how to get strong, really strong.

the hard part

I started weight lifting when i was around 15, 16 and like most new endeavours – I sucked at it. I could barely press 30KG, my form was sloppy and I was definitely heading in the right direction for an injury.

Regardless of how I felt towards my performance in the gym, here in lies the most fundamental value I discovered when starting anything new – the will to act. Now as valuable as it is to find your own autonomy, I would be in remiss If I didn’t identify that action is nothing without a practice of consistency.

Here’s a funny truth among personal trainers, the real reason you’re paying £40 an hour is not for our fancy workout programmes that will “get you ripped in 30 days” – you can find that information anywhere. The real reason you’re paying us is because you lack consistency; believe me, where there is investment, there is motivation to be consistent. The best personal trainers I know don’t just leave you with the desired improvements in physique and performance, but will have instilled in you a powerful tool you can administer with success to all areas of your life – discipline.

If you can do something every single day without incident, no matter how small, which is devoted to a singular greater objective, now that’s a powerful thing. It is in these incremental steps we truly manifest our ambitions – some call this ‘the law of attraction’.

the easy bit

So you’ve created a habit of getting yourself to the gym X times a week and now all you’ve got to do is make a workout plan. Now, since the topic of discussion is strength let’s talk about some basic parameters I would invite you to consider on this journey towards moving biblical weight. The first is pretty simple, in order for you to move a greater resistance, you need to recruit greater amounts of muscle. This is called a compound exercise, which is to say a movement that requires the use of multiple muscle groups to perform. Here are some examples of my favourites below:

  • The squat
  • The deadlift
  • The bench press
  • The barbell row
  • The over head press

Now, before you go all Arnold on me and throw all these exercises into your Monday routine, I’d like to bring your attention back to the long term goal here. The problem with incorporating all these exercises on a single day is that they all follow different patterns of movement – you might seriously consider googling your symptoms the next day to discover you are actually just ‘broken’. Consider breaking these movements up into pushing patterns, pulling patterns and hip hinging patterns or legs for the sake of avoiding confusion. This is a training split I still use to this day as it helps me stay on track with the exercises I pick through creating an internal dialogue: “am I pulling or pushing in this exercise”.

set yourself up for success

Having “good form” is hopefully a phrase you’re all familiar with, in short this is simply a way of ensuring the body is moving in a manor that is not only going to put you at a mechanical advantage, but greatly reduce the risk of injury.

The simplest way I find when trying to convey a sense of structural integrity in my clients is to consider their posture and even more specifically your skeleton. Let’s take the deadlift for example. If you’re not familiar with this movement, it involves picking the barbell up from the ground or a ‘dead’ position and standing up – simple right?

Conveniently enough, I find the deadlift an exceptional movement to teach when promoting good posture with my clients, this is because the finishing position forces the body upright in a tall standing stance. This is why I often engage in this movement by first asking myself, what does my best posture look like? Secondly, I physically engage in this mental image through contracting the muscles then I need in order to achieve this idea good posture.

Here are some useful mental cues that force me into good posture from the ground up:

  • Stand shoulder width apart with your feet firmly planted on the floor.
  • With soft knees, imagine spreading the floor with your feet.
  • Imagine a holding a coin between your buttocks – squeeze the cheeks.
  • Breathe in and contract the abdominals.
  • Flare the chest out and imagining tucking the shoulder blades into your back pockets.
  • Keep the head nice and tall, look straight ahead.

Now with some luck, you should feel like there’s a piece of string rooted from the top of your head, pulling your spine taught towards the ceiling, like the world’s strongest marionette. This is truly fighting gravity.

execute the pattern

Hopefully if you’ve made it this far, you’re ready for the fun part – training! Pick an exercise you would like to master, for me as a typical young egotistical male, it was always going to be the bench press.

Create good mental cues that you can subconsciously tick off before you execute the movement – make these meticulous in detail, to the point where they become almost unconscious in behaviour. Even now when I think about being underneath that bar, my body knows the routine better than I do – the order my hands grip the bar to the placement of each individual finger.

For any new exercise, start off light and feel your way through the desired movement. The funny thing about training for strength is it’s not so much a product of the size of your muscles, but as a result of your nervous system knowing this particular pattern of pushing or pulling inside and out.

Now, I’m not going to bore you with specific workout plan, that’s not my MO. Instead, I want to inspire you to think. Typically, you’re going to want to follow something that’s high in intensity and low in volume. Something like 5 reps by 5 sets would be a good place to start.

It’s amazing to see the look of surprise in my clients after their strength sky rockets after only a few weeks of training this way, which is then subsequently followed by a tone of disappointment as they fail to see the same results in the mirror. The reality here being is that the body prioritises efficiency above all else; this efficiency presents itself in motor unit adaptation, meaning the body will only get better at recruiting more muscle fibres you already have.

With consistency, discipline and hard work you’ll build a physique like a well oiled machine – lean, strong and most of all efficient. Soon enough, there will come a time, like me, where your ego will get the better of you and it won’t be enough – you need to grow to get to the next level.

To do this you’ll need muscle and building muscle, well, that’s a whole different story altogether.

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Clinical Exercise Scientist

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