How to get STRONG!

Nothing impresses me more than walking into the gym and seeing somebody pull 6 plates from the floor on a deadlift, squat 5 plates ass to grass or control 4 plates bench press to their chest, pause and then rep it. Strength has always fascinated me and it will always impress me, far more than some of these “mass monsters” bodybuilders you see nowadays.

Below I outline 5 key points to help make you STRONG, and I’m specifically talking about those big 3 lifts; squat, bench and deadlift.


1. It’s not all about 10-12…

First of all you need to understand that there is a difference between training for size (hypertrophy) and training for strength. Of course it isn’t black and white, it’s a long continuum with a grey area in the middle, but there is a difference.

Many gym goers have never really explored outside of the 3 or 4 sets of 10-12 reps. It’s safe, it’s what everyone does so it must be right?

Well it’s not optimal if you’re looking to build true STRENGTH. In order to see progression in your 1RM (rep max) you need to train heavy! By heavy I mean 85% + of your 1RM for 1-5 reps, spread over multiple sets.

So let's use Jim as an example and his 1RM squat is 100kg (easy maths!)

Jim is used to going to the gym and squatting 60-70kg (60-70% of his max) for 3 sets of 10 reps. He can do this ok, and the last few reps are a bit of a struggle.

But if Jim wants to see his 100kg progress to 140kg he needs to set his training up differently e.g.

5 sets of 5 reps on 80kg (80% of 1RM)


6 sets of 3 reps on 85kg (85% of 1RM)

Training like this will build true strength and over time, will see Jim progress and get stronger as opposed to always hitting 10-12 reps.

Once Jim’s 1RM is stronger e.g. let’s say over 3 months it progressed to 125kg. This will have a huge carry over benefit for when Jim switches back to training for size, because when he performs 3 set of 10 reps on 60% of his 1RM he will be using 75kg not 60kg. Hence why strength training and hypertrophy have a huge carry over.


2. Slow down…

Now it’s not often I use this phrase in the gym with clients, but when it comes to strength training it’s relevant!

Lets get one thing clear at the start… strength training is boring! As we have established in the first paragraph we need to train for multiple sets of 80%+ of our 1RM. Therefore we also need to rest longer in between sets to fully recover (I would recommend 2-3 minutes between sets).

There is no point in Jim lifting 85kg for 3 reps and then trying to go again 45-60s later. He will maybe get 1 rep out and then fail with ugly form on his 2nd rep (sorry Jim).

Between sets take those 2-3 minutes, let your body recover and you can keep lifting at a higher percentage of your maximum threshold.


3. It’s ok not to fail…

There is a mentality in the gym and it has been going for years, that every last set MUST be taken to failure and then add a drop set as well for good luck!!

If some people don’t go to failure (#beastmode) they feel it wasn’t worth going to the gym for. I’m not saying pushing yourself to failure hasn’t got a place in a training program, what I’m saying is that sometimes training SMART can lead to more progression and certainly more strength in the long run.

If you enter the gym following a strength training program, you’re doing deadlifts and the sets and reps are 6 x 3. You need to select a weight 80-85% of your 1RM and look to complete all the sets and reps.

Many people will get carried away and feel the need to add another 10kg, “Go on mate its your last set, push yourself” and then end up failing. That failure after 1 rep on the deadlift will zap your nervous system, be performed with piss-poor technique which your body will remember for the next time you train, it will be engrained in you.

Remember many top Olympic weight lifters will train for most of the year without taking lifts to failure and the world’s best dead lifters will rarely do a 1 rep max. They will be mastering technique, engraining the movement pattern and building confidence.


4. Frequency is key…

If you’re looking to get stronger at a certain lift you need to be training that exercise more than once per week.

Frequency is key, and the more times you perform that movement pattern the better you will become at it. Referring to Olympic power lifters again, they will squat 5-6 times per week, sometimes even a lot more. This reinforces point 3, not everything has to be taken to failure.

Squatting and deadlifting are very different to arm curls and a seated shoulder press. They are complex movement patterns and a skill which you have to learn. The more you perform that skill the more efficient you will become at it.

I recently had a client who told me his goal was to get better at pull-ups. I asked him how often he did pull ups, he replied saying, “Every Thursday in my back workout”.

My first bit of advice to him was, “Start doing pull-ups at the beginning of your workouts Monday, Wednesday and Friday.” Practice a new skill at beginning of your workout while you’re mentally alert and not fatigued at the end of a workout.

Start doing pull-ups x3 per week and don’t ever go to failure, just keep building reps and practicing the skill and if you keep doing this for 4-6 weeks I 100% guarantee your pull-ups will improve… and he did :)


5. Record or regress…

If you don’t record your lifts you’re basically just training in the dark and guessing. You need to take out the guesswork and set yourself tangible goals.

Below is an example of progression:

Week 1
Set 1 - 90kg x5 reps
Set 2 - 90kg x5 reps
Set 3 - 90kg x5 reps
Set 4 - 90kg x5 reps
Set 5 - 90kg x5 reps

=2,250 kg total volume across 5 sets

Week 2
Set 1 - 90kg x5 reps
Set 2 - 90kg x5 reps
Set 3 - 90kg x5 reps
Set 4 - 90kg x5 reps
Set 5 - 92.5kg x5 reps

=2,262.5 kg total volume across 5 sets

Above is an example of progression by an increase in resistance over time. It’s only small but when you repeat this system for just a small period e.g. 6 weeks you will get great results. This progression over months and years is how you will change a physique.

If you’re looking to get stronger you need to INCREASE VOLUME OVER TIME aka “Progressive Overload”

So remember if your goal is STRENGTH take these 5 points into consideration, but also if your goal is SIZE these 5 points are still relevant and have a huge carry over!