Regardless of who you are, where you work out, or why you work out, if you’re lifting weights, chances are one of the main reasons you do so is because you’re interested in getting stronger. Chances are also that you misunderstand the two critical elements that factor into getting stronger…which is why you often don’t get the results you’re looking for.
No One “Right” Way of Getting Stronger
Do a quick Google or forum search on working out, and you’ll almost assuredly come across many different ways and methods of getting stronger:
- Jim Wendler’s 5/3/1
- Mark Rippetoe’s or Stronglifts 5×5
- HIT (High Intensity Training; aka – one set to momentary muscular failure)
- Methods used by Louie Simmons at Westside Barbell
- Pyramiding up to a 3-5RM (i.e. – doing sets of increasingly heavier weight until you find the most you can lift for 3-5 reps)
- Synaptic facilitation (i.e. – “practicing” multiple sets with submaximal weights; often referred to by the term “Grease the Groove” as popularized by Pavel Tsatsouline)
- High Frequency Training
This can be enough to leave anyone’s head spinning.
Which should you choose? Why are there so many different methods? Why do they all vary so wildly in application? Is one “better” than another?
The simple answer is the old cliche of “there’s more than one way to skin a cat”. And of course, different methods are better in different situations, depending on your goals, current physical capabilities, and so on.
Regardless of the program you end up choosing, there are two main factors that need to be addressed if you’re seriously interested in getting stronger.
Strength Factor #1 – Muscle Mass
Simply put, the more muscle fiber you have your frame, the stronger you can get. In order to move a weight, you have to contract muscle fibers. The bigger and thicker those muscle fibers are, the more weight can be moved.
Now this doesn’t automatically mean that the guy with the biggest muscles is automatically the strongest. Walk into almost any crowded gym and you’ll find that just isn’t the case. Rather, think of muscle mass almost as “strength potential”. This ends up then begging the question:
“How do you maximize the ‘strength potential’ of the muscle mass you already have?”
Strength Factor #2 – CNS Efficiency
Muscles contract and the body moves as a result of the brain sending signals to the muscles via the CNS (central nervous system). So if you want to curl a dumbbell, the brain sends a “curl” signal to the biceps, the biceps muscles contract, and the dumbbell is then curled. The thing you might not realize is that the CNS’s ability to send these signals can be maximized – generally via repetition and / or attempts at being more explosive.
When you repeat submaximal work often, such as in the Grease the Groove method mentioned above, it improves the CNS’s ability to contract muscle fibers with more force, thereby producing more strength. At the same time, when muscle fibers can be contracted with more force, they’re generally also contracted more quickly. This leads to not only more strength (i.e. – force produced), but also explosive power (i.e. – force produced quickly).
This is also a reason why you often see strength workouts involve not just progressively heavier lifting, but also explosive power development. Louie Simmons at Westside Barbell trains arguably the best and strongest stable of powerlifters in the world, and while half of their workouts are dedicated to lifting as heavy as possible, the primary focus of the other half their workouts is about contracting muscle fibers as fast and explosively as possible.
Putting it all Together
So what does all this mean for you and your attempts at getting stronger? Well, you could almost think of it as a constantly repeating two-step process:
- Put on muscle mass
- Maximize your CNS’s ability to utilize that muscle mass
You’ll want appropriate emphasis on both if you want to not only get as strong as possible, but do it as quickly as possible, too. Focusing too much on the former will lead you to be that “big guy that’s not as strong as he looks” because you’ll have a lot of muscle, but not be very efficient at actually using it. Focusing too much on the latter usually results in some pretty quick performance gains, but soon enough those gains will stall because you’re hitting the max potential of the muscle mass you currently have and it’ll be time to put some size on.
What you should do specifically would be dictated partly by your natural genetic muscle fiber makeup, but mostly by what type(s) of strength training you’ve primarily done in the past. For instance, can you squat a lot, but not jump very high? Then you’d want to focus first on improving CNS efficiency.
On the flip side, if you have a pretty good jump, but your squat max is lacking, then it might be better for you to focus on pure strength and adding some muscle mass, first.
Regardless, your best bet is to find a simple way to incorporate both into your workouts. Something as simple as adding a couple sets of jumps to the beginning of your lower body strength workouts and explosive pushups or medicine ball throws to the beginning of your upper body strength workouts is often more than enough to drastically improve your overall results.