The term “strength training” has gotten watered-down over the years. It’s not surprising, really, since fitness is more popular than ever. That means there are loads of trainers, coaches, and regular folks posting articles and videos that demonstrate their own version of “strength training.” Yes, lifting soup cans can build strength, but probably not the kind you’re looking for.
There are indeed many different types of strength. Endurance strength, speed strength, isometric strength, just to name a few, and that leads to part of the confusion. But when you think of strength training, you probably first think of the ability to lift a maximal load for just a few reps. That, of course, is what we call “maximal strength training.”
In this post I’ll outline the strategy I’ve found most effective for boosting maximal strength in a compound lift such as a deadlift or squat.
1. Get the Frequency Right: Let’s say you’re trying to boost your max strength for the deadlift. The rule for the deadlift or any other compound exercise that works hundreds of muscle groups at once is that you shouldn’t perform more than two heavy workouts per week for the lift. People sometimes assume that my discussions on high frequency training (HFT), a system where you train a muscle group more than four times per week, can apply to maximal strength training. It can’t, especially when you’re talking about such a demanding exercise as the deadlift or back squat.
Solution: Perform each movement twice per week, evenly spaced (Mon/Thur, Tues/Fri, etc).
2. Get the Volume Right: Of all the maximal strength building parameters I’ve followed over the last 17 years, three sets of three reps with the heaviest load you can handle is tough to beat. Just to be clear, I’m talking about three work sets. It’s always beneficial to warm up with 2-3 sets of 2-3 reps with progressively heavier loads before you start the 3×3 workout. You can perform more warm-up sets, but keep the reps low.
Try to add weight each workout, even if it’s just five pounds and even if it’s just for one set. Small loading additions make a big difference over time.
Solution: You can’t go wrong with 3×3 with the heaviest loads you can handle. Try to add load each workout until you stagnate, then switch exercises.
3. Get the Rest Right: When you’re lifting maximal loads for just a few reps, you need enough recovery to repeat or boost your performance without wasting time in the gym. It’s typical to see 3-5 minute rest periods recommended for maximal strength training. I think this is excessive, especially if you’re just sitting around like old-school powerlifters used to do. (Keep in mind, they weren’t trying to build endurance or get ripped, they just wanted to get super strong.)
I rarely do straight sets, regardless of the goal of the workout. I’ll either alternate between two different exercises (an upper or lower exercise in this case), or I’ll use antagonist pairings for upper body work such as a chest press and row. So do a heavy set of the deadlift or squat, rest one minute, then do an upper body pushing exercise such as a dip, chest press, or shoulder press. Rest another minute and perform your second set of the squat or deadlift. Continue for three rounds.
If you find you can maintain or boost your strength in subsequent sets when you get even more rest, organize your workouts in circuit so you’re doing three or more exercises. This allows you more rest before you repeat an exercise, while still maintaining a productive one-minute rest between exercises. Research shows that sitting around for three minutes (passive rest) isn’t any more beneficial for boosting maximal strength than working other exercises during those three minutes.
Solution: Rest no more than a minute between exercises to keep your workout efficient, but feel free to add more exercises into the circuit if you need more rest before repeating a specific exercise.
4. Get the Exercise Right (but not for long): Let’s say you’re trying to boost your maximal strength for the front squat. You basically have one month before you need to switch the movement with something similar. For example, you could perform a front squat with a narrow stance and a barbell resting across your upper chest (Olympic style) for one month, then widen your stance for the next month, or hold kettlebells against your chest instead of a barbell, or switch to another style of squat altogether. The key point is that the changes don’t have to be major each month. Simply widening or narrowing your stance or changing your hand position (upper body lifts) or switching from a barbell to dumbbells, or vice versa, is enough to keep the nervous system challenged.
Solution: Change some aspect of your movement pattern every month.
5. Get Your Core Right By Making it Tight: Lifting maximal loads requires full body tension. That tension is supported by your core, lats, and glutes. So when these muscles are weak, or when they don’t fire correctly, the nervous system reduces neural output to the working muscles as a protective mechanism. That’s one theory. The other theory is that force is transferred through your core in any free standing lift and when your core can’t develop maximum tension, the transfer of force is diminished. Therefore, you get strength or energy “leaks” as Dr. McGill likes to call it.
Put simply, boosting core activation will increase the load you can lift with any exercise. Start your workout with exercises that challenge core stability.
Solution: Activate your core with exercises such as the ones I covered in my recent T-nation article HERE before you perform a squat, deadlift, or any compound exercise.
Speaking of core training, Dr. Craig Liebenson has taught me more about it in the last year than I’ve learned in the 10 years prior to it. He’s one of the best in the world for developing the core and surrounding muscles. If you’re a trainer, therapist, or just an avid exercise buff I encourage you to study his materials.
Dr. Liebenson’s Functional Performance Training DVD is now available for pre-orders. I can’t recommend the DVD enough. You can check it out by clicking here.
Finally, the Waterbury Challenge ends this Friday, July 1. Here’s what you need to do to qualify for the $500 prize.
1. Post a video of yourself doing 182 reps of the pull-up, push-up, and lunge (182 reps with each leg).
2. Title the video “Waterbury Challenge 2011.”
3. Make a post on the original Waterbury Challenge thread HERE and with the word “Done!”
4. Whoever has the fastest time to completion gets $500 dropped in his/her Paypal account that weekend.
And remember, you have to be on my newsletter list to qualify.
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