Developing good habits that last a lifetime means putting aside the idea of ‘always getting stronger’ and concentrating on ‘always staying strong’. Here’s how.
Here’s the thing. We as strength and conditioning experts have dropped the ball when it comes to the way we indicate progression for clients and ourselves. At its core, it’s true: strength is the most important thing anyone can train for through their lives. That’s irrefutable. But the problem comes when we think the only answer to continued gains is to keep finding ways to get stronger instead of finding ways to remain strong. There’s a big difference.
On a similar note, “getting stronger” usually goes hand-in-hand with adding weight to the bar, or placing the pin lower down on the stack. The idea of progressive overload is a tried, tested, and true method for making gains. However, it’s important to remember training has to be less about the program, and more about the lifter. And most mature adults have a few things that can get in the way of getting stronger and to that end, stronger with no ceiling. It becomes unrealistic, because of age, stress levels, injuries and leverages based on your height. Fortunately, you can easily find ways of challenging yourself in responsible and rewarding ways.
If you plan to be in the game for the long haul, it’s important to think about getting strong, then staying strong. Not constantly getting stronger. It’s smarter to create a game plan of being stronger than most people for your entire life, rather than being stronger than everyone for a few years at absolute best. This means if you really want to get built like an oak tree, then the two repetition maximums need to take the backseat so you can put your foundation to the test and under the microscope with unrelenting focus. Here are some of the best ways to achieve this.
Connect your Mind
This may sound hackneyed, but the mind-muscle connection will be more important to your gains as a lifter as you get older. The earlier you can learn this, the better off you’ll be. Be sure every rep of your set has purpose and exhausts every last relevant muscle fibre. This transcends traditional bodybuilding training too. It affects injury prevention and maintenance, strength training and even fat loss for calories burned. Personally, I’ve found listening to music and even shutting the eyes where it’s safe are great ways to dial in. I’ve also become a fan of not counting reps (especially for hypertrophy) and instead performing sets by feel.
Time under Tension
The difference between efforts that rely on strength, versus an effort that relies on work performed is one worth noting. Strength measures the ability to apply force against a resistance. Work measures the product of force and distance. You’re doing more work when you have to travel further with the object in question. Knowing this, the amount of reps you do matters, along with the tempo you use with a given weight.
Remember – lifting for 8 or 10 reps is still strength training. Maybe it doesn’t optimize the amount of benefits for bone density, connective tissue thickening and more that doing heavy triples will, but that’s not to say that those benefits immediately go out the window because your body can tell that you’re lifting your 8RM load instead. To achieve this, remove a plate off your load and focus on a four-second eccentric (lowering) phase. True strength is built through the amount of control you can display lowering loads, not in how much force you can apply when lifting them. You’ll be sure to notice the difference in training effect, especially when it comes to your rates of perceived exertion.
Another way to make your weight training a little more honest is to eliminate momentum. Adding pauses to your reps, either midway through your concentric and eccentric reps (that can really fix form up), or between directional changes can be a big help for not only your true strength, but also to salvage your joints. When you rush a negative rep, your joints have to absorb more force at the bottom, and your muscles will have to contract faster and harder to turn it around and change directions with the weight. That can wreak havoc on your joints and connective tissue, and ultimately be bad news for your personal bests. That’s the reason you don’t see powerlifters drop like a hot potato to make depth in a squat contest. A good tempo coupled with a pause will probably make for a rude awakening as far as your lifting max goes.
What Are You Working With?
Everything mentioned so far will force you, the lifter, to use lighter weight when training. But the good news is, it’ll still feel like the heavier loads you’ve been used to lifting. If you have a personal record of 400 pounds that you can perform for a shaky, gut-busting single, then that should mean that you can perform a whole bunch of party tricks with 275 or 300. Right? Truth is, most people are embarrassed to say that that 300-pound lift still looks like a shaky set of five, due to poor foundation. Until you can make that change, it should be your priority to improve your foundations, by using the techniques already mentioned as well as the following:
Focus on the ranges between your start and end points to zero in on a pump, minimal joint impact, and constant time under tension. It should be a burner and a half, with no break for your muscles to rest between reps.
In the case of big lifts like deadlifts, squats, strict press and bench press, the 1.5 rep method doubles up on the work of the prime movers of each respective lift by making it perform two reps for every rep the synergists perform. To do them, lower the weight to the bottom position, and then come up to the halfway point of your concentric rep. Next, lower the weight again to the bottom position, then perform a full rep all the way up to the top. All of that counts as 1 rep. Focus on sets of 5-8 reps.
Your Action Plan
It doesn’t take much beyond an honest discussion with yourself and some critical thinking regarding your programming to shift your efforts toward long-term training. Talk to anyone who is over 70 and still in terrific shape and you’ll find exactly how they approached things. And you can bet that none of them will say they got there by pushing their personal records year after year. They trained hard, but smart – and focused on other elements of their strength fitness.
EXPERT: Lee Boyce, strength trainer, former athlete and owner of leeboycetraining.com