Plenty of lifters who train for strength see gains quickly—that extra weight makes a difference, after all. But, if newbies aren't careful, they can push their neurological system to the max by trying to increase volume too quickly—or, more often, by starting out too heavy to begin with.
When you're lifting for strength, you put major neurological stress on your body. Increasing weight—instead of training volume—means your neurological system is working overtime, even if your muscle fibers feel like they haven't given up for the day.
But going full-tilt for every strength workout won't get you where you want to go, says pro weightlifter Ashley Hoffmann.
"You will not see much muscle-building improvement if you are hitting your max all the time," Hoffmann explained to Bodybuilding.com. "Testing your one-rep max is great for finding out where to start, but you don't need to lift as heavy as possible every single day."
It's important to take the time to gauge your 1 rep max (or 1RM) before you embark on a 8-week strength plan designed to help you make gains and build muscle. The rest is all practice, good form, and improving your weaknesses one by one.
Here are 3 strategies you should always include in your strength plan to maximize gains, define muscle, and avoid those dreaded plateaus.
1. Rock Your Compound Lifts
Any strength plan worth its salt will require you to zero in on compound lifts as the basis of your program. The bench press, deadlift, and squat are multi-joint exercises that target multiple muscle groups at once—and they are extremely effective for helping you build strength.
As with mass-gaining programs, you'll notice that lifting heavier weights and focusing on compound lifts helps you to build muscle—and muscle mass—quickly. But training for strength instead of mass will change your approach to volume and strategy, too. In order to train for strength, you should complete compound exercises at 80 to 90% of your 1RM, and complete no more than 10 to 20 total reps across all of your sets.
Bodybuilders are used to working to hypertrophy, or muscle failure, by the end of their last set—something you can and should work to accomplish when you're lifting at 75% of your 1RM and pushing for 20 to 36 total reps across all of your sets.
While you shouldn't dismiss the occasional hypertrophy workout while focusing on strength exercises, it's not the best strategy for achieving overall strength—and will tax your body completely differently. Powerlifters and other performance athletes working on making big strength gains can safely add 1 hypertrophy training session into the mix per week without becoming too fatigued. Ultimately, hypertrophy workouts will help you develop strength as you develop mass, while strength training will help you develop lean, mean muscle.
There are other advantages to focusing on compound lifts, too—aside from achieving peak performance or making big gains in strength. These versatile functional exercises improve your core and other stabilizing muscles, ensuring that you stay balanced as you're maximizing gains in the gym.
Even though the compound exercise is king in any good strength plan, isolation exercises can strategically target the weak-link muscles in your big lifts, too. So don't be afraid to knock out a few hammer curls or lateral raises—they'll only help your bench press in the long run.
Focus too intently on pumping out hammer curls during a strength training program, however, and you risk muscle fatigue, especially if you make the mistake of putting these smaller lifts at the beginning of your workouts. Instead, you should be devoting the majority of your attention to powering big lifts for even bigger gains. The isolation moves can come later.
2. Embrace Assistance Lifts
Yes, performance athletes and powerlifters want to get ripped and improve their overall strength with every workout. But that doesn't mean you can—or should—spend all your time under a barbell.
Assistance lifts—from barbell exercises to box squats—help you further develop the muscles that support big compound lifts, which is why you should incorporate these exercises into your strength plan, suggests Todd Bumgardner, a New York-based certified strength coach.
"Choose exercises that improve upon your weaknesses—aesthetic or otherwise," recommends Bumgardner at Bodybuilding.com. "For example, if the flat bench press was your main lift, the incline or decline bench press is a solid choice for your first assistance exercise."
If you're used to bodybuilding exercises, you may want to proceed with caution, however. Incorporating assistance lifts into your strength plan doesn't give you carte blanche to all of a sudden increase training volume because you've decreased weight by moving to dumbbells. (A newbie mistake you can see in all too many gyms.)
In fact, focusing too intently on assistance lifts can backfire and make you tired—especially if you overdo it or tackle assistance lifts before your main strength workout. To avoid muscle fatigue, incorporate assistance lifts after you've gone heavy on one of your compound exercises—just as Bumgardner recommends above.
Assistance lifts are especially helpful for breaking through plateaus in your training cycle—or even as you ready to move from one training cycle to the next. If you've hit your upper limit on the deadlift, for example, exercises like trap raises and glute bridges can help you refine your form and give you more power.
Finally, don't neglect your rest periods when you add assistance lifts and dumbbell work into the mix. Move too quickly to the dumbbell rack, and you can overload your nervous system—remember, it's already feeling plenty of stress from your compound lifts!
Take that 3 to 5-minute rest window seriously when training for strength.
3. Consider Your Strength Cycle
Like all performance athletes, powerlifters and bodybuilders can plateau. When you're training for strength, considering your strength "cycle" or "period" is especially important.
At a certain point, your body will have adapted to the neurological and mechanical stress of your training. And the nature of lifting heavy means that you'll notice adaptations even more quickly than with bodybuilding programs, says Stephen Adele, the CEO and founder of iSatori.
"Training for all-out strength means you have to recruit large fast-twitch muscle fibers, which require strong, effective nerve impulses," Adele told Bodybuilding.com. "It takes less time to see neural adaptations compared to muscle hypertrophy, so within weeks of training, significant improvements will be realized and you'll be on your way to big lifts."
When you hit the 8-week mark, it's time to make some changes—and you should anticipate these changes in your strength plan from the start in order to avoid a plateau. (Some athletes benefit from a slightly shorter strength cycle, too—consult with your strength coach to find the best strength cycle for your program and goals.)
For most powerlifters, this means reducing volume as you increase weight during your strength cycle. Pushing yourself to lift more than 80% of your 1RM—perhaps as much as 90%—will challenge your muscle fibers and keep your body from settling into an adaptive state.
Remember to decrease your volume at the same time, since increasing weight will max you out more quickly. Your longer rest period becomes—yet again—an important part of combating muscle fatigue and soreness.
Whether you want to try out a powerbuilding workout to develop lean muscle or simply improve your lifts, strength training requires serious goal-setting and an intentional plan.
Without a strength plan that maps out how you'll develop gains over time, or how you'll bust through the inevitable plateau, you're just exercising in the gym—not training as hard as you can toward a specific, measurable goal.
We know you have monster goals for the new year—and these three strategies can help you stay on track.