Training with some frequency is relatively easy; relying on the process over the medium term is a bit tricky; but consistently increasing strength month after month or month after month is a big challenge. It requires smart training, good nutrition and ideal levels of sleep and stress. However, even when we seemingly do everything right, sometimes we don’t make progress.
Possibly, the three tips listed below will serve to change the perspective on gaining strength, and that is that it is often not taken into account as it should.
- HANDLE LESS FATIGUE AND EFFORT
One of the underlying mechanisms of strength gain is precisely to move away from fatigue. Yes, as you read, you don’t have to fatigue as much as you think to increase strength. This is something we have already discussed in other articles, but we will not tire of repeating it because day after day we continue to see the same mistake in the workouts of people who claim not to advance in terms of maximum strength: they try to improve by reaching muscle failure very frequently.
The adaptations that produce this effect are neural in nature and include:
An improvement in the coordination of the exercise performed . Since such improvements in coordination are quite speed-specific, there is no improvement or reduction in lifting performance at higher speeds; and
A reduction in antagonist coactivation levels, since these alterations are also likely to be quite speed-specific [2,3]. Antagonist coactivation is the extent to which muscles opposite to those performing the main movement are active and producing force. A higher level of antagonist coactivation reduces lifting performance, whereas a reduction in that coactivation increases performance.
In practical terms, improvements in coordination are more likely to be generated by improving movement skills. This can be done by providing feedback (visual or auditory), implementing an external focus of attention  and avoiding fatigue during exercise, as fatigue affects motor learning . To avoid fatigue when lifting heavy loads repeatedly, Cluster-type sets can be useful, as can longer rest periods between sets.
Practical methods to improve reductions in antagonist coactivation are unclear. However, it is very likely that reductions in antagonist coactivation occur through mechanisms similar to coordination. In fact, stability-specific strength gains are often the result of reductions in antagonist coactivation, so we can probably accelerate reductions in antagonist coactivation using the same methods we use to improve coordination.
Typically, typical muscle hypertrophy training, where we aim to be close to muscle failure, even though the repetition ranges are low (1 – 5 reps/set) is the perfect candidate for undesirable adaptations to occur in terms of performance, such as strength stagnation and speed reduction. To minimize these negative effects, the optimal approach to training would be to use the lowest training volume necessary to achieve progression and to use techniques that avoid incurring excessive fatigue during training, such as long rest periods between sets or cluster sets. While training volume cannot be easily reduced in well-trained individuals, unnecessary volume can be avoided.
The optimal approach to strength training would be to use the lowest training volume necessary to achieve progression (3 – 4 sets per exercise and no more than 7 sets per session totaling all exercises) and to use techniques that avoid incurring excessive fatigue during training (maximum RPE per set = 8), such as long rest periods between sets or clusters.
- USE VARIATIONS OF THE MAIN EXERCISES OUT OF PRUDENCE.
This should go without saying, but if something hurts, we won’t want to expose ourselves to the pain to get through it, however, common sense is not so common these days. Many lifters stubbornly endure the pain, thinking that somehow the ailment will just go away. Sometimes it does, but many times it doesn’t, and often an acute situation becomes a chronic one.
If our shoulders, elbows or wrists hurt when doing low bar squats, why not opt to do Safety Bar squats, front squats or high bar squats for a while?
And likewise, if our knees hurt, why do we stubbornly repeat the same deep squat pattern all the way to the floor? In this instance, low bar to high box squats may be an excellent alternative (not the only one). And if that doesn’t work, skip the squats for a while and focus more on the posterior chain with deadlifts and variations.
Low back in deadlifts is also a common ailment, either from excessive stiffness or real pain, but for whatever reason we don’t allow ourselves to rest on deadlift day…but we can do it!…not only can we, but we should. Opt for single leg work and also posterior chain work such as Bulgarian squats, Nordic dips, single leg glute bridges….
The list goes on and on.
This is precisely why it is useful to have a great toolbox (great knowledge of the variety of exercises); it allows you to train to avoid injury and/or nagging pain so that the problem heals and is no longer a hindrance. Whatever you do, don’t just stubbornly push yourself through an exercise if it doesn’t feel right. This rarely leads to good results.
Many, especially powerlifters, are so intent on specificity, that yes it is important, but if we feel pain it is more important to think about the long term. More joint-friendly variants could be done that allow for increased strength while persistent pain decreases, which prolongs athletic careers.
Using variants and alternatives to core exercises is useful, especially in high volume blocks or at times of the season when we can’t handle as much training load from core exercises for whatever reasons. This will allow strength to be developed while persistent soreness decreases, which prolongs sporting careers.
- DON’T OBSESS ABOUT GETTING THE JOB DONE FROM ALL ANGLES.
Flat bench press, barbell, dumbbell; then the incline, decline, crossovers… and let’s not talk about the back, with pull-ups, pull-ups, rowers, pullovers, even rack pulls or dead weights… many variations of movement patterns for all muscles, but if we want to increase strength, then you’ll have to compromise many of them.
Each muscle has countless ways to train it, and from a global perspective, it’s good to hit muscles from multiple angles, as long, of course, as it doesn’t interfere with strength gains if that’s our primary goal.
Exercise variations are more important for training with the goal of muscle hypertrophy , but for strength training it is not as important as it is the first point we have discussed in this article: to reduce fatigue as much as possible by achieving the maximum stimulus for strength that we can achieve.
This point seems to be placed in each session in the range of 4 to 7 sets per muscle group or per movement pattern; above that number of sets is probably more counterproductive in the medium term than beneficial . Therefore, given the need for movement specificity in maximal strength training – that is, given the need to practice, for example, bench press if I want to gain strength in bench press, or to practice any exercise in which I want to improve strength – the only way to train a muscle group or movement pattern from all angles would be to allocate 1 or 2 sets to each exercise, something that would not squeeze the maximum stimulus potential out of any of them.
Try performing a heavy strength movement first in the training session, such as squats, deadlifts, bench presses, pull-ups, military presses or rowing. Go heavy, regulate fatigue and, after that exercise, try to find some other exercise, multi-joint (fewer sets) or mono-joint (more sets), that complements the first one. After that, feel free to perform some movements of different main agonist muscle group. There will be time later in the week to attack other angles if you see fit. You want to stimulate, not annihilate.
Try performing a heavy strength movement first in the training session, such as squats, deadlifts, bench presses, pull-ups, deadlifts, military presses or rowing. Go heavy, regulate fatigue and, after that exercise, try to find some other exercise, multi-joint (fewer sets) or mono-joint (more sets), that complements the first one. After that, feel free to perform some movements of different main agonist muscle group. There will be time later in the week to attack other angles if you see fit. You want to stimulate, not annihilate.
Given the need for movement specificity in maximal strength training and the optimal range of sets per muscle group per session to achieve it (4 to 7 sets), try performing a heavy strength movement first in the training session, such as squats, deadlifts, bench presses, pull-ups, pull-ups, military presses or rowing. Go heavy, regulate fatigue (3 – 4 sets) and, after that exercise, try to find some other exercise, multi-joint (fewer sets) or mono-joint (more sets), to complement the first one.
FINAL THOUGHT ON INCREASING STRENGTH
Strength training is not extremely complex, but it is not simple either. Due to the multifaceted nature of human physiology, even when we control the variables, we cannot fully predict the response, and even less so if ego and ignorance come into play. Therefore, these three tips are based on theory and practice of effective methods to increase strength. Of course, it is up to each individual to adhere to a proper routine to have the best chance of success… And to make wise choices during the hours when you’re not in the gym.
Bibliography and references
Green, L. A., Parro, J. J., & Gabriel, D. A. (2014). Quantifying the familiarization period for maximal resistive exercise. Applied Physiology, Nutrition, and Metabolism, 39(3), 275-281.
Amarantini, D., & Bru, B. (2015). Training-related changes in the EMG-moment relationship during isometric contractions: Further evidence of improved control of muscle activation in strength-trained men. Journal of Electromyography and Kinesiology, 25(4), 697-702.
Balshaw, T. G., Massey, G. J., Maden-Wilkinson, T. M., Lanza, M. B., & Folland, J. P. (2019). Neural adaptations after 4 years vs 12 weeks of resistance training vs untrained. Scandinavian journal of medicine & science in sports, 29(3), 348-359.
Polsgrove, M. J., Parry, T. E., & Brown, N. T. (2016). Poor quality of instruction leads to poor motor performance regardless of internal or external focus of attention. International Journal of Exercise Science, 9(2), 10.
Branscheidt, M., Kassavetis, P., Anaya, M., Rogers, D., Huang, H. D., Lindquist, M. A., & Celnik, P. (2019). Fatigue induces long-lasting detrimental changes in motor-skill learning. Elife, 8, e40578.
Schoenfeld, B. (2020). Science and development of muscle hypertrophy. Human Kinetics.
Ralston, G. W., Kilgore, L., Wyatt, F. B., & Baker, J. S. (2017). The effect of weekly set volume on strength gain: a meta-analysis. Sports Medicine, 47(12), 2585-2601.