Hunker the heck down, because I have a doozy for you this aft. Got a cup of joe? (Side note: As an espresso drinker myself, I’m always a little jealous of people who sip leisurely on large cups of coffee.)
JVBeezy and I were jamming recently on programming and the various ways people can continue to make progress, and she wrote them up juuuust for you. Two of them you can probably see coming. The other two? Maybe not so much.
So, here are four important ways you can increase your strength, make your training session more interesting, and help you consistently make progress, no matter what type of strength training you’re into.
Take it away, JVB!
This appears to be an easy one on the surface. Training frequency is the number of sessions per week you’re getting in. But underneath lies a bigger question: How consistent have you been with your program?
You may have years of experience, but if your attendance is sketchy, it can affect your results. Some weeks you will get into the gym for your full three- or four-day training schedule, and others you manage just one or two. (Or none at all!)
No judgment here. I know life gets busy with juggling work, friends, and family. But getting stronger comes down to this simple fact: Consistency is the key to progress. You cannot get better if you do not show up
If consistency is an issue for you, don’t get down on yourself about it. Instead, ask yourself some questions:
What is truly holding you back from going to the gym? Is it location, equipment access, or cost? Is it a lack of motivation? What can you do to improve your training circumstances to make showing up easier?
This may mean switching to a gym that’s closer to your house or workplace so that your training fits into your schedule better. It may mean switching to a gym with more of the equipment that you need so that you don’t have to contrive of exercise substitutions that are “close enough.”
Asking yourself more questions may lead you to discover you really don’t love working out with other people and that you need to comb Craigslist to affordably build out your home gym, or that you’re more consistent when you’re accountable to a training buddy.
The point is to remember that more often than not, you have choices when it comes to your training circumstances. If getting stronger is important to you, than finding the best way to make your training frequency easier and more consistent will be time will be well spent.
Showing up to the gym consistently feeds into this next metric of progress: The primary driver of muscle adaptation (i.e., you getting stronger) is volume—otherwise known as the total amount of work you do. More volume will lead to more progress because it means more time spent under the bar, grooving better movement patterns and introducing a training effect that, over time, your body recovers from better. This will lead to increased strength and fitness, which means more opportunities for growth. (And avoiding dreaded plateaus.)
How to increase your volume? When your training session is going well and you’re in the zone with a particular exercise (you know those days where your energy is high and your lifts feel just the right amount of challenging?), add in another set or two. Remember, we’re not talking talking about intensity (the number of pounds on the bar), so keep the weight doable and your form crisp, and just add in that little nudge of extra work sets. Over time, those little nudges will add up to major progress.
No doubt about it: When it comes to strength training, technical proficiency is important: It means you’re not compromising alignment, and are thus less susceptible to injury when you lift. Improvements in form come from an honest assessment of your areas for improvement, and then taking the necessary measures to address them. Over time, making your lifts more efficient will make moving more pounds easier and less stressful on your body. It’s the difference between making something hard look effortless and just muscling through at any cost. (The toll that approach takes on your body isn’t worth it.)
When you’re a brand-new lifter, improvements in form come from getting good instruction and consistently putting in time under the bar. But you may notice that, after a while, you need to ask yourself more questions to achieve lifts that look and feel great. Here’s a classic example of a question I wish more people would ask:
Q: Does deadlifting from the floor make your back ache, during or afterward?
Lifting in pain is what physical therapist Ann Wendel might call “common but not normal.” It’s worth taking the time to take note of your sensations and acknowledge if there is pain. From this example question about the deadlift blossoms a number of different potential solutions:
Elevate the bar to a height that allows you to execute the lift with a neutral spine from set-up to lockout. Check out how to do the Barbell Block Deadlift:
Prioritize exercises (via increased training volume) that strengthen your hamstrings, butt, and core. Exercises to try:
a. Valside SHELC
b. Dumbbell Weighted Step-Up
c. Resistance Band Pallof Press
You can also experiment with what we at The Movement Minneapolis call “microvariations.” These are small adjustments or changes to your form to better suit an exercise to you, the individual, instead of trying to form yourself to the exercise. For the deadlift this could mean performing the lift with a slightly staggered foot stance or a slightly different head position.
Another common question:
Q. Are you squatting to below parallel?
And part two, do you need to? In other words,, it’s certainly not the end-all be-all — not everyone needs to be able to squat to below parallel, and it’s never advisable to force yourself into positions that don’t work for your body. That said, you do involve more musculature when you squat deeply and for some strength sports, you are required to, so it’s a worthwhile goal.
To get there, practice squatting to something sturdy, such as a box or bench. This touch-and-go option is a great way to improve your proprioception in the lift, and learning what squatting to competition depth (where your hip crease dips below knee height) actually feels like. Check out how to do a Barbell Squat to Box below:
When squatting to a box that’s lower than you’re used to, you may need to lighten the load to keep the lift looking pretty. Do so, and don’t sweat it. As you get stronger, add the pounds back on and as you groove the increased range of motion, eventually you can take the box away.
This last tip is the one that might be the least expected, but it’s so important. Consistently training large, compound movements is demanding, both on your muscles and your central nervous system, and because of that, a major key to your progress depends on how you prioritize recovery.
Think of it this way: When you’re lifting in the gym, you’re not actually building up your muscles, you’re breaking them down. You’re causing tiny, microscopic tears in your muscles and depleting those muscle fibers of energy. You can feel this immediately after a gym session when your energy is depleted, and in the days afterward when your muscles are sore. Given enough food (in the form of nutritious and balanced protein, carbs, and fat), sleep (seriously, get off Instagram and go to bed), and active recovery via walking and gentle yoga, your muscles will repair better and stronger than before. But if your recovery is off, your body could show its displeasure in the form of a chronically elevated heart rate, fitful sleep patterns, stalled progress in the gym, and in the worst cases, injury.
Want to get better? Recovery needs to be at the top of your list.
How much recovery you need can depend on the intensity of your exercise, but my general reco is to take at least one day off between your training days and if you’re the sort who loves to heft heavy iron (like me!), take at least two days off between your squat and deadlift days. On your nonlifting days, perform active recovery like meditative yoga, walking, or interval-jogging. (And like I said, eat well for your body and go the eff to sleep!)
NOTE FROM JVB: If you have an interest in getting stronger and more skilled in new ways, it makes sense that you would seek support to serve that goal.
If you’d like that support to be me, applications for Unapologetically Strong Coaching are being accepted NOW! Unapologetically Strong Coaching is where we will work together to help you become a strong, powerful, and efficient lifter. You’ll also get connected with a community of people who are looking for the same thing you are: to increase their strength, to bust through training plateaus, and to feel more confident and empowered in their lifts.
Most importantly, Unapologetically Strong Coaching is your spot to discover and declare what being strong means and looks like to you. Questions? Fill out THIS application to get the conversation started. Talk soon!