Focusing on improving maximal strength is trending. Putting up impressive numbers has become popularized on social media. Seeing 140lb women deadlifting 300+lbs is a common occurrence nowadays if you are following along on Instagram. Though we are seeing a lot of newcomers wanting to improve strength, many are making the cross-over from general fitness, bodybuilding, and Crossfit to focus on strength and the strength sports. Olympic weightlifting and Powerlifting have seen a boom over the past decade, primarily due to the influence Crossfit has had on the industry. It got people off the machines and put the bar back in their hands.
Here are a few important things to know, before deciding to make the switch to focus on strength goals.
STRENGTH TRAINING FEELS SLOWER PACED… BECAUSE IT IS
When coming from the energized environment of training for time, AMRAPS and pushing your intensity to the limits, it can be a bit of a buzz kill when starting your journey in strength. Rest is your friend, and its important to understand that 2-3 minutes of rest between sets is part of your training. Strength training utilizes the creatine phosphate energy system. Even though you’re not breathing heavy and your muscles aren’t burning, you may not be recovered for your next set. Creatine is used for short bursts of work and can take anywhere from 2-5 minutes to fully recover, depending on the loads you are using. Set a timer and practice resting. You can push faster paces when doing your accessory work.
VIEW TRAINING AS PRACTICE, NOT EXERCISE
Gains in strength are achieved by focused your attention on practicing the skills of each lift, and increasing volume of training over an extended period of time. If you want to improve your squat or bench press it will take practice. Workouts are no longer about solely getting “exercise” in. You are showing up to practice your technique and build training volume. We are focusing on training specificity, not variety and intensity. The skills involved in the barbell movements take time master, and building up good habits will pay off in the long run. It’s easier to build good habits than breaking old ones, so making this distinction early on is key. In the beginning, workouts may not feel as challenging, but over time the intensity will increase and you will be looking forward to your recovery days.
SETTING PERSONAL RECORDS ISN’T THE GOAL OF EACH SESSION
Hitting a new personal record is awesome, but it can’t be done all the time. Strength building is achieved primarily in the range of 70-85% of your 1 rep max. We rarely go maximal in training. Strength is built by increasing training volume up over time. The most successful trainees show up consistently, keep a journal, and put in work over long periods of time. There are numerous ways to get strong, and though we love seeing more weight on the bar each session, it isn’t the case all the time.
It is common to keep the same weight on the bar for multiple weeks and simply add sets or reps weekly to build base strength. There is a time where weight gets heavier each week, but there is a time and place for everything. There is a process to building strength and you have to trust it. Lying in a pool of sweat exhausted isn’t the outcome we are looking for. You should walk out of your session knowing you put in work, but not wiped out. Having said that, there are times where pushing to near exhaustion is involved, it just isn’t the goal of every session.
CONDITIONING IS IMPORTANT, IT’S JUST SEPARATE FROM YOUR STRENGTH WORK
Keeping a base of conditioning is important, even when focusing on maximal strength. Too many powerlifters and strength athletes are lazy when it comes to keeping an aerobic base. Let’s be honest, unless you are making tons of money being a strength athlete, our health is more important than anything else. An aerobic base is also crucial for optimal recovery in strength training. If you think cardio is getting your heart rate up by doing sets of 5 on squats you are lying to yourself. Cardio should be kept separate from strength work. What does this mean? Doing a squat session, then deciding to do a finisher of bodyweight Squat/Burpee AMRAP is counter productive for optimal strength. Getting on that boring elliptical for 30-40 minutes keeping your HR at 130bpm after you session is more effective. On an off day doing a HIIT session that focuses on cardio is also fine. Just realize that it should be cardio, not lifting weights faster. Using Rowers, Ski Ergs, or bikes are a great way to include effective intervals without trashing your body. If you are squatting and deadlifting a few times per week you don’t need to do ineffective conditioning involving those movements.
GET ON THE RIGHT PROGRAM
Doing a Google search of powerlifting or strength programs can leave your head spinning. There are hundreds of programs out there. Many are awesome and some are just trash. Finding a solid coach to help you get on the right program is important in building a successful strength plan. I love seeing someone that has no base strength tell me they are running Sheiko. Sheiko is a great program for experienced lifters, but if you can’t squat your body weight you are better off starting off on a basic linear progression.