Building Strength: The Step by Step Breakdown on How to Get Stronger
So, you want to be strong?
Gaining physical strength and becoming strong is an endeavor that is both grueling and in many ways noble in purpose, to improve and challenge yourself to become the best version of yourself possible. However, the journey to becoming strong can be complex and offers many challenges.
There are many ways to become stronger and improve physical strength and just as many ways to do it incorrectly and cause an injury or poor results.
In this article, we’ll be defining strength training and how to do it correctly, common misconceptions, the basic background knowledge to get started and some examples of diets and training plans to help you become strong!
An overview of strength training
Strength training is an art and skill almost as old as humanity itself, and for centuries we have had a basic or fundamental understanding of how the process takes place.
This might be evidenced by the tale of Milo of Croton, who according to legend as a child carried a new-born calf up a mountain each day to get water. This became tradition and as the calf grew, so did Milo’s strength as he progressively carried a slightly larger object, culminating in his ability to carry a full-grown bull that was once the new-born calf.
That story is an ancient yet poignant example of the three primary principles of strength training: The stimulus to adaptation model, progressive overload, and specificity of the task.
1) Understanding Stimulus, Response, and Adaptation: Recovery is Crucial
First and foremost, anyone interested in becoming strong must understand the stimulus-adaptation model.
Any workout or training we do from pushups to bench press is delivering a stimulus to the body and muscles. Our bodies will fight to compensate for the fatigue or stress induced by this new stimulus, causing us to fatigue.
The magic happens afterwards; our bodies naturally rebel against new stresses and create responses to combat them, this leads to super-compensation.
In other words...
Because the stimulus created fatigue, processes in our body help to strengthen the muscles and prepare for that same stimulus to come as we recover.
If we do the exact same workout once we have recovered sufficiently, it will be easier than the first time we did it because our body knew what to prepare for. Thus, each subsequent workout has to deliver a slightly different stimulus to consistently push the body to adapt, or become stronger.
2) Progressive Overload: Strength is Created by Physical Stress
The second key principle of understanding strength training is to constantly stress or overload our muscles with slightly more than they currently handle each workout, which will over time create strong muscles that have adapted to the progressive stress.
Muscles must be stressed and forced to work against resistance in order to grow.
As you become more advanced in your training, you may want to use different forms of periodization to work in rest periods or de-load weeks to give your body additional time to recover and then train hard again.
3) Specificity: Know Your Goal and Train Accordingly
Finally, our bodies are smart enough to figure out what we’re trying to accomplish and will adapt accordingly.
Thus, the third primary principle of strength training is specificity, or our workouts and training should be specific to our goal. If you’re goal is to put on size then you should be a following a bulk or mass –style workout as compared to a strength oriented workout, or a conditioning or fat-loss workout.
This also includes training with the correct form and technique, and the reps, sets, tempo and other factors that can determine the purpose or training effect of a program. Knowing and understanding your primary goal and training accordingly is crucial to seeing the strength gains needed.
Five common misconceptions about building strength
1) Strength training and weight training are the same thing.
Weight training is a popular and very effective component of many strength-training programs; however, it is not a prerequisite to becoming strong. Resistance comes in many forms and could be in the form of weights and barbell but could also be our own bodyweight, a partner or other person, bands, or items you may find ordinarily in your life.
2) You have to go to a gym to become strong.
Gyms make it very convenient to become strong and offer many options such as trainers, special machinery and other conveniences to make becoming stronger an easier task, however it is not necessary. There are many examples of people becoming very strong in home gyms, using body weight only exercises, or other circumstances.
3) Bulking and putting on mass are the same as becoming strong.
Muscle size and mass is helpful in improving strength, however strength and size are not synonymous. Strength is developed not only through our muscles ability to contract but more specifically the ability of our nervous system to recruit more muscle fibers when performing a lift. More muscle size may increase our overall potential to lift more and become stronger, but size alone does not equal strength.
4) Becoming strong will make you look like a body builder or un-natural.
Body builders and figure competitors are some of the most devoted people on the planet, it is important to remember that in order to look like a figure competitor, you will have to have a similar commitment to diet and a specific training regimen that produces those results. Getting strong will give you an incredible physique to be sure over time, but thinking it will create an unnatural look for you is probably something you don’t need to worry about.
5) Putting on muscle and strength will make you slow, un-flexible or prone to injury.
In fact, it is just the opposite. A properly performed strength training program will increase our ability to produce force and thus improve our speed. Lifting with a full range of motion along with a proper warm up and cool down will actually improve flexibility, and strength training help us to build resilience in our joints to potentially risky situations or injuries rather than cause them. Usually, an injury that occurred from strength training is someone who was not utilizing proper training methods.
The Basics of Getting Stronger Properly
1) The Primary Movement Patterns and a Balanced Program.
Strength training can be boiled down in simplest form to 6 primary motions or movements that must be trained. Even more simply, most strength exercises can be classified into either a push or a pull. For our lower body, we can simplify strength training into exercises where movement occurs primarily at the knee joint, such as squats or a push, and exercises where movement occurs primarily in the hips, such as deadlifts or a pull. In our upper body, we can push both horizontally (bench press or pushups) and vertically (overhead presses). Conversely, we also can pull horizontally (rowing motions) and vertically (pull ups). For a simple and yet effective three-day total body strength program, if each day included a variation of all 6 primary movements with a balance of push and pull exercises, you’d be on the way to becoming fairly strong with a solid program.
2) Know the Numbers
In addition, the number or variables in your training program are important. If your goal is to build strength, your sets, reps, tempo and when applicable percentages of one-rep maxes matter. These numbers can vary greatly as you advance farther into your training, but a good initial outline would be 3-5 sets of 3-6 reps per exercise, generally with a tempo of 3 seconds down, a one second pause, and one second up, at 70-80% of a one rep maximum on a given exercise. A full example is available in the program below, however as an example we might do 4 sets of 4 reps of bench press at 80% of our one rep max, with a tempo of 3 seconds down, one second pause and one second up.
To gain strength, nutrition is critical to provide the fuel needed to improve our strength. We should strive to get a good amount of lean protein, complex carbohydrates, and good fats with every meal along with plenty of vegetables and water. In addition, to truly break through plateau’s, a pre-workout drink of protein should be consumed, a branched chain amino acid (BCAA) drink should be consumer during the workout, and a protein shake or supplement and possibly creatine should be consumer ideally within thirty minutes of the end of the workout for maximal strength gains.
As discussed earlier, the workout is the stimulus, but the gains happen during our recovery window. Thus, recovery is vital to seeing improvement over time. The elements of proper recovery include getting enough sleep at night (ideally 8-10 hours or as close as possible), and a high quality of sleep with lots of REM time. Nutrition and hydration are also crucial as they provide the fuel needed for our body to replace the energy expended during a training session. Finally, there are a variety of therapeutic methods such as self-myofascial release, active release technique, yoga and PNF stretching that can help to improve recovery in between training sessions.
Biomechanics: Good Form and Technique are Critical
Strength training follows the principle of specificity, and in order to get the most from your training and build strength, your technique and form must be flawless to get the best results. While every exercise has its own unique technical issues (which you should work with a coach or trainer if you aren’t sure how to do these exercises properly), there are a few key points to keep in mind for proper form.
1) Tempo and Time Under Tension
Muscles grow when they are stressed, and for building strength they need time under tension or duress. This means that rather than lifting as fast as possible, it is instead to use a very strict and deliberate tempo
2) Use Proper Breathing
Proper breathing is crucial to executing a technically sound exercise or lift. It allows to control our respiration and blood pressure and using proper breathing will help overcome sticking points tough portions of a particular lift. Using bench press as an example, you should be inhaling just after un-racking the bar, hold the breath until you have dropped the bar to your chest, then use a powerful exhale while driving the bar back up.
3) Use A Spotter or Lifting Partner
Lifts that require you to be under the bar or heavy weight such as the bench press or back squat require a spotter to be done safely, as they can help you to finish a rep and avoid being crushed by the bar or possibly injured. However, a good spotter or lifting partner also acts as a coach and watchful eye that can let you know if you are using proper technique.
How to Warm Up Properly and Avoid Injuries
A proper warm up is a crucial component in reducing the chances of injury while lifting and getting the best results from your training sessions. A good warm up accomplishes several key tenets:
- Increases the body’s core temperature.
- Increases blood flow to the muscles.
- Prepares the body for the muscles and movements that will be used.
- Prepares the body and central nervous system for how much weight will be used in the workout.
The Best Foods for Building Strength — Sample Diet and Meal Plan
Building strength requires the right diet. This is not to be confused with a mass gaining diet or a weight loss diet necessarily, strength requires plenty of fuel to burn and the right kind of fuel. As a general rule, the diet should consist of lean proteins, complex carbohydrates, healthy fats, and lots of water. This may be supplemented by protein, creatine, and BCAA supplements. While everyone’s diet is particular to their tastes, a sample diet plan would follow a similar outline to below, assuming you work out in the afternoon. If you work out in the morning then you would have to make some adjustments but the overall outline would remain the same.
Breakfast: Lean Protein, vegetables, complex carbs, healthy fats, water
- Omelet with 4-6 eggs, avocado, and various vegetables
- Oatmeal with berries, flax seed, and cinnamon
Lunch: Lean Protein, vegetables, complex carbs, water
- 1 or 2 Grilled Chicken Breasts
- Brown Rice or a Sweet Potato
- Salad with various vegetables and a light oil or vinaigrette topping
Pre-Workout: 30-45 minutes prior to training session, consume a pre-workout preparatory drink
During the Workout: Consume a BCAA (branched chain amino acids) with water
Post-Workout: Within 30 minutes of completing a workout, consume at least 30g of protein plus creatine to maximize strength gains
Dinner: 2-3 Hours after workout or sooner if possible. Lean Protein, Complex Carbs, Healthy Fats, Water
- Salmon Fillet
Snack Before Bed: Protein and healthy fats, small snack so as not to bloat overnight
- Whole wheat toast with almond butter and a protein shake mixed with flax oil.
How to Get More Strength & Power — A Sample Workout Plan with the Best Exercises to Build Strength
Here's a free downloadable chart that you can print out and track your results every month. Click to download it.
Common Questions About the Best Ways to Build Freakish Strength
Q: Why Do I Need to Build Strength?
A: Strength is a key component of our bodies health and a functional quality we all need to succeed in daily life. While you may not have interest in becoming a competitive weight lifter or physique competitor, you still need strength to accomplish basic activities through the day such as carrying groceries, picking up your kids, moving heavy items in your house, and the list goes on.
Q: Do I need to belong to a gym?
A: No, while a gym may certainly be helpful, you can also get plenty strong using strictly your own bodyweight or other non-traditional implements as well as long as you are sticking to the fundamentals of proper form, diet and supplementation.
Q: Do I need a trainer or coach?
A: While we certainly recommend it, if you stick with the basics outlined in this article you can build a solid base level of strength through the basic movements and a good diet. To get to the next level or move on to more advanced training concepts, we certainly recommend getting with a coach and upgrading your supplement game as well.
Q: Does the old saying “no pain, no gain” apply?
Not particularly, while stress and muscle fatigue are part of the building process, pain is never something that should accompany a lift. You may experience delayed onset muscle soreness or other symptoms that are uncomfortable, however in those cases remember that the workout is the stimulus and the growth happens in those times of soreness, and a great diet, supplement and recovery plan is crucial to seeing improvements.
Q: How Often Should I Train?
A: There are a number of different training schemes possible, the one included with this article is for three days a week, with a day of rest between each training session. However, depending on your own personal schedule you may need to do two, three or four days a week. The most important component is establishing a schedule and sticking to it.
Q: What are your best supplements for getting stronger?
A: While all of our strength supplements are selectively chosen for bulking up, our top recommendations are: The Power Stack, Creatine, Muscle Attack, Test-1 Boost, BCAAs, Whey Better Protein, and Glutamine.