When you set out to achieve a goal or solve or a problem, you are often presented with many pathways to reach your desired outcome. And since we live in a world with overly abundant information, determining the right path can be overwhelming.
Take, for example, the task of strength training. You want to get strong and build muscle, but the internet is full of so many programs and gurus, it can be very challenging to figure out the best way to make it happen. How do you decide what to do?
The answer in almost any case is to learn the fundamental concepts of strength training, and to execute them well. The core principles of strength training are as follows:
- Focus on the primary multi-jointed lifts.
- Measure your workouts and progressively increase the weight on the bar.
- Allow for adequate recovery.
- Eat lots of real food.
- Be consistent over a long period of time.
We’ll expand on these a little bit below, but that’s pretty much it. At its core, strength training is quite simple.
However, many of us overcomplicate life. We look for novel solutions to our problems and seek out obscure methodologies to achieve our goals. But the best path to success is almost always simple. It’s just a matter of making the right choices day in and day out.
Keeping It Simple
Strength training is a deep subject. Scores of books, blogs and scientific studies are just a few clicks away. You can dig into the science of muscle growth and read up on every training program that exists. But if you can’t translate that knowledge into action, then it’s all pointless.
That’s why you need to keep it simple.
Unless you plan on dedicating your life’s work to the pursuit of ultimate strength and muscle definition, you’re going to have to break it down into a few simple components that you can implement into your daily routine. You need to put things into practical, actionable terms.
If you think that strength training should be complicated, or that you need to understand all the nuances in order to be successful, consider the following principles that are commonly observed in science, business and many aspects of life.
The principle of Occam’s Razor, when applied in a general sense, suggests that given multiple solutions for a particular problem, the simplest solution is probably the best.
When it comes to strength training, you can easily get distracted by fad programs and complex methodologies that are difficult to follow. But if you’re constantly jumping from one program to the next, or if your chosen routine is impossible to follow, you’re not going to get anywhere.
The 80/20 Rule
Also known as the Pareto Principle, the 80/20 rule states that for any given phenomenon, roughly 80% of the effects come from 20% of the causes. For strength training, that means that most of the gains you will ever get will be the result of a relatively small group of factors. So your efforts are best spent on the areas that will contribute the most benefit towards your goals.
The Law of Diminishing Returns
Somewhat related to the 80/20 rule is the law of diminishing returns. This law essentially means that you get less and less benefit as you add more and more inputs to your process. So focus on the basics, and stay there for a while. Adding complexity to your routine prematurely is a total waste of time. Your returns will start to diminish faster than they would otherwise.
The Fundamentals of Strength Training
The fundamentals of strength training are grounded in science and have stood the test of time. Focusing on these principles will make you bigger and stronger. You can get more nuanced than what is outlined below, but as the 80/20 rule and the law of diminishing returns suggests, you will get the most bang for your buck from these core concepts.
Focus on the Primary Multi-Jointed Lifts
If you want to get strong, your training will be heavily centered around the barbell using a handful of compound, multi-jointed lifts that together work the entire body. Forget all the machines and contraptions that isolate individual muscles.
The reason for this is simple: isolated exercises do not produce enough stress on the neuromuscular and skeletal systems to induce a meaningful adaptation by the body. You have to work entire systems through a full range of motion to get the most benefit. The more muscles you recruit to do work, the more your body responds.
Barbells allow weight to be moved in exactly the way the body is designed to move it, since every aspect of the movement is determined by the body. Machines, on the other hand, force the body to move the weight according to the design of the machine.
Mark Rippetoe, Starting Strength
There are a few useful movements that do not utilize a barbell, like pull-ups, chin-ups and dips. These can also help build overall strength. Various dumbbell movements and other barbell movements can be incorporated as well. But these secondary movements should mostly be used as supplemental components of the routine.
In general, an effective strength training program will generally contain the following components:
- Focus primarily on bench press, squat, shoulder press, deadlift, power clean and power snatch.
- Lift heavy weight (usually around 80% 1RM) for 3 sets of 4-6 reps.
Measure Your Workouts and Progressively Increase the Weight on the Bar
As the saying goes, if you don’t measure it, you won’t improve it. This is especially true for strength training, because in order to get stronger, you have to progressively increase the amount of weight you lift over time. But if you don’t know exactly what you did in the last workout, you can’t accurately add the right amount of weight for the next workout.
This concept is commonly known as “progressive overload.” It’s a pretty straightforward principle, and it’s implications are clear: if you’re not lifting more weight, you’re not getting stronger.
In practical terms, progressive overload boils down to the following bullet points:
- Record how much weight you lift every time.
- Increase the amount of weight you lift in small, linear increments (generally 10 lbs each time for deadlift and squats, 5 lbs each time for the other lifts).
- If you stall out and are unable to increase the weight for several workouts in a row, scale back to about 90% of the weight that you stalled at, then work back up from there.
Allow for Adequate Recovery
This should be common knowledge by now, but the biological processes that make your body get stronger actually take place after you workout. In order for these processes to work effectively, your body needs rest. If you constantly overload your body without giving it adequate rest, you will not make meaningful gains in strength and size.
The most important components of adequate recovery can be summarized as follows:
- Get enough sleep (7-9 hours a night).
- When working out, get enough rest between sets to allow for maximal effort on each set. This usually means about 3-5 minutes for most lifters.
Eat Lots of Real Food
Part of the recovery process mentioned above involves giving your body adequate nutrition in order to properly fuel its recovery. This means eating clean, nutritious whole food. And lots of it.
Some would argue that eating “enough” is more important than eating “right” when it comes to building muscle and strength. There is some truth to this idea, but it’s not necessarily the best philosophy.
If you gained 50 pounds by sitting on the couch and eating only pizza and ice cream, a portion of that weight would likely be muscle. So you can eat crap and still gain some muscle. Loading up on meat and dairy will also fuel muscle gains, but it’s not a diet you want to adopt long-term.
The cleaner your diet, and the more nutritious whole foods you eat while training (and just in general), the better. Your body needs both macro and micro nutrients to perform optimally, so a balanced, well-rounded diet is best.
With a highly optimized diet and training program, you can build muscle and lose fat simultaneously. But if your focus is purely building strength, then this is not something you should really worry about.
At any rate, the dietary component of strength training can be largely accomplished by adhering to the following:
- Eat lots of food (3,000 to 6,000 calories a day depending on your size).
- As much as possible, eat real, unprocessed whole foods (like brown rice, black beans, nuts, leafy greens, fruits, etc.).
- Try to work into your meals 20g of protein every 3 hours.
- Drink lots of water and nothing else (no soda or other sugary drinks).
Be Consistent Over a Long Period of Time
For any strength training program to be effective, it must be followed consistently over a fairly long period of time. There’s no such thing as a “total body transformation” in 30 days. The sooner you accept that fact, the sooner you will get on the right path to making real gains. And the less money you will waste on stupid schemes.
If you’re a 19- to 25-year-old male, and you religiously follow an effective program and eat like crazy, you might gain 5 pounds of lean mass every month for a while. But if you’re anyone else, gains will likely come more slowly. But they will come if you do what you’re supposed to do.
You have to be consistent. You have to work hard day in and day out. Small gains add up over time, and before you know it, one year later you’ve added 30-40 pounds to your bench press and 75-100 pounds to your squat. And you have the increased muscle mass to show for it.
Turning Knowledge Into Action
You should now have a pretty clear understanding of the fundamental principles of strength training.
Ok, great. Now what should you do?
Start training. Start measuring. Start eating. And do it consistently.
You should consider starting one of the following strength training programs:
All of these programs are built on the fundamentals outlined here. Just pick one. If you follow it consistently, eat right, and get enough sleep, then you are sure to get stronger.
START DYNAMIC TRAINING