Simple, Sustainable Improvement

Getting stronger or more muscular is conceptually extremely easy and pretty much unanimously agreed upon. Whether you’re reading the research of Greg Nuckols, Eric Helms, or Mike Israetel, you’re going to hear the same very basic schema:

  • Train Consistently
  • Train specifically for what your goal is
  • Make sure training is getting gradually harder over time
  • Eat well
  • Rest well
  • Sleep well

This works for literally everyone. The more advanced you are, however, the less room for error there is. This is fairly intuitive, right? We see anyone who starts going to the gym makes noticeable improvement quickly. Going from an empty bar squat to a 225lbs squat typically doesn’t take that long for someone who weights 160+. However, we notice this progress slows down drastically when pushing from 225lbs to 400lbs. There’s a TON of physiological reasons why that’s the case, but honestly I’m a simple trainer. I’m no biochemist, and there’s MUCH better people to get the nitty-gritty information from. But what those people have deduced is simple: the mechanisms of getting stronger stays the same through and through. It may slow down, and the variables may need to be tuned ever more carefully, but for the first five or so years the progress is pretty linear.

The Simple Method of Getting Bigger and Stronger

There are three markers for getting stronger. Let’s take Squats for example, starting at 225lbs for 3 sets of 5.

  1. You lifted more weight for the same amount of reps. (Ex. 235x3x5)
  2. You lifted the same amount of weight for more reps. (Ex. 235x3x7)
  3. You lifted the same amount of weight for the same amount of reps for more sets. (Ex. 225x5x5)

The general rule is simple: the earlier in your lifting career you are, the less variables you have to worry about. As a beginner, you can focus purely on adding weight every week (in a moderate fashion). For example, you could aim to add 10lbs per week to your squat every week. When that stops working, you can deload. A deload is where you cut the weights significantly (think around 70%-80% of what you were doing previously, ex. 300lbs becomes 210-240lbs) and the sets. Instead of doing 300x5x5, you might do 210x3x5. The next week, you go back to the weight you were 2 weeks prior before you stopped (280lbs in this case). Then you start adding 10lbs per week again. Eventually, you’ll only be able to add 5lbs a week. Then 5lbs every two weeks, every month… etc. The more advanced you get, the less frequent the strength gains occur. But if you can’t increase weight every week, then that means you need to find a different variable to increase!

Let’s say progress stops at around 320lbs x 5 x 5. You simply are having no luck adding weight every week, and maybe are even starting to regress. But you have two variables left to manipulate! The next option I’d prefer to go for is adding reps to sets. Maybe you can’t squat 320 for a 5×5, but maybe you can work up to squatting 320 for a 5×6, or a 5×7. Eventually, you may even work up to squatting 320 for sets of 8! This is great news, because that means you’ve necessarily gotten stronger. At this point, you may be able to lower the reps back down to 5 and add 5lbs. Now you’re squatting 325 for a 5×5! The progress comes slower, but there’s still a way to get there.

Another way to progress is to add sets. Now, this adds strength in a bit of a different way than the other methods. Adding sets means you’re adding substantially more volume. Adding more volume means, if you’re eating right, you’ll be adding more muscle. More muscle leads to more strength, which leads to a bigger squat. It also can lead to a greater work capacity, but that’s usually in conjunction with higher reps as well (though is not necessarily excluded from lower reps, it just makes a whole lot more sense to do higher reps if you want more endurance given the nature of it).

So, to recap: Want to get stronger? Add weight. If you can’t add weight, add reps. Sometimes you have to integrate both of those at different times. Most of all, don’t keep doing new things otherwise you won’t get good at anything! Be consistent, be diligent, and you will improve.

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