Focusing on bringing up the weight and/or reps on the major lifts is the best first step you can make to building a lot of size and strength. They are great for packing on size and a reason after all these years and generations of lifters, that the bench, squat, deadlift, overhead press, and row remain staples in their regimens.
You may find after spending some time sticking to those lifts that you hit a plateau. Today, I’d like to go over how to increase your strength in the major lifts.
Priming is an excellent tool for prepping your central nervous system for the bigger compound lift. A priming exercise involves choosing a mobility or activation movement that fires your central nervous system using little to no weight, and isolating certain muscles that may be dormant normally for you as an individual on that lift. For example, if you are not good at firing your glutes during a deadlift, and putting too much strain on your lower back, you may practice glute bridges to fire and cue your glute muscles under low, risk free stakes. Now when you get into the squat your body will already be “primed” for firing that muscle during the actual main movement.
Change Up Your Programming
We start a workout, and see some progress. We then love the progress we’ve seen so we stick with that program for months, possibly even years because it gave us such great results. Then a plateau hits. Why is the program that did so well for me now not providing the same results? You may need a new stimulus. This doesn’t have to be big changes. Changing from high reps to low reps, switching a couple exercises out, changing how many days, or how intense you go are all independent variables you can change to stir things up enough to cause new growth. Usually, the program that’s most opposite of what you are currently doing, is probably what you need the most. Having said that, make sure to stick with any changes for 4-6 weeks. You want to realize those changes and see what impact they have. If you are changing variables too frequently you’ll never give your body a chance to see what works.
Increase Your Mobility
If you want to maximize your gains, you need to maximize your mobility. A full squat will always produce better results than a quarter squat. Don’t sacrifice form for the sake of getting better numbers than the week before. You’re better off sticking with a weight and bettering your form to break the plateau.
Increase Your Calories
If you are eating at maintenance or a deficit, it is going to be VERY hard to increase your strength. A lot of times what happens is we come off a diet looking really good, and we don’t want to lose our abs, so we keep our calories restricted. When it comes to strength gains, you won’t be able to put on muscle without being in at least a slight surplus. I’ve had plenty of clients just add 200 calories to their daily intake and saw their strength shoot up because they were providing the fuel it needed. Muscle is calorically expensive to have so we need to give the body enough reason to keep it around and build more to your frame.
Don’t Train to Failure
We are taught to always push it to the max. That if you aren’t training to failure you aren’t training hard enough. This couldn’t be further from the truth. The research already shows as long as you are training with 70-80% of your 1RM you can still elicit the same muscular and strength gains. I don’t think there is anything wrong with testing yourself and mental toughness once and awhile and having a 3RM testing week, but there is no need to burn yourself out week after week. Not only does it fry your central nervous system, but it's not feasibly possible to add 5lbs to the bar week to week. We want steady progress, not staggered.
To get stronger, and better at a lift, means to practice it frequently. Just like a basketball player practices a lay-up, if you want to get better at a squat, it’s not just about getting stronger - it’s about practicing technique. We can add a TON of “strength” to the bar simply by focusing on execution. The best way to practice is frequency. That doesn’t have to be every day all out intensity. You can work on a compound movement 2-3 times a week, changing the intensity each time from high to moderate to lower intensity. One session can be focused on getting bigger numbers up, while the others can be focused on adding volume or using lighter weight to hammer down technique.
Be sure to check out my articles on the Best Exercises to Increase Size and Strength and What is The Best Way to Gain Strength in The Gym Fast for more help programming out these tips.