The Art and Science of Getting Strong

Before we get into what you should be doing in the gym to get stronger, lets first look at how we get strong.  In simplistic terms you get stronger by two different means.   The first is to increase the size of the muscle.  The larger the muscle fiber, the bigger the muscle the more weight it can move.  The most efficient way (again in a simplistic view) is to look a a body building program.  Isolation of the muscle worked in 5-8 sets of 8-10 repetitions at 50-65% intensity (intensity can be looked at also as percent of 1RM…the more intensity the more weight moved per lift).  This is a very stable way of gaining strength.  Unfortunately for most of us it is not ideal.  Most of us play sports, have other activities, or want to be “good” at the various activities that CrossFit demands. We have to carry our engine, which is a nice way of saying moving a big body around takes more energy than moving a smaller body.  With that premise in mind, our goal is to be as strong as possible in the most compact, efficient package possible.  What that package looks like is different for everyone, and different depending on your goals, but being a 5’10” male that weighs 270lbs will probably not help your Fran or marathon time.   So that being said, lets look at method two.  At any given time we are only engaging a portion of our muscles.  When dead lifting, the untrained athlete will use around 40% or less of their muscle.  A trained power lifter might use 60-70%.  Our goal is to train the interface of the nervous system and the muscles to recruit more muscle and thus become stronger while keeping the package at an ideal size and weight.  This is accomplished by increasing the intensity.  That neuromuscular interface is trained when we move loads at 75% of our 1 rep max and above.  It forces the body to adapt and to go looking for a more efficient interface and thus recruit more muscle.  This principal is why you see huge gains when you start at the gym and less gains the deeper you go.  It gets harder to recruit more when you are already pushing the envelope of maximum.  Fortunately, there is such a thing as strong enough.  Most reading this have not reached that point but it does exist.  Lets say you are a runner and have a 420lb dead lift.  Most likely, to see more gains you will have to create larger muscles because you have already maxed out the neuromuscular interface.  Getting bigger as runner would not be beneficial, so guess what?  You are strong enough.  Getting back to intensity.  There is the great chart, called the Prelipin’s Chart, developed by the Russians, that allows us to have the right intensity, mixed with the correct set rep structure to get you the most benefit.  So when you see 5×3 @ 75% you know where it comes from.  And that leads back to YOU.

A lifting session in the gym should not be an after thought.  I consider the strength or power development portion of the workout to be the meat and the conditioning piece to be the side dish.  You will make the most gains in the gym, IN ALL ASPECTS OF YOUR FITNESS, by putting all that you have into the lifting sessions.  Before I get into the two differing examples lets talk about being smart.  Shitty form, and lifting beyond your capacity is stupid.  Dont do it.  Hurting yourself will get you no where fast.  BUT, if you develop your form then lifting to YOUR potential is safe and should be done.  All that being said, here are two examples.  Athlete A comes in and sees 5×3 back squats @ 85%.  They say, “that looks easy”.  They load up the bar right to 85% (not really 85% percent because they have never really pushed hard for a 1RM) and proceed to knock out all 5 sets in 5 to 10 minutes.  No sweat is on their brow and they strip the weight, think that was a good warmup for the WOD and start looking forward to Cindy.  Athlete B comes in for a 5×3@80%.  They know that is going to hurt.  All they can think of is hitting their lifts.  They also know that they might not get all 3 reps on the last set or two.  They begin by working their way up to 85%.  The 5×3 does NOT start until you are at 85% but at the same time your first lift of the day should not be 85%.  After 10-20 squats at less weight, they load up the bar and get to work.  After each set, they rest.  And by rest I mean 2-3 minutes…or 5.  The rest is CRUCIAL.  It allows them to the recover enough to go hard for the next set.  They know this isn’t a race.  It is about getting stronger and training the body to deal with the stress of moving a big load.  By set 3, they are taxed.  Just looking at the bar hurts.  But this person saddles up, and goes for it any way.  The first rep of set 4 is HARD.  The second rep is impossible, but somehow they get it up, and the third rep finally gets the best of them and they have to dump.  This person knows that set 5 will be brutal so they take a bit of extra rest before going for it.  The fifth sets turns out like the fourth, a failed last rep.  Yet this was a success.  This is how ALL of your lifting sessions should be.  Athlete B got stronger today.  So next time the workout calls for going heavy, be smart, but get after it!

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4 Responses

  1. Joe H says:

    Awesome post! This is what I’ve read, and you’ve told me all along and sums it up nicely. This is also where CrossFit classes are a 2 edged sword. In a large class, it’s not always easy to do your warm up and working sets properly while also still being able to finish when it’s time for the Met-con. But on the other hand, the class stucture also makes sure you accomplish more overall work in 1 hour than most would ever do in a gym on their own. Speaking for myself, this is where the open gym times and owning some equipment is vital- to really give the primary lifts the time and attention they deserve without the pressure of trying to get it done in a 20-30 minute window while sharing equipment/floor space. This was apparent today as I was able to blast my “beatdown metal”, scream, and disturb the neighbors! Thanks again!

  2. Steve says:

    I would like to ask what is the best (in your opinion) way to work the kettlebells…

  3. Shane says:

    Love this post. I’ve been screaming this for years! My favorite part: “They load up the bar right to 85% (not really 85% percent because they have never really pushed hard for a 1RM) and proceed to knock out all 5 sets in 5 to 10 minutes.” If you haven’t either been at it long enough to establish a true 1RM or worked hard enough to establish a true 1RM, use the percentages as a guideline, but get in there and push yourself! When I see anything at 85-90%, I basically want to cry, cause those are essentially max effort lifts on most any given day.

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