5 Musts to Build Unreal Strength
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Over the years, I’ve spent plenty of time lifting to get bigger, but I’ve also spent years focusing on lifting max weights on the platform. And sure, the two goals can help feed into one another in some ways. But in other ways, they definitely don’t. That means that if you’re trying to live the “bigger and stronger, all the time” fantasy, you might be cutting yourself short on both goals.
When you’re trying to get past a plateau and continue the ascension of muscle growth, you must disrupt homeostasis as severely as possible, then allow the remodeling of muscle tissue to happen through proper rest and nutrition. That’s muscle-growth 101 in a nutshell.
But strength-building 101 looks different. Maximal low-rep strength is largely neural, meaning it happens in the nervous system—the wiring of your body, not the tissue. And once I became really focused on powerlifting-style max strength, I quickly found that some of the principles I had used to maximize muscular development worked dead against me—like training to failure most of the time.
In order to get maximally strong, I had to unlearn some of the things I had come to know about training. Here are the five foundational laws of strength that took their place:
Law 1: Specificity First
When you’re training for maximal strength, you need to decide what lifts you want to get really strong at and narrow your priorities down to just those things. No one cares what you can incline press or do lat pull-downs with on the platform. Those lifts now only matter inasmuch as they make you stronger at your priority lifts. That’s what everything is about.
Maximize the minimal and strip away the unnecessary. There’s your strength mantra.
It comes down to what’s known as the S.A.I.D. principle: specific adaption to imposed demands. This principle states that if you want to get good at something, you can’t avoid doing that very thing. If you’re trying to build your big three, that means doing lots of squats, benching, and deadlifting, and/or variations of those lifts.
The neural part of strength training means that over time, as a movement is practiced more and more, the nervous system learns it better, and then reduces the number of motor units needed to fire in order to lift a particular load. This leaves more motor units available for greater loading.
Eventually, my workouts consisted pretty much of squats, deadlifts, and benching, along with some variations of those lifts. Seriously.
I did have an extra day of training where I would cover the bases with movements like pull-downs, chin-ups, rows, and such. But if I was feeling run down or simply didn’t want to train on that day, I’d skip it. And my progress never suffered from doing so.
That meant there were plenty of weeks where I only trained twice a week, and sometimes alternated squatting and pulling each week. And I got stronger.
You can see what this approach looks like in my article “Get Crazy Strong Squatting and Pulling Every Other Week.“
Law 2: Speed is King
There’s no feeling quite like being at the bottom of a lift trying to move an absolutely immense weight. The faster you can accelerate out of the bottom of a movement, the easier it’s going to be to complete the rest of the lift.
A big component of getting strong in barbell lifts is training your body to exert maximal force into the bar on the concentric (lifting) half of the lift, activating and relying on high-threshold motor units. When you get into maximal loads, this happens automatically. Which means if you want to get strong, just train with maximal loading and you’re good to go, right? No, not really.
If you’re constantly training with maximal loads, then your systemic recovery is going to take a kick in the shins and your training will eventually take a nosedive. On top of that, your joints are going to take a beating, and when you’re nursing overuse injuries or acute pain, your nervous system will downregulate your ability to produce force.
What’s the other option? Sub-maximal loading, performed with maximal acceleration. This is the best way to approach your strength-building cycles without tanking your recovery. This type of training offers up at least four advantages over maximal-intensity loading:
- It allows you to train with an appropriate amount of volume to practice the lifts and increase that nervous system knowledge of them.
- It teaches you to explode against the resistance, which will carry over into the heavier loads.
- Speed in combination with appropriate sub-maximal loading will activate maximum motor units just as effectively as max-effort lifting.
- It trains you to lift past sticking points in the movement.
In regard to point 4, when a lifter misses a lift at a certain point, one of the things they may try is to do some partial movements in order to get past that sticking point. But the issue with this approach is that the sticking point often isn’t the problem.
If you can’t generate enough power in the area preceding the sticking point, then the sticking point exists. If you can generate enough power (speed) prior to the sticking point, the sticking point goes away.
This is why compensatory acceleration training—i.e., lifting light weights as explosively as possible—is often a lifters best friend. This usually means something in the range of 60-80 percent of a one-rep max done for multiple sets of 3-5 reps.
Law 3: Train Just Heavy Enough
If you ask a relative noob how to go about training for maximal strength, they will likely say “lift really heavy for low reps.”
They aren’t entirely wrong. Through studies we’ve seen that higher loading does usually offer up greater response in terms of strength development. Anecdotally, I can tell you that you’d better be used to loading a heavy bar on your back come competition time. Your body needs to know what “heavy” feels like in order for you to maximize the motor unit output to move “heavier” and “heaviest.” And your mind needs to know it, too.
But here’s the rub: Training in those near maximal loading zones, like 90-100 percent of 1RM, should be done for very limited periods at a time. Lifting in the highest of the intensity ranges is incredibly taxing at the systemic level, and you can only take so much of it.
This is why, if you study great coaches, you’ll find them building training cycles primarily within the 60-80 percent range. They aren’t out loading the bar maximally each week. And when they do, it’s for very short periods at a time.
Once you get closer to a competition or want to “test” for the next training cycle, it’s time to systematically ramp up the loading. If the lifter is competing, the goal is to overreach and then deload in order to allow for super-compensation to manifest. This is known as “peaking.”
If you’re testing for the next training cycle, then it doesn’t need to be a true max test. I’m dead serious, PR hunters. Most of the time, the lifter can use a specific loading for a set number of repetitions—say, 2-3—and, depending on the lifting speed, use it as a fairly accurate way to determine how to set up the next training cycle in terms of loading.
One of the most common methods is to test with a triple at 90 percent. If it moves relatively fast, then the lifter can be fairly confident that their 100 percent goal would be doable.
The patient lifter who sees the big picture has no problem spending months at a time within these loading ranges, using that time to focus on technique improvement and bar speed. Both of these things will have plenty of direct carryover into a training phase that calls for higher intensities.
Law 4: Program with Your Average, Not Your All-Time Best
During an interview I once said, “If you go into the gym and you’re having an awesome day, an unusually awesome day, and you squat an all-time best of 650, it doesn’t make you a 650 squatter.”
The conversation was about how to effectively program your intensities during your training cycles, and that if you want to program in a way that is result producing, then you don’t take your all-time best lifts to base those training cycles around.
You don’t take that 650 and base your programming around it because you’re not capable of squatting 650 all the time. Thus, in your programming, you’re “not a 650 squatter.”
Here’s what that means in action: The guy who faceplanted by week three or four of his training plan was guilty of programming with his ego—and his PRs. That throbbing IT band and achy hip is your body telling you what an idiot you are for believing you’re really a 650 squatter.
This was a huge lesson for me to learn in terms of result-producing training cycles. And once I learned it, I was able to put together one productive training cycle after another. I stopped programming based on what I wanted to hit, or could hit on my best day, and starting programming based around what I was capable of 90 percent of the time.
I call it your everyday max, or EDM. I also like the term “effective programming max.”
It’s a weight you can hit on your off days. The days where everything feels wonky and off. The days where you feel like you might be getting sick, or are sick. The days where you feel run down and are contemplating a deload.
When Mr. All-Time Best 650 thinks about it this way, he may come to the conclusion that his EDM is something to the tune of around 585.
Now when he plots out his squat cycle, he does so based around a weight his body is capable of more days than not. He proceeds to crush most of his sets over the course of the training cycle and build confidence each and every week. The effective loading allowed him to fine tune his technique as the squat cycle progressed. By the time he got to the end of it, he was dialed in to his most efficient squatting pattern and wasn’t beat to shit. That sounds like smart training.
Law 5: Be Patient
The ideological difference in the 650 and 585 programming is patience. The 650 lifter doesn’t have any. He (and she, but let’s be straight: men are more often guilty of letting their ego drive) wants his bests “all the time.” He’s usually the same guy maxing out on bench press every single Monday in the gym.
The 585 lifter, on the other hand, is patient. They know that reaching their goals doesn’t happen in a single training cycle, it happens over countless training cycles that are well thought out. And because they’re well thought out, they’re feasible and able to be executed start to finish, over and over.
What drives impatience? More times than not, coveting. You see what someone else has, or can do, and you desire that. This gives you less joy about who you are and what you’re capable of. Not the recipe for success.
One of my biggest regrets about the years I spent chasing plates on the bar was that I lost the joy of training due to constant comparison. And no matter what I accomplished, I only felt good for about 27 seconds before I reminded myself that I wasn’t shit, that there was someone else out there warming up with my newfound PR.
If lifting is going to be something you intend to do until you’re six feet under, and you’re not enjoying your training, then ask yourself frankly why that is. If it’s because you constantly feel inferior and are comparing yourself to someone else, then you need to find a way to let that bullshit go.
Crank hard in the gym, but crank intelligently. And crank with joy, appreciation, and patience.
Buckle Down for the Long Term
If you’ve plateaued in your strength training, then it’s probable that you’ve broken at least a few of these rules—most likely by constantly going heavy all the time and not narrowing down your training to be specific enough for what you’re trying to get good at.
Instead of continuing to do what isn’t working, pull back the loading, train with an emphasis on speed, and focus on the few things that you’re wanting to get good at. From there, put together multiple training cycles and be patient enough to allow the strength adaptions occur.
Rome wasn’t built in a day. And neither is maximal strength. So be patient and train hard, but train smart.
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