Most people who lift weights are weak, and that’s somewhat ironic given that training with weights is often called strength training. Weakness will interfere with your pursuit of virtually every fitness goal – including building muscle, fat burning, and cardiovascular fitness. Lack of strength means that you are much more likely to suffer an injury, will fatigue sooner, won’t be able to exercise as intensely (and therefore effectively), and many strenuous but common tasks will be beyond your abilities.

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Why Strength?

Strength makes everything better. If you are strong, you have a great reserve you can call on when you need it. For example, if you compare two equally fit runners, the stronger one will do better because each step taken represents a lower percentage of their maximal level of exertion. Running isn’t a strength sport and yet strength helps.

If you go to the gym and lift weights, you should be strong and getting stronger. Obviously, strength is relative, and some people are stronger than others. However, if your idea of heavy is the 5kg dumbbells, you’re not going to get very far! A strong person should be able to:

  • - Deadlift 1.5-2.0 times bodyweight

  • - Do ten unassisted chin-ups or pull-ups

  • - Bench press their bodyweight

  • - Lift and then carry their bodyweight 20-30 meters

  • - Squat 1.0-1.5 times bodyweight

  • - Overhead press 0.75-1.0 times bodyweight

If you are a long way from these standards, which can be applied to both men and women, you are either a) overweight, b) weak, or c) both! It’s not always your fault - most people do years of hypertrophy training never realising how it differs to strength...

The good news is that increasing your strength is a relatively simple process. You don’t need fancy equipment or complicated programs to reach these levels – or even exceed them. You will, however, need to train hard, smart and consistently. Here’s how to fix weak once and for wall.

1. Forget the pump

Most people in the gym do moderate to high reps using light to moderate weights combined with short rests to achieve a pump; the standard workout prescription being 12-20 reps per set. The pump is when blood is preferentially diverted to your working muscles which makes them swell up temporarily. The pump can be helpful for muscle growth, but does next to nothing for muscle performance. Endless sets of biceps curls might make your arms look “swole” for an hour or so, but it’s all show, and no go!

Instead, increase the weight, lower the reps, and rest a little longer between sets. 4-6 reps per set is a good place to start. And if you miss your pump that much, feel free to do a few lighter sets at the end of your workout as a finisher.

2. Progression

If you want to get stronger, you need to make your workout increasingly challenging. If you keep on doing the same workout over and over, your strength will plateau. Consequently, it is crucial that you look for ways to make your workouts increasingly more challenging. Do this by:

  • - Increasing the weight

  • - Doing more reps

  • - Decreasing exercise tempo

  • - Choosing more complex, demanding exercises

  • - Doing more sets

  • - Doing more exercises

  • - Training more often

You don’t need to use all of these variables, and there might be some you never use, but you should strive to make next week’s workout harder than this week.

3. Focus

Getting stronger is as much about your mind as it is your body. Lifting 20 kg for 20 reps is mentally easy. You can probably do it in your sleep. However, such an easy task will not help you turn weakness into strength. Instead, you need to work hard – close to your limit. To develop strength, you’ll need to lift weights that exceed what you previously thought was possible, and that requires intense mental focus.  

Lack of focus means you’ll never be in the right frame of mind to tackle the demanding workouts that will make you stronger. If you spend your rest periods watching funny YouTube videos, texting, talking on the phone, chatting over the water cooler, or otherwise not preparing yourself for your next set or exercise, you are undermining your workout.

Leave your phone in your locker, cut out the small talk, and focus on the job in hand. The fewer distractions you have, the more likely you are to be able to stay in the zone and do what needs to be done to get stronger.

4. More compound exercises, less isolation exercises  

Trying to get strong using single joint isolation exercises is a fool’s errand. Isolation exercises target single muscles at a time, but that’s not how your body works in real life. Virtually every feat of strength involves multiple muscle groups working in concert, and that’s how you should train at least 80 percent of the time.

If you want stronger legs, variations of squats and deadlifts should be your exercises of choice. For a stronger upper body, presses and rows are what you need. Any exercise with the name “extension” in it should be used as a finisher after your main workout, if you do them at all.  

5. Don’t major in the minor details

Fitness and exercise are often portrayed as very complex subjects. Exercise scientists have studied every aspect of training in an effort to uncover what works and what doesn’t. Trainers then go on to develop workout programs based on the findings of these scientists that, they believe, represent the cutting edge of fitness. The trouble is that, if you get too involved in the theory of training, it’s all too easy to forget the most important part; working hard!

Things like tempo, velocity, workload, recovery periods, and exercise selection have their part to play, but not one of these things compare to working hard. People have been getting stronger for hundreds of years without worrying about exercise science. For example, Milo of Croton, an ancient Greek wrestler, developed incredible strength just from lifting and carrying a baby bull. As the bull grew, Milo got stronger.

Simple but brutally effective, Milo didn’t worry about training splits, overtraining, or any of that stuff; he just worked hard one day, and then worked a little harder the next. It really IS that straightforward! Keep your training simple but give it your all; that’s how you get stronger and achieve your goals.

Cardiovascular exercise is often said to be the most important fitness pursuit, but the reality is, strength is far more critical. No one ever failed to get out of bed, or was unable to get up after a fall, because of a lack of cardiovascular fitness. However, lack of strength can make these and other important feats next to impossible. If you want to live a long, independent, and productive life, make sure that you train to develop and maintain a high level of strength.

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