As coaches it can be easy to get caught up with trying to make our client’s sessions as difficult as possible.
Who knows the reason why this happens? Maybe it stems from a lack of trust in our programming, the pressure to produce results, or even just straight up sadism.
Whatever the reason is, sometimes this happens to the detriment of the client’s results.
I say this is because often I see coaches, in an attempt to make client’s session as tough as possible, completely abandon the fundamental principles of the training effect that they’re trying to produce.
As an example, I’ve seen a coach take a client whose goal was to build strength and muscle, and program them a finisher of Turkish Get Ups and Burpees – not exactly two exercises that I’d say are highly conducive to the goal at hand.
And I think that this is a very natural career progression for a lot of coaches, as I tend to find that the seasoned coaches trust their programs, and their ability to deliver results, a lot more than the younger ones (who often compensate for this by overcooking the intensity of their sessions).
This is why we teach our coaches to always fall back to the principles of the training goal that they’re trying to achieve.
Today I want to cover some of the more frequently missed fundamentals of building strength.
The benefits of increased strength are numerous and well known. Regardless, we’ll recap a few of these benefits, particularly as they relate to our general population clients –
- Increased strength carries over to better function in day-to-day tasks – whether it’s carrying groceries, playing with your children, or moving household furniture, or any number of other tasks.
- Strength training leads to better bone density, which in turn can decrease the likelihood over developing arthritis.
- Further to this point, we tend to lose strength and power as we age, which can not only decrease movement capacity, but also increase our risk of falls which plague the elderly population.
- Strength is the precursor to developing any number of other athletic qualities, notably speed and power.
- Last but not least, increased strength gives way to building more muscle (through increasing intensity), which improves how we look – which is the reason that most folks train with us.
With that being known, systematically increasing strength (without necessarily making it the sole focus) should be a priority for a coach when training most PT clients.
But in order to do that, you need to understand the basic tenets of how to build strength.
That’s where these tips come into play – eight simple, effective, and practical ways to improve your client’s strength progress.
Let’s get into it.
1) Learn How To Set Up Properly
There’s actually a lot of technique involved in ‘setting up’ for any of the three major lifts. Setting up properly is first and foremost a safety issue – when you’re set up in the correct position from the start, and engaging the right musculature, you’re less likely to injure yourself.
Secondly, it’s important to maximise force transfer and total strength output. For maximal strength you want every muscle possible contributing to the lift, and to do this you need to set up properly.
Here are some things that you need to think about with each of the major lifts. It’s by no means comprehensive, as setting up properly for each lift could be an article series in and of itself –
- Deadlift –chin tucked, lats engaged, hamstrings tight, maintain core stiffness, get a belly of air, crush the bar in your hands.
- Squat –chin tucked, lats engaged, maintain core stiffness, pull the back hard against your back, spread the floor with your feet.
- Bench –set the shoulder blades into the bench, push hard into the floor, squeeze your glutes, try to spread the bar with your hands.
Learn how to coach your clients through setting up properly and you should see some instant improvements in strength.
2) Take Singles At Or Over 90%
If you want to significantly develop your absolute strength, you need to have at least some of your training volume at, or over, 90% of your 1RM.
What I mean by that is that if you want to maximise strength, particularly if you’re an intermediate or advanced lifter, sometimes you need to lift really heavy stuff for very low reps.
There’s no way around it – it’s the simply principle of specificity, you get good at what you train for.
So if you’ve been training for strength for a while and haven’t training at those intensity ranges, start with adding multiple sets (4-5+) of singles or doubles at or slightly above 90% of 1RM.
3) Don’t Go To Failure
Absolute strength work favours quality over quantity.
To maximise progress you want to avoid failing on max effort lifts. Really, you want to avoid all ‘grindy’ looking reps in general, too. That’s why I recommend keeping max effort work closer to that 90% range, versus cranking it all the way up to 100%.
And if you mess up and fail on a set of heavy singles or doubles, don’t sweat it, just count the failed set as two sets and get on with it.
Just don’t make it a regular habit.
4) Push The Bar As Fast As Possible
Speed is a crucial component for strength gains. The faster we activate motor units, the faster we can express our strength as power.
We can teach the nervous system to activate these MU’s more rapidly in two main ways – intent of speed, and actual speed.
Relevant to this tip, the intention to push whatever implement we’re using (be it a barbell, dumbbell, or kettlebell) as quickly as possible during every rep of every set is crucial.
Even if the actual bar speed isn’t that great, the intent is what counts.
5) Do Speed Work
The second way that we can train our nervous to activate our MU’s faster is by doing actual speed work i.e. moving the bar/body whatever quickly.
So whilst intention is one side of the coin, training ‘fast’ is equally important.
We can do this in a few ways, but I’m going to leave you with two –
- Dynamic Effort (DE) Work –doing sets of low reps (2-3) of lifts with between 50-70% of your 1RM whilst executing the reps as quickly as possible.
- Sprinting/Jumps –adding in low volumes of movements that are fast naturally, like sprints
Sometimes you’ve got to train fast if you want to be fast.
6) Rest Longer
Max effort (ME) sets have a high demand on the nervous system’s (NS) ability to recover between sets – which means that you need to take longer rest periods to recover from higher intensity (i.e. sets closer to your 1RM) sets than you do from lower intensity ones.
Most lifters don’t rest anywhere near long enough between sets of >90% sets, often keeping them to 2-minutes or less. This will be compromising your ability to recover between sets, and will affect how well you’re able to maintain your strength across multiple sets.
Resting for 3-5 minutes between sets of ME lifts will give the NS adequate time to recover, and keep your strength levels up.
Note – this is a big reason why we rarely introduce too much ME work into our client’s programs at Rapid, as it’s not very economical in terms of time cost to benefit, particularly because most of our clients come to us because they want to look better naked, and not to compete in powerlifting.
7) Actually Train Your Grip
Grip is a silent killer of strength progress.
I say silent because most people have no idea how much stronger they’d be if they had better grip strength. Sure, training your grip isn’t the same as improving quad, hamstring or tricep strength, but how often have your clients needed to cut a set of deadlifts or rows short because they couldn’t hold onto the bar any longer?
How strong does your grip need to be?
Well I’ve got hands the size of a 12 y/o girl, and I’m partially desk bound for a living, but even I can handle multiple-rep sets of 180kg deadlift without needing chalk or wraps. And even then, I would my grip strength as ok without being great.
If you’re an experienced male lifter and you can’t at least match that, I’d look at introducing some dedicated grip work.
8) Cycle Out The Slow Tempo Work
Slow tempo work is the flavour of the month in the industry at the moment, and in true fitness fashion, trainers are taking it to the absolute extreme (I’ve seen anywhere from 7- 20s eccentrics in programs) without having anything to suggest that it’s beneficial in those ranges.
Here’s the thing, though – tempo work will kill your strength progress if you focus on it too much.
Controlling eccentric forces under speed, as well as utilizing the stretch shortening cycle (SSC), are two important factors for strength and athleticism in general. When you consistently do slow tempo work, you rob yourself of the gains to be had from training these strength qualities.
So if you’ve been doing a tonne of tempo work for a while, it might be time for a change.