Updated: Mar 12
Building strength is a simple subject that is often made complex due to the internet. Everyone has an opinion and different coaches use different approaches. People debate which approach is best, flex egos, and confuse the issue more due to this. Really, all strength programs work. The argument about program superiority is often a matter of context. For example, a powerlifting program is ideal for a powerlifter, while that same program may not be ideal for the soccer mom who has no interest in powerlifting. The soccer mom may benefit from a generalized approach to strength that includes more variety in lifts, includes calisthenics, and uses a wider variety of rep ranges. This does not mean either program is bad or inferior, just that each program has a place where it is more ideal. That said, there are some basic ideas behind any strength program, including form improvement, progressive overload, and listening to the body. We are not going to go into detail about everything here, but instead will cover the following points:
Focus on the basics
Dial in form
Gradually increase weight over time
Educate yourself about programming
Learn how to listen to your body
Each point is important for new and experienced trainees and should always be considering in programming. Focus on the basics The basics are the basis from which any training program will grow. The basics vary from program to program. For example, in powerlifting, the basics are the bench, squat, and deadlift, while in Olympic lifting, the basics are the clean, jerk, and snatch. Regardless of the program you use, you need to become efficient at the basics by understanding what those are, how to perform them, and practicing them over time. When we create a general strength program at Nathan DeMetz Personal Training, the basic are a squat, hip hinge, and overhead press. One exercise from each category will always be included in a person’s program. Exactly what depends on the person. For a healthy and able adult, the basics may include the back squat, barbell overhead press, and barbell deadlift. For a person who is not very fit, such as someone recovering from a serious injury or an out of shape elderly person, the basics may be the body weight squat, dumbbell deadlift to the knees, and dumbbell overhead press. From these basics a person can progress to more complicated exercises or combinations of exercises. For example, a person may graduate from the back squat to the overhead squat or from a body weight squat to a weighted squat or even start supersetting or circuiting movements together. Again, regardless of the program you use, you need to become efficient at the basics by understanding what those are, how to perform them, and practicing them over time. Mastery of basics is an often unappreciated part of the process and key to success. Dial in form Form is part of the basics on which a person should focus, but the importance of form cannot be overstated, which is why it gets another reference. Trainees need to focus on form to understand proper lifting positions from which the most weight can be lifted. At the same time, trainees must understand that form is not a singular thing with no variation. By that I mean, there as basic tenets to which everyone will need to adhere, but variations outside of these basics will occur. The back squat is one of the simplest examples to provide. The back squat has basic tenets, which include secure bar placement on the back, firm grip on the bar, neutral spine position, little or no lateral/medial movement of the knee, proper foot placement , proper head placement, sufficient squat depth, and proper breathing pattern. The specifics of these tenets can vary. A simple example of variance is exact placement on the bar. The bar will be on the back side of the bottom, but it may be high on the traps, across the upper part of the rear delts, or toward the lower part of the rear delts. Many people argue the superiority of one placement over the other, attempting to apply a universal standard. However each position has a place in squatting and one is not superior to the others in a universal sense, though perhaps better in some instances. The point is a trainee needs to understand general form, but also the nuances that occur in form. Only through education and practice will a person understand what form is, the variance, and the best form for that person to use. Gradually increase weight over time Gradually increasing weight over time is a simple idea that gets confused and can lead to less than ideal results and/or injury. Simply put, if a person is not increasing weight, he or she is not getting stronger. Doing more reps, more sets, resting less, or changes to other variables, such as adjusting pace, do not in themselves lead to more strength. Using more load over time does. The biggest problem we see is people want to increase weight too fast. One popular approach found on the internet is to increase five pounds each week. However, a person cannot increase five pounds every week indefinitely. If a person were able to do so, the trainee would add 260 pounds to each lift every year. This is not possible. Another pervasive idea on the internet is a person always needs to lift one more rep or one more pound with each consecutive workout. The problem with this idea is the same as trying to lift five more pounds each workout. The problem with these ideas is the approaches assume gains in strength and linear. While some linearity occur, the path to increased strength has peaks and valleys. At times progression will be up, at times flat, and in some hopefully rare instances downward. That said, if the overall path is upward, a person is on the right track. The biggest thing someone need to understand about weight increases is that the process is gradual, it is incremental. While certain training periods will yield large increases, these are the rarity, not the commonality, especially in experienced lifters. Give the process time, gradually increase weight over time, understand the process is not completely linear but that peak and valleys occur, and understand that as long as overall progress is upward, a person is on the right track. Educate yourself about programming Educating yourself about strength programming is not listening to popular YouTubers or fitness influencers on Instagram. While you can learn some things from these people, the information presented is displayed in small, incomplete sections, often without proper context into the bigger understanding of strength programming. To educate yourself, read books, review scientific studies, communicate with or mentor under accomplished coaches, and/or follow program design by accomplished coaches to see how that coach approaches training for strength. Reading, talking, and listening helps educate you while utilizing the various concepts presented through those interactions provides experience. Understand that you will not become highly educated in a few months or even a few years. The best minds in strength have years of education and practical application that gives them the insight into programming design, application, and adjustment that allows them to gain strength and help others gain strength. Learn how to listen to your body Listening to your body is a part of intuitive training. Intuitive training is adjusting your training sessions to sessions or week to week based on how you feel. This is not the same as slacking off because you do not feel like working out or pushing too hard just because you want to. Listening to your body means being aware of when you body is operating best, versus operating less than optimally. Listening to your body means being able to recognize signs of excessive fatigue, the need for better fueling, the need for more rest, and other aspects, such as when you are feeling top notch. Being able to listen to your body will help you know when to push and pull back during workouts. For example, if your program calls for setting a new PR, but your body is sore and fatigued, the PR might be best saved for another day. In that same line of though, if the program calls for an easy session, but you are feeling great, then a harder session may be ideal. This is not the whole idea. There are reason why you should stick to programing even if your body is telling you to do something else. For example, if you are feeling great and want to push hard, but you have a PR session coming up tomorrow, it might be best to save energy for that session. The take away These five points will help you train smarter and harder over time. If you do not focus on these areas, then you will have less than optimal progress over time. If you focus on these areas, you will see better progress over time. It might seem like focusing on these points will result in the process taking longer, but if you master these areas, the process will be quicker and more efficient with fewer injuries, fewer bad programs, and fewer instances of overtraining.
Nathan DeMetz holds degrees in Exercise Science, Business Administration, and Information Technology as well as certifications in strength and conditioning, sports nutrition, run coaching, and other areas. His credentials come from organizations such as Indiana Wesleyan University, Ivy Tech College, and the International Sports Sciences Association. Nathan has 17 years of personal and professional experience in the health and fitness world. He works with people from across the globe, including locations such as Kuwait, Australia, and the USA.