Simple Strength Training Tips
By Todd Bumgardner, MS, CSCS ProSource
Workout Strategies That Lay Down the Foundation for Strength and Power Gains
I haven't always believed that experience trumps all. When I was younger, I stood brazenly at science and organized education's pulpit. Now that I've grown in experience, I'm not so brazen.
There's a point--it's a little more than five years, but a few years shy of ten into a fitness-oriented career--where science, education and experience merge into understanding. At this point we start to grow.
I'm a few years into my growth and I'm continuing to learn. Every day in the gym teaches me a lesson. Most often that lesson is one of simplicity.
Come to think of it, I still don't believe experience trumps all. Every training day culminates in experience based on a grand science experiment. It's the combination that simplifies training and bolsters its efficacy.
Simplify, simplify, simplify. Great thinkers say the constant repetition of simplification is the key that unlocks a happier life. I'm positive that I'm not qualified to comment on the opinions of great thinkers, but I'm certain that it's the simple tricks that make training more productive. Here are six that I've learned thus far.
Before we initiate any movement our nervous system sets out to accomplish two goals: find balance and protect the spine. Without the stability that these two functions promote, our brain enacts its governor function, limiting the neural drive to our muscles and killing power output. That's what makes torque so important; creating torque at the hips and shoulders generates balance and fashions tension that protects the spine.
Before starting any big lift (squat, deadlift, bench, etc.), create torque at the hips by "screwing" the feet into the ground with external rotation. No matter the exercise, "break the bar" with the hands to create external torque at the shoulders.
Without exaggerating, I'll state that I have to coach every client on breathing. It's the most automated bodily process and everyone messes it up. Before this gets confusing, let me clarify. The problem isn't getting the air in and back out again. Everyone seems to do that without any hiccups. The problem is where the air goes when it enters the body.
Most people shoulder breathe. Rather than sending air into the lower lobes of their lungs, and subsequently filling their belly with air, they elevate their shoulders and breathe shallowly. This elicits a stress response, resulting in the unnecessary use of adrenaline that puts a high load on the autonomic nervous system. Remember the CNS governor we talked about in the previous tip? Well, that comes into play here too.
Deep belly breaths activate the diaphragm and the muscles of the pelvic floor. When these muscles activate it takes your brain off the brakes and puts your neurons on the gas. So to keep your stress levels low, and to put more weight on the bar, get your air low and into your belly.
Build the Deadlift Before the Squat
The Yankees and the Red Sox. Michigan and Ohio State. The squat and the deadlift. These *****ries have thrived for years and they won't be disappearing anytime soon.
Many proclaim with vigor the squat is the king of all lifts. An equal sum hold the deadlift as their champion. It's a futile war.
In reality, it's inconsequential. Both build muscle and strength at fantastic rates when programmed well. Sequencing, however, is of some consequence. A strong squat rests solidly on a strong posterior chain. The bricks and mortar that solidify the posterior chain are laid by the deadlift.
Most often, people squat poorly because they don't have the hamstrings, glutes, spinal erectors and lats to support the movement. A powerful squat rests on a pillar of posterior chain. Build the pillar first with deadlifting while working on squatting skill.
Start Too Light
We're all overzealous. We want progress and we want it fast. In the past this drove me to exercise the logic that more weight is always better. Keep stacking plates on; if the bar moves it's not too heavy. Out of all the points I'll make in this article, this is the most important. It's always better to start too light and stay too light.
Training with near max weights all of the time puts a severe load on the central nervous system--one that's hard to recover from. This isn't just one rep max, I'm talking rep maxes too. I learned this lesson the hard way in 2010 when I decided it would be a great idea to pull 440 for 10 reps. I was only supposed to pull it for three. When in doubt, leave a few reps in the tank and move the weight fast. You'll live to train another day.
Pick One Goal
A lot of guys tell me that they want to be huge and ripped.
I think that's what we all want. Well, I like to toss the word strong somewhere in the sentence before huge, but that might just be me.
Training becomes a problem when all these goals are worked towards concurrently. I'm not saying that human physiology isn't capable of the task; but human psychology is an issue.
It's the common story of too many pokers in the fire. Trying to accomplish everything at once won't accomplish anything; focus is lost and a discouraging view waits in the mirror. Narrow the goal list down and set priorities.
I'll tell you, though, I believe there is a progression that sets lifters up for success.
Start by setting strength goals and accomplishing them. Make sure the weights seem slightly unreasonable when you're viewing them on paper. Once the strength goals are accomplished, get big. You'll have the base of strength necessary to gain monstrous mass. Of course, the gain in strength and the use of large iron will already have filled out your frame. Finish with body comp goals; they take the most dedication and discipline.
You're climbing a ladder. There's no sense in worrying about the second rung if you haven't taken care of business on the first.
Use Recovery Methods
Progress is made during the hours we're not training. Of course, if you're training like you carry a purse on your shoulder, recovery isn't an issue. Since you're stopping by ProSource, I'll take it for granted that your training is spirited.
Training like a monster requires active recovery planning. It starts with sound nutrition and sleep, but there are a few more elements that are necessary for allostasis--the process of adaptation. Here's my short list:
Epsom salt baths: The magnesium promotes muscle relaxation and healthy function. The warmth feels nice.
Ice baths: Cold works too. The cold water promotes microtrauma healing and will promote blood flow after you're done with tubbing. Water temperatures in the fifties work well and it only takes five to ten minutes. It may seem like an eternity once you're sitting in frigid water; but trust me, you'll go numb.
Contrast showers: If hot and cold work well on their own, they must work well together. The process is simple: turn the water up as warm as you can stand it for a minute and contrast that with as cold as you can stand it for a minute. Do this for five cycles-ten total minutes. Cold water pushes blood out of the muscles-the hot water that follows immediately after rushes oxygen and nutrients into the muscles.
It's always the simple things that make us better. Simple tips lead to simple training that's simply productive.