on technique even when it stops being the focus point. This means that you use the warm-up sets to really nail perfect technique.
- The more “on the left” (refer to the graphic about the 4 factors) you are, the longer you can do it in training, the more “on the right” you are the more rapid the gains are but the shorter the training phases be. Basically, see technique and hypertrophy work as a base that will give you slow and steady gains that stay stable over a longer period of time; CNS and GTO desensitization provide rapid changes in strength but that fluctuate a lot more. CNS and GTO methods can be used (normally) for 3-6 weeks whereas hypertrophy and technique work can be kept in for 8-12 weeks or even more.
- The less muscle someone has, the more time and work he needs to spend on hypertrophy. The more muscle someone has, the more phases of CNS and GTO desensitization he should use.