The Strength Commandments
I – Thou Shalt Train Thy Body As A Whole
Ninety percent or more of your exercises should be HUGE exercises. The more muscles they target the better, and as a general rule so long as it’s a full range of motion (not a partial lift) the more weight it allows you to lift the better. Recruiting more muscle means a bigger stimulus for adaptation, or in lay terms – you get out what you put in so if you’re only working small muscles you’ll only get small results.
This means devote almost all your time to types of Squat, Deadlift, Bench Press, Row, Chin/Pullup, Dips, Lunges, Good Mornings, Cleans, and any combo lift like Clean + Press/Squat + Press, or moving events like Farmers Walks, Sandbag Carries etc etc. Look at it like this – what’s going to stress your body more: a 50kg Barbell Curl or a 100kg Barbell Row?
It’s this principle that all the strongest men and women on the planet adhere to, so why shouldn’t you? Powerlifters focus on three main lifts – the squat, then bench press, and the deadlift. Between those three lifts there’s no muscle in the body that doesn’t get called into play. Olympic lifters focus on even fewer – the snatch and the clean & jerk, but again – if you can name one muscle that doesn’t get activated in either of these lifts you have just invented some new muscles!
Even bodybuilders base their training around big lifts where they can move immense poundages, and unless you’re an advanced level competitive bodybuilder you have no place doing lateral raises to “sculpt” shoulders that haven’t been built yet. Add some clay with heavy pressing before carving stuff out of it.
II – Thou Shalt Punish Thyself For Thy Weakness
Or in other words – as a rule the harder an exercise is the more beneficial it is. The same logic that makes compound lifts better than isolation lifts also applies here. If you can do a 60kg Military Press with your feet together with no back bend or leg drive, when you go back to a regular Military Press with a wider base and easier form you will smoke 60kg for reps.
This is same logic that makes things like lockout bench and rack pulls essentially useless for most people – you’re actually making the lift easier, and you know this because you can lift more weight in a rack pull than your regular Deadlift! How is your lockout a problem in the Bench Press if when you isolate the lockout you can actually lift more than you can Bench? You’re just not strong enough, period.
In these cases things like deficit deadlifts and paused bench press will pay dividends because once you can generate the power to lift throughout a greater range of motion or with no momentum the regular exercise wont be a problem. Get stronger overall and your sticking points won’t be there anymore because those exercises are way harder. Putting yourself in a weak position and lifting weights is far more beneficial than lifting more weight in a stronger position. So long as it doesn’t involve a fucking bosu ball.
III – Thou Shalt Be Ready To Lift Any Time, Any Where
Real strength means being able to lift anything anywhere regardless of the situation. If you’re worrying that the bar is a tenth of an inch thicker, or that you usually only do legs on a different leg press machine, or that these plates feel slightly heavier than the ones in your gym – you’re an idiot. Real strength means caring not for these things.
The best way to go about this is simple – use as little equipment in the gym as possible. Besides a bar, some dumbells or kettlebells, and maybe a bench that’s it. Basically if it isn’t a free weight you should stay away pretty much all the time. Machines train you only to be good at that particular machine – every rep is through exactly the same movement path, using exactly the same muscles in exactly the same way. The weight is supported by the machine itself, and you’re generally sitting on a nice comfy padded seat. This is not conducive to being a badass bloke or chick.
Freeweights exercises require you to stabilize the weight with your core, balance while performing the exercise, learn how to control the weight through the movement path you want it to go through without the help of a set lever. If a friend want’s you to help them move house, or train at their gym to show them how awesome you are, it’s nice knowing with 100% certainty that you can grab the weight and own it no matter what because that’s exactly what you do every time you set foot in the gym.
IV – Thou Shalt Build Thy Strength To Be Pure
Here’s a vastly overblown example. Two guys have a Deadlift competition. One of them punches a tiger in the throat on his way to the changing rooms, we’ll call him Dave. The other puts on weightlifting gloves to open the door. We’ll call him Dumbo. This will not end well. Dumbo manages a 220kg Deadlift with straps, gloves, knee wraps, a deadlift suit, and a support belt. Before the lift he also chalked up his hands and thighs, listened to his favourite workout track, and sniffed some smelling salts. While Dumbo was pissing about Dave walked up to the bar and Deadlifted 200kg. He did this a few more times.
The next week Dave and Dumbo walk into the gym again for more Deadlifts. Dumbo realizes he left his gym bag at home. Oh dear! Dave manages 202.5kg this week. Dumbo nervously sidles up to the bar and does his sets. He works up to a paltry 180kg, strains his back, and drops the bar before lockout when his grip fails. This guy isn’t strong.
Don’t rely on anything or anybody but yourself to lift your weights. If your grip sucks, wearing straps all the time isn’t going to improve it any, is it? If you have a weak back, protecting it with a belt is only delaying the inevitable. Check your ego and lift what YOU can lift on your own. That means getting it out of the rack, moving it to where you want to lift, getting it into position, and lifting it. Save the belt, straps, and knee wraps for competition day and actually get a tangible benefit out of them.
V – Thou Shalt Compete
This is a simple one – compete at something! Anything! Whether it’s a bodybuilding contest, powerlifting, strongman, or just against yourself by setting a goal and sticking to it no matter what. Get a few friends together and have a friendly competition to see who can put up the biggest bench press in six months. The buzz of competition and having an actual time-frame to achieve your goals adds so much. If you’re somebody who thrives on competition finding the right training partners can add a hell of a lot to your training, too. Once your name is down on a competition roster your training takes on a whole new level of intensity and focus and everybody should put themselves out there at least once.
VI – Thou Shalt Have Goals
Goals are what drive us to push ourselves in the gym, and are most of the reason we go at all. The number one cause of failure in anybody’s health and fitness endeavor is lacking a proper well define goal. Either people just train for the sake of it and see what happens, or they switch goals every week, or their goal is way too unrealistic (every November at least three people tell me they’re going to lose three stone by Christmas…yeah right).
Pick something realistic. In terms of strength, look at where you are now compared to your goal and work back in as long a time-frame as possible. For example I’m squatting 140kg now and I want to squat 180kg it’s highly unlikely I’ll pick up that extra forty kilos in a few weeks, maybe not even in a few months. The fact of the matter is that I’ll have to lift 142.5kg before 180kg, and 145kg and 147.5kg and….well you get the picture. At a rate of 2.5kg a week that’s about four months – add in a few rest weeks and some contingency and six months is probably a more realistic time-frame if my programming is solid. The closer you get to your strength ceiling the more difficult it’s gonna be to increase your strength, too, so this will vary from person to person.
Write your goal down, think about it every day, visualize yourself doing it. Believe in your training and go after it everyday because the only thing standing between you and where you want to be is time.
VII – Thou Shalt Obey Wendler, The Prophet of Strength
In the above example there’s one important factor you should take into account. In that example I already know I’ve squatted 180kg before to parallel depth but the other part of this goal is to squat it ass-to-grass depth (allllllll the way down). I can do a 160kg squat to this depth but I’m not using 160kg as part of my calculation because that would leave me zero room to progress.
Jim Wendler, the mastermind behind the excellent 5/3/1 program and all around badass strength guy, advocates using 90% of your true one rep max in all your programming calculations. This is incredibly smart and a big turning point in my training. You’re never quite as good as your good days (nor are you as bad as your bad days either) so why base your training for 80-90% of the time on the top 10-20% of what you can do? You can’t be great all the time. In terms of stressing the body, recovering from a 100% lift is a lot harder than recovering from a 90% lift, which is harder than recovering from an 80% lift and so on. It’s also easier, then, to recover and super-recover (get stronger) when using sub-max loads. In essence what I’m saying is your body can continuously get stronger for a longer period of time by turning a 70% lift into a 65% lift than by turning a 100% lift into a 95% lift.
If that doesn’t make sense, nevermind! All you need to know is that the sweet spot for gaining strength continuously over a longer period of time is by using 70-85% of your 1RM. An easy way to do this is to make like Wendler and treat your true max lifts as anomalies – your gym max should be something you can do every time you’re in the gym whether you’re having a good day, a bad day, or a regular day. If this gym max gets higher and higher your body will hardly notice since it doesn’t exceed your abilities at any point, and will push your true max up without you noticing.
In my example I started out treating my true 160kg max as an anomaly, and instead used 140kg as my gym max. The other day on my last Squat session on this program I did a failure set of 21 reps on 100kg and then did some heavy singles and smoked 145kg – the weight i’m now using as my new gym max, which has pushed all my training weights in the next training cycle up by 2.5kg. A few cycles of this and I’ve no doubt my “true” max of 160kg will become my gym max without me ever truly maxing out.
VIII – Thou Shalt Progress
The last two points have pretty much covered this one, but it bears repeating. To get stronger you need to stress your body more than it’s been stressed before. We’ve already established why going to your limit isn’t the best way to go about this, and adding 10kg a workout to go from 140kg to 180kg in a month isn’t really a realistic goal. So what do you do?
The answer is progressive overload. Using a lighter training stimulus to give yourself that recovery space we talked about, you train to progressively add to your workouts every session. Even if it’s just one rep, or 2.5kg on the bar over a few years and hundreds of workouts you’ll suddenly have doubled everything. Magic! In fact these small increases are so small in fact that your body can quite easily adapt to them.
I tell this story a lot but the strongmen of old, before the days of plate loaded barbells and Jersey Shore, had to use globe barbells filled with lead shot. These guys trained seven days a week all year round and added a few lead shot to their bars every time. A lead shot weighs a few grams at most, so you’d barely notice it in your pocket let alone on a bar. If they added a handful to the bar each workout it’s basically nothing, but seven days a week all year round for decades adds up and some records set in the early 1900’s have still yet to be broken!
IX – Thou Shalt Stick With The Program
I’m guilty of this one, and I can tell you from first hand experience switching programs every week simultaneously makes you look like an idiot and weakling. An idiot because you have the attention span of a goldfish, and a weakling because you won’t get any stronger unless you get some consistency going. If you’re going to progressively overload your exercises you need to stick with them. If you want to be able to measure that progress with any sort of accuracy you need to keep doing to same things for an extended period of time – or how else will you know they’re working? Rome wasn’t built in a day, and neither will you be!
Choose wisely which program you choose. Does it have a system of long-term progression built into it? This will help stop you plateauing at the six-week mark. What happens when you do inevitably plateau? You will, it’ll happen, but what’s important is that you have a plan for how to continue training when this happens. Does your program actually address your personal goals, strengths, and weaknesses? So called cookie-cutter programs rarely work, and while it’s important not to mess with the program (the author of it likely knows a lot more than you) it’s equally stupid to do things that aren’t applicable to you.
X – Thou Shalt Believe
Okay so that’s a bit epic but following on from that last one, one of the most important aspects in sticking with any one program is your so called “buy-in”. Do you believe in the program? Do you believe it’ll work and get you where you want to be? Do you enjoy it? If it was written by somebody else do you trust the author? You should be 100% about this because attitude is a huge part of sticking it out for the long haul. If you can’t get behind what you’re doing you’ll be dragging your feet from the start and won’t get anywhere.
Stick with the same program for at least a few months or three complete cycles minimum if you want to see any appreciable results. At that point you’ll have a pretty good idea of what works and what doesn’t and can change things accordingly.
GO FORTH, AND LIFT HEAVY THINGS IN THE NAME OF THOR