Whether you enjoy testing your strength on the big three lifts or you just want to lift more weight in general, applying brute force alone isn’t enough and will get you injured eventually. To increase your strength, your training has to cover everything that allows your body to handle heavy loading and recover from it, including technique, programming, and prehab— otherwise, you’ll fail to put up the biggest possible numbers and you could get hurt just trying. Here are three things you need to do to get stronger.
#1 Have A Plan
This means periodization, and while that word is complex, your workout program doesn’t need to be. Getting stronger requires figuring out ways to add increasingly heavier weights to the bar without stressing your system so much that you can’t recover from them.
My favorite way to do this is to set up three-week waves in which you gradually increase the weights you’re using while lowering the reps. For instance, on the bench press, you can work up to a load that allows you five reps. The following week, add 10–20 pounds and get three reps for your main work set. In Week 3, repeat the process but load the bar so heavy you can only manage one clean rep. In the fourth week, you can take a deload or, if you still feel fresh, repeat the cycle again starting back at five reps.
Loading up progressively heavier weights and then backing off stimulates big strength gains while giving your body a chance to become conditioned to moving heavier weight. Maintaining this balance allows you to steadily build your numbers over time and teaches you the discipline of progressing gradually: add too much weight too soon, and your progress will stop dead (or you could get crushed under the bar). This is one of the main programming methods in my Truth About Strength Training book; it’s a system that works indefinitely.
#2 Get A Pump
Most guys tend to notice their pump toward the end of a session after most of the work has been done, and they think it’s just a cool-looking side effect of hitting the iron. But getting one right away—before you start loading up the bar for a heavy lift—can serve as a safety measure.
Before working up on any barbell lift, perform an assistance exercise with either dumbbells, a machine, or your own body weight first. For example, a squat workout can begin with glute-ham raises or leg curls; an overhead press can be preceded by an incline dumbbell bench press. The idea isn’t to pre-exhaust a particular set of muscles but to pump them full of blood, warm the joints, and otherwise prepare your body to lift heavy weights in a way that a conventional warmup can’t do.
Three to four sets of anything in the 8 to 20-rep range works fine for this. Your goal should simply be to get the muscles and joints that are going to be stressed on the main lift in your workout warmed. You’ll be amazed how much better this makes squats and deadlifts feel—you’ll be able to get into the hole more easily and with less or no pain. Likewise, on pressing exercises, your elbows and shoulders will thank you.
More than likely, you won’t find yourself fatigued from this work to the point where your main lift suffers. But if you do, that’s telling you something: you need more work on weak points like the hamstrings and delts before you can expect big gains on barbell lifts.
#3 Do Corrective Exercises
Smart trainers use program exercises, stretches, and activation drills that you can use between sets of a main lift to improve your performance. This is a phenomenal idea and is part of a bigger discussion, which is the importance of mobility and strengthening all the little muscles that your ego wouldn’t otherwise allow you to focus on.
Getting a big bench press requires plenty of practice bench pressing. It also demands that you maintain shoulder health by performing an even greater amount of pulling exercises that balance out that movement pattern and keep the range of motion in your shoulders normal. Every workout program should contain dozens of reps of rows, face pulls, and band pull aparts.
Moving to the legs, squatting is bound to lead to stronger quads than hamstrings, so plenty of glute-ham raises, RDL’s, and other posterior chain work should be included.
And this is only to even out the imbalances training can cause in the body—factor in the upper back and hip tightness that occurs from sitting in front of computers and you really need to get serious about corrective exercise.
What many people don’t realize is that prehab exercises not only ward off injuries but they allow you to perform your big lifts more proficiently and with better technique, and that means being able to move up to heavier loads sooner. Think about it: if your upper back is strong and dense from doing band pull aparts, you’ll be more stable during the bench press, as the lift requires the upper back to serve as a shelf. If your hamstrings and adductors are flexible, you’ll be able to sink down deeper on squats, activating more muscle mass.
The bottom line is that training only the muscles, or performing only the exercises, you wish to see the best results in leads to imbalances that hold back your gains and causes injuries that prevent you from doing the training necessary to get stronger. When you work to keep the body balanced, you set the conditions for safer, stronger training.
Sean Hyson is the Training Director for Men’s Fitness and Muscle&Fitness magazines, and the author of the ebook The Truth About Strength Training. For more tips on strength, as well as a 12-week workout and diet program, pick up The Truth About Strength Training, HERE.