Becoming stronger—just like building muscle or burning fat—is not rocket science, but it is exercise science. There’s a way to make sure you improve and many (many) more ways to ensure that you don’t. And if past experience is any indication, the two biggest limitations to strength are:
A) What you’re putting on the bar, or
B) What’s going on between your ears.
All too often, it’s the not so science-y option (B) that stands in the way. To help remove those limitations and simplify the approach, I asked Dave Dellanave to share why so many people seem to struggle to lift more weight. His approach is refreshingly simple, but also incredibly effective.
Here’s how you can remove some of the common strength barriers and build massive strength.
Several years ago I was at a strength training seminar consisting of a handful of training professionals and strength aficionados. Among them was a strong-as-an-ox railroad worker from south Boston. This is the kind of guy who looks at strength feats other people consider impressive levels of achievement and goes “let me try that,” achieving them himself on the very first try.
During the seminar, the instructor starts talking about various borderline-silly strategies people in the fitness space use to “improve movement” or to “prime the nervous system.” Over and over the guy from Beantown would pipe up, “How’s that gonna make me stron-gah?”
It may sound like he was a little crazy, and I assure you was. He also had exactly the right idea.
The bottom line is that there are a few things that will make you stronger – namely, big lifts done with big weight — and a lot of distractions that don’t materially contribute to building strength.
If you can’t look back on the past couple months of training and brag about the new strength feats you’ve accomplished, you’re probably making of one of these key mistakes.
In recent years it has become popular to pursue goals such as perfect physical symmetry and movement that passes someone’s arbitrary standard rather than the time-tested standard of lifting more weight on the bar.
The reality is that in the absence of an actual problem — specifically, pain — that prevents you from completing a movement, spending a lot of time on prehab and correctives comes with an extremely high price tag: you’re not spending that time doing things that actually make you stronger.
How can you tell you’ve been swept up in the corrective exercise craze? Your numbers on your favorite lifts haven’t gone up in months but you’re intimately familiar with your foam roller and a one-pound PVC pipe.
Let’s me be very clear: if you have persistent pain, it’s worth seeing a doctor to rule out any issues and to see if you can get them resolved. But, if you’re chasing prehab and corrective exercises because you think there’s going to be a payoff in the long term, my experience tells me that you’d be better off looking for a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.
On the road to strength, many have wandered off the path…and found themselves balancing atop a BOSU ball.
Men have known for at least a hundred years how to build strength. The incredible Arthur Saxon published The Development of Physical Power in 1905, writing that “it seems reasonable to expect that if your main idea is eventually to succeed in weight-lifting, that as you have to lift iron weights it will be better to practice with iron weights, and the heavier the weights the better.”
You know what’s not described in Saxon’s 19th century book? Using wobble boards, suspension trainers, rubber bands, single-leg training, or other distractions from the singular goal of getting strong.
Yet this was a man who still holds a hundred-plus year bent press record of 370 pounds, was able to snatch 200 pounds with one arm, military press 250 pounds with a single arm, and clean and jerk 342 pounds.
He was able to do this not by finding ways to make his training harder but by progressively lifting heavier and heavier weights in the most basic and fundamental way: with movements such as deadlifts, cleans, presses, and jerks.
There is nothing in strength training that will pay higher dividends than simply lifting a heavier weight, or lifting the heaviest weights you can for more repetitions. And then making sure each week you try to add to this amount. There’s a place for speed/high rep days. There’s also a day for grip days. (Yes, grip can be a big barrier.) But if you don’t have a day (or an exercise) dedicated to simply adding more weight to the bar, you won’t become stronger.
Before you get too concerned that I’m going to get all new-agey on you and just tell you to let Jesus take the wheel, just trust me on this one for a minute.
There are two ways that people approach training that ends up being to their detriment. The first is the balls-out, fitspo-driven, pre-workout-fueled attack the weights and get one more rep or die trying approach. This high-effort approach uses a program like a minimum baseline guideline — if the program says 10 reps, you are damn sure going to get 11.
What is the result? Poor recovery and a training cycle that flames out midway through.
The flip side of that same coin is an ultra-conservative mindset where you only do exactly what you already know you can do.
Now, I want to be exceedingly clear: I am a big advocate of working within your limits. I don’t think you have to push or force anything to get stronger. But no one ever deadlifts 500 pounds by only deadlifting 200 pounds. At some point you have to test to see where you are.
“Can I do that?” It’s a simple question, but drives a powerful outcome. Asking yourself if you can do something before you attempt it gives you a lot of bang for your buck. First, it lets you mentally assess whether or not something is achievable right now. You are making a prediction: either yes or no. When you either succeed or fail in doing it, you become better at predicting every single time you do it. Second, asking if you can do it implies that you are doing something you’re not assured of success with — a pretty good barometer of being at the edges of your limits.
If you read books by the greatest strength athletes of all time or talk to current phenomenal athletes, you will get a different answer from all of them about what works, what they like and dislike, and the various intricacies of their own training. Sometimes they will completely contradict each other – for one guy the only thing that works is doing heavy singles and for the other high volumes of sub-maximal weights are the ticket.
What do they all have in common despite the enormous and myriad differences?
They all individually take responsibility and ownership of their training. Ask an elite powerlifter what his maxes are and not only will he tell you what his best competition lifts are but he will also tell you his best training maxes, his best 2-rep, 3-rep, and 5-rep maxes, as well as a dozen accessory or modified lift best lifts. Ask an elite Olympic lifter what her best lifts are and she’ll tell you her best hang clean, power jerk, block jerk, pause snatch, overhead squat, and so on. They can also tell you where their strengths and weaknesses lie, and how they approach their training in light of that.
In other words, you won’t find too many lifters with impressive strength who say “I don’t know” or “I just follow my program.”
Dan John, the affable strength coach and author known for his many aphorisms (or, Dan John-isms, rather), has a popular saying that “The goal is to keep the goal the goal.” It may seem too trite to be useful, but the reality is, many people get distracted along the way, losing sight of their original goal. Along the same vein, “To get stronger, get stronger” is as simple and effective as it gets.
For some exercises, the answer is painfully obvious that they are not going to make you stronger. Is thirty minutes of walking on the dreadmill going to make you stronger? Obviously not. If you keep the focus on doing things that represent getting stronger — like consistently putting more weight on the bar — you will be steadily rewarded with exactly what you want: more strength.
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