3 Ways to Immediately Boost Your Strength

Imagine this scenario. You’re sitting in the audience at a strength and conditioning conference, there to learn a thing or two about building bigger, stronger muscles, and the speaker calls you up to the podium.

The speaker has a barbell onstage with a stack of plates next to it. He tells you that you’re going to test your maximum strength for the deadlift in front of the audience.

You’re a little nervous, but you get yourself onstage and go through a typical warm-up that consists of a handful of sets with progressively heavier weights. You’re not a powerlifter, just a regular gym rat, so you know the pull isn’t going to impress anyone in the powerlifting game. But you don’t care. You’re in front of a couple hundred people and this is your time to shine.

After a few minutes you’ve got the weight dialed in. With all the effort you can muster you manage to pull 350 pounds. This load, clearly evident to yourself and anyone watching, is your true one repetition maximum. Five more pounds and you would’ve failed.

“Not bad,” says the speaker. “And guess what? Today is your lucky day. Let’s see if you can pull more weight with motivation from some dead Presidents.”

The speaker reaches behind the podium and pulls out a briefcase, opens it, and shows you a million bucks – cash. This isn’t that snooze-fest television, Deal or No Deal – this is the real deal and you know it.

“All you have to do is pull 20 more pounds and the cash is yours,” the speaker says. He throws another 10-pound plate on each side of the 350-pound barbell, now making it 370 pounds, and smiles.

Think you could pull that extra 20 pounds for a million bucks? Of course you could!

With most things in life, though, reward doesn’t come without risk. This contest is no exception. You just took a million from the speaker and he wants to up the ante in order to get it back. I mean, really up the ante.

So he reaches behind the podium and pulls out a chainsaw. Like a scene straight out of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, he fires up the gas-filled tree killer, hoists it in the air, and swings it around while belting out a hellacious howl. You’re not sure what’s on the line, but you’re damn sure whatever it is ain’t good.

You were right.

The speaker looks you dead in the eyes, and with a tone that makes Johnny Cash sound like Alvin the Chipmunk, he passes on this little gem.

“You must add another 20 pounds to your deadlift or I’m going to cut off both of your legs.”

You and your legs don’t doubt his dedication to the chainsaw swinging craft, so you decide it’s best to proceed. After all, that half-inch you added to your calves didn’t come easy, and your vastus medialis muscles have been looking pretty impressive in those board shorts your girlfriend bought you at Patagonia.

The speaker adds 20 more pounds to the bar, making it 40 pounds heavier than when you started, and then gives you a nod while gripping the chainsaw with the most ominous look you’ve ever seen.

Now, here’s my question: Do you think you could pull those extra 20 pounds if your God-given wheels were on the line?

I’d be willing to bet both my legs, my arms, and my autographed Miley Cyrus poster that you could.

Why? Read on.

Release The Brake
When I speak at a seminar my goal is to leave the attendees with a few bits of information they’ll never forget.

While in graduate school one of my professors had the reputation for being able to talk about virtually anything and make it sound exciting. (I guess such a gift for gab is necessary when your goal is to make people giddy over the sodium/potassium pump.) But he was also very effective since his students, myself included, would retain most of what he taught.

Of course, I frequently asked him for advice before I had to speak in front of grad students and professors. He’d say, “Waterbury, you must tell them what you’re gonna tell them; tell them; then tell them what you told them.”

Repeat whatever is important at least three times, in other words.

When I give a presentation about the nervous system to a good group of trainers, coaches, and athletes what do I usually tell them three, four, maybe 10 times?

The nervous system is akin to a parking brake that’s partially engaged on your muscles.

And this is why my introduction, no matter how far-fetched it might seem, is important to appreciate. There’s no better way to instantly boost your strength than to get really motivated, or scared to death. Indeed, neuroscientists like to amuse themselves by saying that lunatics, people who are drowning, or those suffering from tetanus are extremely powerful.

They are.

Why? Because in any of the three cases the nervous system is running full speed ahead. It’s not because the people are powerlifters or gifted strength athletes, it’s because their nervous system has released its brake and put a plethora of neural drive straight to the muscles.

Release that brake and you’ll get stronger and recruit more muscle fibers – instantly!

So, the question is, how do you release the brake without risking a limb or two? I wish I could motivate you with a million bucks because you’d have newfound respect for the nervous system, but since I can’t, these are the next best ways.

1. Light The Fire
Before you pull a heavy lift; before you start your first warm-up set; heck, before you even step foot in the gym your nervous system must be ready for action. If it’s not you’ll be relegated to playing catch up as you wait for your nervous system to turn on. You must walk into the gym and feel like you’re ready to chew on rusty nails.

The simplest way to enhance your focus and nervous system output is to drink a cup of black coffee about 30 minutes before your workout. This only works if you don’t drink a lot of coffee to begin with, and it doesn’t work equally well for everyone (coffee, believe it or not, puts me to sleep).

If coffee isn’t your thing try Spike by Biotest. Take one tablet 30 minutes before training, or drink half a can of their liquid version that you can find in 7-11. This will boost neurotransmitters, alertness, and strength.

2. Secure Your Foundation
Okay, so now your nervous system has been lit up with a pre-workout stimulant. For most people, that’s enough to add some appreciable weight and intensity to the workout. Now you can take it a step further. Your next job is to let the nervous system know your body isn’t going to crumble when it releases the brake to your muscles.

As any good engineer will tell you, the foundation must support the building. If you own a 10-story building and feel the need to add five more floors on top of it, the foundation must be able to support the extra burden. With regard to strength training, I’m talking about the added stress that comes from putting more load on your muscles and joints.

Your support system comes from your glutes, abdominal wall, and lats. When these muscle groups fire together it forms a super-stiff foundation to support whatever lift you’re pulling. That’s why Dr. Stuart McGill calls the synchronous firing of the glutes, abdominal wall, and lats, “super stiffness.” When these muscles fire together, the nervous system will release more neural input to all your muscles. This is why boosting your squat will also enhance your bench press.

Putting your body in super stiffness mode is simple. You only need two exercises to do it. Start with two sets of three reps for the Romanian deadlift. Be sure to lock out your hips and squeeze the glutes as hard as possible at the top of each rep. Then, do two sets of three reps for the ab wheel-rollout exercise. These two exercises should not waste you of any energy so there’s no need to go for a max lift, especially with the Romanian deadlift. The goal is to simply add tension and neural input to the right muscles in order to strengthen your foundation before training.

To ramp up your nervous system, do this before your strength workout:

Romanian Deadlift
Sets: 2
Reps: 3
Load: moderately heavy (a weight you could normally lift 7 or 8 times)

Ab wheel-rollout
Sets: 2
Reps: 3
Load: body weight

3. Harness the Power of a SMH
At this point your neurotransmitters are pouring out, and your foundation is strong and solid. The nervous system is approaching its apex of neural output. Now you just need one more boost to release that proverbial parking brake.

The most effective technique I’ve ever used to instantly boost strength is the supramaximal hold (SMH). It’s a key component of my Total Strength Program program in Muscle Revolution and it’s also used in the advanced strength phases of Huge in a Hurry.

Put simply, you’ll hold a weight near lockout that’s more than you could ever lift through a full range of motion. This tricks your nervous system into releasing more neural drive to your muscles. In essence, your brain thinks you’re really going to try and lift that monstrous load so it releases the brake on your muscles. There are many mechanisms at work – some that are still ambiguous – when you hold a supramaximal load, but one of the most well-documented is postactivation potentiation. Research by Baudry and Duchateau have demonstrated the power of it.

The SMH serves as a conditioning contraction – a primer for your muscles, in other words. For all you science buffs, postactivation potentiation increases the number of cross bridges that attach by increasing the sensitivity of contractile proteins to ionized calcium.(1) This allows the muscles to produce more force. However, the effect only lasts for about a minute, so you’ve got to get straight to your work set after the SMH is finished.

The SMH works awesome, but it’s pretty taxing to your system so you must limit the amount of times you do it. It’s best to use the SMH for exercises that give you the most bang for your buck. It’s perfect for squats, deadlifts, and presses. Curls and kickbacks, not so much.

An excellent workout to reap the benefits of the SMH is the deadlift and seated shoulder press. For each lift you’ll hold 120% of your one repetition maximum near lockout for 6-8 seconds. It’s important to use the power rack with pins set just below lockout for both exercises. Within 30 seconds of finishing the hold you’ll crank out as many full range of motion reps as you can with approximately 85% of your one repetition maximum (this number doesn’t have to be exact, just a ballpark estimate).

1A Deadlift SMH
Load: 120% of full range of motion maximum
Duration of hold: 6-8 seconds
Rest 30 seconds
1B Deadlift (full range of motion)
Load: ~85% of 1RM
Reps: as many as possible
Rest 120 seconds and repeat 1A and 1B pairing three more times

2A Seated Shoulder Press SMH
Load: 120% of full range of motion maximum
Duration of hold: 6-8 seconds
Rest 30 seconds
2B Seated Shoulder Press (full range of motion)
Load: ~85% of 1RM
Reps: as many as possible
Rest 120 seconds and repeat 2A and 2B pairing three more times

This workout looks deceptively simple, but it’ll take a lot out of you. However, it’ll add strength and muscle fast. Feel free to add a few less demanding exercises at the end. Do this workout twice per week (Monday and Friday). On Wednesday, use more traditional strength building methods such as 5 sets of 5 reps, without the SMH.

You’ll benefit by using steps #1 and #2 before all your workouts. Step #3, the SMH, should be reserved for the times when your nutrition and recovery is really dialed in. However, keep the SMH in your arsenal to boost big lifts while your nervous system learns that you’re ready for more strength and muscle.

1. Baudry and Duchateau. J Appl Physiol. 102: 1394-1401, 2007.

Stay focused,

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10 thoughts on “3 Ways to Immediately Boost Your Strength

  1. I just did front squats today. After a 1rm, I dropped some weight off the bar and got 5 reps with a weight I should gave gotten 3 with. Now , I know why it went so well. Thanks again Chad!

    CW: Yep, the SMH works awesome.

  2. Hi chad,
    Although I can’t comment on the science bit I can back up the other bit. I work in a job that sometimes I have to use all the strength i have to get myself and others out of danger and yes what you said us true it’s like I have an extra set of muscles! Although what you didn’t say is that afterwards I feel completely wrecked and my body aches all over.
    Nice one chad.
    Kind regards matt.

  3. I’ll try this next time at the gym. On the SMH for the deadlift, at what point of the lift would I do the SMH?

    CW: Assuming I understand your question, you should hold the supramaximal load at lockout to reap the benefits of the SMH.

  4. In the original release of this article on T-Nation in May ’09, for step 1 you recommended Spike, Power Drive or Alpha GPC, with the added suggestion to try Alpha GPC first. In this installment of the article you recommend coffee or Spike, but no longer recommend Power Drive or Alpha GPC. Do you no longer think these other two are effective or as effective or is there some other reason you omitted them?

    I work out mornings and sometimes could use an added motivator. I don’ drink caffeine b/c it affects my sleep and I find it elevates my resting heart rate (and doing full body circuits per Huge in a Hurry I need my heart rate to recover quickly). I’ve contemplated trying one of these per the original article, but ‘neurotransmitter’ makes me a bit nervous; as in will you no longer be able to feel ‘joy’ if you take this akin to a heroin addict…


    CW: Those other supplements are good, I wasn’t omitting them for any other reason than the fact that most people don’t want a bunch of supplement recommendations. Try any of them and see which one works best. Coffee, as mentioned, doesn’t work for me but it has plenty of research to back up its effectiveness (plus it’s cheap and convenient – assuming you don’t buy Starbucks).
    Trust me: enhancing your neurotransmitters is a good thing. It won’t take any joy out of your life (it’ll probably add to it). People like dark chocolate because it boosts neurotransmitters. No one fears a loss of joy in their life from eating chocolate.

  5. To do 120% of your maximum deadlift I presume you do a rack pull from a fairly high start, correct? I can’t imagine how you could do a partial off the floor.
    For squats, would you just unrack the bar and stand there for 6-8 seconds?

    On another note, my wife and I just completed the first 3 phases of Body of Fire. It was some of the most challenging training I’ve ever done and I’ve used your routines in Muscle Revolution and Huge in a Hurry. We both know we’ve lost body fat and feel better than ever. I can even see abdominal muscles that now have a bit more definition. After 12 weeks we are thinking about taking a week break before doing the last phase which has a frightening number of squat thrust repetitions without rest. Will coming back after a week make that phase even harder?

    CW: A SMH is held at lockout, or just a few inches short of it. So no, you’re not pulling from the floor – you’re holding the top (strongest) position. For squats, you’ll unrack the weight, squat down just a few inches and hold it there (you could also just hold the lockout position at first and still reap the benefits).
    After 12 weeks of BOF, a week break shouldn’t cause a significant detraining effect.

  6. Hi Chad, what do you think about guarana instead of coffee before training?
    Will SMH work with bench press?

    CW: Spike, as I recommended, has guarana in it. So yes, I think it’s good.
    The SMH works terrific for the bench press.

  7. Excellent as always! I have been having my clients consume coffee or tea before workouts for years (anaerobic and aerobic).; as long as they stay hydrated. The SMH, and similar techniques, have been discussed in works by Pavel, Clarance Bass, etc.. I always have athletes try to bend the bar over their shoulders during the squat to activate their lats. Spot on as always Chad!

  8. Chad,

    Since you work with fighters, I am sure you will agree with this: fear either motivates you or it holds you back (maybe even breaks you).

    My question: Do you use special tricks for motivating fighters in training (weight training sessions) to really pump them up so they are ready to attack the bar with all they got,
    or are those tricks best kept for fight night?


    CW: The good news (for me) is that fighters don’t need to be tricked into believing anything. A pro fighter already realizes what’s on the line. In fact, the best strategy for a fighter to follow before a fight is to stay relatively calm (psychologically speaking) so he doesn’t waste energy being anxious/worried about the fight. Fedor says he plays cards with his friends before a fight to keep his mind at ease. It’s hard to argue with his results.

  9. today i’ve used SMH but i got interesing result: 3 reps of 85%RM for bench press.

    Now i fugured out what the problem is. I misunderstand the main idea of doing reps within 30 seconds of finishing the hold. I waited for 30 seconds and it also took some time to prepair for press. So the real interval was 60 seconds.

    Can it affect the results? Because the workout i decribed was harder than doing 85% RM without SMH.

    What about warmup sets before SMH?

    CW: Put simply, you induced too much fatigue with the SMH. It should be potentiating, not fatiguing. Maybe the load was too heavy, or maybe you held it a little too long. The potentiation effect can vary with each person depending on a myriad of variables. However, keep experimenting with the SMH because once you find the right balance, it works awesome.

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