Strength is the foundation of (or can enhance) nearly any other athletic attribute. Speed, power, balance, and even endurance and flexibility can all benefit from proper strength training. To be clear, when I’m talking about strength I’m talking about moving heavy weight at low repetitions (five repetitions at the most). And doing sets of only one to three reps is my preferred range for getting stronger.
But before we get any further, let me come clean. . . I’ve never been very strong. The most I’ve ever pulled on a deadlift is 315 lbs and the most I’ve ever squatted is 265 lbs (at a bodyweight of 160 lbs). To those new to strength training, those numbers might sound solid. But to the well initiated, those numbers are not impressive. What I’m getting at is that if you’re new to strength training, I have good experience helping people get started and ensuring proper technique. But if you’ve been at the strength game for a while, you might want to check out some other resources such as those from Roger Lawson and JC Deen.
OK, so assuming you’re a newbie – where do you start? If you are new to fitness training, then you may not be sure what exercises to do or what pieces of equipment you should use when working on strength. This guide will help you navigate your journey of getting stronger from beginning to even intermediate stages. So go ahead and bookmark this page right now.
Begin With Bodyweight Exercises
Most people would not think of the push up or the bodyweight squat as effective exercises for building strength. But it all depends on your current fitness capacity. If you can’t do a single full range of motion push up, then you have no business getting on a bench for the bench press. If you can’t do a single full range of motion squat with just your bodyweight, then you have no business throwing a bar across your shoulders and stepping into the squat rack. In my experience, this is a very common scenario – years of atrophy from having your ass planted on a couch watching television or a desk chair in your cubicle without any physical activity can lead to the necessity to take things back to basics.
If you are brand new to fitness training, spend a good deal of time working on becoming proficient with the basic bodyweight exercises. Focus on proper skeletal alignment and joint angles, moving through the entire range of motion on each exercise, and efficient force output. Don’t be in a rush to jump into the free weights – you’ll only be tempting injury.
As long as you develop clean technique, you don’t have to stick with a bodyweight-only regimen for long. If you force me to give a set number of repetitions before you move on to free weights, I’d say to be able to do at least 10 push ups and 20 squats. But in reality those are pretty arbitrary numbers – the important thing is to develop some skill and confidence moving just your body through various planes of motion before adding external resistance.
But what about the pull up? I LOVE pull ups. But they are often outside of the beginner’s fitness capacity, so I’m going to save the pull up topic for another day. For now, I’ll just say that the pull up is my preferred exercise for developing upper body pulling strength.
Practice The Free Weight Exercises
Once you’ve developed some basic body-weight exercise proficiency, it’s time to move to the free weights. I prefer the barbell, but dumbbells can also be used. I recommend sticking to four basic exercises: squat, deadlift, standing overhead press (or push press), and the pull up. Ok, so the pull up does not require a barbell or dumbbells. But if you’re new to strength training, do your damned pull ups and don’t worry about adding extra weight at this point. In fact at this point, I’m recommending using relatively light weight for all of your lifts and focusing on technique as opposed to strength.
Say Whaaaaat? Hey Vic, at the beginning of this article I thought you said strength training was moving heavy weight for low reps?
‘Tis true, ’tis true. But you are not yet ready for the big weights Young Jedi.
First you must focus on skill acquirement. Just like learning how to tie your shoes or play the piano, learning how to do the basic strength exercises will require practice. And it is only during this “practice phase” that I recommend the stereotypical glossy fitness magazine prescription of three sets of ten repetitions per exercise.
You’re working on getting into a groove of proper technique in this phase, not piling on the weight. But you will get “stronger” – meaning you will be able to put more weight on the bar as this phase progresses. Just realize that the increased weights will likely be due to technique improvements as opposed to an increase in force output capacity from a muscular standpoint.
So how long do you stay in this practice phase? Until you feel comfortable and confident moving through each of the exercises with full range of motion. Again, I know that’s not a specific answer but cookie cutters do not forge the human body. . . but two to four weeks is a good ball park range to shoot for before you start putting some damned weight on the bar. . .
Put Some Damned Weight On The Bar!
So you can knock out push ups and bodyweight squats with no problem. And you’ve developed confidence in your technique with the barbell squat, deadlift, and overhead press by using low to moderate weight in a high rep range. Well then it’s time to put some damned weight on the bar!
But how much weight? This is where a training journal becomes crucial. Be sure to write down the exercises you do, the weight used, and the sets and reps for each training session. Start with a conservative estimate of a weight you feel you could life for 5 repetitions. And then try to lift it for 5 reps. Did you do the 5 reps? Did you only do 3? Did it feel like you could have done 8? Write it down. Adjust the weight accordingly for your next set.
But what about a specific program once you are ready to put some damned weight on the bar? The 5 x 5 program (do five repetitions for 5 sets of each of the basic strength exercises) can be very effective and you can find out more about it with a quick Google search. But my personal preference is for a rolling 1, 3, 5 repetition format and I’ve included a 6 week plan in PDF format below.
That’s right, all you have to do is right click the link below and then click “save link as” to get the complete six week program. No purchase necessary and no email opt-in required. Just remember I’m a hell of a guy and tell your friends where they can pick up this free strength guide.
Right click the link above and then click “save link as”.
What questions do you have have about building strength? What have you learned from your own strength building experience? Share your thoughts in the comments below.
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