5 Ways to Get Stronger You Didn't Already Know
I hate most articles about getting stronger. Not because the information is always wrong or the author is an idiot (or worse, a keyboard warrior), it's just that they always say the same damn thing.
Eat big, use multi-joint lifts, and get plenty of rest – it's great advice, but come on, tell me something I don't know; or at least, something I might've forgotten about.
This article is different. Here are a few rarely talked about tips to help you push more iron. These things can make a huge difference in your training, programming, and most importantly, your results.
However, they aren't to be added into your training all at once. These are ideas for blocks of your training (6-12 weeks) that can be added to your overall strength program without sacrificing your principles or your main work.
Over the past year, I've started to see training a bit differently. I realize that training can be remarkably fluid as long as the principles are steadfast.
Think of programming as a dinner, with a huge T-bone steak being the constant. My steak is heavy barbell training. This never changes. The seasonings I put on the steak, however, and the side dishes change every training cycle.
My side dishes might be mobility, strongman, conditioning, or high-rep assistance work. The seasonings might be Boring But Big assistance work or adding in athletic movements such as jumps.
But at the center of this training is still a steak.
Here are 5 great ways to season your own training and make some progress if you're getting a bit stale.
1. Strongman Training
One of the best things about playing a physical sport such as football or wrestling is the strength one develops when playing and practicing the sport. You're using your hips, legs, back, arms, and grip to compete against your opponent. You drag, push, and pull on every play and every match.
This kind of strength has been lost over the years due to loss of physical labor and the lack of "free play" that many children either don't or aren't allowed to involve themselves in.
We all know examples of older men who've worked for years on a farm that possess some crazy grip and hip strength. They may not be able to show it immediately in the weight room, but they can sure throw you through a window if you get out of line.
If you're many years past your glory days as an athlete or never participated much in athletics, including some form of strongman training into your own program will do more for your overall strength than you realize.
However, I see people using these exercises too often for the conditioning aspect when they can easily be done to raise your level of strength. So don't be afraid to add some weight to them and take some extra rest. You'll still get plenty of conditioning simply by using heavier weights.
I've been using the Prowler less as a conditioning tool and more as a way to strengthen my legs and hips. That means using more weight, more rest, and taking big walking steps.
While my lungs are still gasping for air, I've noticed that my legs are much more taxed and "feel stronger." I can't exactly quantify the strength gained, but I feel better, my knees feel better, my conditioning hasn't noticeably dropped off, and my legs have grown.
If you're an older lifter, walking with heavier weights is a terrific way to get more leg volume in without added stress on the back. These things are also great to use with younger lifters, as the techniques are simple to teach – Push! Pull! Carry! – and can be a great way to supplement barbell training.
Often a coach has to limit the weight on the barbell because the technique isn't where it needs to be. They need another way to strengthen their legs, and this is where a sled and Prowler (or something similar) can come into play.
Remember to not confuse using these tools as a means of making them puke, rather a way to strengthen their bodies.
We'll concentrate on 3 basic exercises:
Push something. This can be a car, truck, blocking sled, Prowler, or whatever else you can think to push. If you're using a vehicle – although this should go without saying – make sure you have someone in the driver's seat, and not your three year-old daughter or your basset hound.
If you don't have access to any of these things, the next best thing is to use a weighted vest and walk up and down a hill or a long flight of stairs. The key to picking something is, if it looks heavy and can be pushed, it's a good choice.
Pull something. A sled is probably your best bet for pulling something. While a heavy chain can be used, basically anything that can be attached to a chain or strap and dragged across the ground can work. I recommend pulling something heavy while walking forwards and backwards. You can attach the strap to your belt, a harness, or simply hold the strap/chain in your hand.
Carry something. This is known as the farmer's walk. You can use farmer's walk handles, a trap bar (or hex bar), or dumbbells.
How to use this in your training: Take one day (a Saturday, for example) and do 1-3 of these exercises, or, use one of these ideas after each workout.
Remember that when you put something into your workout, you'll probably have to take something out. Constantly adding movements and exercises into the mix without taking stuff out is not a good idea.
For example, if you're squatting, you can do your main movement first (squat) and then use 1 supplemental lift (your main assistance lift), plus maybe 1-2 assistance lifts as your weight training. After this, use one of the push/pull/carry movements at the end.
Or, you can do the main movement (squat), followed by 1 supplemental movement, and then the strongman movement. Once you've completed that, hit some lighter assistance work and you're done. I personally devote two days/week to this style of training. These are done on separate days than my lifting.
How I load the implements is simple. I start light and add weight. I don't use any charts, graphs, or scientific tables. Load up and get stupid.
Conclusion: Use these movements to strengthen your body – don't be afraid to take your strength training outside of the weight room and use some different means and implements.
2. High Reps
I touched on the importance of this in the 100 Rep Challenge but you don't have to do the challenge to get the benefits. This is something I've done for the past couple years and they'll always have a small place in my training.
After the main work is done, do 2-3 exercises that target problem areas and do about 100 reps of each. This is usually done in 1-3 sets. For me, this means exercises for the hamstrings, hips, arms (biceps/triceps), upper back, abs, neck, grip, shoulders, and lats.
For example, after my squat workout, I may do some band leg curls, crunches, and neck work. After a pressing workout, band pull-aparts, triceps pushdowns, and fat man rows might be an option.
It's not something that I record or really think about too much – I just pick a single-joint exercise and use a high-rep range to spark some new growth and (hopefully) prevent injuries.
I never use a weight that kills me or affects my recovery. For instance, the one-leg squats I do are always with my bodyweight and are great for my knees and hip flexibility.
The neck work is awesome because, well, everyone wants a big neck. The upper back work is something we all can use and is a great way to get some extra volume in.
Conclusion: After your big exercises, choose a couple of high-rep, single-joint movements and bulletproof your body. If you're new to this sort of training, ease into it with 25-50 reps/per exercise. Don't do anything that stresses your joints and kills your recovery. This is basically "health" work, a way to supplement your heavy lifting.
3. Know your Body(Weight)
At the very last S.W.I.S. conference held, I had the opportunity to listen to T Nation contributor Joe Defranco talk about how important pull-up strength was to speed training.
It wasn't due to the upper body strength gained from doing the movement, rather the ability to even perform the movement. If you can do a lot of chin-ups, you have good relative body strength. Translation: You're not weak and you're not fat.
That doesn't mean you'll be super fast, but it means you're setting yourself up, at the very least, to be as fast as you can be.
Yet bodyweight training on its own has limitations, so it's best to think of it as an effective supplement to your regular barbell training. It's also one of the best ways to let you know if you've put on a little too much fat and not enough muscle.
Until hearing Defranco at that conference, I never thought too much about bodyweight strength – it was never an issue for those I trained, or me. I can't imagine being in high school and not being able to do 50 push-ups and 20 chin-ups, or not being able to run (not jog!) a mile.
I'm quite certain there was a direct correlation between all these numbers and the ease of getting laid, though I'm not sure about that now.
You don't have to go hog wild with bodyweight movements – chin-ups, pull-ups, dips, push-ups, and sit-ups are still great things, so there's no need to become a gymnast or try to emulate the latest Thug Workout, or waste your time and shoulders doing a "muscle up." Adding in one or two bodyweight exercises at the end of your workout can do great things for your body and your recovery.
I touched on high-rep movements earlier and this is a great way to add in some bodyweight work. You don't have to do a ton of reps with these exercises, even doing three sets to failure (in place of the high-rep exercises) of basic bodyweight exercises would be a good place to start.
After your upper body main work, you can use push-ups and chin-ups (or fat man rows) to end your workout.
Main lift: Press
Supplemental Lift: DB incline press
Supplemental Lift: DB rows
Assistance: Push-ups, fat man rows
Main lift: Squat
Supplemental Lift: Straight leg deadlift
Supplemental Lift: Leg press
Assistance: Walking lunge (bodyweight), sit-ups
I wouldn't worry too much about programming the bodyweight work – it's a small, assistance lift. If you're going for higher reps on these (as I believe you should), use a barbell in a power rack and set it on an incline for push-ups and fat man rows.
Adding in some bodyweight training doesn't mean you have to become a bodyweight champion, rather, it's a great way to supplement your heavy barbell training with exercises that keep you honest in your strength and your body composition.
Conclusion: You won't be too fat to move your body when it counts.
4. Be an Athlete
I've touched on this before and it bears repeating. If you want to be fast, you have to train like an athlete. You must learn to jump and explode. The best way to do this is to throw objects explosively and jump.
For lifters, a simple way to do this is to do a basic warm-up and then some kind of explosive work before your main lifting. Remember that speed should be trained first in a workout, when you're fresh.
You don't need to break up your athletic training like you're a bodybuilder – there aren't upper body days and lower body days. You jump and throw. And if you're throwing correctly, your hips and legs will come into play. If not, well, you need to work on that.
This is where a medicine ball comes in handy. Throwing a med ball from a variety of positions – chest pass, overhead forward, and overhead backward – is probably the most common.
You don't need a million variations – just get good at a few total body throws and you'll reap the benefits. I don't know why everyone wants so much variety when they can barely master one.
A 10-20 pound med ball would probably suit most, but don't confuse weight with being explosive. This isn't a time to measure your pecker by how heavy of a med ball you can use – use the ball that allows you to be explosive. If in doubt, use a lighter ball.
Fifteen to thirty throws before you train would be enough for most people. Don't use this as a conditioning session.
Using jumps (box jumps, jumps over an object, and standing long jumps) are all easy to use and implement in your training. Like the med ball throws, these are to be done before your main weight training (or can be done on a separate day) and 15-30 jumps per workout would be a great place to start.
As with any workout, you should progressively work up in intensity. No need to go for max distance or height on the first throw or jump of the day. When I was training athletes, I would use these at the beginning of the workout. In my own training, I have two separate days devoted to these.
Finally, don't be afraid of using a jump rope. You may stumble in the beginning, but the footwork developed will do wonders. Using a rope for a basic warm-up is easy to do and kills two birds with one big stone.
Conclusion: Adding two days (or more) of jumps or throws during a training block will greatly increase your explosive power and tap into a style of training that most never do. It's easy to do – just make sure you start conservatively.
5. Peak to Compete
Competing is paramount for anyone who wants to push their strength to a new level, however, I realize that most are hesitant to do so. So I propose the following: as a block of training, focus almost exclusively on peaking for 1 or 2 lifts. Not four, not five, and not three – just one or two.
This will teach you how to program your training, how long you have to peak, and how to dial back (and push) other aspects of your training.
Here's a good example of what I like to do in my own training, broken into two 6-week training blocks:
6-Week Block #1
- Core lifts - maintained
- Supplemental lifts - pushed hard, volume and intensity high
- Assistance - normal
- Prowler - heavy
6-Week Block #2
- Core lifts testing - pushed with heavier singles at end of workout
- Core lifts not testing - maintained
- Supplemental lifts - volume backed off, intensity high
- Assistance - eliminated
- Prowler - eliminated
Core lifts that are being tested: Squat and press
Supplemental lifts: Safety squat bar, Trap bar, Football bar presses, T-bar rows
Assistance: Arms, lats, upper back, abs, low back
I think the problem most people run into is that they expect everything to increase at the same time. There's little thought to the effects of each part of their training and how it relates to another. You can't just throw a pound of everything into a recipe and expect it to taste good.
For example, people want their bench press to go up, but they aren't willing to back off another area to prioritize it. Or they won't formulate a well-thought out plan (periodization) to get them there. Training doesn't work like that.
Conclusion: If you want to hit a new goal in an exercise, spend the time writing down a solid plan that draws on your own experience and what you've read. And if you really want to hit that goal, then get serious and enter a meet. A cashed check is a great way to light a fire under your ass.
If you're like me and need Spike® Shooter on intravenous drip just to get through another article on getting stronger, I hope this one gave you some ideas you haven't heard before (or at least, not often).
Granted, there's no substitute for training hard, eating like a machine, and getting your Z's, so if you haven't already addressed those aspects of your game then do that first. But after you exhaust the basics, give these tips a go – you never know what gains can be waiting for you just around the corner.