Add Strength to Your Program

blog franco deadlift Most of us want to get bigger and stronger at the same time. But most guys or gals that follow a bodybuilding-style program aren’t building much strength.

So today I’m going to outline a workout you can put in your current bodybuilding program that will fill in the much-needed gaps.

That’s important because if you increase your full-body strength you’ll be able to lift heavier loads in your bodybuilding workouts. This, in turn, will make it easier to build muscle in your other workouts.

Maximal Strength

There are many types of strength, so when I talk about strength-training I always make it clear to my audience what type of strength I’m talking about. In most cases, I’m referring to maximal strength: your ability to lift the heaviest load possible for 1-3 reps.

The master of maximal strength, Pavel Tsatsouline, and I have had many discussions on the best way to build it. Russian weightlifters – known as Olympic lifters to us in the states – spend most of their training cycle in the 80-85% of one-rep max (1RM) training zone. That fact will be surprising to many since it’s typically best to train with heavier loads than 85% of 1RM if you’re far from your maximal strength potential.

For example, if you can’t deadlift twice your body weight without lifting gear you’re pretty far from what your body is capable of pulling. In other words, I would define a guy that can do a raw, double-body weight deadlift with an unmixed grip as a solid, intermediate lifter. For him, training in the Russian’s 80-85% of 1RM zone might be sufficient.

But I doubt it.

Why? Because those Russian weightlifters train with a very high frequency (they typically bench press six times per week – yikes)! Furthermore, lifting is their job. Indeed, they’ve spent decades building up to that training frequency, their nutrition and recovery modalities are spot on, and they have little else to worry about.

Most of us don’t have the time and energy to do what the Russian weightlifters do. Therefore, the other option that’s been battle-tested for eons is to cycle loads that around 90% of 1RM into your program.

The following protocol is for people that have been primarily training with sub maximal loads (85% of 1RM or less) and want to quickly boost their maximal strength while still maintaining their current training program.

How to Make it Work: do the following the workout one day per week in place of one of your bodybuilding-style workouts.

Duration: 12 weeks (you can go longer if you feel the need).

Workout Circuit: I favor full-body circuits for maximal strength training because they allow for more rest before repeating an exercise while still staying efficient with your time. There’s no need to sit around for 3-5 minutes between sets when you could be working another body part.

Here’s the structure of the workout you’ll do once per week (remove one full-body bodybuilding workout from your current program):

1A Upper body pull
Rest 1 minute
1B Upper body push
Rest 1 minute
1C Stir the pot for 6 alternating reps, or Swiss ball side plank for 20 seconds each side
Rest 30 seconds
1D Deadlift, squat or lunge variation
Rest 90 seconds, repeat 1A-1D for 3 rounds

Workout Explanation: there are hundreds of different exercises you can use to fill in the above circuit, and that’s a good thing because you must manage fatigue. Lifting 90% of 1RM for the same exercise – even if it’s only once per week – can beat you up pretty fast.

Therefore, every two weeks choose a new exercise for each category. For example, weeks 1-2 you might do a one-arm dumbbell row for your upper body pull; then weeks 3-4 you’ll do a pull-up. Or you might use the Romanian deadlift for your “lower” body exercise during weeks 1-2 and then switch to a reverse lunge for weeks 3-4. You get the idea.

Training Parameters: each workout will start the same way. First, you’ll go through the entire circuit 2-3 times with loads that rate as 5-6 on a scale of 1-10. This will turn on your nervous system and prepare your joints. Then you’ll perform three rounds (work sets) of either 3, 2 or 1 reps per set, based on the week, with the heaviest loads you can manage that day.

Don’t worry about getting the loads perfect for the work sets. It’ll probably take you one round of the work set after the warm-up sets to get a feel for your strength that day. Try to ramp up your training loads for the two rounds that follow.

Here are the set/rep guidelines for the 12-week phase:

Weeks 1-2: 3 sets of 3 reps (except side plank if you use it)
Weeks 3-4: 3 sets of 2 reps
Weeks 5-6: 3 sets of 1 rep
Weeks 7-8: 3 sets of 3 reps
Weeks 9-10: 3 sets of 2 reps
Weeks 11-12: 3 sets of 1 rep

Again, you’ll do this workout once per week in addition to your other sub maximal training workouts. The point is to develop full-body strength while still keeping your current bodybuilding-style program in place.

How to Boost Your Squat, Deadlift or Lunge

You’ll notice in the circuit listed earlier that before you do any squat, deadlift or lunge variation you’ll always do the stir the pot or side plank with a leg lift exercise. The reason is because those are two of the best core exercises to increase spinal stability: an important element for boosting your full-body strength while protecting your spine.

The following video shows the stir the pot exercise. You’ll do 6 slow reps, alternating the direction with each rep, making the biggest circles possible:

This video shows the Swiss Ball side plank. The instability from the ball makes this exercise more challenging and effective:

Now you have a simple way to add strength to any bodybuilding program!

And if you’re not building muscle as fast as you’d like, check out my latest muscle-building system HFT2 by clicking on the banner below:

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Bret Contreras Talks Strength

I recently caught up with the master of glute training, Bret Contreras (aka The Glute Guy). Check out his insights below. – CW

Chad Waterbury: Bret, thanks for stopping by to talk shop. It’s your first time here.

Bret Contreras: Yes it is, Chad, thanks for this interview. I really appreciate it!

CW: First off, congrats on achieving a 601-pound deadlift. That’s a strong pull. What is that, about 2.5 times your body weight?

BC: Yes, I weighed 236 when I made that pull. I’m the strongest and most muscular I’ve ever been.

bret c DL

CW: I know a 601 pull was a new PR for you. What do you feel finally helped you achieve that feat?

BC: There are several factors that I feel helped, but the most important is taking advantage of submaximal training.

One day, it dawned on me that there were plenty of lifters far stronger than I am who were lifting much lighter relative loads than I typically used. If there are world-renowned powerlifters sticking to 60-80% of 1RM for 1-5 reps, then who am I to think I always need to max out or push every set to failure.

I started performing what I call super-strict reps, pause reps, and explosive reps, all done with 60-80% of 1RM for 1-5 reps. These methods are much easier on the CNS than a maximal single or a set taken to momentary muscular failure, and it grooves technique and adds more frequency/volume without compromising recovery.

When combined in tandem with maximal training, the submaximal methods provide a one-two punch that really enhances strength development. Imagine that: you get more from doing less. If only I understood this in my twenties.

CW: Yep, we all learn that lesson the hard way! I used to go for a new PR in every workout, but that’s a road that quickly leads to burnout. What are the other key elements you learned?

BC: I left no stone unturned in my quest for greater strength. What muscles do the most work in a deadlift? Hams? Check. Glutes? Check. Erectors? Check. Quads? Check. Grip? Check. Abs? Check. You get my point.

For the first time in 10 years, I started hammering front squats. I fell in love with block pulls. I was a hip thrusting machine. I did heavy back extensions. I was setting squat and deadlift PRs every other week in various rep ranges. It seemed that every lower body lift I did transferred to every other lower body lift. I noticed that if my front squat and hip thrust went up, my squat went up. If my squat went up, my deadlift went up. If my deadlift went up, my back extension went up. I gained steady strength for weeks on end, culminating with a big PR on the day of the meet.

CW: That is an important lesson. Building strength with key exercises will carryover to your other lifts. I know these factors led to the creation of your new 2 x 4 strength and muscle-building system. 

BC: Yes, it did. However, the system kept getting more effective over time. Initially, I felt the early version of 2 x 4 was just too demanding. The people who initially piloted the program were beat down and complaining.

So I made changes and I kept tinkering with the system based on feedback from all the lifters implementing the system. We’d have weekly meetings to discuss the system – what was perfect, what needed improvement, etc. The end result is a field-tested system that went through a long, arduous process before it was ever presented to the public.

CW: I know that’s true because we were talking about the ways you were tweaking this system with lifters many months ago. Tell us what kind of results those other lifters achieved in your new system.

BC: Chad, every lifter who completed 2 x 4 saw huge improvements in strength and physique gains. My female client Sammie finally pulled a 315 lb deadlift weighing 125 pounds. My buddy Rob boosted his raw squat and deadlift to 475 lbs and 585 lbs. And Andrew, his strength went through the roof. His deadlift increased 110 lbs!

It’s important to note that I didn’t take on beginners – each of these lifters had many years of lifting experience. Andrew and Rob have competed in powerlifting competitions. They don’t have as much room to gain, but their strength still skyrocketed. Below is a chart summarizing the strength gains.

2x4 strength gains

CW: The true measure of any system is how quickly it can develop strength with lifters that are already very strong. 2 x 4 definitely achieves that feat and you’ve earned testimonials for world-record powerlifters. What body composition changes did these lifters experience?

BC: They all made outstanding progress. Each of these lifters’ physiques was at its all-time best after completing 2 x 4. There’s a huge correlation between muscle mass and strength. And the stronger you are at a given bodyweight, the leaner you’re going to be as well, so it makes sense to prioritize strength development during a couple of training cycles per year.

CW: You’re one of the hardest-working guys I know – constantly researching, experimenting, and blogging. You put a ton of work into the bonuses for 2 x 4, namely the section on biomechanics. Why should people care about biomechanics?

BC: Knowledge is power. It wasn’t until I understood biomechanics that I could truly take my training by the reigns and start steering my programming toward success. If you understand how anatomy affects strength on the different lifts, and why form tends to break down in predictable patterns, then you can be proactive in your training and shore up weak links, which makes your training more efficient. Biomechanics is critical when it comes to building strength.

CW: It absolutely is, Bret. Thanks for the interview!

BC: It was my pleasure, Chad.

I give Bret Contreras’ new system, 2 x 4, my highest endorsement. It’s a terrific resource for anyone interested in building strength and muscle. Best of all, you can get 2 x 4 for an introductory sale price today. Just click here to find out more.

2x4 banner

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Climb Your Way to New Muscle

rope climb l If I had to choose one upper body exercise for the rest of my training days it would definitely be the rope climb. Of course, we don’t live in a world where we’re relegated to only one exercise, but if I had to choose one that would be it. No other upper body exercise works as many muscles as intensely, from your abs to your forearms, and everything in between. However, the rope climb is an advanced exercise that might not be appropriate for many of you, at this point.

The people who run into a problem with the rope climb, whether it’s pain in the shoulder, elbow or anywhere else are usually not ready for such a challenging move. No matter how great the rope is, you must pass through the ranks before adding it into your program. Continue reading

How to Customize Your Training

When you train to get bigger, stronger, faster or leaner, your program must fit your body type. The program must address your specific weaknesses. Those weaknesses could be from a lack of strength, muscle or mobility. Indeed, a training program is only as good as its ability to cater to your physical structure, available equipment, and goals.

When it comes to finding and fixing weaknesses, Eric Cressey is one of my top resources. What’s unique about Cressey is his ability to create and implement assessment techniques that help you determine exactly how your program should be structured.

blog eric cressey

I recently chatted with Eric Cressey about his approach to training, and how it’s evolved over the years. Check it out below.

CW: Eric, you and I have been in this industry for well over a decade. We’ve both seen a lot of dysfunctions and imbalances whether we’re talking about a person’s physical structure or his exercise programming. With your experience, what would you say is a big mistake people make in pursuit of more muscle, strength and athleticism?

Eric Cressey: I think a lot of people head down a bad path early in their training career because they lay fitness on type of dysfunction. In other words, they build a lot of strength through poor movement patterns. The longer people train in those terrible postures and incorrect patterns, the more ingrained they become.

CW: I want to first make the connection between posture and performance. Posture goes beyond standing up straight. The position your ribcage and pelvis are in during training can make a huge difference in terms of how much muscle and strength you gain. It also determines how well you move.

Let’s talk about posture. You’ve come up with a simple, self-assessment technique to help people determine which type of posture they have. 

EC: Most people have a normal, subtle anterior pelvic tilt. For men it’s 3-5 degrees, and in women it’s 5-7 degrees. Problems typically occur when they deviate beyond those ranges, whether that means a more extreme anterior tilt, or for others, they could have a posterior pelvic tilt where the low back arch flattens and the hips tuck under.

The majority of people will have an anterior pelvic tilt that causes as an extension posture. However, a cyclist or people who spend a lot of time hunched over at their desk can develop a posterior pelvic tilt that causes a flexed, hunched over posture.

It’s important for people to identify what type of posture they have because it helps determine which exercises they should emphasize or avoid.

blog pelvic tilt

CW: So the first step for determining how a person should train is based on their posture? 

EC: Yes, they could have a flexion, extension, or neutral posture. From there, the exercises I have them perform will help correct poor posture, assuming they have it. This is easy to identify with the self-assessment video I created.

CW: With that evaluation out of the way, what’s the next programming factor you address?

EC: Next up is their frequency of training. Within my program you have options for anywhere for 2-4 times per week for strength training based on a person’s recovery capacity and available time. If you’re a marathon runner who runs five days per week it’s probably not ideal to strength train four days per week. In that case, twice per week might be best. Or a younger, fit guy might choose to train four times per week to quickly gain strength and muscle.

CW: And the third factor for determining how a person should train is based on their goals. A young guy who’s training for maximal strength shouldn’t train the same as an older person who seeks fat loss, right?

EC: Correct. My programming allows people to choose between four different goals. They can choose whether they want to emphasize athletic performance, fat loss, maximal strength or maybe they have no specific goal at all and they just want to get in the best shape of their life. I even modify the training parameters for people over 40.

CW: Flexibility work is often where people miss the boat, and I don’t blame them. Between the contradictions regarding how and when a person should stretch, it can become very confusing. I appreciated your video segment where you help people identify if they have joint laxity. 

EC: Not everyone needs static stretching. That’s why I help people determine if they should supplement their training with stretches. Some guys are naturally flexible. For them, foam rolling and a dynamic warm-up will be enough to meet their mobility needs. Other people will benefit from static stretches and my system shows them which ones they’ll need.

CW: Ok, let’s recap. So if a person is trying to figure out exactly how he or she should train to meet their goals, they follow your four-part assessment that addresses posture, training frequency, goals, and joint laxity. I think that covers the gamut.

EC: Exactly.

CW: I frequently check your blog and I’m really impressed by your relentless pursuit for creating top-notch instructional videos. I don’t know where you find the time to shoot all those videos!

EC: Ha! I drink a lot of coffee. All kidding aside, my new training system, The High Performance Handbook, has over 200 exercise videos. Each video has 30-120 seconds worth of verbal cues so people will learn exactly what to do, and why.

CW: Thanks for your time, Eric, it’s always great to talk shop with you. 

EC: You bet!

Eric Cressey’s new training and nutrition system is one of the best I’ve seen. He put a prodigious amount of work into creating a system that caters to your unique structure and function in order to catapult your muscle, strength and athleticism.

I give The High Performance Handbook my highest rating. I can’t think of a better investment into your training future. The entire training and nutrition system is on sale until Friday. You can check out more information at this link.

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A Uniquely Effective Core Exercise

blog DNS sprinterWhen it comes to building performance, whether it’s more speed or more muscle you’re after, it’s imperative to develop high levels of stability strength first. The path to high-powered performance is paved through full body stability strength.

The Dynamic Neuromuscular Stabilization (DNS) techniques out of Prague understand and emphasize that fact. The moves and positions they teach respect the complex integration between your nervous system, muscles, and physical structure.

Let’s take a standing one-arm dumbbell row as an example. Your right hand is holding the dumbbell and your left leg is forward. As you row the dumbbell with your right, the left leg and hip work to stabilize the movement. This stabilization requires a transfer of force through your core between the left hip and right shoulder.

The contralateral neuromuscular control between your shoulder and its opposite hip is essential for power and performance, whether you’re throwing a hard punch or sprinting at top speed.

Many traditional abdominal exercises don’t enhance this complex neuromuscular activation and control. That’s why so many experts don’t consider a typical floor crunch to be functional enough to carryover to sports performance, no matter if you’re a weightlifter or a MMA athlete.

I recently learned a terrific DNS-based core exercise that develops stability strength between the shoulder and contralateral hip. Your left shoulder is designed to function effectively with the left hip so the following exercise is ideal for anyone who wants to develop his/her midsection. I call it a “contralateral core lift” since DNS doesn’t typically name their exercises.

This core exercise is more challenging than it looks, so it probably isn’t ideal for people with low levels of strength. But if you’re looking for a new way to build athleticism through high-performance core training, give the exercise below a shot.

Here are my recommended training parameters for the exercise.

Contralateral Core Lift
Frequency: 3-4 times per week
Sets: 3-4
Duration: start with a 5-second hold and work up to 20 seconds.
When to perform: I prefer to do this exercise at the beginning of your workouts because it’s challenging and requires high levels of strength. Furthermore, the enhanced contralateral stability strength you’ll achieve from this exercise at the beginning of your workouts will boost your performance in all the lifts that follow.

Stay Focused,


Is Faster Always Better?

nsca cw speaking Last month I gave a presentation in Las Vegas for the National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA). My topic focused on ways to increase motor unit recruitment.

It’s a subject I’ve written extensively about over the years, and in those articles and books I’ve placed a large emphasis on increasing acceleration during the concentric (muscle shortening) phase to enhance the number of motor units you recruit.

However, there’s much more to motor unit recruitment than just lifting faster. I’ll use the Turkish Get-up (TGU) as an example – an exercise that beautifully challenges full-body strength.

Assuming you’ve tried the TGU, you know it’s difficult to perform explosively. Indeed, to maintain perfect form you need to move with a slow, deliberate pace and concentrate on joint stability as you transition between each phase of the movement. This is especially true as you work to, and beyond, a 32 kilogram kettlebell.

Could you increase motor unit recruitment if you tried to perform the TGU more explosively? Possibly, but it’s not worth the effort. Certain strength exercises that require full-body strength in complex movement patterns are better performed slowly, even if you could move faster. Pavel refers to the TGU as the ultimate slow grind strength exercise. I completely agree, and that’s why it’s part of all my athletes training programs.

Now, you might not consider a TGU to be a massive muscle builder. But a heavy deadlift certainly is, and it’s a perfect example of a slow grind move that quickly builds plenty of muscle.

And sometimes, no movement at all is best for building muscle. I’m referring here to isometric holds. It’s clear that gymnasts who perform the rings event have incredible upper body muscle development – better than any other natural athlete on earth, if you ask me. Yet, they virtually never move explosively. In fact, a rings routine consists of isometric holds paired with slow, deliberate transition moves in between.

I’ve spent a considerable amount of time hanging from rings over the last few years. So I can state with utmost certainty that it takes more muscle and strength to perform a perfect muscle-up slowly. An explosive muscle-up relies heavily on momentum. As momentum goes up, muscle tension and motor unit recruitment go down.

Now, if we take momentum out of the equation and focus on traditional strength exercises with free weights and cables, it’s usually better to perform the concentric phase as explosively as possible. This philosophy forms the foundation of the programs in my book, Huge in a Hurry.

However, as you incorporate less traditional moves into your programs – exercises such as the TGU with a kettlebell or an iron cross hold on the rings – it’s important to understand that faster isn’t always better. In those cases, developing the highest levels of muscle tension possible is the goal. And that usually requires you to slow your pace.

So for complete muscle and strength development in athletes, I incorporate three categories of movements into their programs: explosive, slow grind, and high-tension isometrics. Here are a few of my favorite examples from each category:

Explosive: kettlebell swing, one-arm row, push press, and hang power snatch.

Slow grind: TGU, heavy deadlift, Nordic hamstring, and one-arm push-up.

High-tension isometrics: iron cross, maltese, handstand from rings, and one-arm hang from a pull-up bar or rings.

Stay Focused,