If like me you are a big fan of strength training, you will already be feeling the benefits of regular lifting; improved bone density, a better metabolic rate from an increased lean mass, and a reduced risk of high blood pressure and cardiovascular disease are widely known medical benefits. But that’s not all – there are also plenty of subjective gains, such as the great feeling of vitality you have from feeling strong, the reduced risk of injury by having strong tendons and ligaments, better posture (if you are training correctly), a reduction in stress and anxiety by channeling this energy into your sessions, and of course the improvement in confidence and self-worth that comes with achieving a more muscular physique.
It can get to a stage … where your strength training sessions become routine and a bit boring, and in some cases you may hit a plateau. If this happens to you, it’s time to add in some more advanced techniques to your regime and shake things up.
It can get to a stage, though, where your strength training sessions become routine and a bit boring, and in some cases you may hit a plateau and stop getting any stronger. If this happens to you, it’s time to add in some more advanced techniques to your regime and shake things up. Now these techniques do not have to totally change how you are training, but can be used to break the week up, serve as short-term protocols in a more long-term goal, or simply help you overcome a bump in the road that’s stopping you progressing.
So here are my top strategies to take your strength training to the next level.
Barbell complexes are a series of exercises that are performed one after another using a barbell with no rest in between. Most importantly, the bar cannot be put down until the full sequence is completed.
Most complexes will take a couple of minutes to complete, so they will not only leave your muscles feeling like they are bursting, but your lungs will be screaming and gasping for air as if you’d just sprinted a 400m lap around the track.
These exercises boost strength, cardiovascular conditioning, grip strength, mental toughness and lung capacity, increase calorific expenditure during the session, and are a great way to break up the week if you’re on a traditional weight training regime (such as allocating muscles groups to different days). Because you are increasing your repetitions, you will have to lift significantly lighter than you normally would, but while this may sound counter-productive for a strength training programme you can actually increase your total training volume this way, and in some cases lift more across the session.
For example, take a standard strength training protocol of 5 X 5 (5 reps X 5 sets), on a leg day:
Training volume = weight (kg) X reps
- 5 X 5 back squats @100kg = 2500kg volume
- 5 X 5 deadlift @120kg = 3000kg
- 5 X 5 split squats @40kg = 2000kg
- 5 X 5 bench step-ups @40kg = 2000kg
- 5 X 5 calf raises @100kg = 2500kg
Total volume = 12000kg or 12 tonnes of volume
- A complex using a 50kg barbell that combines 8 exercises of 8 repetitions each, totalling 64 repetitions per set.
- 64 X 50kg = 3200kg volume per set
Total volume = 3200 X 5 sets = 16000kg or 16 tonnes of volume
Not bad for a session that will only take up 20–30 minutes of your day!
Here’s my favourite barbell complex to add into your strength training regime once a week – ‘The Manmaker’ which is 5 sets of:
- 8 push-ups on bar
- 8 deadlifts
- 8 power cleans
- 8 front squats
- 8 overhead press
- 8 back squats
- 8 barbell rows
- 8 push-ups on bar
Kettlebells are quite simply a fantastic and under-utilised tool for all-round physical development. In the last 5 or 6 years they have taken on a bit of a renaissance and are popping up in many commercial facilities, being used in a variety of ways. In my opinion, trying to appeal to the lowest common denominator has completely watered down their effectiveness as the kettlebell sport was not created as an exercise to music class. However, when used correctly and for the exercises they were designed for, they can improve your strength, conditioning, flexibility and mobility, and you’ll achieve gains in lifts that you probably thought were irrelevant to kettlebells.
For example, The Russian Kettlebell Challenge, by kettlebell master Pavel Tzatzouline,1 cites a study on fitness-testing in the military. The study found that the experimental group who were asked to just perform kettlebell sessions showed better scores than the control group in all of the strength and fitness tests. I’d highly recommend purchasing some literature on the kettlebell sport, or being coached by an expert who can teach you the double arm swing, single arm swing, clean and jerk, snatch, front squat, windmill, and the Turkish get-up. Being able to perform these foundational moves of the kettlebell sport will allow you to put together full body workouts or string series of moves together to create kettlebell flows (like complexes) and add them into your weekly routine.
Since they have such a great all-round effect on your fitness, I suggest incorporating a 4-week period where you only perform kettlebell sessions, up to 5 times per week. Make sure that you include lots of combinations of moves and work on technique rather than just trying to lift the heaviest weights possible. You will see awesome gains in your shoulder stability for overhead work, improvements in grip strength that will benefit your deadlift, better squat mechanics that will see you get more weight on the barbell when going back to front and back squats, and a rapid boost in your conditioning that will allow you to train harder and for longer once returning to traditional strength training regimes.
Time Under Tension
Time under tension (TUT) is a concept that was big in bodybuilding circles back in the 1990s. Put simply, TUT manipulates how long each repetition takes to complete and how long each specific part of the lift takes, therefore adding the element of overload to the lift and maximising the muscular stimulus of each set. It is a method associated with world-renowned strength coach, Charles Poliquin.2 He states that there is plenty of evidence to show that varying the tempo of your lifts can improve strength, size and athletic performance.
There are two areas you need to consider when playing around with TUT:
- The eccentric motion is when the muscle is lengthened under tension. For example, the eccentric phase in a squat occurs as you bend your knees. During this phase, the muscles in the legs are lengthening to slow the descent of the weight.
- The concentric motion is when the muscle is shortened under tension. Using the squat example again, the concentric phase occurs as you stand up and the muscles in the quads shorten to lift the body up.
You can manipulate the tempo in both motions on a lift depending on what you are trying to achieve. Most lifters could benefit from applying a simple principle of 1.5–2 seconds down and the same back up again – this will add in an element of control to your lifts, iron out any sloppy technique, and take you to the point of muscular fatigue, which is necessary for growth and strength gains. However, if you are looking for hypertrophy (increase in muscular size) or athletic power, then a faster tempo in the concentric phase has been shown to be an effective tool to achieve results. The science behind it suggests that as the concentric phase is performed quickly there is a greater power output right until the end of the lift, which is a more effective muscle stimulus.
My favourite way of manipulating TUT is on a specific exercise – the pull-up. This is one of the holy grail exercises that everyone wants to do, but is often one that is avoided because it’s too difficult. This is where working on the eccentric phase can have amazing effects, as it will build grip and forearm strength and stimulate the muscles in the back to do the work rather than rely on swinging the body to hoist you up. If you want to improve your pull-ups, try adding in a month of TUT eccentric pull-ups. Working 10–20 seconds down to fully extended arms before coming up quickly (you may need a spotter to help after a few reps).
These three advanced strength training strategies should give you a few areas to work on and start taking your sessions up a gear. In the 2nd part of this strength training series we will look at German Volume Training (GVT), super-sets and giant sets, and how learning the Olympic lifts could be the missing link in your drive for improved strength.
When was the last time you mixed up your gym routine? Do you regularly incorporate the three strategies above? Why not leave a comment with your experience?
- (2001). The Russian Kettlebell Challenge. United States: Dragon Door Publications
- (2012, 21 June). Ten Things You Should Know About Tempo Training. [Weblog] Retrieved 24 March 2016 from http://main.poliquingroup.com/ArticlesMultimedia/Articles/Article/898/Ten_Things_You_Should_Know_About_Tempo_Training.aspx .)