Strength begets size. That is to say, the stronger you get, the bigger you become. But real strength - the kind that warrants crowd-gathering, bar-bending loads of weight - isn't just a matter of will. It's a matter of science. Over the years, research and anecdotal evidence have steered us toward several reliable ways to get stronger and, consequently, bigger. The following seven commandments of strength need to be a part of your program if you expect to start moving around the big-boy weight (and if you expect to have the physique to go along with it).
1) Squat for Mass
A lot of lifters tend to bench until they puke in their quest for size and strength. While the front squat mainly hammers the quadriceps, the traditional back squat is the hands-down choice for best overall mass movement. It's estimated to involve hundreds of muscles, acting as either prime movers or stabilizers, in the upper and lower body. (After all, you're squatting while supporting hundreds of pounds on your back.) Numerous research studies show that because the squat elicits so many muscle fibers, it boosts growth hormone (GH) levels better than any exercise. More GH means greater muscle growth, as Japanese researchers confirmed in a 2006 study.
2) Deadlift for Strength
The deadlift, like the squat, uses (read: strengthens) hundreds of muscles. Yet unlike the squat, there's no negative (downward) portion of the rep before the positive (upward) rep. The negative rep allows energy to be stored in the muscle fibers, like a spring, so that it aids strength on the positive part of the rep. The deadlift eliminates all this as you lift the bar off the floor with no springlike assistance. This is why it's considered the true test of overall strength and why it comes last in powerlifting competitions.
3) Low Reps Work Best
It's well known that training in the 8-12 rep range is great for adding inches to muscle bellies but if you want to be able to lift more at those ranges, then you need to get stronger. And to get stronger, you need to train with more weight and fewer reps. Numerous studies support the idea that training with repetitions in the 2-6 range best develops muscle strength. This rep range best produces changes in both the muscle fibers and the nervous system that promote strength gains.
4) Forced Reps Force Growth
Certain training techniques can help you get stronger faster. But one particular technique stands alone for its ability to help you grow. Finnish researchers studied 16 male athletes after a standard leg workout (four sets of leg presses, two sets of squats and two sets of leg extensions, all for 12 reps taken to failure with two minutes of rest between sets) or a forced-rep leg workout (same exercises, sets and reps as in the standard leg workout, but with 15% heavier weight so athletes would have to rely on assistance from a spotter to complete all 12 reps). The forced-rep program resulted in slightly higher testosterone levels and much higher GH levels. Another study reported that athletes who used forced-rep training lost more bodyfat than those who stopped at failure.
5) Different Speeds for Different Goals
If you're like most lifters, you probably train at the same rep speed regardless of the exercise (1-2 seconds up, 1-2 seconds down). Switching between slower and faster reps can actually stimulate your muscle fibers differently and help you gain more mass and strength.
In a 2005 study, scientists from the University of Sydney (Lidcome, New South Wales, Australia) reported that a group performing slower reps made significantly greater gains in biceps muscle size than those doing faster reps. As we always suggest, keep your reps slow and controlled to add mass.
Training for pure strength, however, requires a slightly different approach. In the same University of Sydney study, scientists compared slow reps (three seconds on the positive portion of the rep, three seconds on the negative) to fast reps (one second each on the positive and negative portions of the rep) for their ability to increase muscle strength using the biceps curl. After six weeks, the group performing fast reps made 10% greater strength gains.
6) Add Bands
If you've found it difficult to add strength by using traditional equipment, perhaps it's time to add bands to the mix. University of Wisconsin (La Crosse) researchers had 10 trained male and female subjects lift 85% 1RM on the Smith machine squat for two sets of three reps using a standard barbell or a barbell with 20% of the weight applied by exercise bands. For example, if the 85% 1RM was 300 pounds, one trial would use a bar loaded with 300 pounds of free weights and the other would use a bar loaded with 240 pounds of free weights and the bands providing the additional 60 pounds. When subjects did the squat with the bands, they exhibited around 25% more power than when they did the squat without the bands. To take advantage of exercise-band training for added strength, consider purchasing a quality set of exercise bands from a powerlifting equipment supplier such as Elite Fitness Systems (elitefts.com).
7) Train in the Power Range
Research shows that training for power is best done with reps in the 3-5 range. If your brain is baked over the fact that the best size range is 2-6 reps (See No. 3), you just have to consider that for power training you don't choose a weight that allows you to complete only this number of reps; rather, pick a weight with which you can do 20-25 normal reps and stop between three and five. Keep in mind, power is the ability to apply strength as quickly as possible. Doing reps while your muscles are fatigued won't help you achieve this goal.