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This article is all about getting you to understand what it takes to really be good at something – specifically in this case: strength training. The topic is probably something we could fill libraries with, so this article will in no way be complete; but I hope it will help guide you along your journey, whether you’re a total newbie or a more advanced lifter.
Being as strong as you can possibly be requires a few things, so let’s set out our baseline.
- You need muscles
- You need to be able to communicate to different parts of your body on command
- You need to master your main lifts
- You need healthy joints
- You need to invest in the training
What should have been number six was: You need age on your side. But I didn’t want anyone reading this to think that they were too old to try strength training. There are many benefits of youth: you can recover much faster from harder training; you can learn and master moves more quickly; and you can generate more power. But strength training is something that will keep you able to care for yourself well into old age and thus should not be avoided as we age, just adjusted.
This means that if you want to be a competitive lifter, your chances are higher if you start younger.
Now, I’m talking about YOU being as strong as YOU can possibly be. And we are starting from right now, so don’t worry if you can’t possibly lift as much as you did, or run as fast as you did, 40 years ago. What can you do now to be the best present version of you to give the future you the best chance at being amazing?
You have to start from where you are
This is one of the hardest things to really do, whether you are a total beginner or you’ve been in the game for a while – especially if you’ve been injured. You can’t get ahead of yourself and try doing things your body isn’t ready for. Start from where you are and use points 3-5 to get you to where you want to be as quickly and as safely as possible.
Keeping your joints healthy is often overlooked, but if your knees hurt walking down stairs you’re not going to be able to safely squat 100kg at the gym (or run for that matter without further damage). This means getting the mobility work in and doing some pre-hab strengthening exercises for any weak muscles to fix imbalances before they get out of hand. Otherwise you’ll find yourself playing catch up further down the road, as you cut back on all the fun training and focus on rehab.
What this pre-hab will look like will depend on what your particular weaknesses are. For this I really recommend finding a coach you trust to take a look, as it’s quite hard to identify these things on your own.
A good way to programme your training is to ask yourself where you want to be and then ask yourself what is in the way. There will be millions of things for you to work on along your road to your strongest you, but you can’t work on all of them at once. So pick one or two things to focus on, and once they’re better, pick one or two more things. Continue this until you’ve mastered everything.
Psst… you probably won’t ever master everything, but that desire to always be better is what will make sure you are making the most of your potential.
Different levels will have different requirements, but something you can’t get away from is if you want to be the strongest possible you, you’re going to have to focus on the big lifts. Endless bicep curls are not going to give you what you want. There’s also no escaping genetics, so try not to compare yourself to the giants on the gym floor warming up with your 1RM weight. (This is something I am constantly guilty of as I often train with people twice my size.)
If you want to progress you need to train smart. Build progression into your programme or get a coach and pay an expert to build it in for you. If you don’t value the training enough to invest in proper coach and proper equipment, you’re going to struggle to get the most out of it. Knowledge is power, so find someone who knows more than you and soak it all up.
Getting to grips with the basics
New lifters need buy-in and readiness to train. You need to really invest in this new challenge to make it too hard for you to just walk away from. That means investing more than just your gym membership. Investing time to learning new movements, reading about different training practises, spending time at different classes and money working with coaches. It means putting so much into it that you could never just walk away. The more you invest in something, the more you’ll believe that you need to do it and the more you’ll ensure that it fits into your life.
For new lifters, building body-awareness is number one. Most beginners really struggle with engaging different muscles, often having no idea how to communicate with certain muscles at all. It takes time to learn to maintain tension through your trunk; to move your shoulder blades; to move your hips. It takes time to learn that your biceps, quads and traps do not actually have to do everything all of the time and that other muscles can help.
Find yourself a community: go to classes, get a coach, join a club. Having people around you supporting your journey will be everything. Ask all the questions and be ready to learn.
New lifters need to practice the basics over and over again.
Intermediate lifters need to build muscle. As you get more proficient in the moves, you’ll need to build some size to be able to shift more weight. You need to continue training through all the basics and increasing your capacity to train and recover. You need to get stronger without getting injured.
Intermediate lifters will need to continue building that muscular awareness they started learning as beginners. You’ll also need to build kinesthetic awareness. You need to know what a move feels like, if it’s right or wrong; you also need a better understanding of external cues and how to respond to them.
Intermediate lifters need to ramp up the training intensity for the main lifts, aiming for around 75-85% of your max and include more variation. Plan for weight increases and PR attempts on a regular but realistic scale.
Advanced lifters need to master their lifts. This involves practicing the lifts over and over again and working on specific parts of each lift that need more work. Working on specific weaknesses. You also need to maintain healthy joints – this is especially important as you start shifting heavier and heavier weights. Weaknesses can lead to injuries, which can lead to time off training and lost potential.
By this point you should be as big as you’re probably going to get in terms of muscle size, so it’s all about making the most of it. You need to learn to move in the best possible way. Advanced lifters should challenge themselves with competitions, giving themselves structured time frames in which to improve before stepping on the platform and lifting against other competitors. Practice competing, it’s a skill in itself.
Sub-maximal training should be used off-season to build specific work capacity for the main lifts. Try to maximise the number of high quality lifts you can get in with 85-90% of your 1RM in the run up to a comp and decrease training frequency and volume as you get closer to minimise fatigue.
Which exercises should you focus on if you want to be strong?
I’d say at the very least you want to focus on squats (back and front), deadlifts, Pendlay rows, bench press, over-head press, dips, press ups and pull ups. I also think the Olympic lifts need a mention, but you need a certain amount of strength, mobility, and muscular and kinetic awareness to be able to start learning the shape – let alone master – so these aren’t necessarily for the beginners.
You should also start thinking about doing something other than three sets of 10. There are other rep ranges. There are so many options here and so much research on what works best, that it’s too much to fit into this section and needs its own article (or two), so stay tuned for more info on this.
Whether you’re a beginner, intermediate lifter or advanced, you need a solid plan if you’re going to reach your potential. This means you can’t just rock up to the gym and play with the weights for an hour and go home. You need structure, progression and a sensible split – you don’t need to do five chest press variations in a row…
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Pic credit: Photo by Victor Freitas