Learn how to build slabs of muscle with these military-approved lifting tips.
Eric Velazquez, C.S.C.S., for Muscle & Fitness 1 / 8
Lift Big Weights Now
Simply being purposeful is a positive first step in getting stronger. Too many guys wander around the gym, lift whatever they feel like, post a few #gymselfies, and then head home. If you want to make serious progress, you need to bring an intense focus and intense strength. And nowhere is that more true than in powerlifting.
Power lifts—comprising the deadlift, the back squat, and the bench press—might look simple, but facing down that much iron demands a steely psychological resolve and a purist's dedication to form.
That's why we talked to James Simmons, an Air Force contracting officer and decorated powerlifter, for some hard-earned wisdom on what it takes to get tactically strong without logging marathon gym sessions.
How low can you go? If you want to get freaky strong, it’s time to find out.
“A deep squat is an effective squat, whether your goal is to build muscle or build strength,” says Simmons. “Full-range, ass-to-the-grass squats recruit more fibers in your quads, glutes, and hamstrings. Although powerlifting federations vary in their ideas of a successful squat, a competition-quality squat generally means that your hips descend to or below the knees. Whether you want to compete or not, your time in the rack will be better spent doing quality repetitions, not partial reps with more weight than you can handle. Squat for results, not ego.”
“Perhaps no lift represents powerlifting better than the deadlift,” Simmons says. “It is one of the most primal lifts imaginable. There’s something heavy on the ground in front of you, and you just have to pick it up.”
But Simmons is a man of standards. This is about pure strength and maximum muscle recruitment, after all. “A proper deadlift is a real total-body effort, and there's nothing more satisfying than lifting cartoonish amounts of weight and lowering it under control. Make 'deads' a core component of your workouts. Start light, focus on your form, and enjoy the steady, satisfying gains—like leg and back development, one-rep max, and grip strength—that come from proper, consistent deadlifting.”
When it comes to rep schemes, there are so many combinations advocated by the strength-training crowd. What’s best? 5x5? Heavy triples? Ten sets of three?
“The pyramid concept of increasing weight and decreasing reps from set to set within a particular exercise is not new, and yet surprisingly many beginners tend to go straight to a particular weight and lift until failure for set after set,” says Simmons. “Instead, try building towards a high point in the exercise—a weight that you hope to lift in the 2-4 rep range cleanly. The rep counts might look like this: 12, 10, 8, 6, 4, 2. The weight should gradually increase with each set as the reps go down. The amount of weight you increase per set should depend on the lift. Obviously, if you aim to finish the pyramid at a 500-pound deadlift, you will need to make bigger jumps in the weight from set to set to get there than you would to finish with a 315-pound bench press.”
And if you want to see where you belong on the strongman continuum, Simmons advocates a slightly different approach. “Periodically—maybe every 4–6 weeks—tweak this strategy to test your one-rep max. If you want to simulate a powerlifting meet, finish the pyramid with three single-rep attempts, each increasing towards your new personal best. Using the 500-pound deadlift max attempt as an example, your workout might look like this: 135 pound for 12, 225 for 9, 315 for 6, 405 for 3, 435 for 1, 465 for 1, 500 for 1.” Looks easy enough, right?
You may think that drop sets are for bodybuilders only—a push-past-failure technique designed to carve new detail into muscle. But your body can use this proven approach to build new strength and size, too.
“In conjunction with the pyramid example above, I like to push myself a bit further on the last set of the Big 3 exercises (squat, bench, and deadlift),” says Simmons. “Again, using the 500-pound deadlift example above, immediately follow that final rep with drop sets all the way back down to 135, but this time increase your reps as you decrease the weight. So, it might look like this: 500 for a single, 405 for 2-4, 315 for 6-8, 225 for 10-12, and finally 135 for 12. Keep the pace up with these drop sets, taking no more rest than the time it takes you to strip the weights. Focus on your form as you decrease the weight. As your back and legs burn, this will become more and more challenging in spite of the decreasing weight, but it will be worth it.”
“Compete,” says Simmons, sternly. “Powerlifting is all about challenging yourself mentally and physically—pushing your limits safely. The most rewarding meets I’ve participated in were those when I set a new personal best in one of the lifts, not necessarily just the meets I’ve won (although that’s nice too). Don’t be intimidated by the culture or atmosphere of a powerlifting meet—everyone was a beginner at some point and we all had a first meet. The small community of competitive powerlifting is a friendly, close-knit group of passionate athletes, and we’re always looking to grow and promote the sport."
Don’t buy into the misconception that powerlifters are grunting beasts only concerned with moving the weight from A to B. They are strong because they are meticulous technicians.
“Focus on form!” Simmons barks. “Proper form comes first. If you’re lifting properly, the strength will follow. Take the ego out of your lifts, take some weight off the bar and take pride in doing the lifts properly.”
It’s bro science to think that you can throw down slice after slice of pizza just because you’re heaving around such massive weight plates. Wrong. Way, way wrong.
“You need to rest and eat appropriately,” Simmons says. “An intense weightlifting program requires the proper amount of fuel and rest for results. Without getting into diet program specifics, the basic principle is that your diet should be appropriate for your personal goals, whether they are to build size and strength or lose weight. Also, I recommend supplementing a healthy diet with a supplement such as RuckPack, which is a caffeine-free, all-in-one supplement which promotes focus, joint health, stamina, and recovery.”
James Simmons is an active duty Air Force contrating officer. He competes in powerlifting at 198 pounds and has won a number of state and regional titles.