Biceps and abs are cool and all, but you know what really turns heads in the gym?
Being strong. Really strong.
You know, bench pressing a few plates, and squatting and deadlifting a few more.
Getting really strong also inevitably builds you a great physique.
In fact, as a natural weightlifter, your number one goal should be increasing whole-body strength, not getting big pumps or “feeling the burn.”
That’s the big “secret” to gaining muscle quickly and effectively, because it’s the best way to “progressively overload” your muscles.
You see, by working to slowly and steadily add weight to your exercises over time, you progressively increase tension levels in your muscles. Mechanically speaking, this is the primary driver of muscle growth.
That’s why the biggest guys and gals in the gym are also generally the strongest.
Another advantage to this approach to weightlifting is it’s very simple and straightforward. There are just three steps:
- Choose the right strength program for you.
- Get your calories and macros right.
- Make sure you’re fully recovering from your workouts.
If you just consistently do those three things, and keep showing up and putting in the work, then your strength will skyrocket and your body will transform.
Let’s take a look at each.
- 1. Choose the right strength program for you.
- They focus on compound exercises.
- They involve heavy weights.
- Their workouts are shorter than most "bodybuilding" programs.
- Most call for 3 to 4 workouts per week.
- So, Which Strength Program Is Right For You?
- 2. Get your calories and macros right.
- 3. Make sure you're recovering from your workouts.
- Protein Powder
- Fish Oil
- The Bottom Line on Getting Stronger
Table of Contents
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There are quite a few strength programs out there, but most share a few things in common.
Compound exercises are those that involve multiple joints and major muscle groups, as opposed to ones that are single joint movements that focus on just one muscle (called “isolation exercises”).
For example, the bench press is a compound exercise that involves most of the muscles in your upper body, whereas the cable fly is an isolation exercise that mainly involves the pecs.
The reason strength programs place so much emphasis on compound exercises is they’re the best for building whole-body strength.
“Heavy” weightlifting begins in the range of 75% of your one-rep max, or the 10-to-12 rep range.
As you can guess, the reason why strength programs focus on lifting heavy weights is it’s the best way to get strong.
I think Ronnie Coleman put it best:
Strength training workouts are, by nature, extremely taxing.
That’s why thirty minutes of heavy compound lifting can leave you more exhausted than a couple hours of isolation exercises.
Thus, strength workouts tend to be shorter than most bodybuilding workouts, because you simply can’t do as much without eventually running into issues related to overtraining.
Many weightlifting programs want you in the gym 6 to 7 days per week, but strength programs rarely involve more than 3 to 4 workouts per week.
The reason for this is the same as above:
Remember, the goal of strength training is to get stronger, not to see who can leave the most sweat on the floor or burn the most calories.
If you poke around the Internet for strength training programs, it’s easy to get overwhelmed.
There are quite a few popular ones, including…
- Starting Strength
- Texas Method
- Bulgarian Method
- Westside Barbell
…and, in some cases, they require a fair amount of study and technical know-how to follow, which also means there are a fair number of ways to screw them up.
Well, the point of this article is to simplify everything and help you get the rubber on the road, so here’s my recommendation:
If you’re new to strength training, start with Starting Strength or Wendler’s 5/3/1 program.
It’s hard to find a better place to start than these programs.
They’re easy to understand, program, and do, and they’ll teach you proper form on the most important exercises–the 20% that are going to deliver the 80% of your results.
You can learn more about how to these programs work here.
I don’t need to tell you that diet plays a huge role in all of this.
If you don’t know how to eat right, you’ll always struggle to gain muscle and strength.
And in this case, that means making sure that you’re eating slightly more calories than you’re burning.
This “caloric surplus” helps you gain muscle and strength faster in several ways, including fueling your workouts and positively influencing various physiological processes related to muscle building.
Now, notice that I said slightly more calories than you’re burning.
That’s an important distinction, because eating a lot more doesn’t help you gain muscle faster–it just makes you fatter.
So, to be specific, I recommend that you eat just 10 to 15% more calories you burn every day when you want to maximize muscle and strength gains.
This is known as “lean bulking,” and it’s the key to gaining muscle without just getting fat.
So, that’s your calories, which is half of the dietary equation.
Out of these three, protein is the most important one for gaining strength. Simply put, if you don’t eat enough protein, you’ll always struggle to get really strong.
That’s why I recommend that you eat around 1 gram of protein per pound of body weight per day. Slightly more or slightly less is fine, but that’s the “sweet spot.”
Let’s look at your fat intake next.
Getting this right is important for several reasons, because dietary fat is an essential nutrient and part of many physiological processes ranging from hormone production to insulin sensitivity, cell turnover, satiety, muscle growth, and nutrient absorption.
Your body doesn’t necessarily need as much fat as many people think, though.
Low-carb, high-fat diets are all the rage right now, but research shows that around 0.3 grams per pound of fat-free mass per day is adequate for maintaining health.
(And “fat-free mass” is everything in your body that isn’t fat, i.e., muscle, water, and bone.)
This comprises 15 to 20% of daily calories for most people, or about 0.2 to 0.3 grams per pound of body weight per day.
Last but not least is your carbs, which should comprise the calories remaining after calculating your protein and fat intake.
This comes out to around 2 to 2.5 grams per pound of body weight per day, or about 40 to 50% of your total daily calories.
For example, let’s say that you need to eat 3,000 calories per day, and your protein and fat intakes are 190 and 50 grams per day, respectively.
Protein and carbs contain about 4 calories per gram, and fat contains about 9, so simple math tells us that we have about 1,800 calories to allot to carbs (190 x 4 = 760, and 50 x 9 = 450).
Thus, our carb intake is 1,800 / 4, or about 450 grams per day.
Want to learn more about calculating your calories and macros? Check out this article.
You’ve probably heard that your muscles don’t grow in the gym.
That they get bigger and stronger in the time between workouts, when you’re resting and recovering.
This is true. Training hard isn’t enough. You also have to make sure that you’re fully recovering from your workouts, or your performance, results, and health can suffer.
There are several factors involved in recovery, and the first is making sure that your diet is right.
If you don’t eat enough calories or protein, your body will struggle to recover from your workouts.
This is why workouts take a bigger toll on you when you’re dieting, and why you have to accept slow or no muscle gain when you’re focusing on losing fat.
You also need to ensure you’re getting enough sleep.
(And these effects become even more pronounced when you’re in a calorie deficit.)
Furthermore, research shows that even a single night of poor sleep can interfere with your performance in the gym, and two nights is enough to ruin it, and multiple studies have clearly demonstrated that athletes who get enough sleep perform the best.
The bottom line is if you’re going to get the most out of your training, then you need to get a minimum of 7 hours of sleep every night, and 8 to 9 hours is better.
Here are a few proven strategies for getting better sleep:
- Don’t consume alcohol, nicotine, or caffeine four to six hours before bed.
- Avoid computer screens and artificial light at least an hour before bed.
- Exercise regularly.
- Maintain a healthy body weight.
- Create a relaxing pre-sleep routine.
- Keep your bedroom dark, quiet, and cool.
Certain supplements can help you recover faster and better, too.
Let’s look at them one by one.
Simply put, it’s the single most effective supplement that you can buy for safely boosting muscle recovery and growth.
Want to know which form of creatine is the best and why? Check out this article.
Carnitine is a nutrient that’s comprised of the amino acids lysine and methionine, and plays a vital role in the production of cellular energy.
That’s why I included it in my post-workout recovery supplement RECHARGE.
As you now know, you have to eat quite a bit of protein every day to give your body what it needs to recover from your workouts.
That’s why protein powders are so popular in the fitness space–they make it really easy to hit your daily protein targets.
Want to know how to pick the right protein powder for you? Check out this article.
Fish oil provides your body with two essential fatty acids (EPA and DHA) that most people don’t get enough of through their diets alone.
These fatty acids play vital roles in many physiological processes in the body, which is why studies show that supplementing with fish oil can benefit your health and performance in many ways.
Want to know more about how fish oil can benefit your health and performance? Check out this article.
When you lift weights, your muscles aren’t the only tissues that take a beating. Your joints get assaulted, too.
Everything we’ve talked about thus far will help your joints rebound faster and better, but if you want to give them even more help, then you need to check out my joint supplement FORTIFY.
It contains several compounds proven to increase joint health and performance, including type-2 collagen and curcumin, which work together reduce joint inflammation and speed up healing.
Want to learn more about boosting your muscle recovery? Check out this article.
I used to think strength training was just for powerlifters.
I was wrong. It’s for everyone (and yes, even women!).
In fact, strength training is a far more effective (and time efficient) way to build a strong, muscular, and lean physique than most of the “bodybuilding” routines that people slog through every day.
There’s definitely a place for that kind of training, but if you want to get the most out of your time in the gym, the bulk of it should be spent with your hands on heavy barbells and dumbbells.
I hope this article helps get you going in that direction.