Most of us in the pursuit of getting stronger and harder to kill often need guidance from those who have walked the walk and taken themselves to new levels of awesome. I think it’s important to see what they do and observe the common trends among those who consistently make progress and how they go about getting stronger. Before you come at me with an argument like “Herschel Walker simply did a ton of pushups and situps and benched over a trillion his first time in the weight room,” notice I said common trends. Herschel Walker is not common.
Lift Heavy, But Use a Full ROM
I’m sure you saw this coming. Lift heavy to get strong, duh. I hate to be Captain Obvious but it’s definitely worth emphasizing. You need to give your body a reason to adapt. Doing a light set of leg extensions would result in your body responding with a yawn, while a stimulus like a heavy 5 rep deadlift would receive a physiological response that’s more like “whoa, I gotta do something about this,” followed by anabolism.
With that said, lifting heavy is important, but not at the expense of cutting your range of motion down. Please don’t convince yourself that the benefits of a 405 quarter-squat outweighs those of a 225 squat to depth, because it doesn’t. Before we get into another “quarter-squat bashing” rant, know that this applies for any lift. Whether it be a pull-up, bench press, step-back lunge, or glute-ham raise, the goal should be to become strong through the entire range of motion (especially the hardest portion).
Being able to demonstrate controlled basic movements properly with your bodyweight demonstrates strength, and being able to demonstrate that same movement under load demonstrates more strength. Yes, there are those that put up huge numbers with atrocious form, but I’m convinced that this raw brute strength approach can only get you so far. Without a dedicated focus on improving technique, you leave a ton of poundage to be desired on the bar. If you watch some of the strongest athletes at the top of their game, you’ll notice that their technique is impeccable. Watch the best Olympic weightlifters, powerlifters, sprinters, jumpers, and even strongman competitors. Have you ever seen the top guys in a keg toss event? Impressively fluid hip hinging technique.
Keep the Mission in Mind When You Lift
This was a big eye opener for me. When you get to the gym, your main focus should be set on accomplishing one or maybe two primary lifts. If you look down at your workout log and see that you’re scheduled for a heavy 3 rep deadlift plus some assistance work, don’t start worrying about the specific weight you’re going to be using for your DB Bulgarian split squats or the optimal set and rep scheme you should use for your hamstring curls. The heavy deadlift should be your primary focus, and you should put everything you have into hitting that main movement hard and clean. After hitting the main movement get some extra work in, but don’t overstress the assistance work. I've been guilty way too many times of overthinking the small stuff to the point where my big lifts suffered.
Milk a Ton of Volume Out of Your Warm-ups
Don’t rush your warm-ups! Warm-up sets leading into your work sets are a great place to increase the volume on your lifts. Did you know many elite level powerlifters still do their first warm-up set with the bar? Next time that you throw 135 on the bar for your first warm-up, really think about what makes you overqualified to use an empty barbell...
Anyways let’s go back to the volume thing. Here we’ll compare two lifters working up to a work set of 250x3:
Lifter A 135x5 185x5 225x1 250x3 Total Load Volume: 2,575lbs
Lifter B Bar x10 95x5 135x5 185x3 205x3 225x1 250x3 Total Load Volume: 3,745lbs (Win)
The extra volume will result in increased total work accomplished by Lifter B, but will also give the lifter the opportunity to practice the technique for more than double the reps as Lifter A.
You wouldn’t want to fail an exam would you? When you’re lifting to increase your strength, it is not to your benefit to miss a weight. You’ll probably just make a lot of noise (especially if you bail on a squat), increase your chance of getting injured, and crush your confidence. Sure there are times when strength should be tested (1% of your time spent in the weight room), but when you're working on building strength (99% of your time spent in the weight room), you’d be better off using weights you know you can handle and using compensatory acceleration to move it FAST. That way you know you’re getting the most out of the load on the bar even if you underestimated it. If you overestimated it, however, getting stapled by a barbell isn’t going to make you any stronger or better-looking.
Those super strong athletes aren't super strong because they train, but because they recover from their training. Eat a ton of good food, drink plenty of water, get as much sleep as you can and make sure your program is well thought-out so you're significantly stronger next year than you are now.