Getting Stronger Without Adding Weight To The Bar
It’s been ingrained in our psyches for ages; the thought that if you aren’t adding weight to the bar, you are NOT getting stronger. But unless you are stepping onto the platform with competition goals any time soon, absolute strength should only be a small portion of your overall “strength” goals in training.
Real lifters who are in it for the long haul know that there are countless ways to get progressively stronger without ever adding another pound to the bar.
It’s time we stop being so damn dogmatic when it comes to strength development and start using smart training strategies that produce world-class results without the inherent injuries that come along with trying to achieve the mythical beast which is long term linear progressive overload.
#4 Prioritize Setting Multiple Rep PR’s
If the first and only thing that comes to mind when you hear the words personal record are a max effort single rep effort, your pain-free training career is going to be short lived.
As many veteran lifters know, the continual achievement of heavier single rep PR’s in the big lifts come with inherent risk. But here’s the real question, what’s the reward and does it match up with your goals?
Every time you get under a maximal or supra-maximal load, one of two things is going to happen. First, your calculated approach to hitting a new PR pays off leading to a sound lift. This is the best feeling in the world, but if the “feeling” is the only reason for chasing numbers, you better start intelligently prioritizing your training.
The second more common happening under heavy ass weight is a missed lift, or even worse, an ugly grinding rep that incorporates every single contractile compensation pattern available to move the load from point A to point B. This my friends, is what leads to injuries. That shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone here.
But we so often forget about multiple rep PR’s that are not only more transferable to strength development and muscle hypertrophy, but also help to optimize that risk to reward ratio we were talking about. Having a holistic view of “strength” and progressing your big lifts over time through a host of multiple rep schemes is a move of smart lifters.
In the last 6-months I’ve placed an emphasis on programming my athletes to hit multiple rep PRs in the trap bar deadlift movement, along with other more “positional friendly” strength variations with the goal of continuous progress. To say the least, this mindset and programming scheme is an absolute game changer.
Setting a standard for multiple repetition strength doesn’t have to be complicated. If you are continuously chasing single rep maxes, start with shifting gears to a 3RM or 5RM and dominating those schemes over time. And lets be honest, moving past pure strength ranges and up into muscular hypertrophy and challenge set ranges can be even more challenging, both physically and mentally.
And for you that want to continue to move heavy weights, here’s another option. Move that same weight for more reps over time. This thinking is the backbone of some of the most basic, yet effective programming schemes in the industry. But guess what? They simply work. Give them a try, and as you progressively get stronger through multiple rep ranges, it will make that well calculated 1RM effort every now and then feel that much better.
#3 Do More Work In A Shorter Period of Time
Density can be defined as the amount of work you are able to complete in a certain metric of time. If you are able to complete more reps in a shorter time, your density of training will be greater, hence the positive correlation with strength development. The “escalating density training” method was popularized by legendary strength coach and a good friend of mine, Charles Staley decades ago but is still one of the single most effective ways to build pain-free strength.
Even if you don’t end up training against the clock, there is an easy way to increase a training effect while lifting the same relative weights in the big movements. Simply decrease the rest periods between sets. If you are thinking that sounds too basic to work, it’s not.
One of the most effective ways to add density to a strength training session is by placing together intelligently synergized supersets such as a pull+push favorite the single arm dumbbell row and the dumbbell bench press. Keeping rest periods low between movements, but also between sets and continuously pushing the tempo of the scheme is where progress is made.
By decreasing rest periods, the cumulative training fatigue for a movement sets in along with a systemic metabolic stress effect that heightens the relative training intensity of each bout. If you think you are strong hitting a few sets with multiple minutes between, try decreasing that time significantly and maintain your loads, tempo of movement and technique. That’s the true test of resilient strength and movement mastery.
The manipulation of rest periods doesn’t have to be drastic, but if you are a lifter who has goals of sound orthopedic health along with continuous progression in the weight room, cutting down 5-10 seconds between sets each training session will add up quickly, and will enhance your resiliency. Just be ready for a blood bath as your efficiency increases, as you’ll be doing “cardio” along with your strength work. The best of both worlds in my book.
#2 Improve Your Recovery To Train Harder & More Often
While there are many training variables that will optimize strength and muscle mass, one of the most overlooked variables is training frequency. Many times, lifters get stuck in their comfortable groove and automated weekly schedule and never think to manipulate the number of days they are training per week, the volume of each session and the way in which they are breaking down the emphasis of their training days.
Having success with the manipulation of all the variables above are dependent on an even more pivotal aspect of strength development, the ability to recover between training bouts. Simply put, the more expedited the recovery process becomes, the higher the quality frequency of training will be. And with higher training frequencies come higher training volumes and frequencies that lead to increased strength and muscular development over time.
For my athletes, I program a “recovery day” that is a non-negotiable part of the weekly training regimen. This recovery day consists of four phases:
- Global Self Myofascial Release Techniques
- Bi-Phasic Stretching
- Flow Based “Catch-All” Corrective Movements
- Low Impact / Intensity Steady State Cardio
Since foam rolling, stretching and cardio are pretty well understood and accepted forms of recovery, I want to quickly touch upon the use of flow based “catch-all” corrective exercise movements to help aid in recovery while cleaning up weak links. Here’s one of my favorite movements that can be programmed for a continuous movement flow of 4-8 minutes in this sequence:
Improving the ability to recover and regenerate muscular tissues and systemic function between heavy training days is largely dependent on the three non-negotiable of performance; quality sleep, smart nutrition and managing stress. The reason many athletes struggle with recovery has nothing to do with their programming or training execution, but rather non-gym factors like the big three mentioned above.
If your goal is sustainable long term strength development predicated on sound recovery, stop majoring in the minors like foam rolling and stretching and instead get a solid night’s sleep, some calculated nutrition and try not being stressed out all the time. Trust me, it will do wonders.
#1 Shed The Flab For Better Relative Strength
I left this strategy for last as many of you will most likely want to tell me to go to hell after reading, but here’s the cold hard truth. For long-term strength development, physical resiliency and general health and wellness, relative strength, or ones strength relative to their bodyweight, is far more important than absolute strength.
That was a little too nice, so here’s the reality. If you are trying to justify your fat gut and lifetime membership at the local buffet line with absolute strength goals, lets just say you aren’t looking at the big picture. We all know the health risks associated with increased body fat percentages including diabetes, heart disease and getting winded walking up a flight of stairs, but it’s important to break down the risk reward of every action and training goal.
It’s time to start realizing that a “well-rounded” performance training program does need to include cardio and conditioning. And if you want to be a powerful athlete who moves well and has a solid foundation to build from, you may want to start implementing interval style runs to get you moving. Here’s an example of an incline treadmill interval run that can simply be added to the tail end of any type of training day in an effective and efficient manner:
If you’re having a hard time justifying your letting go of the absolutist strength mindset, lets review some anatomy and biomechanics, shall we? Fat consists of adipose tissue, and has zero contractile properties meaning that is plays no role in developing force for strength potential. By reducing the amount of fat on the body while maintaining current strength metrics, ones absolute strength will stay the same while the relative strength will improve. So why are you carrying that extra 25 pounds of flab on your belly again?
It comes down to facing the fact that being strong, healthy and looking the part is far tougher than eating away at absolute strength goals. Get your mindset right and your body will follow. You’re welcome.
About The Author
Dr. John Rusin is an internationally recognized coach, physical therapist, speaker, and writer, whose published over 200 articles in some of the most widely regarded media outlets in the industry like Men’s Fitness, Testosterone Nation, Mountain Dog Diet, Bodybuilding.com, and Muscle and Strength, to name a few.
Along with an impressive laundry list of publications, Dr. John works with some of the world’s most elite athletes, including Gold Medalist Olympians, NFL All-Pro Quarterbacks, MLB All-Star Pitchers, Professional Bodybuilders and World Class IronMan Triathletes.
He takes pride in offering uniquely customized programming to clients of all walks of life in the exact same detail and passion as the Pros! Dr. John’s 12-Week Functional Hypertrophy Training Program is now available to you.