Get Strong NOW! 6 Tips to Maximize Your Strength
I used to be a skinny runt. When I was in my peak running shape in college, I was 6′ tall and 145lbs wringing wet. Sure, I could leg press 500lbs for over fifty reps, yet I couldn’t even bench press one rep at my body weight. Clearly a disparity existed that needed to be fixed. When my track & field days were finally behind me I had one simple athletic goal in mind: get strong!
This was a rather wide open goal that I obviously had to narrow my focus on though. What constituted the definition of “strong?” I found many definitions of “strong” existed and was subject to wide debates in the fitness community. For purposes of general health and fitness I used a loose definition of “maximizing your body’s overall potential in both size and strength.” Heavy emphasis on the term “overall” — a well-balanced physique that is strong and balanced across all body parts is key.
My training plan focused on six basic principles that are as effective as they are timeless — I continue to use them today for myself and my clients with amazing results.
1. Focus on strength goals
As they said in Field of Dreams, “If you build it, he will come.” Successful people in the gym always shoot to hit certain numbers on their lifts; when those goals are met, they see their muscles respond positively along the way.
People are usually focused strictly on gaining “X” pounds of muscle when they should reverse the equation and think about adding on “X” pounds of weight to the bar. Why? You need to work on getting stronger to make the physical gains you desire. Increasing strength improves your body’s ability to recruit muscle fibers, which helps sculpt the way your physique looks.
It’s time for you to do the same. How? Simplify things. Choose three baseline exercises you want to improve on and set your goals: one upper body push (standing press or bench press are my favorites), one upper body pull (the Pendlay Row or the pull up are amazing) and one lower body exercise (the back squat and the deadlift work wonders).
2. Keep a journal for training and nutrition
Just as Peter Drucker said, “what gets measured, gets managed.” If you want to be successful, be specific with your training goals and monitor your progress both at the gym and in the kitchen.
It goes without saying that you need to have a basic journal for your training program that includes exercises performed along with the weight lifted and number of reps/sets done. However, you also need to write down intangible items that occur:
- Did you have a lack of sleep the night before?
- Was it a morning workout instead of at night?
- Did you drink alcohol the night before?
- Even temperature if you exercise outdoors or without heat or air conditioning.
And the list continues… all these little things add up and should be recorded in your journal–not just the pounds lifted.
Tracking your nutrition keeps you honest too. Hard training won’t translate to new muscle unless you’re eating enough quality calories. The food choices you make are the fuel to make you stronger…after all, you don’t put 87 octane in a Ferrari and you shouldn’t do the same with your body.
A food journal gives you an objective measure of the quantity and quality of food you are actually eating. It also lets you make adjustments easily if you’re not making the progress you had hoped for.
Write down everything that you eat and drink, along with the time of the day for a week and see the difference it makes. If this is too cumbersome for you, snap a photo with your smartphone and put the pics in a folder to follow–it works wonders for my clients–simple photojournalism at its best!
3. Work on compound movements
Make compound lifts the cornerstone of your training program. Compound exercises are lifts that work the muscle at more than one joint. They are also referred to as functional lifts: you perform these movements naturally throughout the day in some way–for instance, think about how you pick up your suitcase and put it in the overhead bin on your next flight. Can you say “clean & jerk?” That’s what you just did.
My favorite compound lifts for building strength are the deadlift, squat, press, row, and pull ups. Compound lifts recruit the most muscle fibers, which make for efficient training time and a big release of hormones that promote strength. They also work your whole body. Picture yourself doing heavy compound lower-body exercises like the deadlift and the enormous impact they have on your overall muscular development. By recruiting muscles throughout your body—even in your shoulders and back—the deadlift promotes the release of hormones that build the size and strength you desire.
I should note though, there is nothing wrong with throwing in some isolation work at the end of your workout either, but the proper foundation for building strength begins with the compound lifts.
4. Sleep More
Recovery is imperative for muscle growth, and there’s no better way to recover than by simply sleeping more. You grind and push and pull during your training at the gym, which causes small muscle tears. These tears can help or hinder you depending on your rest and recovery schedule–too little rest will result in overtraining and negative gains. Rest more and you will see phenomenal results.
Try to go to bed 30 minutes to an hour earlier than normal and see how much it helps you out. We live in a hectic world and it is hard for most of us to get the eight to nine hours of sleep that experts recommend for building muscle. It’s time to take your training and health seriously if you want to maximize your strength–you usually can control when you go to bed–so give your body the best chance of getting as much sleep as you can.
5. Keep the reps lower
In general, there is no right or wrong rep scheme, only what works best for you and your specific goals. Gaining strength is usually best served with lower reps and several sets though. Experts generally agree that 3-5 sets between the rep range of 3-8 will give you the most strength gains while minimizing injury.
One of my favorite workouts for building strength is using a 5×5 method (5 sets of 5 reps) with a couple minutes rest between sets. I have clients that respond better to 3×8 and others to 8×3 though. The best bang for your buck is to mix and match accordingly to avoid muscle fatigue and confuse your muscles to achieve the best strength gains you can imagine. Remember, a confused muscle is a strong muscle!
6. Carb up
Low-carb diets are wildly popular for losing body fat. Most of the time they even work for a short while, but unfortunately they can leave you feeling a little exhausted at the gym. If you want to gain strength, you have to make sure to eat some high nutritional carbs.
Getting strong means you can’t be afraid to gain a little fat either. Don’t worry though, as long as you’re eating clean food and a good balance of calories to grow (but not too much!!!) then the fat gains will be minimal.
Include carbs in your pre-workout and post-workout meals. Make smart choices with this one though. Skip the flour-based pasta and instead opt for a quinoa based one that offers a whole host of nutrients such as fiber and protein. Also, skip sugary sport drinks post workout and grab a piece of fruit like an apple or pear to get your glycogen levels back up. Remember, it comes down to making smarter carb choices–just find out what works for you as you progress toward your strength goals.