That’s the question right?
I mean just about everyone and their brother has some sort of strength program that made them awesome, you know like Wendler, Cube, Conjugate, and the list goes on and on and on.
But the real question is: How do you get stronger?
Let’s conclude this article before we even get started…
The best strength program for you is the one that you stick with!
(Kinda like I mentioned in our last article, the Long Term Pursuit of Strength)
So, if you’re relatively new to this strength training thing then I suggest you just find a program then go and do it. Don’t overthink it, don’t try to tweak or change it, just go put in the work, put in the practice, and get after it.
And if you do so, I’m willing to bet you get stronger.
Pretty simple huh?
Don’t worry, that’s not the end of this post…
The first thing you need to understand is that just about everyone has their own opinions on this topic. Additionally, many folks will go out of their way to tell you why their way is the best way.
Run away from those people.
I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again, there is no ONE way to [Get Strong], [Lose Weight], [Run a Marathon], [Do Anything]. SO stop listening to people/coaches/jack-asses who preach in black & white.
Just follow A program.
And if you do want to experiment, create your own program, or whatever then you need to think like a scientist.
If you don’t have a coach to help guide you then you should be constantly conducting your own small experiments, tweaking, and optimizing your own training.
For example, follow a program for a specific period of time (i.e. 4-weeks), record & observe what happened (good or bad).
Then repeat that same exact program and make a small change (i.e. More/less volume, extra mobility work, more sleep, etc.) and at the end of the 4-weeks record your findings again.
Now, this is the “hard way” because there are thousands of great coaches out there and a bunch of solid strength programs that all have their benefits, so I’d argue there isn’t really a need for you to worry about optimizing anything in the program unless you’re also a coach looking for your own insights.
Instead, you can focus on optimizing the stuff OUTSIDE of the program that is known to improve performance (i.e. Sleep, hydration, recovery, mobility, etc)
Ok, end of that rant…
So, what does it take to get strong(er)?
Great question, however, it’s not an easy one.
So let’s start with a quick list of some of the primary factors you need to consider.
Factors Involved in Getting Strong
- Hypertrophy – A.K.A. Get swole or add more muscle to your body.
The science and practice are pretty clear here. If you want to continue to get stronger you are going to have to add more muscle mass to your frame at some point.
Basically, more muscle mass = more strength.
Sure, there may be a number of other factors involved in achieving your maximal strength (which helps explain why some people can lift more than others) such as muscle origins & insertions, motivation, arousal, & fatigue, motor learning & neuromuscular efficiency, your segment lengths, and muscle fiber types however with the exception of motor control you don’t have much (if any) control over these things so…
Instead of worrying about the things you either can’t change you should really be focusing on increasing muscle size and…
- Skill Mastery – The more competent you are at performing the movement, which is specific to the movement you are using to show off your strength (i.e. Squat, Deadlift, etc), the stronger and more successful are going to be.
If you don’t practice the movements you are going to test yourself with then you are never going to achieve the strength you’re seeking. This consistent practice will also allow you to dial in your specific movement patterns which will ultimately help you lift more weight in a safer manner.
This practice will help you determine if you should be high-bar or low-bar back squatting, using a narrow, wide, or neutral stance, and also how and where to grip the bar.
We’re talking about motor-control here and myelinating specific nerve patterns, but what you need to know is practice makes permanent.
And the more specific the practice, the more the skill will transfer to the lift you’re trying to perform your best at.
- A Healthy Body – If your joints, tendons, ligaments, and other connective tissue are pliable and healthy then you’ll be able to support heavier and heavier loads.
Your body is a pretty resilient organism and it survives by having a number of built-in “safeguards” to ensure you don’t hurt yourself.
If your tendons aren’t strong enough to transfer the force your muscles are making in order to move your bones through the required range of motion than a little thing called the Golgi tendon organ is going to send a signal to your brain to shut down your force production.
This happens to ensure you don’t rupture a tendon, tear a muscle off the bone, and end up broken and unable to train.
Additionally, the years of wear and tear your job has put on your body isn’t helping either and you’re asking for trouble unless you prioritize injury prevention through managing inflammation, proper sleep, recovery, hydration, and nutrition first and foremost.
- Your age – Recovering from intense sessions is the biggie here but you should also consider that the younger you are the better your nervous systems works (i.e. Learn new skills faster, develop force quicker). –
So if you’re starting out later in life and still looking to get strong you’ll still be able to do it, you’ll just have to take a slower and more methodical path in order to maximize recovery
The good news is that if you’re already old, you probably have put your ego aside and now have the patients to actually slow yourself down and make solid long-term improvements.
So with that small list taken into consideration, where do you think you need to start personally? (Hint: The answer is different for everyone!)
However, this shortlist should serve as a pretty good starting point as you start to think about developing your next strength program.
While everyone’s individual circumstances may vary you can use these four bullet points to determine where you’re weakest and start prioritizing your training accordingly.
Now, let’s look at the research
If you dig into the thousands of studies out there concerning strength training you’ll see some common ideas prevail
Strength gains have been noted to be achieved most effectively by the following factors:
- Greater training frequency
- More volume
- Moderate-to-heavy loads
- Fast bar speeds
- Long rest periods
- Coming close to muscle failure
- Using the ROM for which you’d like to be stronger
Let’s break these down a bit more…
Greater Training Frequency
As I mentioned before if you do a cursory search of the Googles you’ll probably find proponents of training a movement only once-per-week as well as training every day and the real answer is it totally depends on you, however, the research out there looking into the effects of training frequency (where overall volume was & was not controlled) can be summed up like this:
Higher training frequency could lead to increased strength gains in both untrained and trained populations.
So, if you’re recovering well and feeling good then there is a good chance that adding a second or third squat session each week is going to help make you stronger.
This one pretty much goes hand-in-hand with increasing your training frequency as doing so usually leads to increasing your weekly volume (Although not always the case).
In a review of 24 different studies related to volume and strength training, 16 studies noted that increased volume led to greater improvements in strength.
However, there could be a major difference between the upper and lower body as many of the studies demonstrated great benefits to lower body strength as the volume is increased.
Additionally, it has been noted (Rhea et al., 2002) that training with multiple sets is much more beneficial than a single set. This means that the 20-rep squat set you might like to do from time to time is not an optimal method for building long-term strength.
Personally, I like to stick to sets in the 3-5 range for heavy loads and in the 8-15 range for moderate loads performed at high-velocity (More on both of these below).
In a review of 18 studies looking at relative load and its effects on strength, it was found that moderate to heavy loads were best at eliciting improvements in strength.
Here is the catch though, all of these studies used untrained participants, which means that you could probably give them any strength program and see great results. Unfortunately, there aren’t very many studies into this with trained individuals so I’m going off of my experience here. In case you aren’t sure, moderate loads can be defined as somewhere around your 15 rep max (RM) and heavy coming in that 1 to 5 RM range.
I’ve been successful in getting people strong using both moderate AND heavy loads (Which we’ll talk about more in a minute) and you should probably consider using both.
Fast Bar Speeds
So I first started playing around with bar velocity after studying Westside barbell and the dynamic effort workouts in the conjugate method. I further dug into this explosive style of lifting when research plyometrics and their effect on maximal strength so let’s look at what the research has to say.
First off, this is not easy to study in a controlled environment considering the vast number of variables you’d have to account for. However, with that said, a number of studies have shown superior results from incorporating faster repetitions and higher bar velocities. Although a number of studies also show that it is possible to significantly increase strength with slower velocity lifts as well, they did not do so to the extent of the groups performing the faster repetitions.
Personally, I’ve seen the greatest improvements in my personal strength by incorporating both high-velocity barbell lifts as well as plyometrics. Additionally, these relatively lighter days provide for some much-needed recovery as most people cannot lift super heavy 3-4 times per week without negative effects on both performance and mood (Personal observation).
Longer Rest Periods
So the jury is still out here as far as research goes as there are only a handful of studies that were appropriately designed and looking at differences in strength due to varying intra-set recovery time. However, you could conclude from the research that does exist that long rest periods (Greater than 3 minutes) have been shown to lead to improved strength.
Personally, I mix it up based on the goal of each workout (Something you should always be aware of!)
If the goal is to lift maximal loads for few repetitions (i.e. 5 set of 2 reps at 90%+) then you should probably rest longer between sets than you would be if you were performing a lighter, faster workout (i.e. 10 x 2 @ 70% – Focusing on explosive movement).
So typically I’ll recommend 3+ minutes for the super heavy days and :45 – :90s for the lighter and more explosive days. However, play around with this as typically you’ll want to perform the required work as quickly as you can without breaking down (technique) and without missing any reps. If you’re “going heavy” and feel like getting back under the bar after :60s then you should reconsider what heavy really is…
Now, this is a tricky topic many people will argue for or against training to failure as the best way to add muscle and get strong but I warned you about those people before right?
Ultimately, the research doesn’t back up either opinion here as most people (coaches and researchers) can’t even agree on what the definition of failure is here (i.e. Technical failure by technique breaking down OR momentary muscular failure where the weight cannot be lifted again).
The few studies that do exist point to training to failure being a method to improve strength (compare to not training to failure) however they also noted that training to failure can have a significant effect on recovery time. So ultimately you’re walking a fine line here as crushing yourself on Monday may lead to a shitty training day on Wednesday…
So again, I recommend you go back to some of the things I mentioned before and test this out for yourself.
If you crush yourself on Monday and aren’t able to lift on Wednesday then you probably did something wrong.
Alternatively, if you finish Monday’s workout and you don’t feel like you did anything then you probably need to push yourself harder next time.
Ultimately, your goal is to push yourself hard enough to optimize your training without affecting future training sessions.
Range of Motion
Here is another controversial topic in the world of strength and conditioning although the research is pretty clear…
How deep should you squat!?
Well, it depends on where you’d like to be strong. There is a ton of research into this range of motion debate and here is what you ultimately need to know:
If you want to get stronger in the full range of motion exercises/movements, then you need to train the full range of motion (ROM).
This same logic also applies to partial ROM movements.
I’m really not sure why there is a debate here as your training should transfer to what you’re trying to accomplish. So if you want to PR your below parallel back squat (Like a powerlifter) then you should probably be training that required ROM.
>H4>The Bottom Line
So to sum all this up here is your quick checklist for getting stronger:
THe Big Picture
- Increase your skill – Mastering a movement typically equals moving more efficiency, which will not only be safer but it’ll allow you to start packing more and more weigh ton the bar.
- Add Muscle – This should be a no brainer, the more muscle mass you have the more weight you’re gonna be able to move.
- Stay Healthy – Again, not rocket science here… If you’re healthy, you can train more. And if you’re following the long term pursuit it’ll be way easier to check your ego when a training session isn’t going well and live to fight another day. Instead of letting that ego get in the way and causing more harm than good.
- Recovery -And that last point goes right into this one, recovery is when you get better. Don’t neglect it.
- Increase Training Frequency – If you’re “stuck” on a specific lift, do it more often.
- Increase Training Volume – Building skill and adding muscle (hypertrophy) require work, if you are stuck where you’re at now, a few more reps per training session could make all the difference.
- Go Heavy – Sorry, those pink and purple dumbbells, no matter how many reps you put in, aren’t going to cut it. You need start moving heavy weight to get stronger – Get uncomfortable.
- Go Fast – If you take the exact same program you’re currently following and do nothing different except move the barbell as fast as safely possible with each rep you’ll jump start your strength. Just think to yourself: Slow and controlled on the way down, EXPLODE on the way up!
Now go get after it!
Ready to build some serious strength?
Like GI Joe said, learning is half the battle, well, the other half is doing.
You can read a million article on strength training but unless you apply the concepts you’re never going to add weight to that bar. So if you’re ready to get serious about your training and pack on some of that confidence building, I can do anything strength & muscle you want then you need to check out one of the programs below.
Good: 4-Week Strategic Squat – In this one, you’re gonna squat. In fact after the first week I guarantee you’ll think I hate you & have something against people with functioning legs. #doyouevensquatbro
Better: 8-Week Strategic Strength – This program is exactly what you think it is. You’ll spend three days per week working on getting stronger. You’ll squat, press, and pull your way into a stronger, healthier, more functional body. And you can follow the bonus cardio days added in or combine this with your current endurance or conditioning training without an issue.
Best: 8-Week Custom Strength Coaching – Get your own personal coach to design a program custom to you & provide the instruction, coaching, and accountability you need to dominate the barbell & really life in general.