Over a year ago, a poll on the T-Nation forum asked the readers what their primary goal was. The responses were as follows:
- 20% wanted to lose fat.
- 18% wanted to perform better athletically.
- 37% wanted to build muscle.
- 23% wanted to get stronger.
Unfortunately, 100% of responders were pissed off that they apparently weren't "allowed" to have all those goals at once! Well, I just so happen to think that you can – and it all revolves around building strength.
- All things held constant, a stronger individual will have more potential to build muscle mass.
- Maximal strength is the foundation for all athletic qualities. I've used the analogy of the glass (maximal strength) and the liquid (all other strength qualities) before: you can only add so much fluid before you're limited by the size of the glass.
- The more muscle mass you have, the more calories you'll burn in your attempt to burn fat.
- The more strength you have, the more power you'll be able to generate when using high-intensity interval training (HIIT) to lose fat. Do more work in the same amount of time and you'll make progress. (I just got on Charles Staley's Christmas card mailing list.)
So, I'm hereby awarding a gold star to the 23-percenters. Here's to you, folks.
Now that we know how important strength is, regardless of our goal, let's consider some reasons people aren't making progress on this crucial foundation.
7 Reasons You're Not Getting Any Stronger
A few weeks ago, Dr. John Berardi wrote G-Flux: Building the Ultimate Body, a great article outlining the importance of applying a requisite amount of training duration per week to make optimal physique progress.
In that article, he made reference to the need for getting energy expenditure up considerably through a combination of resistance-training, high-intensity interval training (HIIT), and low-intensity aerobic training. The "what" is all well and good, but the "how" is where I'm sure that some T-Nation folks are at a loss for what to do.
We all know resistance training is damn good for making us strong, and in Cardio Confusion I outlined a comprehensive approach to using low-intensity training to facilitate strength gains while improving health and body composition. While it's great for those looking to optimize nutrient partitioning and stay lean, the middle of the road – HIIT – is the glitch in the plans for those looking to get stronger.
Traditional bodybuilding wisdom has taught us to use muscle soreness as a measure of whether or not we should come back to train again. Unfortunately, the central nervous system (CNS) – the true governor of performance – takes much longer to recover than the muscles it "supervises." More unfortunately, it's extremely challenging, if not altogether impossible, to truly sense CNS fatigue without actually getting under the bar and seeing what happens.
Logically, it stands to reason that every activity either is or isn't CNS-intensive. Generally speaking, I classify the following as significant stressors to the CNS:
- Lifts at or above 90% of one-repetition maximum (1RM)
- Dynamic effort training (compensatory acceleration to account for submaximal loading)
- Reactive/shock training methods (erroneously referred to as "plyometrics")
- All movement training above 90% of maximal effort (HIIT included)
If we want our CNS to perform near its potential, it's important that we consolidate CNS-intensive training interventions within our training week and allow for periods during which nothing beats the CNS down. Let's take a look at the training split of a typical T-Nation reader looking to gain size and strength while losing fat:
- Sunday: Rest
- Monday: Upper Body Lifting *
- Tuesday: Lower Body Lifting
- Wednesday: HIIT of some sort
- Thursday: Upper Body Lifting
- Friday: Lower Body Lifting
- Saturday: HIIT of some sort
* Because we all know that Monday has to be bench day nationwide, right?
The individual might also throw in some low-intensity cardio after one or two of his lifting sessions (or first thing in the morning... ugh!) Depending on what goes on in those lifting sessions, it's conceivable that this individual would have six consecutive CNS-intensive sessions.
It might lean him out a bit and possibly put a little size on him, but unless he's a complete beginner, it's not going to be conducive to gaining strength in the process. Here's a different approach that would work better for him:
|Monday||Off||Lower – Maximal|
|Tuesday||Upper – Repetition||Low-Intensity Cardio|
|Thursday||Lower - Repetition||Off|
All the CNS-intensive training is consolidated into Mondays and Saturdays, and the remaining days are devoted to accumulating volume and doing low-intensity recovery work. If desired, some dynamic effort training can be added to the Tuesday and Thursday sessions without compromising the effectiveness of the program. You could even incorporate some Thursday afternoon HIIT with reasonable success.
Now, let's take this one step further and show how I've approached things with an off-season athlete looking to improve several strength qualities at once. Metabolic conditioning isn't a priority at this point, so we don't write in anything even close to "HIIT."
|Monday||Upper – Repetition||Off|
|Tuesday||Shock/Movement||Lower – Speed/Repetition|
|Saturday||Off||Lower - Maximal/Shock|
All of his CNS-intensive training is confined to Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays. One day is devoted to non-CNS-intensive repetition work, and the remaining three days are all about recovery modalities: circuits, pool sessions, massage, etc.
Now, I can already hear the criticisms of "but the Westside guys train CNS-intensive efforts four times per week." My response to this is very simple: They aren't doing HIIT.
In fact, find me a single successful powerlifter who's doing HIIT and I'll gladly find you a free 48 oz. steak and let you eat it while I munch on humble pie. Don't tell me that HIIT won't interfere with your strength and speed gains. If you're going to do HIIT, you need to accept that you're ultimately going to be riding two horses with one ass.
I can't tell you how many times I've seen lifters (myself included) who've dropped HIIT altogether and seen immediate, rapid improvements in maximal strength and speed (and not gained body fat because diet was on-point).
HIIT has its place, but you need to consider how this piece fits into the puzzle or, if strength is a priority, if it even belongs in your puzzle in the first place. Your body has a limited recovery capacity; make use of it wisely.
I've harped on this before, so I won't get on your case too much about it here. Let's leave it at this: if a joint is completely imbalanced, it'll shut down in one way or another. You'll either plateau or get injured (or both). Your body has a great system of regulatory feedback that prevents you from getting too out of proportion.
Want to build a big bench? Get the muscles of your upper back and rotator cuff stronger. Need to bring up your Olympic squat? Make sure that your posterior chain is up to the task.
Remember when you were learning to ride a bike? You came home from school every day and hopped on that bike for dozens upon dozens of runs. Eventually, from practice, you got really good at riding that bike.
Now, consider what would have happened if you had worked exclusively on learning the bike on Sunday, the trumpet on Monday, tying your own shoes on Tuesday, reading on Wednesday, swimming on Thursday, checkers on Friday, and fishing on Saturday. It would've taken a lot longer to pick up riding the bike if you hadn't had the chance to practice it often enough, wouldn't it?
I know what you're thinking: "Cressey, you were the one telling us that we needed more variety just two months ago!" True, but the secret is finding similar variations to what you're doing.
Think about how Westside-influenced powerlifters peak for a big bench press: a long training cycle with rotation of similar (but different) max effort movements culminating with several weeks of specific, technical attention to the exact lift they want to perfect. You don't have to go that far, but it helps to have some semblance of familiarity with the lifts that you're doing if you want to stimulate as many motor units (and in turn, muscle mass) as possible.
I should note that this familiarity gets easier the longer you train. If you're a beginner, try rotating your strength movements every fourth week. If you're an intermediate, stick with the same movement for two weeks before changing things up. If you're advanced, go ahead and shuffle it each week; your motor pool is large enough to adapt on the fly and set PRs on a regular basis.
Rep work is good for hypertrophy and therefore increasing strength through cross sectional area alone, but it isn't really the fastest inroad to strength increases.
Remember, it takes time for muscles to grow. Five to ten pounds in a year is an admirable number for an intermediate to advanced lifter. Imagine that spread out over the entire body and you'll see that trying to get big isn't the quickest means to an end if your goal is pure strength.
I should note, however, that getting fatter will mechanically make you stronger on certain movements by shortening your range of motion, but it won't do anything to make the muscles themselves stronger. I don't imagine you need any advice on getting fatter, either.
The novice lifter just lifts for reps to get big; it's all he's ever known because it's all the bodybuilding magazines have ever taught him. He's missing out on the fact that grinding out a heavy single is much different than struggling through the tenth rep of a set. This ability to grind out a single is what's going to help you not give up in that God-awful split-second that you're waiting for the bar to break the floor as you pull a heavy deadlift.
Lesson to be learned? Lift heavy stuff if you want to be strong. It seems logical, but a lot of people seem to be getting this question wrong. Maybe they're studying for the wrong test, or their study materials aren't very good...
One other often-overlooked way to get stronger is to train for speed. Things like box jumps, broad jumps, jump squats, speed deadlifts, speed squats, and Olympic lifts teach your neuromuscular system to develop force quickly. As such, they're surefire ways to make sure that you don't encounter "grinders" very often: the bar will break the floor a lot quicker on those deadlifts if you're fast.
As an added bonus, training for speed is a lot of fun. Give it a shot!
Strength is actually a more specific term than you might think. You can be very strong at one point in the range of motion, but if you're weak at another point, your strength on the entire lift will be compromised.
Some coaches would like you to believe that it's as simple as one muscle being weak, but that couldn't be further from the truth. If your bench stalls halfway up, your triceps aren't inherently weak – your lockout is. In this regard, there are two important things to remember with respect to strength in particular ranges of motion:
- Isometric muscle action will generally have a 15-degree carryover in either direction. As an example, if your weakness in the deadlift is off the floor, it won't help you much at all to do rack pulls and isometric work near lockout.
- Training through a full range of motion builds strength through a full range of motion. Pay attention, quarter-squatting newbies!
In both cases, if you aren't training in the weak portions of the range of motion, your proficiency throughout the full ROM will be compromised. Keep in mind that every "normal" rep includes a brief isometric action between the eccentric and concentric components; so you're always going to be training isometrically without deliberately using isometric training. How's that for wordplay?
To illustrate, consider a lifter who's weak off the chest on the bench. A one- or two-board press would be close enough to the weak point in the range of motion to provide a favorable carryover to build strength to overcome the weak point. A four-board press wouldn't do much of anything. And, for those who insist that it's a matter of having weak pecs, try doing isometric cable crossover holds in fully contracted position to "pump up your pecs" and let me know if you get any stronger.
Strength is joint-angle specific. Find your weaknesses and plan accordingly to correct them!
This might seem pretty logical, but it never ceases to amaze me how many people will use "3 sets of 8-10 reps" and wonder why they aren't getting stronger. To be strong, you don't just have to lift heavy weights; you have to lift heavy weights frequently.
In order for favorable neuromuscular efficiency adaptations to occur, you've got to load the muscles with plenty of frequency; otherwise, you're really just imposing random stressors every once in a while. I've said it before and I'll say it again: this is just one more reason why conjugated and undulating periodization schemes take the cake when compared to linear periodization models. If you want to be stronger, why avoid training with heavy weights for the majority of the year?
I could get really "sciencey" on you here, but instead I'll go with a hypothetical example. Let's say that we test your best deadlift at 400 pounds. Then, I have you do a set of 20 deadlifts at 225 and then go out and "briskly" jog a marathon. Then, we give you ten minutes to gather your thoughts and then retest your 1RM. You pull a stellar 135 and then collapse to the ground in a heap of worthlessness.
Now, ask yourself: is 135 really your true max? Hell no! You just imposed too much fatigue to display your true fitness at that point in time. If you come back a week later to attempt it after getting some rest, chances are that you'd pull four bills without much trouble.
Do you think that the strongest guys on the planet are pushing the limits of their strength abilities every day? Of course not. It takes months to plan for a true display of your maximal strength, and you need the ideal settings to take advantage of the edge you can get with a competition max (some estimates place the competition max at 10% more than training max in ideal conditions).
Now, as a bodybuilder, ordinary weekend warrior, or athlete in some sport, you can't be expected to peak for your heaviest lifting sessions like a powerlifter or Olympic lifter would for a competition. You can, however, use their example to understand why you aren't always going to be on your "A" game from a strength standpoint.
With that said, if you're really looking to test yourself, take a little down-time to give your body a chance to recuperate before the big challenge.
Hopefully, this article has shed some light on how everyone – not just the 23-percenters – can modify what they're doing to facilitate strength gains. Regardless of your goal, getting stronger will never hurt, and it'll almost always get you closer to where you want to be!