how to get stronger

How to Get Stronger: Elements of Using Strength

The world is filled with objects that are not barbell shaped, symmetrically loadable, or set in a rack for convenience. Lifting, carrying, pushing, or moving the world’s odd objects introduces new variables when we try to use our strength. How to Get Stronger is not just a challenge to build muscle but to recognize and address the factors that help translate the strength we build in the gym to the strength we need outside it.

How to Get Stronger

By: Nick Soleyn, PBC, Editor in Chief

Strength is the ability to produce force against an object, and the world is filled with objects that are not barbell shaped, symmetrically loadable, or set in a rack for convenience. I like to think of the gym—whether in the garage or a commercial gym—as a strength lab, where we create perfect conditions to lift heavy and train safely. That lab is where we build strength.

But using strength happens outside of the lab. Lifting, carrying, pushing, or moving the world’s oddly shaped objects introduces new variables. Things like body positioning, balance, grip, and discomfort play a bigger part, meaning we rarely lift something outside the gym that is as heavy as what we’ve lifted in it. How to Get Stronger is not just a challenge to build strength with barbells but to recognize and address the factors that help translate the strength we build in the gym/lab to the myriad of ways we use strength:

  1. Muscle growth
  2. Athleticism
  3. Balance and Coordination
  4. Mobility
  5. Toughness

You can improve most of these in your own strength-lab, but if your training is not translating well to other tasks, you may need to adjust your training or find additional activities that will benefit your ability to build and use strength.

Muscle growth

Building muscle is the heart of any good training program. Bigger muscles are stronger muscles. And, out of the above attributes, building muscle is the only one that you can improve, training cycle after training cycle, for a very long time. The untrained, middle-aged adult can look forward to decades of productive muscle-building training.

Building muscle is not complicated. When you lift weights consistently, your body changes to make you better at lifting weights, and those changes stick around. This includes adding muscle mass, increased bone density, and generally improved fitness for (and recovery from) short, intense bouts of using your strength.

All types of resistance training are not equal for this goal. When you are new to training, almost anything works. Building muscle continues as long as you can keep your body from getting too used to the work without changing the basic movements too much. The best exercises for strength require coordination and balance—big, multi-joint movements are best—and that you can make more challenging through small changes and loading.

The best exercises, then, are those you can start now and continue to progress on for a very long time. If lifting weights is like medicine, the best exercises have a wide therapeutic window—easily increased in modest increments and accessible to most people—without having to change the exercise itself. By gradually increasing the load, you force your body to become continually stronger. It gets more complicated as you get stronger, but basic principles do not change much: use exercises that target multiple muscle groups, are relatively easy to perform, and allow you to start light and go very heavy (for you).

Our Beginning Barbells page breaks down the most common barbell lifts for this type of muscle building.

Athleticism

stronger through mobility

“Mobility is the gateway to movement, activity, and a generally doing more, making it necessary for long-term health and fitness.”

Athleticism, as I am using it, is a catch-all term for everything that makes a person better at physical activity. It’s physical competence that comes from experience and practice using strength, which augment a person’s training and genetic gifts. Strength is part of athleticism, but more fundamental is the ability to use your body correctly.

Young lifters often struggle with this. The first time they get under a bar, they tend to wobble and shake and exhibit little ability to set their backs and brace, both of which are key to effective leverage and lifting. With a little instruction and time under the bar, most kids develop good lifting habits, improving their ability to use their bodies for lifting and other athletics.

The body is a series of levers, fulcrums, and grips. The better you get at using it as such, the more effectively you use strength. Failure to set your back or take a deep breath and hold it, the inability to recognize when your limbs are in a poor position to produce force, and ignoring the requirements of balance, will limit how well you can use strength. Fortunately, the are things we learn in the gym and can translate with only a little consideration.

Picking up a non-barbell-shaped object requires the same skills you learn in the gym. You just have to work a little harder to use them. Position your body so that you can stay balanced on your midfoot. Face the object you are lifting and stay as symmetrical as possible (no twisting while lifting or carrying things). Set your back as best you can. Take a deep breath and brace. And secure or protect your grip. These things will make you immediately stronger.

Balance and Coordination

The importance of balance for strength is explained in Newton’s Third Law of Motion, the law of action and reaction. Anytime we apply force to something, that object is applying force to us. Standing on our feet, we resist that force by pushing or bracing against the ground. And we are stronger when the direction of force and resistance occur along the same axis. For example, a barbell on the lifter’s back pushes the lifter straight down. The lifter resists that force by against the ground. Since the barbell’s weight and the lifter’s resistance occur along the same axis, the lifter is very strong and able to resist or apply a lot of weight to the barbell. If a force pushes a person backward from their shoulders, however, they will find it much more difficult to resist.

Strength requires balance, and balance can get complicated. Being in balance is a state in which your center of mass (or the center of mass of you and the barbell combined) rests over your base of support. Every object on earth has a center of mass—the mathematical average of gravity acting on your body—and because gravity pulls straight down, being in balance means that average is positioned vertically over the place where you have the most stability. If you are standing up, the area of and between your feet create this base of support. A person’s center of mass will change with movement or any carried object, but we will usually say you are in balance if you can feel your weight centered on the middle of your feet. Lifting or carrying any object becomes difficult and even dangerous when you are out of balance.

Strength and balance go together. Your ability to stay in balance is a function of sensory input and muscular output.  While it takes balance to use strength, more strength and muscle mass give the brain more control over balance. Also, balance is a trainable skill.

More on Balance

If your goal is getting stronger for any practical purpose, you should choose exercises that require balance. Barbells meet this and other criteria, but any type of training done on your feet and not machine-based will involve some degree of balance.

Any exercise that forces you to be the machine is better than one that does the work for you.

Mobility

Meeting the previous criteria—using leverage, setting your back, staying symmetrical, grip, and balance—will often depend on your ability to move, bend, squat, or fit into a space that lets you use your strength. And a lack of mobility can be detrimental, forcing you to bend over more than they need to, reach farther, twist, and do things that are not conducive to safe or strong lifting. The less mobile you are, the less you can use your strength outside the gym.

Mobility is the gateway to movement, activity, and a generally doing more, making it necessary for long-term health and fitness. Dr. Sullivan says it best:

If movement is medicine, immobility is poison. Immobility leads to sarcopenia, weakness, deconditioning, visceral fat, insulin resistance, obesity, cardiovascular disease, shrinking horizons, disability, isolation, and death. A sessile human being is sending a constant, deadly message to his own body: I’m done with you. You’re not needed. Your body will take your word for it. —“Immobility is Poison,” by Jonathon Sullivan MD, PhD, SSC, PBC.

Even if your main goal is to get stronger, improved fitness, body composition, and general mobility help. Fortunately, mobility is not a prerequisite for strength training the only requirement is that you get started.

Barbell training’s big movements are sufficient mobility training for most people, provided you practice excellent form and lift consistently—at least three times a week if barbell training is your only activity requiring extra-quotidian movment. But it never hurts to try other activities to help you stay supple. Even if you lift weights regularly, mobility training is a general fitness attribute, and you only benefit by doing activities that require you to use it. Activities that require mobility are better than stretching alone.

Toughness

strength and discomfort

“Accepting discomfort from lifting heavy things translates to using strength outside the gym.”

Using strength and the process of getting stronger is uncomfortable. The amazing thing is that anybody can do it who chooses to. Everyone can do something today and a little more tomorrow. When you do that over and over again, it gets to be challenging very quickly and downright hard much of the time. That’s a feature, not a bug.

Newer lifters often struggle with learning heavy feels like. If they stick with it, though, there will be a day when they first lift something they didn’t think they could. Then, they come back for more the next day. Accepting discomfort from lifting heavy things translates to using strength outside the gym. When something feels heavy it can be a shock. We have mechanisms in our brain that will resist the strain in your muscles, a weakening grip, elevated heart rate, and general discomfort. Those who explore their strength limits in the gym learn to tell their brains to shut up; they got this. Getting comfortable with the uncomfortable allows you to use strength, and it is a big part of how you get stronger.

There are many ways to get stronger. Doing almost anything when you’ve been used to doing nothing will benefit your health and fitness. But if you really want to focus on strength and want your strength to work for you outside the gym, don’t ignore these other aspects of training. Train hard, be active, stay moving, and lean into the hard work; and nothing you face outside the gym will come close to what you’ve accomplished in it.

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