Getting really strong is a marathon. There are lessons to be learned, injuries to be rehabbed, and time that must be spent mastering the weight on the bar.
The good news? You can significantly decrease the time it takes to hit some good numbers if you're willing to put your head down, focus, and be judicious instead of overzealous... all of which will require you to accept some of the boredom that comes along with it.
Not every workout is going to light your hair on fire, but each one is like a single brick that'll help you build a foundation and a mighty house that'll eventually sit on top of it. Here are some of the bricks you need to lay.
If you can't squat 315 for reps, you probably don't need to be doing reverse band safety-bar box squats with chains using eleventy billion pounds. It's quite possible that you need to perfect your squat technique for your goals, and spend a lot of time, you know, just squatting.
The lifts will do a tremendous job of actually building themselves, especially once your technique improves. Trying to add variations on top of variations is a poor use of your time.
Strength has a large neural component. The more often you do a lift, the more efficient you become. The more variations you have, the less time you can spend in that neural zone becoming proficient at your priority strength movements.
Pick the lifts you want to get good at and work from a standpoint of being a minimalist when it comes to exercise selection. If your strength stagnates and your technique is pretty solid, then ask yourself if you've been doing too many variations – or too many exercises in general – during training.
Before trying to improve your weak points, you must ask the most important question of all: Does my technique need to be fixed?
Even if you're using technically sound form on an exercise, it may not be serving you the way you want. Why? Because there's a difference between making a muscle work harder and moving maximal weights. Emphasizing one means de-emphasizing the other. They require the opposite intention and physical approach:
- Making a muscle work harder: Increase the tension of a specific area. To do so, you must put it into a leverage disadvantage. This requires locking down the joints so that tension is maximized by the specific muscle you're trying to work. People who do this (bodybuilders) will try to make lighter weight feel heavy.
- Moving maximal weights: Think synergy. Bring as many muscles into play as possible. To do that, you need to be in a leverage advantage against the bar so that it becomes easier to lift. People who do this (powerlifters and strength athletes) will try to make heavy weight feel light.
To maximize leverages against the bar, the lifter has to first be aware of where he or she is actually strongest or more dominant, from a muscular standpoint.
Examples: A lifter that has massive quads and tiny hips may benefit more from a high-bar, quad-dominant squat. A lifter that has strong glutes and hamstrings may find they naturally deadlift more in a sumo stance rather than conventional.
What about weak points? Okay, sure, it's important to bring up your weak muscular areas, but your weak points are always going to be weaker in comparison to your strong points due to your natural leverages and your ability to recruit certain musculature at higher thresholds.
You also need to examine your technique to make sure you're not setting yourself up for future injury. Critical self-assessment is necessary, and one that only comes after a few years of being under the bar or under the eyes of a great coach. Here are some globally accepted technique fixers for the big lifts:
- Conventional Deadlift: Shins vertical, neutral spine, elbows back to engage the lats, load the mid-foot (this feels more like the weight is on your heels, which is fine).
- Sumo Deadlift: Vertical shins, hips as close to the bar as possible, neutral spine.
- Bench Press: Wrist and elbows in alignment, shoulders in back pockets (scapular retraction), heels on your traps (move your feet back until you're so tight you feel as though your spine will snap in half).
- Squat: Shoulders in back pockets (scap retraction), neutral spine, load mid-foot.
This isn't an all-inclusive list, but it should create a cascading effect of moving you into certain positions, or at least make you assess your own positioning against the bar, so that you can find what leverages feel the most natural and strongest for your body type.
The other part is cueing, and understanding the reason for the cues. There are internal cues (related to what the musculature should be doing) and external cues (related to what the body should do in relation to an external source, like the floor, the bench press pad, or the bar itself).
For example, "push through the floor" on the deadlift, is an external cue.
"Hips through" on the deadlift is an internal cue. Remembering these cues, both internal and external, is paramount in maintaining proper form.
It's not about banging your head on the bar before the lift. It's about moving the bar with the greatest amount of velocity as you can muster, from start to finish. Moving the bar violently is a form of compensatory acceleration training or CAT.
But it's important to remember the "from start to finish" part. When most guys perform a lift at close to maximal ranges, like 90% or above, they'll initiate the rep with a lot of force or power. Then as they cross through the sticking point, or the part in the movement where the realize they'll indeed make the lift, they let up and cruise through the remaining range of motion.
With CAT, you continue to accelerate even after you've crossed over the sticking point. You train yourself to push much harder through the sticking point, and because you're practicing that, you'll learn you haven't been driving as hard as you thought in the initiation of the lift.
The speed at which you accelerate from the initiation of the lift is a major component of making it through the sticking point, or failing there. If there isn't enough velocity to help drive the bar through that muscular transitional phase of the lift, then you'll fail. This is why it's important to start the lift with as much acceleration as you can, and CAT will teach you to drive harder because it reinforces the cue of accelerate, accelerate, accelerate – from start to midpoint to finish.
Squats and deadlifts tend to respond to CAT very well using percentages of 60-75%, with higher volumes and low to moderate reps. Think 4-5 sets of 3-5 reps.
With the bench press the same set and rep scheme will work well, but with percentages a bit higher, in the 80-85% range – 5 and 3 reps there, respectively.
With conjugate style training, this resembles what most people think of as "speed work." However, for speed work to be effective, it can't be so light that it doesn't transfer over to maximal loads, nor can it be so heavy that the speed of the bar slows considerably. This is where CAT can slightly differ from what's known as speed work (often using 50% of your max).
Let's be honest, when you're maxing out on social media it's usually more about the praise and attention than actually getting stronger. And if you squat high, don't get mad when you're called out on it.
So reconsider that kind of max, or be more like Ed Coan. When asked about his maxes, Ed Coan has said, "I don't know; I never maxed in training. I saved my big lifts for the platform."
You can get as strong as you'll ever be and get there without ever taking a true one rep max in training. That said, there's a way to intelligently hit your max, but it's not debilitating. Think of it as establishing an every-day max or EDM.
Your EDM is the max that you could hit even if you're having a down day, are a bit sick, or even slightly overtrained. It accounts for fatigue, helping you set a doable baseline, especially if you're using a percentage-based modality. Use your EDM as the foundation for planning your training.
If you're having a destroyer-of-worlds kinda day and hit a new PR, then you base your training off of that max, you're going to have some days where you miss the reps you planned to hit. Eventually you're going to find your maxes sliding backwards because you set yourself up to fail by training in a constant state of overreaching.
By using the EDM, you should never miss a lift or reps in a set. This will build confidence, a larger strength base to work from, and have you using loads that help you to reinforce proper technique on a consistent basis. All good things when it comes to developing maximal strength.
One of the biggest mistakes novice and intermediate lifters make is that they see one really strong guy and think they should be doing all the things he did to arrive there. But this is true only to an extent.
The really strong guy learned the basics of good technique, but he also gravitated towards things that intuitively worked well for him as an individual. These unique things can't be replicated with the same success.
In fact, the strongest people share one very common trait, outside of things like genetics and work ethic. They have a strong intuition of what will and won't work for them. It's an innate ability that makes them gravitate towards the types of movements and set/rep schemes that will work for them. They have the ability to manipulate even the smallest training changes that push them past plateaus.
While the strongest people on the planet have some things in common, they also have a ton of differences, and they had to figure out what would work for them.
Caution: Jumping from workout to workout, believing there's some holy grail out there, is a great way to go nowhere fast. So the catch is that you commit to different things but experiment as well. You'll eventually find what speaks to your training soul, while still benefitting from the philosophies that have stood the test of time.
You then manipulate little variables to see how they affect your training performance, and how much you like them. Liking something in training is a major component in getting better. Because if you don't like your girlfriend or boyfriend very much, you're probably not going to be tagging them in memes and touching their butt a whole lot. Training isn't a lot different.
There's no denying it works. Too many lifters, both genetically gifted and not so much, have used it with great success. But when most people think of periodization, they think of a bunch of percentage charts and cycles based around meets. And that can be part of it. But you also need to periodize your entire training blocks at times and put some things on the back burner while making other things a priority.
Within every macro cycle (a year or two) of training, there should be meso cycles (a couple weeks to a couple months) and micro cycles (up to a week), where certain things are put on maintenance mode and other things become the priority.
Lifters often make the mistake of trying to bring up too many movements at once. They'll say their bench is going great, squat is maintaining, but their deadlift has been stalled for a long time. So why are they still training the bench press and squat in a way to maximize them if their deadlift has been stalled out?
Within a yearly macro cycle, do you have meso cycles where you prioritize:
- Injury prevention
- Weak points
- Bench and/or press variation
Each of these plays a major role in the development of maximal strength, and they can't all be maximized at the same time. So use some periodization to figure out what should be prioritized at different points within your yearly macro cycle.
After almost three decades of lifting, I can tell you that any "like" movement variation that allows you lift more than around 10% of what you can in the main movement, probably isn't transferable.
Lots of guys like to use rack pulls because they think it'll improve their deadlift. But if you aren't in the same position mechanically in the rack pull variation that you'd be in at that point in the regular deadlift, then it probably isn't going to transfer over.
Often, we get ourselves into leverage positions with movement variations that allow the use of substantially greater loads than what the main movement would allow (more than 10%). Think of the rack pulls. You can't be in this same position when you perform a regular deadlift, so it's not transferable.
"But I did rack deadlifts and my deadlift went up!"
Yes, I've heard this. And one or two things played a factor there:
- You increased your upper back strength with them.
- You did in fact get into the position during rack pulls that you'd be in during regular deadlifts.
I recommend this 10% rule of loading regardless. If a movement variation is allowing you to use more than 10% of the max you could use with the main variation, then toss it. Pick movements that are similar enough to allow for strength transfer if that movement variation increases.
For squats, this is often front squats or safety-bar squats. For bench press, try the incline press and overhead press variations along with it. For the deadlift, stiff-legged deadlifts and barbell rows work very well.
If you'll notice, the variations I've listed don't really allow for greater loading than the main variation. That's good.
This mostly applies to those who've already built a solid strength base and have good technique. Beginners just need to focus on getting stronger overall. Your weak points are everywhere.
This is mostly a muscular issue, and it's why hypertrophy training should always exist within the framework of overall strength training. The areas the most neglected in strength athletes are often caused by overcompensation from neighboring stronger and larger muscle groups. So let's discuss a few of those.
Commonly weak muscle groups and why you need to strengthen them:
- Weak lower traps: Train them for improved shoulder stability, essential if you want to improve in all forms of pressing.
- Weak hamstrings: Train them to help stabilize the knee, necessary if you want to continue squatting heavier without hurting your knees.
- Weak biceps: Train them to improve elbow stability. Very important for the bench press.
Remember, lifts that isolate muscle groups aren't just for aesthetics, they'll also give you a leg up on your strength journey... if you're interested in, you know, not hurting.