Strength is the foundation of everyday acts of athleticism (like hitting a 300-yard drive in golf) and not-so-human feats (like J.J. Watt’s 5’1″ box jump). Strength isn’t limited to muscle size and capacity. When you get stronger, you’re better able to lose weight, run faster, and hit harder.
Convinced you need to work on your strength? We’ve got 10 no-frills strength-training tips to help you make everything in your life feel just a little bit easier (and much lighter).
1. Own the “big four”
The squat, deadlift, bench press, and shoulder press are the best strength-training exercises, period. The chinup and row are great moves too, but don’t make them the focus of your workout—they can be assistance lifts to complement the bench and shoulder press, keeping your pulling muscles in balance with the pressing ones.
2. Use barbells first
Forget all the fad equipment. The barbell is king, dumbbell is queen, and everything else is a court jester—they may have their place, but they’re not essential. Start your workouts with barbell exercises, such as the “big four,” as described above. Barbells let you load a lot of weight, and lifting heavy is the first step toward getting stronger. Once your heaviest strength exercises are out of the way, you can move on to dumbbell and bodyweight training.
3. Keep it simple
Some trainers make their clients lift with a certain rep speed, like three seconds up, one second down. That’s great for advanced lifters, but if you’re just starting out know this: There’s no need to count anything but reps during a set. Simply focus on raising and lowering your weights in a controlled manner, pausing for a one-second count at the top of the lift. Using an arbitrary tempo can lessen tension on your muscles or force you to use varying amounts of weight, slowing your progress. The only way to be sure you’re getting stronger is if your loads consistently increase.
4. Maintain a log
Write down your exercises, sets, reps, and the fate of each workout. Keep track of your best lifts and the most reps you’ve done with a certain weight on an exercise. Constantly strive to improve those numbers.
5. Don’t overdo it
Try to stick to three or four lifts per workout. Keeping your workouts short helps you take advantage of hormonal surges. When you do too many exercises in a session, at least some of them get done half-assed. All you need is one main lift per workout (one of the big four), one or two assistance lifts (for keeping the body in balance and further strengthening the muscles that perform the main lift), then core or specialty work at the end (abs exercises or some forearms or calves moves, depending on your goals). Doing any more lessens your results.
6. Think five
You should rotate many different rep ranges in your workouts, but sets of five seem to offer the best blend of muscle size and strength gains. If you’re pushing through one of the big four moves during strength training, you’ll find that your form often breaks down after five anyway.
7. Add weights slowly
The main reason people plateau and stop gaining strength is that they go too heavy for too long. Abandon your ego and do your main lifts using 10% less than the most weight you can lift for the given rep range. Increase the weight each session — but by no more than 10 pounds — and stick with the same lifts. You’ll rarely plateau again.
8. Take to the hills
Cardio is a must if you want to be lean and healthy, but long-distance running or cycling increases levels of hormones that break down muscle tissue. To get stronger while getting leaner, do cardio in short, intense bursts. Go to a moderately steep hill and sprint to the top, then walk back down. When you’re ready, sprint again. In your first workout, do only half as many sprints as you think you could. In your next workout, do two more sprints than you did the first time. Continue adding two sprints to your workouts until you can’t improve anymore. Then do sets of sprints.
9. Balance your strength training
Whatever you do for one side of the body, you must do for the other side. Follow that rule in your workouts and you should be able to avoid injury and muscle imbalances. If you’re doing squats (mainly a quad exercise), also do Romanian deadlifts (which hit the hamstrings hard). Your chest exercises should be balanced with back-training lifts. You don’t necessarily have to do your balance work in the same session, but it should be done in the same week. In general, follow a ratio of two-to-one between your pulling-and-pushing movements. So if you bench-press on Monday (and most of the world seems to), you can do chinups on Tuesday and bent-over lateral raises on Thursday, for example. Every other pressing exercise you do should follow this formula.
10. Do it right
You may think you know how to perform the big four, but you could probably get more out of them. Here are some quick pointers for each one.
Squat: Begin the squat by pushing your hips back as far as you can. Keep your lower back arched and you should feel a stretch in your hamstrings. When your hips are bent, begin bending your knees and squatting low. This is what you need to squat maximal weight.
Deadlift: Use the same stance you would to perform a jump — your legs should be narrowly placed. When you bend down to grab the bar, keep your hips down and your back straight, with your shoulders directly over your knees.
Bench Press: Start with your head off the bench. Keeping your feet steady, grab the bar and pull your body up off the bench and forward, so that when your butt comes down on the bench your lower back is very arched. Squeeze your shoulder blades together. Your range of motion should be significantly shorter for stronger pressing.
Shoulder press: Flare your lats when the bar is at shoulder level. It will allow you to use more weight.