If you’ve ever spent any appreciable time in the gym, chances are at least part of the reason why is because you want to get stronger. After all, nobody wants to be the lifter who looks powerful, but doesn’t actually have the strength to back up the physique. Below are seven ways to get stronger in short order and make sure the weight on the bar matches your muscle size.
Compensatory acceleration training is a method to get stronger used and popularized by Dr. Fred Hatfield (aka – “Dr. Squat”) when he broke the 1000lbs squat barrier in the 1980s. Simply put, it’s a way of adding additional acceleration to your sets and reps so as to maximize muscular contraction.
The idea is to perform every rep of every set of every exercise as quickly as possible. Natural human tendency is to slow down near the point of full muscular contraction as it is generally safer. For example, you might slow your squat down just before lockout so you don’t jump off the ground, risk hyperextending your knees, etc. The problem with this is that the top end is when you generate the most force. Thus slowing down short-changes your results.
The key is to use moderately heavy weight (say 70-85% of your 1RM) so that the rep can’t get too ballistic. However, mentally focus on exploding all the way through the rep. This allows you to generate maximum power and get stronger much more quickly.
Micro-loading is the basic concept where you add the smallest amount of weight to the bar possible every single workout while sticking with the same sets/reps scheme. The idea is that the increases are so small and gradual that you barely notice, thus are able to adapt much more easily. You will need specialized weight plates to perform this, as you want to be adding no more than .5-1 pound to each side of the bar at a time.
These increases obviously seem minimal, but when you take a step back and realize the big picture, you can get stronger fairly quickly. If you were to perform an exercise an average of three times every two weeks, and added just one pound to the bar per workout, that would be an 18lbs increase in only three months. Considering you’re doing this (likely) on sets of 4-6 reps if you’re training for strength as opposed to hypertrophy, it could easily translate to 30-40lbs or more on your 1RM.
Isometrics are when you push or pull against an immovable object. Integrating these are an excellent way to get stronger as a study by Babut in 2001 showed that isometrics could result in as much as 5% more muscle activation when compared to eccentric or concentric movements. More muscle activation means more force produced, and more force produced means more strength.
The only thing to keep in mind with isometrics is that strength improvements generally only carryover 15-30 degrees either direction of the angle you’re performing the isometric contraction at. So to get stronger over an entire range of motion, you’d want to perform isometrics at multiple points in the rep. Doing them near full muscle extension, the mid-point of a rep, and near full muscular contraction usually works well.
A supramaximal support is when you basically just hold a weight much heavier than your current max at or just below the lockout position. This is similar to isometrics, but different in that you’re not resisting against an immovable object. Instead, you load a bar with roughly 10% over your 1RM, unrack it (get assistance from a spotter if necessary), and hold it for a few seconds.
This helps you get stronger because it acclimates you to the feel of heavier weight. And because you’re actively holding/supporting it, it stimulates your nervous system to fire more/harder. Since force production and muscular contraction is largely regulated by the CNS, this prepares and conditions it to be ready for more weight down the road.
Synaptic facilitation (also sometimes called “grease the groove”) is the process by which you perform a few submaximal sets on a consistent and regular basis. For example, you might do only 2-3 sets of 4-6 reps, 4-5 days per week. Start out very light (say 55-65% of your 1RM) and add only 5-10lbs to the bar every workout.
Once your sets of 4-6 reps become a struggle or you can’t perform them with good form, take a few days off and drop back down to near where you started and ramp up all over again. However, this time you’ll want your starting point to be 10-20lbs heavier.
This is considered as much “practice” as it is strength development, as you’re trying to develop better muscle memory. Doing so trains the CNS to fire muscles in a very specific way so as to maximize efficiency. You could almost think of it like a baseball player spending time in the batting cage each day so as to improve his swing. Performing your chosen lift several days per week works similarly because you’re fine-tuning your form and technique.
Cluster sets (also called “clusters”) are heavily used by Olympic lifters and were popularized by Charles Poliquin. Basically, a cluster set is when you perform a set of 4-6 reps, but take a short break of 10-15 seconds between reps. If you think of an Olympic lifter doing a set, they’ll do a rep, drop the bar, reset, grab the bar again, then do another rep. This repeats until the set is complete. Their 10-15 seconds rest break is when they rest and reset for the next rep.
Clusters allow you to get stronger because the slight pause between reps allows your CNS to recover a little and some of your ATP to be restored. You’re also managing fatigue, which will generally allow you to do more overall volume. This means you can do 4-6 reps in a set when you ordinarily might only be able to do 3-4.
Cluster sets are pretty demanding and can wear down your nervous system pretty easily, so be sure to rest fully between sets. Only perform clusters on one movement per muscle group, and no more than 3-5x/week in total.
Canadian lifting coach Pierre Roy developed a system to help Olympic lifters get stronger in which they’d build up to the max amount of weight they’d want to do in a given workout twice in said workout – at the beginning and the end. So if they were squatting, they’d build up to whatever top end set was planned for that day, do their other leg exercises, then build up to their planned top end squat again.
Doing this is yet another way to maximize nervous system efficiency as you’re training your muscles to build up to the “max” for the day twice. And because you have to get into that “groove” at two separate times in a workout, neural pathways are strengthened and reinforced more than if you simply just doubled your squat volume all at once.
You don’t have to use all seven of these methods to get stronger, but try implementing at least one. Stick with it for 2-4 months, get your strength gains, then move onto the next one. Just be sure that the method you pick works within your overall routine as some focus on muscular contraction, some are based more in “practice” than force development, and some even require performing an exercise fairly often. However, pick one, be consistent, and your max should go up rather quickly.