For many folks the prospect of gaining some true strength can seem daunting, even impossible. It's for those people I am writing this call to action, for I can tell you truthfully, for a person who strength has not come easily to, it is possible to become crazy strong at a rate of five pounds per month. For a person who is only deadlifting 1/3 of their body weight, the prospect of pulling your entire body's worth of poundage off the floor is scary. But if you look at training as a marathon versus a 100 meter race to the finish, results will come surprisingly easily. Below, I've outlined each factor, how it helps, and why it is important to long-term, sustainable strength gains:
Consistency of training is the most important factor in long term strength gains. Nothing irritates me more than a person who comes in once in a while for a "pick-me-up" training session where they toot their own horn about how pleased they are with where they've come "after all these years", yada-yada, bla-bla, I've stopped listening at this point because on paper said person is no stronger than they were a year ago. There is nothing impressive about maintaining (or in some cases losing your strength) strength levels if your goal is to get stronger.
The bottom line is this: If getting stronger is your goal, don't be wishy-washy about your training. Don't miss a session. If you have to, and life will get in the way, make it up. Find a way. Because we always find a way not to do something. So flip that around and turn it in to a positive; find a way to do it.. But don't miss it. Three times a week for a full-body strength training session is all it will take--preferably on some sort of ABA, BAB rotation.
2. Train where you are, not where you want to be
By no means do I take credit for this factor, but I feel it is extremely applicable to strength training. You may have heard of the Couch to 5k program, which is a running program designed to take a sedentary individual and ease them in to running at a pace that will allow them to, by the time the program is through, successfully complete a 5k run without stopping. The reason I like the idea behind it is it meets a person where they are at.
It wouldn't be reasonable to expect Grandma Betty, aged 75, former smoker and sedentary for the last 35 years, to bench press her bodyweight immediately, would it? Hell, she may not even be strong enough to lift the bar, for that matter. So her training program had better meet her where she's at. If that means she starts with some crawling, assisted push-ups, and some rows to develop some upper body strength, then that's exactly where we'll start.
The main thing to take in to consideration is to know where you want to be, and then find out where you are in relation to the goal. On Grandma Betty's training "Road Map", once she's knows where she is and where she wants to be, picking the right road to get there will be as easy as standing on your own two feet! Until she figures those things out, training likely won't be very effective.
Starting out with too much volume, too much intensity, or too much frequency is a shortcut to plateaus, frustration, and eventually injury. Using the deadlift example from the introductory paragraph, if Grandma Betty started out safely deadlifting 60lbs for five reps, in a year she would be pulling 120lbs if she were to gain 5lbs of strength every month. Progress is progress. It's not a race.
3. Have patience
People pay for trainers to get them results NOW, dammit! Patience, grasshopper. Well, unless you're Brad Pitt and you have 12 weeks to get ready for your next Hollywood blockbuster, chances are you'll be able to afford a more long-term, safer, sustainable outlook on training.
Gray Cook loves to say "Move well first, then move often." Focus on quality of movement first, then quantity later. You're asking for an injury if you push in to higher loads when your body isn't ready for them. Even if it means taking the time to un-learn old poor habits, do it. Stuff your ego in the back of your gym locker and leave it there until you're done with your session. Any trainer worth their salt will have enough patience to get their clients good results without injuring them. You should too.
Patience may mean not expecting to put another 10 pounds on the bar every week from here until eternity. If you did, you'd be the next Andy Bolton, deadlifting over 1000 pounds and benching 900. Chances are you won't, though, so stop thinking that way. Make small increases in load over a steady amount of time. As an example, on my last set of 5,3,2 I went from 245/5 to 250/3 to 255/2 on my back squats. The next time I did the same workout, I did 3 sets of 3 reps at 250/3, 250/3, then at 255/3. That is a very small increase in load. Essentially, I got one extra rep on my last set. But then again, progress is progress. The idea is to keep moving towards achieving your goal!
4. Do as little as possible*
The big asterisk is there because I am not condoning you be a lazy slob. What I mean is that in order to maximize results and minimize injuries, finding the minimum necessary investment of training is the best way to go for sustainability. If you think of a training session not as an increment of time, but by the volume (total reps) and intensity (weight) of the lifts, you'll have a clearer picture of how much is too much. And there is such a thing as too much.
For example, at some point in time, doing workouts that consist of 3 sets of 10 reps (30 reps) or 3 sets of 15 reps (45 reps!) will become ineffective. The volume of these days will become too great if you have a goal of putting more weight on the bar (increasing intensity) consistently. Therefore, dropping into volume ranging from 10-15 reps total per whole-body lift (squats, deadlifts, snatches, clean and jerk, etc.), divvied up in sets ranging from 2-5 reps, will probably become your ticket. If you've read Dan John and Pavel Tsatsouline's Easy Strength, you'll probably recognize this philosophy as something similar to their principle of the "Rule of Ten".
The main idea here, though, is find what works for you to keep building strength while maintaining or improving quality of movement. Do no more, no less. What more can you ask for if you are stronger, performing at a higher level, and feeling better than ever before...with less work?
5. Leave some for another day
After torn MCL, completely torn left hamstring muscle, impinged shoulder joint, lumbar vertebra derangement and an angry facet joint in my T-spine that gave me headaches (all of which I've fully recovered from through a lot of therapy and dedication on my part, mind you!), I feel qualified to say that training with a goal of peeling yourself off the floor after is stupid.This may be tough to digest for all you weekend warriors out there who love to go and destroy your body in marathon workouts. I get it, I've been there, done that, and got hurt along the way. Save yourself the hassle! Again, stuff the ego in the locker and pick it up on the way out.
Train with the expectation of feeling better post-training than you did when you showed up. Leave a bit in the tank for another day. Dan John loves to say that each training session is an "investment in the bank". But you can't wipe out your savings in one fell swoop and expect to have some to fall back on when you need it most. No way! Invest it consistently over time, and let it do the work for you (you don't get stronger through training, you get stronger from your recovery. Think about it), and withdraw it when you really need it most, like at a competition or race of some kind!
The above five principles are points that have served me well as I've changed my training focus since being a college athlete. With a goal of maintaining a healthy, pain-free body first and foremost, versus training for performance above all else, they have served me well. Almost all of my previous injuries were results of a lack of balance in training and emphasis over taking the time to move better. I realize now that it was a flawed approach. Ironically, I'm stronger and faster than I ever was when I was a sprinter in college. I hope the wisdom I've gained from my personal losses and struggles can be helpful in your own training journey.