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Strength is the true first test of man’s will to overcome. It’s the genesis of lifting and fitness, and dates back a few thousand years, when it was a tremendous asset for survival. Fast-forward to the late 1800s and early 1900s, and feats of strength were the main attraction at any venue. Today, strength testing is still being performed, but has taken a backseat to size-building and shaping the perfect physique. But ask anyone who’s anyone in the sport of bodybuilding, and they’ll tell you they began by lifting heavy, and that before they even considered trying to build their massive physiques, they were in the gym working to build strength.
While volume reigns as the best way to build size, there’s no better way to lay down dense muscle fiber and build a rock-solid base than to train strength. And whether you’re a novice or a longtime veteran of the bodybuilding game, a solid strength cycle is a must every few months, if not even more often. It’s not a stretch to see the reasoning behind a good strength program: Lift more weight and increase your strength, and you inevitably hit more reps at the weight you did before, as it becomes lighter.
I don’t need to explain this scientifcally, since the proof is definitely in the pudding—but I will anyway. Why? Because we need to define some rules as to what strength really is. More importantly, we need to prevent guys from doing 1/8 (or 1/4) reps, and throwing things around, making an ass out of themselves in the gym and occupying space needed by people who really want to see results. I’m tired of watching guys waste time loading up machines to do less than even a partial rep. They make a spectacle of the loading, disappoint on the lift, take 10 minutes between sets, then don’t put their s—t away. Another reason why science is necessary is for those who forgot their legs existed. Let this serve as a reminder not only that friends don’t let friends skip leg day, but also that strength training, by definition, will force other muscles to fire and get big. Take a look at the abs of heavy squatters and deadlifters—trust me, no need for situps when you lift big.
ENTIRE BODY BUILDS STRENGTH
Scientific evidence has shown that even muscles not being trained improve during strength training. To balance big loads you need to activate additional stabilizer muscles and even antagonistic (opposing) muscles. If you’re a competitive bench presser, you already know that your lats, when combined with your pecs, will produce much greater force and drive out of the bottom of the lift. Build a thick back and your pushing strength goes up. Build solid legs, and all your lifts go up. Muscles need to work together to lift the big stuff. If you have ever gotten yourself under some heavy weight, whether it was helping a friend move furniture or in the weight room, you know that a three-rep max or even a one-rep supermax, leaves you breathless for several minutes. It took every ounce of muscle you had to do it while getting plenty of help from stabilizers and assistor muscle groups. We know that because a day or two later you’re wondering why some obscure muscle has severe DOMS (delayed onset muscle soreness) and it’s preventing you from getting comfortable. That’s strength, and that kind of training is what makes muscle fibers activate, fire, and grow big. This is not news though, it’s been more than two decades, long enough that research has proven this fact and confirmed it several times over since.
It stands to reason that if you want to lift big, you need all the help you can get. One of the benefts of big strength is that you’ll recruit additional fibers to join in the parade. Just like a tug-of-war team can overpower its opposition by adding another person to their side, teaching your muscles to join in and fire means that more fibers are being used. This means that two things are happening: One, all of the fibers in your muscle will get activated, and two, if they haven’t been used before, they certainly will now and thus you have a few more fibers to aid in your girth goals down the road. But unlike the rules in tug-of-war where both sides have to be equal, you make the rules for the strength game, so why not overpower your opponent and beat them by increasing your odds of success? One of the tricks we can pull out is that we can alter the stimulus to force more fibers to get involved. We can vary position, technique, set and rep schemes, and exercise selection to excite dormant muscle fibers. With consistent normal training, your body preferentially recruits fibers and becomes almost automatic in which muscle fibers fire and how it does a lift. This, while good for someone like a baseball pitcher who needs to get a ball into a strike zone, doesn’t bode well for those of us who continually try to see our muscles grow doing a hypertrophy- based program week in and week out. But rather than just shock your muscles by attempting to confuse them or continually change your routine, it’s best to get them to up their effort by forcing them to lift big. By doing strength training under a strict regimen, you’ll simply get better overall muscle fiber recruitment and avoid those annoying plateaus that make you wonder why you ever began with weights in the frst place.
Ever had one? A plateau, that is. Well if you’re a FLEX reader and you said no, you’re lying and you can stop reading here, and go back to your perfect world. It’s inevitable. It’s also the downfall of training for regulars of the strength world. Without doubt, continually lifting heavy will cause a plateau. So why would we suggest strength training to bust them? Easy, you’re not doing it now, right? Or you will engage back in a good volume and/ or hypertrophy program soon enough and you’ll plateau at some point down the road. Besides, a single strength workout or two mixed in to your normal routine isn’t enough. Instead, embark on a six-week challenge and reap the benefits of real strength. The truth is that plateauing is not unique to any one kind of training, including the hard-to-understand (pun intended) muscle confusion advocates. The body strives for normalcy and will make even the toughest tasks in the world normal with enough practice. So for those who regularly strength train, you need a different stimulus to break plateaus (save that for another time), but for those who work on their physique, this strength program will get you over the hump in addition to giving you more to work with when you go back to your standard program.
METHOD TO THE MADNESS
Since strength is finite and wanes very quickly, instead of slowly ramping up your strength sets, you need to have a quick warmup and hammer out the big weights early. This ensures that maximal muscle recruitment occurs and that you haven’t fatigued those much-needed muscles before the heavy weight. But before you get to lifting that big set, you need to make sure that you’re properly warmed up. Each day of the program starts with 2–4 warmup sets of the first exercise you’ll do in the program. For example, you’ll do 2–4 warmup lighter-weight bench presses, before going on to your first actual workout set. You’ll then do the prescribed number of bench press sets before moving on to the next exercise (such as incline press). Note though, you don’t need to perform warmups before any other sets that day, just the first.
Next, a unique thing to strength over hypertrophy training is that exercises are targeted by function, not by muscle group. In strength training, there is no chest day, rather it’s bench day. While for many those seem like the same thing, they’re quite different, as follow-up exercises are designed to increase your bench, not necessarily target the pecs. Exercises are chosen based on a particular phase of a single-rep max. So for bench and squat you have: a lowering phase, a brief pause (or at least you should pause briefy to save your sternum and knees from certain doom) component, a drive-out- of-the-bottom big push, and a lockout or finish. For pulls you have: an initial drive phase, a pull-through-the-movement- to-the-end portion, a brief pause, and a controlled lowering phase to finish the rep. After you perform the major exercise you’ll do specifc exercises that work those portions of the lift. It’s like solving an equation. One step at a time, you deconstruct the lift and attack the segments. Strength training uses low reps sets, from three up to a max of six, but anything more, and you’ll start to cross over and your strength gains will be limited. Four sets are the norm, five sets are preferred for the first few exercises of each training day. This six-week program adjusts your reps at the midway mark, dropping them from the standard five down to three. Of course, when you do this, you should up your weight by 10– 15 pounds. Rest periods should be at least three minutes up to 5–6 minutes. Rushing through will limit your gains. That means that these workouts will require a little more time than normal, so plan on it. I constantly get this question: “What should I do if I don’t have enough time?” My answer: Make time! If it’s important enough to you, you’ll find the time. With big strength, you’ll only hit each movement once per week. At first that’ll look like it won’t do the job, but if you lift like it’s the last thing you’ll ever do, you’ll wonder if you should’ve taken up bowling or billiards instead. Oh, and don’t worry, we add an extra day, bringing your total to five days, to nail your arms and shoulders one more time—this time for size and shape. And lastly, each week you should be increasing your weight. Don’t be a wuss—get on it.
I am regularly asked about calculating maxes and using percentages for training. I am not a fan. Sure, you can calculate your max, but working off percentages assumes that you have the right numbers to begin with. What if you have an unusually good day—or worse, a really bad day? Then your initial starting point may be more or less than what you actually need. This will affect your weights on all your exercises and workouts, forcing you to lift heavier than you should or lighter than you want. Instead, you need to pick a weight and go. If you have been doing sets of eight reps, start with 5–10% more weight than you normally lift. If you’ve been doing sets of 10, go 10–15% more and if you’ve been doing sets of 12 or more, start with at least 15% more and possibly as much as 20%. Within a few reps, you’ll know where you stand. If you can easily hit the target number of reps on an exercise, increase on the following set. If you’re struggling on consecutive sets, then lighten the load. It’s that simple. Always hit your target reps and you’ll improve with this program. Your target should produce local failure on the rep before your last one and should have you struggling with a spot to complete that last rep. With a true strength program, your strength will continue to drop as you get deeper in to the workout. Don’t be surprised if you find your last few exercises are using lighter-than-normal weights. For big strength, you go all-in and front-load your training day. This forces all the muscle fibers to give 100% and quickly recruits all your other fibers to help. Strength training is not about gimmicks. It’s about pure desire to push past your body’s natural desire to quit. Rather than trying to determine what you should be lifting, just go out and lift it. Lift what you can, not what you think you should be lifting.
TIPS TO INCREASE YOUR BENCH, SQUAT, AND PULLS
STAY WITH THE LIFT
Despite popular gym belief, bench pressing is not a hamstring exercise. Squats are not like bending over to touch your toes, and pulls are not lower back exercises unless otherwise stated. Keep your head and butt in contact with the bench throughout the exercise. Squat down by driving your hips backward, rather than bending your knees. And use only a slight forward to backward lean while you pull through big back exercises.
Push or pull in a straight line and avoid side-to-side or forward-backward movement. Popular theory suggests to push the bar in an arced movement. Physics says force is greater in a straight line. For maximal force development, try to keep the movement line as straight as possible for all lifts. By adjusting your body around the bar, you gain mechanical advantage.
Use small increments in weight. Don’t go too heavy, too fast.
AVOID SUPPORT DEVICES
Don’t use belts, wraps, and other tools to help you lift. Focus on increasing your strength without help, and you will develop a much stronger base. Unless going for a 1-rep max, train your body to control the load and reap additional benefts of increased core strength.
USE PROPER MECHANICS AND BODY ALIGNMENT
Keep your chest out, head up, and upper torso erect. This helps keep the body in line. Whether standing, sitting, or lying, your body position should always remain tight and straight.
While no doubt, holding your breath stabilizes your core and increases your strength output, blood pressure increases proportionately and lightheadedness ensues. Proper breathing is encouraged.
LOCK YOUR WRISTS AND USE A THUMB-LOCK GRIP
By using a full grip, the bar line of force will transcend directly down your forearm. If your wrists are back, the bar’s line of force is parallel to the muscle force line, creating shear forces that reduce overall pushing and pulling strength. Additionally, as you struggle under the weight (especially in the bench press), not having a firm hold on the bar can be disastrous—so whether barbell or dumbbell, get a grip.
VARY YOUR HAND AND FOOT POSITION
Evidence does support varying grips for increasing and decreasing emphas is on different body parts, but overall you will develop more muscle size and strength.
DON'T BOUNCE THE WEIGHT AND USE FULL RANGE OF MOTION
Besides the fact that you reduce muscle involvement, the chance of injury increases signifcantly. Control your weight. Give a slight pause at the bottom or top of the lift, before executing the fnal push or descent.