If I could go back in time to when I first started lifting weights, I’d do everything differently.
Back then, I was so worried about finding the right plan for me that I missed out on the two most fundamental aspects of exercise: movement and strength.
Movement is easy to figure out, and yet mostly misunderstand. Yes, you want to learn how to squat, push (think bench press), and pull (rows), but you also want to rotate, move in different planes, and even crawl, jump, and climb.
Build these skills and your body will undeniably be better for it. And the younger you start the better.
The second element is basic but overcomplicated. Being strong will make it easier for you to achieve your fitness goals. Every. Single. One. From fat loss to muscle gain. Increased athleticism and speed. For men and women.
But becoming stronger–while a process and a science–is not wrapped up in complicated training methods, drop sets, supersets, and any other fancy training approach.
It’s about adding more weight to the bar workout after workout. Keep the programs simple, the exercises basic, and watch as you become stronger. Use great coaches and methods like biofeedback to understand what movements are best for you body, and then gradually become better.
Your beginner strength workouts can be viewed as boring and yet they are inherently rewarding. It’s very easy to monitor your workouts, become excited about your progress, and keep pushing ahead knowing that you’re becoming better.
When I meet most clients and perform an initial assessment, I’m usually surprised that their baseline level of strength is either
- Lower than I’d imagine for someone with their experience in the gym
- Wildly imbalanced (usually push is much stronger than pull, and upper body is more powerful than lower)
In order to move forward I take steps back to remove imbalances and build fundamental strength that will help prevent injuries, create the ability for enhanced fat loss, and allow you to add all the cool training techniques that enhance muscle building.
But what about those that are already strong? Is the end goal still becoming stronger? If the goal is lifting as much weight as possible, then yes, the path is much clearer.
And yet, for many people who workout that’s not why they’re in the gym. And it’s where confusion is created and workouts lead to plateaus and frustration.
What Happens After Strength?
On a basic level, you will always try to add more weight on exercises. But at some point, the speed by which you add weight becomes dramatically different, meaning you need to find new ways to increase workout intensity without forcing yourself into an endless cycles where you’re simply going through the motions instead of becoming better.
Progressive overload (gradually becoming stronger on all lifts) is great in the beginning of your training life, but it has less application the more advanced you become and as you age.
This isn’t to say you can’t still lift very heavy as you enter your 30s, 40s, and 50s, but the need to add more strength and punish your joints becomes less central to your general fitness goals of looking good, feeling great, being lean, and living longer.
Once you’re lifting decent weights on most exercises, your focus shifts to challenging your body in new ways without simply adding more plates to an exercise.
The ways to become better are endless and include everything for creating different “angles” to challenge your muscles, training at a faster pace, experimenting with frequency and the number of days you exercise, altering the length of your workouts, and ultimately trying to increase overall volume so you keep seeing progress without having to live in the gym.
If adding more weight was the only way, we’d all be squatting 500 pounds.
The proof exists at the highest level. Strength competitors and professional athletes who depend on lifting heavy weights don’t push for constant PR’s every session or on their assistance lifts.
What they understand is that first you build the foundation (strength), and then you create the home (adding other training variables and not obsessing over strength). You want to push your numbers when you can, but your main goal with many exercises will be to find new ways to increase the challenge and build conditioning without needing to become stronger.
Progress in the weight room has many faces.
If you were able to squat 225 pounds and then decided to start adding eccentric holds at the bottom of the lift (for 2 to 4 seconds), you’ve made that exercise harder without adding weight.
If you row 50 pounds for 10 reps, and then decide to make your goal 11 for the next session, and then 12 after that, then you have made progress.
That’s not to say that the pursuit of strength should end, but that it doesn’t have to be your only focus or a path that constantly leads to injury.
Plenty of experts are specialists at making you stronger at all times. (For the master of PR every day, check out information and techniques from Dave Dellanave.)
But for many people going to the gym, the experience is not about the rush of lifting more weight. It doesn’t matter to them. So why force something that won’t keep them coming back session after session.
For those, gaining strength becomes an issue of pragmatism; you need strength to achieve any of your goals. But once you have it, then you can manipulate your training in a more specified way.
Once your initial gains for gaining strength diminish (a process that for many lasts several years), then the process shifts more to gaining small amounts of strength each year, without sacrificing the intensity or difficulty of your training plan.
Adam Bornstein is a New York Times bestselling author and, according to The Huffington Post, “one of the most inspiring sources in all of health and fitness.” An award-winning writer and editor, Bornstein was the Fitness and Nutrition editor for Men’s Health, Editorial Director at LIVESTRONG.com, and a columnist for SHAPE, Men’s Fitness, and Muscle & Fitness. He’s also a nutrition and fitness advisor for LeBron James, Cindy Crawford, Lindsey Vonn, and Arnold Schwarzenegger. His work has been featured in dozens of publications, including The New York Times, Fast Company, ESPN, and GQ, and he’s appeared on Good Morning America, The Today Show, E! News, and The Cheddar.