Table of Contents
- Benefits of strength training
- Weight loss
- Cardiovascular problems
- Aging concerns
- Management and rehabilitation
- Mood, focus and energy
- Posture and poise
- Sports performance
- Science of strength training
- Getting stronger
- Bulking up
- Basics of strength training
- Techniques on how to get strong
- Training to failure
- Split training
- Strengthening equipment
- Stretch bands
- Medicine balls
- Barbells and dumbbells
- Body-weight training strategies
- Lengthen your body
- Move farther with each repetition
- Take a 4-second pause
- Add rotational movements
- Reduce your body’s contact with the floor
- Quick pointers and tips
- Keep it short
- Keep it simple
- Keep it balanced
- Go for a dynamic warm-up
- Picture how each rep would feel
- Work out with someone who motivates you
- Opt for thin-soled shoes or no footwear at all
- Grab on to an ice pack
- Chalk your hands
- Strap a weight belt on
- Keep a log
- Seek expert advice
- Lifestyle changes
Getting stronger is as challenging as it is rewarding. To strengthen and build muscles, you need to go beyond engaging your muscles. You also need to use resistance in your workouts. Resistance can be in the form of actual weights such as stretch bands, medicine balls, and barbells and dumbbells, which are commonly used in squat, dead-lift, bench press and shoulder press exercises. But you can also rely on the weight of your body to get stronger, usually while performing planks, crunches, lunges, pull-ups and modified push-ups. Most strength-training routines last only 20 to 30 minutes or an hour, requiring bursts of energy over a short period of time. Yes, you’ll need lots of energy to perform these workouts, as they’re designed to be intense and to push you hard.
Why put your muscles through that much stress?
Because challenging your muscles activates the motor units in them, facilitating the neuromuscular adaptations that are fundamental to training your muscles how to get stronger. If you want to develop your muscles, working them to exhaustion is also essential, as muscular damage and cellular fatigue allow for changes that support the muscle-building process known as hypertrophy.
Don’t worry though. Your efforts are bound to pay off, in more ways than one. Strength training not only increases the strength and toughness of muscles but of bones, tendons and ligaments as well. Its benefits extend to enhancing cardiac and joint functions, elevating metabolism, improving mood and posture, supporting rehabilitation, and building anaerobic endurance. In addition, a number of sports, from bodybuilding to basketball and rowing, include strength training in athletes’ training regimen to help boost performance and learn techniques on how to get strong fast.
The key to making the most out of any strength-training program is to execute the exercises with proper form and technique.
For optimum results, you can try different strategies such as training to failure, split training and periodization. Lifestyle-wise, you’ll need to eat calorie-packed meals with high-quality protein and carbohydrate sources and get sufficient sleep at night to gain enough energy to build muscles and conquer strength training.
Benefits of strength training
Strength training makes doing everyday tasks, from carrying groceries to pushing a car stuck in snow, a lot easier. But its benefits go beyond that.
Learning how to get strong can also help you with the following:
In addition to muscle building, strength training is effective at burning fat, making you look slimmer and fitter. Men who focus on weight training tend to develop muscles. Women who focus on circuit or muscle resistance training attain a toned, firm physique while losing weight.
One of the factors contributing to fat loss: increased metabolism. After strength training, your body needs to put in greater effort to return to its normal pre-workout state, and the energy required for that elevates your metabolism for as long as 38 hours post-workout.
Strength-training routines also improve your resting metabolic rate (RMR). With every pound of muscle you gain, your RMR increases by 30 to 50 calories. The reason: compared to maintaining fat, your body requires more calories to maintain muscle.
Strength training can do wonders for your heart. It lowers resting blood pressure and enhances blood flow while helping control cholesterol and blood sugar levels. By doing so, it actually reduces the risk of heart disease, especially for conditions that are brought about mainly by obesity and diabetes.
The loss of muscle tissue is a normal part of aging, and so is the decline in bone and muscle strength. Strength training can boost bone density and stop muscle loss, making you less prone to osteoporosis and physical disability.
Management and rehabilitation
Strength-training routines have been used to help improve the well-being of people with arthritis, osteoporosis, lymphedema, Parkinson’s disease, fibromyalgia and Down syndrome, as well as the quality of their daily life.
Plus, exercises that train muscles on how to become stronger are recommended for those who have recently had a heart attack or stroke, suffered a spinal cord injury, beaten cancer and experienced clinical depression. Specially designed strength-training routines allow a physiotherapist to target weak or impaired muscles in order to speed up an individual’s recovery and allow him or her to get strong faster.
Mood, focus and energy
Strength training is an energy and confidence booster, a stress and anxiety reliever, and a mood pick-me-upper. Getting stronger can also help sharpen cognitive skills and prevent sleep problems such as insomnia and apnea.
Resistance training, in particular, calls for pushing hard, and the intensity of such workouts can pump up your dopamine, norepinephrine and serotonin levels, which in turn can help improve your overall disposition.
Posture and poise
Increased muscle strength results in better posture, better form, and better balance, stability and coordination. The joints are strengthened and better-supported too, which in turn makes you less vulnerable to injury from day-to-day activities.
Getting stronger also enables you to perform better, sports-wise. In fact, strength training is at the core of the training regimen for discus throw, Highland games, javelin throw, shot-put, strongman, bodybuilding, powerlifting and weightlifting. It is also a big plus for athletes who need to increase muscle strength while training for American football, soccer, rugby, lacrosse, wrestling, basketball, track and field, hockey and rowing.
Science of strength training
Learning a bit of the science behind strength training can help you understand many of the why’s and how’s of the workouts you’ll be performing to get stronger.
Let’s start with neuromuscular adaptation, a technical term for teaching your muscles how to get stronger. This process starts as signals for muscle movement travel from the brain to motor neurons. The motor neurons then activate your muscle fibers, allowing your muscles to contract.
A motor neuron and the multiple muscle fibers it connects to is called a motor unit; a muscle can be made up of any number of motor units.
Motor Unit Recruitment
Motor unit recruitment, or how much of the motor unit is put to work, is low in a person without strength training. This means if he or she does a bicep curl, only half or so of the motor units for that particular movement is activated.
Strength-training routines, such as lifting heavy weights, tap into the motor units that aren’t normally activated. It recruits more motor units, activates more muscle fibers, and in turn allows you to exert more force and build muscle strength.
If you don’t challenge your muscles, then your body won’t see the need to adapt. So it’s up to you to encourage full motor unit recruitment and utilize the strength that lies within you.
Want to learn how to become stronger and bigger? Here are three ways muscle resistance training promotes muscle growth.
- Progressive tension overload: weights are added and reps increased over time to boost tension levels in muscle fibers
- Muscle damage: muscle fibers break down due to high tension levels but heal, rebuild and bounce back stronger
- Cellular fatigue: repeated contractions push muscle fibers to muscular failure, causing changes at the cellular level
The increase in size—and overall mass—of muscle fibers is referred to as hypertrophy, and this too comes in different forms. Sarcoplasmic hypertrophy results in an increase in a non-contractile fluid that accounts for 30 percent of a muscle’s size. Myofibril hypertrophy strengthens a contractile part of the muscle, allowing for dense muscles. Transient hypertrophy, is responsible for the temporary “pumped up” appearance of muscles during or immediately after a strength-training routine. This is due only to fluid retention and usually subsides within 60 to 90 minutes.
Basics of strength training
Taking on a strength-training program successfully and safely requires learning the fundamentals of getting stronger.
Train two or three days a week, with 48-hour intervals for muscle repair and recovery. But strength-training routines can also be done for most of the week as long as you skip the full-body workout and alternate the muscle groups you engage (i.e., lower body on Day 1, upper body on Day 2).
Still, don’t skip out on rest. Yes, you need to take “off” days to give your muscles time to relax and get stronger. On those days, you can instead do low-energy cardio exercises like walking and hiking. However, avoid running, biking, swimming and other exercises that are energy-intensive, as you’ll need to conserve energy for your strength-training sessions.
Be mindful of and deliberate with your breathing. The key is to exhale when you push the hardest to lift a weight and inhale as you lower it and relax your muscles. Proper breathing also helps keep your blood pressure in check and prevent dizziness.
Repetitions (reps) pertain to how many times a single cycle or activity is performed, while rep maximum (rep max; RM) is the number of reps that can be completed at a certain load or weight. The number of reps performed without a break in between is referred to as a set.
For strength-training routines, you can begin with two sets of ten to 12 reps, completing each rep within four to six seconds. If you’re targeting both strength gains and muscle growth, stick to sets of five.
Muscles need time to rest and recover during the course of a resistance training workout, typically two to five minutes between sets.
Remember, before going for another lift, you shouldn’t feel fatigued or still be breathing heavily from the previous lift. Give your muscles time to fully regenerate—regain fuel or energy for muscle contractions—before you put them to work again.
Your overall approach will be based on your personal training goals. As a general guideline though, the American College of Sports Medicine recommends:
Eight to 12 repetitions of a resistance-training exercise for every major muscle group, with intensity ranging from 40% to 80% of a one-repetition max, depending on the participant’s training level
Two to three minutes of rest between exercise sets for adequate and proper recovery
Two to four sets for each muscle group
Techniques on how to get strong
There are a number of ways to go about strength training. The top favorites include:
Training to failure
Train to failure means pushing your muscles to the point that you can no longer complete one more rep. This causes your muscles to break down and in turn allows them to rebuild.
But you don’t have to train to complete failure during each set. Instead train close to failure for the first three sets, so that you’ll have energy to complete the last set.
And you don’t have to do this for every exercise. Training to failure works best if done periodically and with different exercises. If the routine begins to feel easy, challenge yourself by adding 5 pounds or five reps.
You can’t actually fully train all muscle groups in a single day. But with split training, you can spread out the training of muscle groups over several days. The muscle groups are then trained to exhaustion and given about 72 hours to fully recover.
For a five-day training split, for instance, you could work the chest and abs on Monday; shoulders and calves on Tuesday; back, traps and abs on Wednesday; triceps, biceps and forearms on Thursday; and legs and calves on Friday. Just make sure you give each muscle group equal attention.
It doesn’t take long for beginners to see progress after adding load or reps with each workout or week. There’s a good chance, however, for the progress to stall or plateau along the way.
Periodization prevents this from happening by dividing the program into periods, with reps and weights changing with each period. You can increase the weights and decrease the reps, or vice versa. And you can increase and decrease weights and reps sporadically.
You can use any of the following in strength-training exercises.
Also known as resistance bands, stretch bands are much like giant rubber bands that can be looped around either foot or both feet while doing a seated row, single leg press and seated arm curls, or held by the hand while doing a triceps overhead press.
A medicine ball is a synthetic rubber ball that’s similar in size to a soccer ball but has been filled with sand to make it heavy. It is available in various weights, starting at 1 kilogram (2.2 pounds) and reaching up to 8 kilograms, and can be used in a full range of motion and to engage all muscle groups while performing abdominal curls, double-leg kicks, straight-arm throws and torso twists.
Barbells and dumbbells
Barbells and dumbbells are quintessential tools in resistance training. They load a lot of weight and are ideal for heavy lifting. They are frequently used in the “big four” exercises: the squat, dead-lift, bench press and shoulder press.
Actual weights aren’t always necessary. The weight of your body can be the load when doing modified push-ups (on knees or in standing position), pull-ups, lunges, planks and abdominal crunches. The pull-up is a particularly popular weight-building exercise, as it requires you to lift your entire weight using just your back and arms.
Body-weight training strategies
Not a fan of weights? Don’t fret. You can stick to body-weight training and learn how to get strong fast by doing the following:
Lengthen your body
Why: This weakens your body and makes performing the exercise harder, activating more muscles.
How: Raise your hands as you do crunches, lunges, sit-ups and squats. Or simply place your hands behind your head.
Move farther with each repetition
Why: This puts more muscles to work and therefore builds more muscle.
How: During lunges, place either foot on a step. During push-ups, put your hands on top of books or your feet up on a chair. During sit-ups, rest the arch of your lower back on a rolled-up towel.
Take a 4-second pause
Why: This eliminates the elasticity in your muscles, forcing the recruitment of additional muscle fibers.
How: When in the down position of any exercise, pause for four seconds before returning to the starting position.
Add rotational movements
Why: Many weight-lifting exercises involve only front-to-back, up-and-down or side-to-side movements, missing out on the rotational movements that would allow you to engage your core while working your original target muscles.
How: Rotate your hips when you do the reverse crunch, or twist your torso to the left or right when you do lunges, push-ups and sit-ups.
Reduce your body’s contact with the floor
Why: When your body has less contact with the floor, it is less stable. That means your muscles must work harder to provide the support your body needs.
How: Have one foot in the air during deadlifts, push-ups and squats, or do push-ups with your fists or fingertips.
Quick pointers and tips
Keep it short
Three or four lifts for each workout will suffice. Striving for more might just hold your back. Do one main lift (any of the big four exercises) and one or two assistance lifts (for extra muscle strength and balance), capped off with specialty or core work such as calf or forearm moves and ab exercises.
Keep it simple
Tracking rep speed is not necessary. Count only the number of reps in a set, keeping your focus on properly raising and lowering weights.
Keep it balanced
To prevent muscle imbalances and injury, make sure you cover both sides of the body in your training read review. It doesn’t have to be within a single session, but ideally within the same week. Say you do chest exercises on one day. Don’t forget to do back-training lifts on another day. If you work your quads with squats on one day, engage your hamstrings via Romanian deadlifts on another day.
Go for a dynamic warm-up
Light cardio such as pedalling a bike or jogging on a treadmill may help you break a sweat, but you’ll be better prepared to lift if you warm up using exercises that allow your joints to move through a full range of motion. Body-weight lunges, jumps and throwing exercises are recommended as they not only get your joints moving but also get your nervous system ready for heavy lifting.
If you need greater lift support, wake up your core with two or three sets of the plank. Go into a push-up position but with your forearms resting on the floor. Hold this for between 20 and 30 seconds per set.
Picture how each rep would feel
Before you take on a set, visualize yourself doing it, from how you’ll breathe to where you’ll be focusing your eyes on. Think of this as a way to familiarize yourself with—and ease yourself into—the set. Don’t let doubt, fear and the lack of self-confidence psyche you out.
Work out with someone who motivates you
It helps to have someone who’s stronger to spot you. His or her presence, intimidating as it may be, can inspire you to train more intensely.
Opt for thin-soled shoes or no footwear at all
Work out barefoot at home. Do the same in the gym if you’re allowed to, or stick to thin-soled footwear like Chuck Taylors. When there’s less (or zero) material between the floor and your feet as you lift, your body will be able to activate more muscles.
Grab on to an ice pack
An ice pack gives your senses a jolt, much like a cold shower first thing in the morning would. Holding on to one for a minute or two before your lift can stimulate your nervous system.
Chalk your hands
Lifting chalk contains magnesium carbonate, which helps keep your hands dry, strengthen your grip and ultimately increase your max.
Strap a weight belt on
Wearing a weight belt not only supports your lower back but also ups your max while you do presses, deadlifts and squats.
Keep a log
After each workout, take note of the number of sets and reps, the kind of exercise you did and how it all turned out. By doing so, you can monitor the best lifts you’ve performed and the most reps you’ve completed with certain weights and exercises. You can then work on beating those numbers.
Seek expert advice
If you can afford to, get a personal trainer to teach you best practices and proper form and to guide you through a training program that’s tailor-fit to your needs. You can also rent or purchase fitness videos for helpful ideas and demonstrations.
Your workouts can only take you so far. To get stronger, you also need to align your diet with your weight training. The reason: What you consume pre-, during- and post-workout and throughout your training period can affect your body’s response and your muscle’s growth.
Throughout the workout, drink water to stay hydrated and on top of your game. Dehydration can lead to poor performance, so don’t skip the water.
After the workout, have a recovery drink of your choice. It’s best if the drink contains protein, as your protein uptake and usage increase post-workout. You’ll also need to replenish glycogen lost during the workout by consuming glucose. For optimum results though, go with a drink that not only has glucose (dextrose) and protein hydrolysate (with dipeptides and tripeptides) but leucine too.
Bulk Up… But Not Too Much
Even when you’re not working out, you must still be mindful of what you eat. For one, you need lots of calories, as muscle building burns lots of calories. So brace for three big, calorie-packed meals a day, plus heavy snacks in between.
But that doesn’t mean you can fill up on anything you please. If you want to nourish your muscles, opt for high-quality whole foods and cover all basic food groups. Eat plenty of fruits and vegetables, lean meat, eggs and fish along with healthy oils and fats plus whole grains.
Protein and Carbohydrates
In terms of protein and carbohydrate intake, experts recommend 1.4 to 1.8g of protein and 5 to 7g of carbohydrates per kilogram of body weight each day. Protein facilitates muscle building, while carbohydrates work to restore glycogen levels and provide energy.
As for foods you must avoid, steer clear of anything that’s fried and packaged with preservatives and additives. Also on the list: sugar, salty snacks and processed flours.
Oh and don’t forget to drink at least 10 glasses of water daily. Energy drinks work too; however, these contain sugars and other additives. If you prefer flavored drinks, simply squeeze a bit of lime or lemon into your glass of water.
Just as your muscles need to rest, you too need to rest—rest in the form of sleep that is.
Fact is most of your muscle gains from training come while you’re resting, not while you’re working out. So you can look forward to better results if you’re getting sufficient sleep, ideally seven to nine hours per night.
Of course, a good night’s sleep also energizes your body so it’s fully conditioned to push hard for your next workout. Plus, you wouldn’t want to work out feeling sleepy, as this will not only hold you back but also make you more vulnerable to injury.
Learning how to get stronger is not going to be easy or comfortable. But embrace the challenge. Give it your all, and you’ll see impressive results that can improve your health, boost your confidence and change your life.