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Getting stronger — whether it means setting a personal record on bench or moving up to the next set of dumbbells on curls — is a process. It takes months, even years, of hard training to achieve the lofty strength goals we tend to set for ourselves. It doesn’t happen overnight.
FLEX has compiled 15 science based strategies for getting stronger in the gym immediately. From technique tweaks to nutritional manipulations, these tricks of the trade will give you a boost right away. Will your squat increase by 100 pounds in the next week? Unfortunately, no. But this is a good place to start. So turn the page and let's go….
News flash: you’re probably dehydrated. Another news flash: being just slightly dehydrated will negatively affect your strength. Several research studies confirm that slight dehydration can limit strength and power by as much as 20%. Be sure to drink at least one gallon of water per day to maintain your body-fluid levels. Before workouts, drink at least 15–20 ounces of water, in your protein shake or otherwise. Then, drink 5–10 ounces of water or other fluid every 15 minutes during your workout. Weigh yourself before and after your workout, compare the two bodyweights and drink a quart of fluid for every two pounds you lost.
Old-school training advice says to warm up and stretch before workouts. The warm-up part is good advice. The stretching part? Not so good. Research shows that doing static stretching (reach and hold) before workouts can decrease strength by up to 10%, so save the static stuff for after training. You’ll be more flexible, get more out of the stretches and be stronger to boot. For a type of stretching that actually increases strength, refer to tip 10 (“Get Dynamic”).
Few supplements provide immediate effects; usually you have to take a given product for at least a few weeks before you see results. And then there’s caffeine. Several studies have shown that taking one 200–400-milligram dose of caffeine about an hour before workouts immediately boosts strength. One study from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln reported that caffeine increased one-rep max bench press strength by an average of five pounds. Other research has concluded that taking caffeine one hour before workouts allows you to complete more reps with a given weight. If these reasons aren’t good enough to start taking supplemental caffeine, what is?
When bench pressing, you may find yourself watching the bar as you lower it to your chest, in the process lifting your head off the bench (neck flexion). Stop doing this. Even the slightest bit of neck flexion can decrease strength. One study found a 6% decline in power for neck flexers compared to those keeping their heads on the pad. On the flip side, pressing your head downward into the bench can stimulate what is called the “tonic neck reflex” to increase power and strength.
The company you keep when going heavy in the gym can make a huge difference on strength levels. Researchers at Arizona State University (Tempe) tested one-rep max bench press strength both when subjects were alone (except for a spotter) while attempting the lift and surrounded by 15 onlookers making no noise. In the latter case, lifters bench-pressed a whopping 30 pounds more on average than when they were alone. Just the presence of others seems to enhance motivation and, as a result, strength levels. If you’re looking to set a personal record and you have the choice of doing it at either a crowded gym or an empty one, opt for the audience.
No, this isn’t the kind your girlfriend gets. PAP stands for postactivation potentiation. Basically, it means that if you do a plyometric exercise just before you attempt a heavy max, you can actually be stronger on that lift — for example, drop jumps before squats and drop pushups before bench press. One study from the University of Massachusetts (Boston) found that when subjects did drop jumps from a box about 30 seconds before a max set of squats, they were about 5% stronger on squats than when they did squats without the plyos — likely due to the fact that the plyometric exercise primes the nervous system to fire stronger and faster, for more powerful muscle contractions.
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If you want to be strong, you must have a big squat. And to have a big squat, your technique has to be solid, like that of a seasoned powerlifter. A study at Louisiana Tech University (Ruston) found that the most experienced and strongest powerlifters in their group did three things that novice lifters didn’t. They descended more slowly on the negative portion of each rep; they accelerated faster from the bottom position; and they didn’t allow their knees to track over their toes, which enabled them to go heavier without risking injury. If you want to maximize your squatting strength, we suggest you adopt these techniques ASAP.
A Weider Research Group study found compelling evidence that one very simple training tool can help boost strength: wrist straps. Subjects performed the same back workout twice — once wearing wrist straps, the other without. In a workout comprised of pullups, dumbbell rows, wide-grip pulldowns and seated cable rows, reps per set were increased by an average of one to two when going with straps versus without. Our conclusion is simple: use wrist straps on pulling exercises — namely, back movements — to enhance both size and strength. If you’re worried about the potential of losing grip strength, do specific grip-strengthening exercises separately.
Banging your head against a wall or listening to Pantera (or both simultaneously) before lifting may seem helpful for getting “psyched up,” but scientifically, it seems to be counterproductive. Being more relaxed may be more effective. Research out of Bridgewater College (Virginia) found that relaxation techniques were better than high-arousal techniques for providing an immediate strength boost in the bench press for selected college football players. Subjects did max reps with 225 pounds after either lying quietly in a dark room listening to soft music, watching video of aggressive football footage or using no specific technique. Results showed that players performed about two more reps after the relaxing experience than after the other two.
Although static stretching before workouts is a big no-no, dynamic stretching is anything but. This type of flexibility involves performing stretches fast and explosively, and new research shows that this method can actually increase power and strength when done before workouts. One study found a 6% greater increase in leg power when subjects performed dynamic stretching before doing leg extensions as compared to when they didn’t stretch.
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What’s going through your head on a given set could make the difference between building some serious muscle and strength and simply maintaining what you’ve got. A recent study in the United Kingdom had lifters do one-arm curls with three different states of mind: (1) as they normally would, (2) while focusing on the contraction of the biceps, and (3) while focusing on moving the weight through the range of motion. Focusing on the contraction increased their muscle activity by more than 20%, while focusing on moving the weight increased strength by 10%. If size is your goal, focus on the muscle contraction; for strength, concentrate on moving the weight.
Want to deadlift more weight immediately? Change your grip. An in-house Weider research study presented at the 2007 National Strength and Conditioning Association annual meeting found that trained lifters using a staggered grip (one side overhand, the other underhand) completed an average of two more reps with their six-rep max than when using a standard grip (both hands taking an overhand grip) — that’s a 52% difference in strength. The staggered grip offers the mechanical advantage of reverse torsion that prevents the bar from slipping out of the hands. To promote balance, alternate which hand is overhand and which is underhand either every other workout or every other set.
Granted, you can lift more weight with two arms or legs than with one, but unilateral training (doing an exercise one arm or leg at a time) can actually lead to more weight lifted and more strength gained in the bigger picture. Iowa State University (Ames) researchers found that when subjects did biceps curls one arm at a time, 18% more force was generated than when training both sides simultaneously. More force generated means more muscle fibers being used and more strength and size. Here’s a good rule of thumb: use at least one unilateral exercise per bodypart per workout. Such moves can include anything from singleleg presses to one-arm overhead extensions to one-arm dumbbell rows.
Free-weight exercises are great, but so is using a Smith machine. A Drake University (Des Moines, Iowa) study found that subjects were roughly 5% stronger on Smith machine squats than on barbell squats, likely due to the fact that stabilizer muscles aren’t needed as much to provide balance on the Smith version. This extra strength will allow you to overload the muscles with that much more weight for better immediate, as well as long-term, results. Start every other leg workout with Smith machine squats and you should reap the strength benefits of this great piece of equipment in no time.
The benefits of listening to music while engaging in endurance/ aerobic activity have been well documented, but the research on the effect music has on getting stronger in the gym is pretty skimpy, so we performed our own study with trained subjects who completed the same workout twice — one session while listening to the music of their choice over headphones, the other with no music. As we expected, the lifters completed more reps with the same weight (an average of one more rep per set) while listening to music than they did with no tunes. One extra rep on every set can add up to considerable strength gains over time.