Get Stronger Without Constantly Relying On The Barbell
While the most effective and immediate suggestion is to increase the weight that you lift globally across the board, there are opportunities that are much more specific that can provide a very high return.
Here they are.
1. Adjust Your Rep Count
If you always go for the lower rep strength option on reps for goal days, mix it up for a cycle and focus on the muscle building option. Conversely, if you always train muscle, then go for strength for a cycle. The body gets stronger when it is forced to adapt to increasingly challenging demands so if you’re always camped out in a certain rep count, it may just need to be challenged in a different way so that it can continue to make adaptations.
More specifically, strength building and muscle building each have a bias towards a different system in our body. Training for strength is more targeted of the Central Nervous System since strength is mostly a neural phenomenon whereby our brain gets better at communicating with our muscles to perform a lift. In the range of about 1-5 reps, this is what we’re accessing. This phenomenon goes by a few different names. ‘Motor learning’ in beginners, and ‘neuromuscular efficiency’ in proficient athletes, and the concept is why beginners always experience fast and steady strength gains. The CNS has never been trained and expands rapidly when first trained properly.
On the other hand, training for muscle growth (hypertrophy) is largely a Musculoskeletal System endeavor. We are not so much training our CNS at a neural level, but our actual soft and connective tissues to break down and regrow bigger and more useful. This occurs most predominantly in the 8 – 10+ rep range.
Strength requires both the ability for your CNS to be effective at communicating and your body to have more functional muscle. If you always train one and not the other, you are leaving strength gains on the table.
2. Jump With Intent
Increasing the explosiveness of your jumps will improve strength through the following.
- Phosphagen System — This is the same energy system that we use for bigger barbell lifts. The short, maximum power and strength system that gets used up pretty quickly is also the same system we train when we are jumping for a challenging height. There is direct carryover.
- Type II Muscle Fibers — These are the fibers that are responsible for fast twitch, burst power movement and our legs have a lot of them. Contrast these against our shoulders, which are primarily made up of slow twitch muscles and don’t present a lot of opportunity for strength carryover, the jump will have direct and immediate transfer to movements like squats and deadlifts because you are training those muscle to be faster at creating peak contractions.
To get more out of jumping and ballistic work, just treat it with intent. Focus on an explosive movement every time, not a fatigued, tired version of it.
3. Train Your Grip
Your grip is your gateway to your Central Nervous System, a system in our body that happens to be global (meaning, if it gets stronger somewhere it gets stronger everywhere). Men and women who have strong grips tend to be strong lifters and movers, so give extra attention to farmer walks, cleans, work a double overhand grip on your deadlifts for six weeks, perform heavier renegade rows and kettlebell swings. Do those things and watch your strength in obvious movements like pull-ups, deadlifts, cleans and rows go up, but watch it also go up in non obvious movements like presses and squats.
4. Use Heavier Dumbbells
Everyone loves barbells. I get it. They’re very effective at building strength but their limitation is that they only do so in a bilateral, fixed position. Both limbs are working at the same time and because the barbell is designed for perfect balance, it has the potential to negate stabilizers and other important muscles for strength. Dumbbells may lack the total load of a barbell but they make up for it in the following ways.
- Range of Motion — We can express full range of motion much easier, which means we access more muscles.
- Stability — In most scenarios it is harder to stabilize a heavy dumbbell than it is a heavy barbell. With greater stability demands we get greater access to isometric benefits.
- Unilateral Overload — A set of 50 pound dumbbell presses will get you stronger than a set of 100 pound barbell press. 50 pounds in each hand with greater range of motion and stability needs will create more adaptation than 50 pounds in each hand, with easy displacement.
Dumbbells should be in every strong and fit person’s arsenal.
5. Move in Different Planes
Why do we frequently program movements in not just the popular sagittal plane, but also transverse and frontal planes? Because muscles exist in those planes, too! Important muscles like lateral deltoids, rear deltoids, obliques, glute medius, adductors and inner hamstring muscles. Those muscles that contribute directly to larger lifts by helping us lift more, and also as stabilizers by keeping our structure safe. You need both in the pursuit of strength, so rather than treat movements like side lunges, rotational slams, curtsy lunges, etc. as throw away movements, give them the focus and attention they deserve if you care about your strength.
There are opportunities for the latter everywhere, everyday. Focus a little outside of your perceived box and you will be stronger and healthier.