Beginning a strength focused program? Here’s some points to consider:
This is number one. Sleep is the most anabolic thing you can do outside of illegal performance-enhancing drugs.
When you sleep, your CNS (central nervous system) recovers. More sleep means your CNS will be able to send stronger signals to lift bigger weights. Good sleep also leads to better blood sugar management and higher anabolic hormones such as testosterone. You may even experience less soreness.
As one famous coach once said, sleep as much as you can without getting fired or divorced!
Most people know that you need protein to build muscle. You don’t need a massive quantity, however. Much popularly quoted advice on protein intake is actually for drug-assisted athletes, but this is never mentioned at the same time. .8-1.0 gram per pound of bodyweight is plenty, and you may be able to do with less.
You should spread your protein intake out over the day for best results.
3) Calories and Carbs
Eating enough to recover from the heavy loading is very important for the best results. Cutting calories is a poor idea if you want to see strength gains, as you won’t have sufficient fuel to recover fully.
Low calorie intake will also lead to lower levels of anabolic hormones, (e.g. lower testosterone) slowing your recovery and gains. Even if you are not interested in gaining muscle mass, be sure to eat as much as you can without gaining weight.
It is possible to gain muscle and strength on a low carb diet, but it isn’t the optimal way. Practical experience shows that you will end up overtrained far more easily without sufficient carbs in your diet.
Even before this happens, you will likely have slower strength gains due to lower testosterone levels and more sympathetic dominance. Sympathetic dominance means your nervous system stays in fight-or-flight mode and will be unable to get into a rest & digest phase easily.
Get after it! True strength training may not get you breathing as hard or as sweaty as conditioning work, but it comes with a different type of fatigue – it taxes your central nervous system. Don’t mistake this lack of sweat for being a bad workout!
To get strong, you need to lift to your potential. If you only take short rests between sets and lift much less than your potential, your nervous system won’t be recovered enough to lift max loads. You’ll be building endurance and not strength.
Also, while you don’t need to have death metal blasting on 10 and head-butt the bar before every set, bringing a certain level of intensity to your main sets will pay off.
If you are very casual, taking no effort to get focused before a set and just going through the motions, then you aren’t going to get optimal results. Your body doesn’t have much incentive to get stronger, as it can already do what you are asking of it easily. You must focus and get after it to lift loads that you haven’t lifted before.
5) Conditioning work
This depends on your goals. Some light aerobic work is definitely helpful for recovery and health. The key is shorter durations and low intensity. Under 140bpm and 20-30 min is probably the best plan for most. This will speed recovery from your strength work, help build a greater work capacity, and will not take away from your gains.
If you are an athlete that needs a good level of conditioning, then it’s definitely important to keep a fair amount of low intensity aerobic work in your program. If you build new muscle mass, and you aren’t performing some aerobic work, this new mass will not have the capillary density or aerobic enzymes that your previous muscle did – and this will effectively lower your aerobic capacity.
Be very wary of high intensity work though! Anaerobic intervals require a long recovery period and also tax the CNS similarly to strength training, leaving you lifting at less than full ability for your next few sessions. The same goes for full effort WODs and quite likely aerobic power work. Leave that stuff for a different training phase once you are done with the strength program!
This really applies to intermediate and advanced trainees. Newbies can get stronger while doing mixed-modal WODs, as in early stages of training, much of the gains are skill/neural based as you are learning to use the strength and muscle you already had in new ways.
6) Other activities
Ideally you are not expending large amounts of physical energy in other sports, manual labor, etc – these all compete for your gains. It’s not that you can’t get stronger in these situations, it’s just more difficult. Eating more food is even more important in this case if reducing your outside activity isn’t an option.
7) Mobility/soft tissue work
This is an area that probably should have a focus if doing a strength program, but like nearly everything, it depends. It probably isn’t the ideal time to be trying to make major range-of-motion changes. However, regular maintenance work should be done to ensure that you don’t loose mobility and that you are releasing the muscular and nervous tension from the strength training. Separate evening sessions at home are a great choice.
For those creating their own strength programs or following an example program from online – beware!
Between the heavy influences of steroids and ego, a large number of programs you see are more appropriate for an advanced trainee who uses anabolic drugs. Our more-is-always-better culture eats this up, and this leads to inexperienced newbies trying to do a program designed for a gifted steroid user. This leads to burnout, injury, or at best very slow gains for a ton of effort.
I always suggest erring on the side of doing less. Only if you haven’t seen results from a very low-volume approach should you experiment with adding more. Have a clear reason for everything in your program, don’t put an exercise in just because you think you should have a bunch of supplemental exercises!
No discussion of a strength program would be complete without mentioning supplements. In spite of all of the hype created by the supplement industry, very few things have panned out over the years as actually being valuable.
Don’t even think of adding a supplement to your protocol until you have sleep and rest dialed, eat well and a lot, and are on a solid program. 97%+ of the gains come from those basics, the last few percent -MIGHT- come from a supplement. Two things that may be worthwhile are below. I’m not going to go into the details on these, simply mention them:
• Creatine. This one has stood the test of time, having been out for almost 20 years now. If you choose to try this, stick with the basic, pure creatine and perform a loading phase initially.
• BCAAs (branch chain amino acids). This might be helpful, especially for those having trouble eating enough protein. Some report less soreness when using BCAAs.
If you are coming to a strength program for the first time, and you come from a constantly varied type program, it may come as a bit of a shock that you will be repeating the workouts several times in a row!
This is how strength is built, with consistent, planned exposures to the things you are trying to improve. A good strength program is less of an “enterTRAINment” session and more actual training.
Whatever program you follow, be sure to give it several months at minimum. In many cases, there are several phases that build off of one another and end with a period where the results are realized. Bailing out after the foundation was laid, but before the walls were erected makes no sense. Give it time.