3 Rules Of Strength: Maximize Your Gains

Don’t overcomplicate strength training because a DVD said to. Harness the gains you seek with proven lifts and the principles of practice, efficiency, and intensity.

I coached high school football for a year after I graduated college. Working with teenage linebackers taught me to condense and convey information quickly because they could only handle so much at one time. Now, several years into my professional career, I find the same training rules apply to adults.

 

I give my clients one piece of information at a time, and only two or three coaching cues during a training session. The limited information keeps my trainees from overanalyzing, which subsequently improves their performance. The same is true for exercise selection. Rather than crowding a program
with excess miscellaneous, wonder exercises, I keep it simple and use 2-3 solid movements per session.

Cut what’s meaningless and keep what’s productive. That’s my program mantra. I used to overcomplicate and overanalyze every program I wrote, which was dumb. Instead of spending limited time on a thousand lifts, it’s better to build strength with the basics. That’s what I’m here to help you do.

Strength Made Simple ///

Practice, efficiency, and intensity are elements that build a strong human. Whether you’ve been a competing powerlifter since the 1980s or a desk jockey looking for manly time with the iron, using 2-3 concentrated movements per session will hit all three elements. Oh, and it gets you strong. Strong like if Godzilla and Sasquatch had a baby named Thunder.

1 / Practice

Most people don’t view gym time as practice, but that’s exactly what it is. People who achieve excellence aren’t born excellent. They achieve excellence because they do what they’re excellent at often. A terrific housepainter most likely got that way through painting a lot of houses. If you want to be a great squatter, do lots of squats.

2 / Efficiency

Efficiency comes from time spent training quality movements. Concentrate your focus on a few solid exercises and you’ll spend less time in the gym. To be strong you must put yourself in the best position possible to efficiently generate force. Finding the best position for your body requires countless reps.

3 / Intensity

Reps must be performed at varying intensities for the same exercise at different times within a training session for maximum results. You don’t have to move on to a random exercise. You can continue to focus on a lift that requires practice.

Take these three elements and apply them consistently to get big and strong. Forget “muscle confusion.” The body adapts with consistency, not randomness. Use the same lifts consistently and progress by building size and strength. Unless you’re in the midst of a seven-year plateau, training at maximum intensity, you don’t need a variety swing.

What Lifts Should You Perform? ///

It depends on what lifts you want to be good at and what lifts work well for your body. Luckily, there are movements faithfully devoted to the promotion of human strength. They should be familiar to you: squats, presses, deadlifts, and Olympic lifts.

When you determine what you want to master and what lifts don’t leave your frame in shambles, all that’s left is to combine the elements: practice, efficiency, intensity, and your chosen lifts. The result? A supernova of progressive strength and size gains!

(Note: If you’ve never had your movement assessed by a qualified strength coach, make it happen. It’s the most efficient way to discover what exercises work for you.)

Let’s get started with an example week.

Sample Training Week ///

Under the intensity column, you’ll see @6 or @8. This nomenclature is based on rate of perceived exertion, not percentages. @6 means the bar moves fast without maximal force. You will still apply maximal force, but you’ll choose weight that doesn’t require it for speed. @8 means you could complete 2-3 more reps with the given weight until failure, but won’t.

This is a snapshot of a program. It’s a Polaroid, not a movie showing full progression into and out of the program. Progression depends on your current needs and goals. It’s your job to determine those.

The program volume isn’t remarkable. In fact, it’s low because it doesn’t take lots of volume to get strong; it takes focused and intense volume.

Deadlift Dominance: 5 Tips For Massive Pulling Power!

If I had to make a list of things I like in no particular order, it would look something like this:
  1. Turning right on red
  2. Anything involving Jason Bourne, ninjas, or zombies
  3. LOLCat videos
  4. Getting people strong
  5. Deadlifts

I’ll admit that as a strength coach, I’m biased when it comes to the last two. To me, nothing trumps strength. And nothing gets people stronger than good ol’ fashioned deadlifts.

Guys can brag about their squat numbers despite only hitting quarter reps, or even brag about a big bench press that’s more like an upright row for their spotter, but you can’t cheat a deadlift.

It’s you versus the barbell. You either rip that son of a bitch off the floor, lock it out, or not. The deadlift lends itself very well to gauge progress. It’s up to you, and brute strength, to break initial inertia off the ground. If you’re able to lift more weight over time without blowing your sphincter, you’re making progress!

Contrary to popular belief, there’s more to deadlifting than just bending over and hoisting a barbell off the ground. The following tips will undoubtedly clean up your technique and improve your deadlifting dominance.

1 / You Don’t “Dead Squat”

I once overheard a personal trainer explain to his client that a deadlift is a squat with the barbell in your hands. I’d trust this advice about as much as I’d trust a barber with a mullet, or a mallet. Unfortunately, this is a common thought process among fitness professionals and Internet users. I could write a Tolstoy-esque dissertation on why this is faulty logic, but let’s agree on a couple things:

  1. Squats are generally, but not always, considered more “quadriceps dominant,” while deadlifts can be considered more “hip dominant.” I’m not married to this mantra because you can easily make either lift more quad or hip dominant. Yet for the sake of brevity, let’s just make note of the distinction.
  2. Maybe most important of all, regarding trunk, hip, and knee angles, significant differences between the lifts are readily apparent. In the April 2010 issue of the Journal of Pure Power, in an article called “Differences in the Squat and Deadlift,” scientists noted that squats produce a more linear relationship between the hip and knee angles, “illustrating a more synergistic and simultaneous movement.”The deadlift showed three distinct phases defined by dominant joint action at the knees during lift off, the hips with the barbell at knee height, and both knees and hips during lockout.

So a deadlift is not a squat, which serves as an appropriate segue into the next point.

2 / The Hip Hinge

I see a lot of people who use a squat pattern to deadlift because they don’t know how to hip hinge correctly. The problem is that the hip hinge is crucial to a proper and powerful deadlift.

You can think about the hip hinge as another way of saying, “Push your hips back.” This is a cue that will come into play throughout the movement, from the deadlift setup to the descent back to the floor.

Make no bones about it: The setup is key, essential for mastering the deadlift and lifting big weight. I tell people to set up right against the bar and push their hips and hamstrings back as if they were trying to hit the wall behind them. Think of it like performing a Romanian deadlift—feeling significant tension in the hamstrings—until your hands can grab the bar.

In this context, your hips will be back and a bit higher than what you’re probably accustomed to. Of course, positioning will differ among people with different leverages and body shapes, but the recommendation serves as a great starting point for most people.

Consider—as it relates to the hip hinge—the initial movement after lockout as you start the descent back to the floor. Many trainees mistakenly break with their knees and essentially “squat” the weight down. Focus on the hip hinge and push your hips back! If you feel the brunt of your weight translate into your toes, it’s a safe bet you’re “squatting” the weight down.

3 / The Setup … Continued!

It’s crucial to attain more upper back stiffness by keeping your chest tall and engaging the lats. Pulling heavy loads with a rounded back is a big no-no because it places compressive and shear loading on the spine.

In non-geek speak, if you consistently deadlift with a rounded back, your spine will eventually flip you the middle finger. The ability to resist shear loading (i.e., upper-back rounding) is a big deal, and how you initially set up is going to pay huge dividends.

Here’s a video that breaks down many of the coaching cues I use with my athletes and clients:

4 / Take Your Shoes Off

As innocuous as it sounds, taking your shoes off to deadlift can make a huge difference to clean up technique and improve overall performance. The main points to consider are:

  1. Most shoes make us 1-2 inches taller. This bodes well for people who are vertically challenged, but wreaks havoc on deadlift performance because the bar has to travel farther.
  2. Pulling barefoot allows you to sit back on your heels more, which helps engage the hamstrings and glutes to a higher degree and improve performance. I’ve seen people increase their deadlift by 10-20 pounds after removing their shoes.

If you train at a lame gym that doesn’t allow you to take your shoes off due to safety concerns, your best bet is to wear a “minimalist” or flat-style shoe like New Balance Minimus or Chuck Taylors.

5 / Perform More Singles!

Deadlifting for high(er) reps doesn’t make sense. When we get in the 5-10 rep range, I find that form becomes suspect at best. My deadlift programs tend to stay in the 1-5 rep range, even for beginners.

Working in a 1-5 rep range allows people to hone in on technique. When they become more proficient, I allow them to use heavier loads under that same rep scheme. It’s a win-win.

As a paradigm shift, I tell my athletes and clients to think of it as five separate singles rather than thinking of “x” set as five reps. There is no golden rule that says you can’t pause or reset between each rep. This is the mentality I lean toward to coach the deadlift. It slows people down and ensures that each rep is as close to perfect as possible.

No-Crunch Six-Pack Abs!

What’s that sound? It’s you, moaning and holding your aching abdominals after a tough training session. But don’t look around for the yoga mat or infomercial device. We’re working the abs they way they should be worked—by battling gravity!

Each of our muscles does something—stop me if I’m going too fast for you. Taking your biceps as an example—because I know you’ve been waiting for your biceps to be taken as an example—their primary function is to bend the elbow. To train them according to conventional wisdom, you add resistance to make it harder for the biceps to bend the elbow. Voila: the biceps curl. Likewise, your calves flex your foot at the ankle (think about flooring the gas pedal); a weighted calf raise makes that harder to do.

That’s only one side of the story, though. Every muscle also works to keepsomething from happening. Your biceps, for example, are anti-elbow-extension; if they weren’t, your arm could snap just handing a business card to someone. Your calves are anti-dorsiflexion. If not for their diligent work, the top of your foot would smack against your shin every time you took a step.

From a training perspective, these anti-functions are one of the reasons to lift with steady pace and controlled form—aside from not getting injured, of course. They’re why the eccentric (lowering) portion of the bench press can be a great biceps exercise, and a barbell curl can roast your triceps.

This applies to your core muscles as well. You’ve been performing your rectus abdominis and obliques’ primary functions since the first time you did a sit-up,crunch, or side bend. And yes, this does make them work. But every year, the chorus of coaches and trainers telling us to train the opposite way gets a little louder. “Work your core by making it struggle against gravity!” they scream.

It’s time you listen to them. You don’t have to abandon crunches forever, but you can have your visible abs, as well as stronger and more functional abs and a healthier back, by putting your focus more squarely on what you could call “anti-ab training.” You may also notice a few other improvements, such as a stronger grip and the ability to wrestle bears on a mountain.

The Anti-Crunch

An abdominal crunch is a spinal flexion movement performed by your rectus abdominis. That means the top portion of the spine rounds or bends forward, coming closer to the pelvis on the anterior side. But that is only part of what your abdominals do, and I argue it’s the least important part. The motion your rectus abdominus keeps from happening is far more important.

Your abs function like the supporting structures on a dam. We are capable of producing tremendous forces through hip and spinal extension. Imagine a heavy deadlift, or people who unexpectedly lift cars off their loved ones in parking lots. Half of this movement is performed by the powerful muscles in your back pulling your vertebral column upward. However, if there was nothing to counteract this force, we would simply bend ourselves backward into a horseshoe anytime we did something as simple as lifting a suitcase. For stability, we need to be able to counteract those forces on the other side of the joint, which is precisely what our abs do.

At the risk of starting an impromptu debate on intelligent design, I would argue that the rectus abdominis muscles are actually meant for anti-extension, rather than spinal flexion. After all, how often do you perform active crunch-like motions outside of the gym? Probably not very often. However, anytime you pick something up off of the ground, walk with a load in front of you (this could be a bag of groceries, a child, a chainsaw, or all three at the same time), or lift something overhead, your abdominals actively work.

To emphasize this point, grab a 25-pound weight and hold it at arm’s length. Move it around a little bit, maybe from side to side or overhead. As you do so, notice how strongly your abs contract. As much as you feel the burn when doing your normal ab exercises, this is how to actually make then stronger and work them harder. A study published in the March issue of theJournal of Strength and Conditioning Research backed this up, concluding that the rectus abdominus and obliques were more activated during movements that had an anti-flexion or stability components, than during simple ab isolation movements like the crunch.

The Anti-Ab All-Stars

One of the best things the crunch has going for it is its simplicity. All you need is a bit of floor space, after all.

But effective anti-ab training doesn’t have to be complicated or equipment-specific. It can be as simple as going heavy with free weight movements you already do—or should do. You might also try some new and painful bodyweight maneuvers, or use a familiar implement like a dumbbell in a new way.

No matter how you do it, ensuring that you hit the three areas of training below will cover your abdominal needs, whether it’s your transverse abdominus, rectus abdominus, or obliques. Work them into your program for a few months, then check back for a quick punch in the gut, and tell me you’re not stronger.

Anti-Flexion ///
Exercises of Choice: SquatsDeadlifts, Overhead lifts, Loaded carries

I have a shirt hanging on the wall next to my desk that says “It’s not a big belly—it’s a thick waist.” OK, sometimes it’s both, but the point is athletes such as powerlifters and strongmen have thick trunks. The back of someone who can squat and deadlift 700-800 pounds needs to have substantial spinal erectors and multifidi, two muscles which lend themselves to a larger waist size.

However, in order to avoid snapping their spine in half, heavy lifters also need the opposing muscle groups to be just as strong. You may have legs and a back that can hold a car, but if your abs aren’t strong enough, you’ll be crushed like a worm.

Plenty of strong men have built up their anti-flexion strength using direct ab work, but most of us can get what we need from picking up and carrying heavy things, particularly in front of the body.

A new review study in the latest Journal of Strength and Conditioning concluded that multi-joint free-weight exercises with heavy loading work the core more heavily than any direct ab work. I add that the most ab-intense movement I have ever done is the Conan’s wheel for a strongman competition.

Sandbag and keg carries will work in a similar fashion. So find something heavy, hoist it, and go for a walk! Doing your overhead work standing will help those abs stay involved, as any Olympic lifter will tell you.
Anti-Extension ///
Exercises of Choice: PlanksSide PlanksPush-upsMountain ClimbersFallouts

Every program should include things like planks or side planks, push-ups, and mountain climbers. There’s a good reason these are becoming the go-to movements in more and more ab routines: They work! As you struggle to maintain a straight line from your head through your hips, you run your rectus abdominus and other core muscles through a gauntlet that a simple spinal flexion movement just can’t match.

For a new approach, include suspension movements like fallouts, either on a TRX-style trainer or furniture moving pads. Even foam rolling (something you should be doing anyway) can provide a significant training load for your abs. Many of the positions used are essentially planks or other anti-ab work anyway, so why not kill two birds with one stone?

Anti-Rotation ///
Examples of Choice: One-arm Farmer’s Carry

The primary functions of the obliques are twisting the spine (spinal rotation) or doing side-bends (lateral flexion and extension). But your rectus abdominus functions better for anti-extension, so the obliques are stellar at counteracting the forces of rotation and lateral bending.

To train anti-bend-me-in-half-sideways power, the best movements are asymmetrical lifts like the one-arm farmer’s carry or the suitcase deadlift, where you pick up a dumbbell, kettlebell, or—if you’re really looking for a good time—a loaded barbell off the ground on one side.

To train anti-rotation, move to the cable station and try any of the varieties of the Pallof press, either standing, kneeling, or half-kneeling.

Strong Body, Stronger Mind: 6 Steps To Mental Muscle

Big changes to your body and your lifestyle don’t come without a shift in your mental attitude. If your mind isn’t up to the task, your body will never be. Learn how to strengthen your mind in six steps.

1 / Know What You Want

Before starting on your journey, you’ve got to know where you’re going. What do you want to accomplish with your body? Are you a young guy looking to get big, or do you want to lean down? Do you want to focus on strength for a sport, or would you rather focus on mass? Do you have dreams of becoming a professional, sponsored bodybuilder or fitness model? It’s your body, your mind, and your choice. Remember that!

Despite the simplicity, answering the question “what do you want?” is difficult for most people. One reason that question is so hard is that it forces you to come to terms with your current state of affairs. You might want to be a behemoth bodybuilder, for instance, but if you’re already overweight to an unhealthy level, then gaining more weight isn’t a great idea. You’ll have to diet first, and that sucks! It’s a lot easier in the long run if you’re honest with yourself and honest about your goals.

strong-body-stronger-mind-2

2 / Surround Yourself With Positive People

Once you decide to change your body, you might find that all sorts of previously pleasant people start to become discouraging. It’s rarely anything overt, though. You’ll just hear off-hand comments about your “Spartan” diet or “obsessive” training schedule, and some people will not-so-playfully poke fun at you for taking fitness seriously.

3 / Do What You Hate!

If you want to make everything else in your routine seem a little easier, aggressively tackle the stuff you hate the most. Dreading your next leg day? Do double your normal volume on squats! Is cardio getting your down? Crank up the treadmill speed and tough it out. Getting a little sick of your diet? Try eating everything with zero spices or herbs for a few days and see if your normal meals don’t seem a little less boring.

You can only make so many tough choices per day. It’s a lot easier to fall off the wagon when every meal and every workout feels like a burden. By forcing yourself to do the hard stuff, you effectively make all of exercise and dietary habits “easier,” freeing up your mental energy for other tasks.

4 / Maintain Momentum

“The highs are high, and the lows are lower.” That old adage applies to most endeavors, and fitness is no exception. For me and most of my clients, training hard and eating right becomes easier the longer we do it. Like any other habit, they are tough to start, but even tougher to break.

5 / Set Short- And Long-Term Goals

When you try to improve your body, one of the worst things you can do is to become complacent. It’s fine to take a break now and again. Even pro bodybuilders have “maintenance” periods, but you need to keep new goals in mind if you want to make continual progress.

To keep yourself moving forward, have short- and long-term goals going at the same time. Say you want to increase your squat. If you’re currently hitting 225 for five reps, you might have a short-term goal of getting 275 for five reps. Don’t stop there! Think about how much stronger you want to be and set a lofty goal: try for 405, 495, even 585 for five reps!

6 / Embrace Failure!

It might hurt to hear this but, you should know that you are going to fail, and probably more than once before you reach your ultimate potential.

Even if you exert the utmost control over your diet and training, you’re going to have setbacks like bad workouts, periods of low energy, injuries, and external stress.

Know that this isn’t an excuse to be undisciplined, but an understanding that you’ll have to stay in the game for the long haul. If you don’t understand the likelihood of occasional setbacks, every mishap will seem like the end of the world.