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!
I’ve written about consistency in the past and it really is the key to long term progress in everything you do..
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 over think it, don’t try to tweak or change it, just go put in the work.
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.
Instead, 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), determine if you need to make a small change (i.e. More/less volume, extra mobility work, more sleep, etc.), and perform the test again.
This is really the only way you’ll ever know if a training program is right for you and chances are you’ll have to make some tweaks here and there to fit your needs/wants/lifestyle/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 lets 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.
- 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.
- 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 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). –
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…
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.
The more specific the practice, the more the skill will transfer to the lift you are trying to perform your best at.
You 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.
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 short list 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 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 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. Which 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 to 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 show 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 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 full range of motion exercises, 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 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.
How you can use this information to add 25-55# to your back squat
Over the last year or so my training has been all over the map.
Since I was finishing up my graduate degree and diving deep into some new topics, I was CONSTANTLY changing my training program to test these “new” concepts in the gym on myself and a few of my brave training clients(Pretty much the opposite of consistency).
One thing I’ve observed in many of the athletes I’ve coached is that by simply increasing the training frequency (i.e. Squat more often!) the faster the strength gains come, which ties directly into two of the bullet points up there: Hypertrophy and Improving your motor skill.
Since I’ve had success in adding weight to my deadlift bar rapidly (30# in 3 weeks) in the past by increasing training frequency, I decided to put some of these other concepts to the test when one of my clients asked me to help her improve her squat.
Here is a quick overview of how that went down:
This athlete started with a 145# 1 Rep Max (RM) back squat which put her between the intermediate and advanced categories depending on what chart you look at.
3-weeks later she hit 145# for 5 reps.
Week 5 saw a set of 5 at 170#
During week 7 she hit 6 x 1 @ 175, followed by 8 x 1 @ 175 later in the week.
She then crushed 190 during week 9
And finally hit 200# in week 10
Overall we were able to add 55#’s to her back squat in 10-weeks of training (Which is pretty good if you’ve ever tried it.)
The coolest part of this was after this 10-week experiment I knew I could get those same results faster, with less training (Which is my core training philosophy here at Strategic Athlete) since I was testing a number of different ideas/protocols all at once.
So I took this 10-week training log and started reorganizing, restructuring, and optimizing each workout to do two things:
- Fit into a 3-day per week, ~60min per session, program
- Get ridiculous results in only 4-weeks
I chose these two things as my goal because I know there are a ton of demands for your time and energy as a member of the military or tactical community.
I also know that marathon workout sessions, which are good from time to time, don’t really work for those of you with competing family priorities or other mandatory PT sessions.
Additionally, the military athlete needs to be a generalist with a bias toward strength. So the program I designed was structured in a way that would allow you to easily add it into what you were currently doing.
Once I had a fairly detailed outline of how this squat program was going to progress I sent out a call to action to you guys (If you’re on my list) to give the program shot and provide me with as much detailed feedback as possible.
I had a bunch of responses and let a select few into the program. Out of these I had two drop out for unrelated injuries and only a few were able to complete the full 4-weeks (With a couple still working through the program) and so far the results are incredible!
Chris was able to add 25#s to his back squat during this 4-week program
While adding 25#s may not sound like a big jump for a beginner it is a totally different story for someone who is already squatting 385 like Chris. He finished out with a 410# personal record.
Allan was able to add 30#s to his back squat
Not only did Allan crush a new personal best but was so happy he was asking me for a program to improve his press as well!
Results are still rolling in as a few folks started at different times but overall the Strategic Squat program is off to a good start and I couldn’t be happier with the results and the hard work put in by those who stuck to the program!
So how do you design a program to make me stronger
I know I got a bit technical up above but I wanted to lay out a number of factors that you must consider (Well, you don’t have to consider them if you’ve got a good coach) in order to design an effective training program.
So, over the years I’ve tested a number of programs, ideas, and methods to get stronger and I’ve narrowed all that down into a simple and short list of your top priorities:
- You need to increase training frequency
- You need to lift heavy loads
- You need to lift moderate loads FAST
- You need to sure-up weaknesses (i.e. Accessory work)
- You need to get specific
- You need to prioritize recovery
If you just apply these basic concepts to your strength training routine you are probably going to see some big improvements in your overall strength.
In fact, that is exactly what I did when I put together the Strategic Squat program and that has resulted in Chris & Allan adding 25-30#’s and once we got Rachel dialed in from my first example added 55#’s to her back squat, and almost 60# to her front squat!
Interested in improving you squat?
The Strategic Squat & Strategic Strength programs will drastically improve your strength. So if you need to get stronger, check them out on our Programs Page