Stay committed to the gym (or work out at home!) and constantly fine-tune your workouts, and you're sure to be significantly stronger in a few weeks.
And as you've probably heard, building muscle and achieving a beach-ready physique aren't just about lifting weights. You'll also need to devote your energy, focus, and insight to your nutrition and sleep, too. Factor in your job, your family and friends, and everything else you deal with in life, and that's a lot.
Fortunately, we have just as many ways you can improve strength—50, in fact. With these helpful training tips, you'll be well on your way to your strongest athletic performance yet.
Do several warm-up sets with low reps that prepare you to lift your heaviest on your last few sets. That way, you'll have energy for those sets—the most crucial ones for strength gains. Say you're planning to squat with 300 pounds for five reps. You could do 135 pounds for six reps, 185 for five, 225 for three, 275 for two, and then 300 for five. By the time you get to the 300 set, you'll be thoroughly warmed up but not fatigued.
Imagine how it will feel, where your eyes will be focused, and how you'll breathe. Doing so will make you more "familiar" with how the set will be done, and it will seem easier.
To lift your hardest, your body needs to regenerate as much ATP—the fuel source for muscle contractions—as possible. Take the time to feel fully recovered before you attempt any personal record on a lift.
If you can't lock out your elbows on the bench press, try setting the safety rails in a power rack at about your sticking point on the lift. Put roughly 10% more than your one-rep maximum weight on the bar and then try to press it. You probably won't be able to move the bar, but try hard anyway for 6–10 seconds. Do four to six reps, resting a few seconds in between, and then lighten the load to the weight you usually have trouble locking out. Your central nervous system should now be sufficiently fired up for you to lift it.
Even if you have to invite the biggest animal in the gym to spot you, having someone around who inspires (or intimidates) you will always make you up your intensity.
It makes the bar look lighter. Your brain won't register it as heavy. That mental advantage can help you lift heavier or do more reps.
The less material between your feet and the floor when you lift, the more muscle your body can activate. It's also better for leverage on moves like the deadlift (you'll shorten the distance the bar has to travel). If you train at home or in a hardcore gym, lose the shoes. (If your gym requires footwear, thin-soled sneakers like Chucks are ideal.)
Take a two to four-pound medicine ball and push it into a wall with one hand, keeping your arm straight. Roll the ball around on the wall (push hard so it doesn't slip), tracing the alphabet. Do two sets on each arm, and then do your pressing. Firing up the rotator cuff increases the stability in your shoulders.
Do three sets of three reps, resting 60 seconds between each set. Explosive exercises wake up the central nervous system to recruit maximum muscle.
Lie on your back on the floor with your knees bent and feet close to your butt. Dig your heels into the floor and bridge up with your hips, focusing on the contraction in your glutes. Do two sets of eight to 10 reps. Preactivating the glutes—the prime movers in a proper deadlift—allows them to fire at their fullest.
Tightness through your hips leads to increased stability everywhere and will let you put up more weight immediately on any exercise. In other words, you can, in fact, pull a new record "out of your ass."
It's like a cold shower for your nervous system, awakening your senses.
Magnesium carbonate (not the same stuff you used in school to write a sentence 100 times on the blackboard) keeps your hands dry for a superstrong grip. Like the weight belt, it can help you instantly increase your max—and more safely, too.
Do your last warmup set with a heavier weight than what you plan to use in your first work set. Do fewer reps than what you will do on the work set, too. Using the heavier weight in the warmup will help you recruit extra muscle mass for the work set.
A lifting belt will help support your lower back on deadlifts, squats, and presses. You can increase your max by tens of pounds just by strapping one on, and you'll be doing your lower back a favor as well.
Grab the bar overhand as usual but wrap your thumbs around it first. Then wrap your fingers over your thumbs. Reinforcing the thumb with the strength of your other fingers gives you a much better grip. It's a great way to lift heavier without using straps, which don't let your grip muscles work hard.
Take a deep breath from your diaphragm so that your stomach swells outward. (If your shoulders rise, you took the breath into your lungs.) If you're wearing a weight belt, push your gut into the belt so it feels very tight. Inflating your abdomen increases core stability. Do this on sets of five reps or fewer for an immediate strength increase of at least 10%.
Before you curl, load the bar with 20% more weight than what you can lift for five reps. Cheat curl the bar to the top position and hold for two seconds, tensing every muscle. Take four seconds to lower the bar down. Rest one minute, then do your normal set of curls. The load you're about to lift will feel lighter.
Actively trying to force your body backward on the bench helps turn the lift into a full-body exercise, and it'll feel easier.
(as in the bench or shoulder press), or one side begins to sink, squeeze the bar on the lagging side as hard as you can. You'll send a message to the nervous system, and it will increase strength on that side.
Get into pushup position and then rest your forearms on the floor. Hold it for 20 to 30 seconds each. You'll wake up your core, which will better support your lifts.
Now hold it for your first two reps if you can. By not exhaling too soon, you won't lose your tight position early in the set. This takes a little practice, so avoid it if you're a beginner.
The heavier the weight gets, the more you may have a tendency to let your wrists roll back, but don't. Keeping them straight is a more natural and stable position that will allow you to complete the lift more easily. If you can't keep them straight, work on your grip strength.
Do bodyweight lunges, throwing exercises, or jumps—any movement in which you move your joints through a full range of motion. It will better prepare you to lift than just breaking a sweat with light cardio because it warms your muscles and joints while also prepping the central nervous system to lift heavy.
Let go and rest for three to five seconds, and then begin your set. Squeezing the bar (it also works on dumbbells) forces that tight feeling everywhere in your body and reminds you to stay tight during the lift.
OK, so you may already do this technique—which involves performing just the top-half of an exercise—but are you using it correctly? The idea of a partial rep is that it allows you to put on more weight than you can normally move (yep, that overload thing again). However, “many people at the gym use this method all of the time because they feel cool lifting a bunch of weight, but it should only be used once or twice a month to help stimulate more muscle fiber recruitment,” says Eric Emig, personal trainer and co-owner of Evolution Fitness. “Abusing this method by doing it all of the time will result in poor flexibility and joint mobility, as well as injured tendons.”
For this advanced training technique, you will be deliberately working with more weight than you can actually lift—so get a good spotter, stat! The idea here is to load the body on the lowering portion of an exercise, then get some spotter help to lift it back up. “Everyone has the strength to lower more weight under control than he has to press the weight back up,” Emig says. “And studies have shown that the negative part of the movement is where most gains in strength occur.” More weight than you can lift = overload = strength gains.
These two methods make your body work harder on those squats and bench presses. Bands are looped around the end of the barbell and anchored to the floor, while chains are looped but unanchored. “For a bench press, the band has very little tension when the bar is at chest level, but as you extend your arms the variable resistance gets stronger and stronger, which makes the “easiest” part of the lift now very difficult,” Emig explains. “With the chains, as the bar is pressed, more links come up off of the floor, causing a variable resistance that gets stronger at the top of the movement.” The end result: overloading of the muscles, which forces more fibers to fire—and more strength gains for you.
You know that plyo is all about channeling and harnessing power. But some current fitness disciplines may have you believing that these kinds of explosive moves should be done over and over for many reps on end. The problem with that, though, is that in order to be really explosive, it takes a lot of coordinated muscular effort in every rep—which will without a doubt dissipate the more reps you do. To get the most from plyo, keep your rep schemes in the 5–8 range for the big moves (like box jumps), and no more than 12 for the moves that have you reacting or rebounding quickly (like skaters). “Plyometrics are typically associated with jump boxes, but can also be used cautiously bench pressing and squatting,” Emig says.
Any time you shift your attention to using one side of your body at a time, it becomes all about balance: First, in the fact that you can distribute equal work to each side—or extra work to your weaker side—to rectify strength imbalances, and second, as with the single-leg deadlift, by actually improving your balance on one foot.
To do: Grasp a pair of dumbbells and hold them by your sides. Shift your weight to one foot and toe the other slightly behind you. With control, hinge at the hips while extending the toed foot up and back behind you and allowing the weights to come down in front of you; keep your body in one line from head to extended foot and don’t let your chest collapse. Engage the glute and hamstring of the standing leg to power you back to stand. Do 10 to 15 reps before switching sides.
Dumbbell presses—overhead/military and chest—are obviously great for strength-building. They require more stabilization through the core than barbell presses do. By taking it to one side at a time, you engage the core muscles even more to keep your body balanced. You also can get a greater range of motion, particularly on overhead movements, because you can focus your attention even better on your alignment. More ROM means more muscles are doing the work—and more strength-building.
It looks so basic—holding a single heavy weight on one side and walking—but performing suitcase carries does so many great things for your strength: working your grip, your core, and your posture, as your core must fight the imbalanced weight to stay upright.
To do this exercise, grab dumbbells that are as heavy as your hands can handle and walk 10-20 meters.
Yep, like those ones your high school coach made you do during conditioning workouts. “Often neglected because it's not a 'sexy' exercise, wall sits are very effective at building a strong base for squats and mitigating knee pain,” says Josh Holland, NYC-based personal trainer and founder of Zoomtion Fitness.
To do: Plant your feet between hip- and shoulder-width apart, and get your hips down so your knees are at 90 degrees. Try to hold for 2–3 minutes or until you can't take it anymore.
It's as simple as this: Grasping a pullup bar and holding on. “Hanging may seem boring at first, but it's much tougher than people realize,” Holland explains. “It helps in decompressing the joints and improves grip strength when translating to other exercises that require it.”
To do: You can do a dead hang, in which you just, er, hang in there for as long as you can. Or make it more challenging for the lats and shoulders by making it an active hang: Pull your shoulder blades down, as if you’re resisting the drop with your armpits. Aim for a minute of each, and experiment with your grip (overhand, underhand, and neutral with hands facing each other).
A fave of trainers, those mini-banded side steps are excellent for improving hip stability, and in turn protecting the knees from injury. What’s more, by strengthening those side hip muscles, you boost your plyometric power on moves like box jumps. “Creating more strength and power out of the hips is beneficial for both men and women, says Holland.
To do: Wrap a mini-band around both legs, above or below the knees. Maintain a half-squat position, and take a big side-step, followed by a half step with the other foot. Keep going, 20 steps one way, then switch directions. Aim for three sets. Up the challenge by finishing with 20 banded jumping jacks.
So many “standard” core exercises are all about bending (like crunches and situps) or twisting (like bicycles or Russian twists). These are all well and good, but you’ll really max out your core strength if you also train those muscles to resist those very actions—in other words, to stabilize against the desire to flex or twist. Pallof presses load your core from the side and force it to hold strong. They're also far healthier for your back, because you'll be maintaining a neutral spine rather than compressing or extending it.
To do a Pallof press: Adjust the handle of a cable machine to about solar plexus level. Stand so one side of your body faces the machine, and pull the cable in both hands so it’s right in front of you. Keeping your shoulders and hips square, extend both arms straight out, resisting the cable’s load and your body’s desire to give in and twist toward the machine. Hold your arms out from 2 to 10 seconds, then bring your hands back in close to your body. Do 5 to 20 reps. Experiment with the cable weight to increase the challenge.
They ain’t glamorous, but they work both your shoulder and core stability while opening up tight chest muscles, all of which can impede range of motion if neglected. Lie face-down on the floor, arms extended overhead in a Y shape. Turn your thumbs up and peel your upper body off the floor as high as you can while keeping your head neutral and your toes on the floor. Lower down, and move your arms so they’re straight out in a T position. Repeat the torso-raising. Lower down, then move your arms along your sides in an A position, and lift and lower once more. Repeat from the top for 10 total reps, rest a minute, and do another set. Include in your warmup, especially on shoulder or chest day.
Another from the boring-but-necessary files, shoulder internal and external rotation exercises help to strengthen the rotator cuff muscles, which are small but essential for shoulder stability. More stable shoulders can move more weight. So that you get tension across the full range of motion, use a cable machine or a handled resistance band. Set the equipment at belly-button height and pin a folded towel between your elbow and your side. To do external rotation, stand so the handle is coming across your body with your hand in front of your navel and slowly rotate your hand away from your midline. To do internal rotation, stand so the cable or band is pulling away from your working arm, and rotate your hand in toward your navel. Do 20 reps of each direction on each side, then repeat up to three sets. Add ‘em to your warmup on shoulder and chest day.
For a better bench, work your back. It my sound counter-intuitive, but the back muscles, particularly the rear delts, must hold tension and keep the shoulder complex stable while your chest and arm muscles press that weight up. Band pull-aparts are one way to work rear shoulder stability, and can be done either as a warmup or in between bench sets as an active rest.
To do: When standing, grasp a band with some tension and simply pull your hands apart so your arms are straight out like a T. Go for 15 to 20 reps or experiment with holding tension for time and releasing.
Doing a strict split routine is all well and good for hypertrophy, if you’ve got the time and the inclination. But even bodybuilders—the smart ones, anyway—will tell you that at least once a week you should make sure your muscles can work together, too, not just in isolation. Movements like chops, bear crawls, and medicine-ball drills aid in muscular synergy as well as mobility, and both are essential for muscle recruitment and range of motion.
Cardio is not the enemy when it comes to muscle gains. Adding it to your routine in the form of short-burst intervals is actually a great way to stay lean while pumping up, particularly if you use your bodyweight as resistance.
To do: Design a quick tabata routine (20 seconds on, 10 seconds off) using full-body power moves like burpees, squat jumps, plyo pushups, and split leaps. Do each exercise for a 4-minute bout (eight 20-second/10-second cycles) before resting briefly (30 to 60 seconds) and doing the next. Twenty minutes (five exercises) and you’re good.
Supple muscles move better and are more efficient. When you have knots and “tangled-up” muscle fibers, you can’t get as much strength or power out of them. You also may be more prone to injury, particularly when tight muscles inhibit your range of motion through a strength training exercise. Foam rolling will not only improve all these aspects, but also aid in recovery, so you’ll be able to lift again sooner. And once you get over the initial, er, discomfort, it can feel pretty great. So take five minutes at the end of your workout to target typically tight muscle groups: mid-back, glutes, hams, quads, and calves. Seriously—that’s one minute for the back, plus 30 seconds per side for each of the others. Done and done.
Yeah, it’s a total cheat catch-all for mobility work. In addition to getting your body to move better and become more flexible—essential for being able to get the full range of motion out of your lifts—yoga is also a great bodyweight workout. Yoga also trains your body to breathe with the exertion, which is clutch when you’re putting up crazy-heavy loads. Win-win-win.
You’ve heard it before but it bears repeating (in perhaps a slightly different way): Muscles aren’t built in the gym; they’re built in your bed. Taking a rest-and-recovery day is not lazy—it’s essential for rebuilding after all those micro-tears you put into your muscles during an intense workout. Sometimes, that can mean an active recovery or cross-training day where you take it easy, and other times, it can mean steering clear of the gym entirely. And that’s more than OK.
You want to change your body, right? So why go to the exact same machines, in the exact same gym, at the exact same time, on the exact same days of the week? Changing up your routine can not only inspire you to try new exercises or training methods, but also prevent your body from adapting to the same old stimulus. And you don't have to necessarily get another gym membership—try taking a new fitness class, or even just train outside. Normally an early bird? Go at night if you can.
Yeah, yeah, we know: You're a smart, independent guy and you don't need some fat dude telling you to bench press on Mondays. But if you're honestly reaching the limits of your training knowledge, or even if you're just not 100% sure that you've been performing Romanian deadlifts correctly, then hiring a coach—even for just a few sessions—can be a huge help. Beyond form checks and new ideas, knowledgeable strength coaches can personalize your training program according to your specific goals, and then adjust their recommendations to keep your body growing.
You've probably heard people talk about squatting every day. That's probably a little extreme for the average athlete—your body doesn't need that much stimulus to get stronger—but it does get at a valuable point: Squatting more often can help you develop more strength. Lots of lifters avoid the squat, but squatting two or three times a week—and with some variation, like front squats or safety-bar squats—will definitely inspire growth and boost your testosterone levels.
Accessory exercises should assist the development of your big lifts. That’s a big reason why they exist in the first place, so you should let them do just that. If you’re loading up for a five-rep max of your rear-leg elevated split squat or cranking out a 200-pound face pull, you're probably losing the form—and, therefore, wasting your time. Instead, focus on moving in a full range of motion, perfecting your tempo, and hitting the muscles the exercise is intended to work. They may not be big barbell movements, but they do help you build strength and progress when it comes to your big lifts.
Each big lift has countless variations, and any of those variations can be a better alternative if traditional big lifts just don’t seem to be your thing. It takes a humble outlook to admit that a certain lift just isn’t for you, but you’ll reap serious benefits if you do. Fitness routines aren’t one-size-fits-all, and neither are individual lifts. For example, a lifter with long legs, a short torso, and poor hip mobility probably won’t find it easy to get into a perfect barbell deadlift setup, and he’ll always be at greater risk for injury than if he were to try an alternative like the trap bar deadlift (where he can keep his torso more vertical) and adjust his positioning according to his body type.
We all have days when we're feeling sluggish, tired, or straight-up out of it. Training partners can keep you honest, motivate you to get to the gym, and—most importantly—help you make the most of your effort when you're there. Most importantly, training partners can form-check you, spot your lifts, and keep you honest.