5 Ways to Get Stronger - Lessons from a Powerlifter

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Five excellent strength training lessons learned by Powerlifter and personal trainer Dan Stephenson

1. Incorporate Light Training Days

Unfortunately, this was a lesson learned the hard way. Until competing in powerlifting, almost all of my training sessions for the past couple of years have consisted of one of the major three lifts (Squat, Bench, and Deadlift) working with weights 80% or higher of my 1 rep max. I had been training 5-7 days per week, deload weeks were almost always neglected or shortened, heavy weights were lifted, and minimal progress was made over time. It wasn’t until my first powerlifting meet that I truly appreciated the value of a deload week.

In preparing for my first meet, I was able to convince myself to hold back on the heavy weights for the week prior to the competition. During the meet, I was easily able to set new personal records on all three of lifts. Sure, some of this could be attributed to the adrenaline drive of competing, but not all of it.

Since that first competition, I have been able to bring my strength to new heights simply by implementing lower intensity training sessions more often.

If you are reading this, I am assuming that you like to lift heavy like I do. If the first paragraph sounds like you, try this for a change:

Limit yourself to 1 heavy squat or deadlift training day per week

Alternate between heavy and light days with squat, bench, and deadlifts.

Focus your light days on single-limb variations, altered resistance (bands, chains, etc.), and/or speed work.

Deload for a week every 4-6 weeks or as your program calls for.

2. Treat Every Rep and Weight the Same

Make every rep count. When training for peak strength, lifting at sub-maximal loads (<95% 1RM) are crucial to your success at obtaining a new PR. Warm-up sets and build-up sets are a chance for you to properly assimilate your body to handling heavier weights. These sets should be treated exactly like maximal sets.  

Lifting with the same intent on sub-maximal sets that you would with a maximal set should be the focus. Practice the same set-up and technique and accelerate the weight with the intent of driving the weight with the same explosiveness as a maximal set.  

Think of it as neurological training. You are training your nervous system to perform a motor pattern repeatedly with the same technique and effort regardless of the resistance. Therefore, sub-maximal sets should be done with speed and intent. Do not waste your time and discredit lighter sets as simply warm-up for the joints and muscles.

3. Get More Sleep

Sleep is your body’s only chance to recover between grueling workouts. You may be able to function fine throughout the day with only 5 hours of sleep but if you are chasing after PR’s, you need more.

4. Eat Enough

To develop strength, you need muscle. To develop muscle, you need calories. Physique may be equally important to you. Balancing the appropriate amount calories and macronutrients in your diet can be tricky when training for strength and improving or even maintaining a lean physique. If you are considering going on a restrictive diet (low-carb, fasting, etc.), do not expect your strength to increase much beyond the level it is now.

5. Spend More Time on Heavy Compound Exercises and Less on Isolation Exercises

If you are after maximal strength, most of your training sessions should consist of heavy compound exercises. Following the Pareto Principle (the 80/20 rule), 80% of your effort and training should consist of heavy compounds with only 20% percent focused on isolation exercises. Do not waste your time building up individual muscles separately (unless bodybuilding is your goal). Use that time working muscles synergistically to move heavier weight to achieve a greater overload stimulus.

This article originally appeared on IdealStrength. Republished with permission.

Dan Stephenson

Dan Stephenson is a personal trainer at Pro Sports Club in Bellevue, Washington. He is an avid believer that anyone can improve their quality of living through exercise. Dan specializes in strength training for performance and is a current state record holder in the sport of powerlifting. With a background in powerlifting, sports specific training, and injury rehabilitation, Dan utilizes strength training methods to help clients achieve their goals. His personal interests aside from weight training are tennis, hiking, and the outdoors.

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