Being strong is functional. Just because a movement is advertised as functional doesn’t mean it has any relevance to everyday activities. The term functional gets thrown around a lot with complex or “new” exercises. But being strong in my book is the essence of functional.
I may be a bit biased as my job is gym-based and for me, functional can be deloading Hugh Jackman’s 400lb+ deadlift.
Wolverine himself referred to me as “the best trainer he has have ever worked with” and I’m immensely proud of that statement. He made that comment, in part, because he remained injury-free throughout training and stunts on six films in short succession, including The Wolverine and X-Men Days of Future Past. Functional under these circumstances was heavy training, wirework and fight sequences, so strength was key.
Strength isn’t about the exercise selection as much as it is the rep range.
I like to keep in the safe end of strength for most of the people I work with. When I say safe I mean “safer.” As with all gym work, there is risk. But with careful planning and programing, these risks can be reduced.
I would typically work in the rep ranges of 4-6 reps for strength and some 6+ for strength endurance. I believe this format with exercises selected for your specific goals can take any plan for any goal to the next level.
Before we get into my top tips you may be asking “What are the best movements for strength training?” The answer to this is like any, it’s hard to answer as specificity is a key principle when planning training. But my plans will typically have a squat, unilateral left lift like Bulgarian split squats, weighted pull-ups and pressing movement (overhead, bench, floor press etc) and finally deadlifts. What’s more functional than picking up heavyweight from the floor and not trashing your back?
If you’re struggling to make strength training work for you, I’ve got 5 steps you can use to help realize it’s, and your, full potential.
1. Start slow - Don’t rush this process. Strength isn’t built overnight and you shouldn’t try to. Before you start pushing your muscles to the limit you need to help build ligament and tendon strength and joint stability with a base weight training phase. This phase can work effectively with a format of 4x12 reps of main lifts in your plan. Work on keeping the reps under your complete control.
2. Progress - Going to the gym every week and lifting the same weight is a surefire way to plateau. In order to progress you need to consistently increase stimulus. This requires progressive overload. Which means lifting more weight over time. You can plan this progressive overload to maximize results and to easily bust past sticking points in your progress. A great way of doing this is by cycling your reps. Start with week 1 - 5x6 with a weight you can lift about 8 times for one set. Then the next week 5x5 with a slightly heavier weight. Then the next week 5x4 with a slightly heavier weight than the previous week. Week 4 go back to 5x6 but use the weight you used in week 2. This format will give you steady gains and progressive overload.
3. Get Past The Bouncer - I don’t mean the guys on the door, but I’m referring to a very common mistake people make when lifting weights, especially if it’s an exercise you’re not too familiar with. The problem comes on the downward part of the rep. Many people ‘bounce’ the bar. It may feel like you’re doing it well, but you’re cheating yourself a little, because you’re generating momentum to lift the bar, rather than your muscles. It can also be problematic, especially if the bar slips or you drop the weight suddenly. If you find yourself doing that same thing, you’ll probably find that the weight is too heavy for you at the moment. Lower the weight you’re lifting to the point where you can touch the barbell to your chest COMFORTABLY! If you really are going for power and strength, pause for a second before pushing it back to the start. Things start to get real when you slow the weight down.
4. ROM to the MAX - ROM stands for ‘range of motion’ and, like many things in life, size is important. The larger range of motion, the greater the promotion of muscle and strength gains you’ll feel. This is much more advantageous than pushing yourself to lift weights that are simply too heavy for you right now. You may well see people lowering the barbell by only an inch or two on each rep. This happens because they have too much weight on and therefore their ROM is reduced. When you're bench pressing, get the bar as close to your chest as you possibly can. If it’s just touching your chest, that's even better. You should be doing this every time. To bring your shoulders into play, try using a board or floor presses to shorten the ROM naturally. This is better than artificially truncating it with weight that is just too heavy.
5. Variety Is The Life of Spice - Varying your exercises absolutely has its place. For many people, they need a mix of exercises and resistance training formats to keep them interested. It serves to keep them coming back for more, to go that extra mile and to address any weaknesses that arise. As with anything in life, there is always another side to the story. That's why I advocate not including a variety of exercises and rather invite people to work with tried and true methods.
The problem some people find with an incessant need to try something different is that they can become the epitome of a ‘jack of all trades, master of none’. Constantly going from the latest and greatest piece of equipment in the gym, or spending their time on the current fad in the exercise world means that there never going to fully understand or appreciate the importance of even the most basic or, in some instances, the really boring exercises they need to be doing.
Consistency is more important than variety for results. Use variety once progress has plateaued and keep the variations slight.
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