Tim’s Keys to Building Strength


Strength isn’t that hard to build.  In this context I mean it isn’t that complicated.  It is hard in the fact that it takes a lot of effort and a lot of time – and you’ll likely have to throw in some blood, sweat, tears, and chalk into the mix, but it isn’t that complicated.  In fact in this day and age you are more likely to get distracted by the wealth of information available (most of which is masquerading as the new best quick way to get yoked) than to suffer from a lack of knowledge.  But in case you do find yourself wandering through this plethora of pseudo-information, use these keys as a machete to chop your way through that frustrating jungle and strike out on the path to beast status.

Exercise Selection

If you want to get strong, you have to spend the majority of your training time using the right exercises, otherwise you are going to very disappointed when it comes time to display that strength.  The principle of specificity tells us this loud and clear and it will not be negotiated with.  Assuming that you are measuring strength through the standard methods (powerlifting, Olympic lifting, shot put, strongman, etc) your number one tool will be the barbell.  Dumbbells are a solid runner up, bodyweight exercises are good if you can load them appropriately, cables so-so, and machines are far from ideal.  I am not saying you can’t build strength using other methods and some of them have their time in place.  I am saying nothing beats a barbell for building up strength if you plan on expressing that strength against a heavy, weighted object.

  • Barbells
  • Dumbbells
  • Bodyweight Exercises
  • Cables
  • Machines

Ideal Exercises for Each Area to Build Strength

Chest Back Shoulders Total Body
Bench Press Pull-ups Push Press Clean and Press
Incline Press Chin-ups Barbell Military Press Farmer’s Walk
Decline Press Bent-over Row DB Military Press Yolk Walk
DB Press DB Row Power DB Lateral Raise Sled Drag
Dips Cable Row Leaning Lateral Raise Muscle-ups
Biceps Triceps Legs Core
EZ Bar Curl Close-grip Bench Squats Hanging Leg Raises
Power Curl Board Press Conventional Deads Inverted Sit-up
DB Curl Skull Crushers Sumo Deads Cable Crunch
DB Hammer Curl DB Overhead Tricep Extension Front Squat Dragon Flags
Strict Curl V-grip Tricep Pushdown Leg Press Standing Ab Wheel


Proper Form

If you are going to follow point #1 and you are going to be spending all of this time using barbells and lifting reasonably heavy weights, you want your form to be solid.  Most people need help in learning how to properly use a barbell, even if they have been in the gym for a while lifting by themselves.  I detail very thoroughly the proper form for the big 3 in my book All About Powerlifting with 136 pages just devoted to that topic; in addition Starting Strength by Mark Rippetoe, the tutorials put out by Mark Bell; information from Ed Coan and Bill Kazmaier among others will help introduce and reinforce proper technique.  You don’t have to agree with every minor point a coach suggests to get the gist of proper form.  I would suggest filming yourself with training weights and with maxes to see how your form actually is.  Form doesn’t have to be perfect all of the time, but it should be reasonably biomechanically sound all of the time.

Follow Progressive Overload

If you want to get strong you have to follow progressive overload – no one gets truly strong without it.  It is the cornerstone in every solid workout program.  At some point you have to do more than you did before.  In strength training this is most often thought of as more weight, more reps, or more sets.

Beginners and intermediates can generally follow a reasonably linear overload, most likely on a weekly basis.  This simply means add a little more weight – for example 5 lbs – to your main sets on the big exercises.  It is okay to start light; just add weight whenever you can and do this for as long as possible.

Late intermediates/advanced lifters and those stuck on a plateau are better suited to add work sets to follow overload, so if you are stuck at 225×5 for 3 sets on the bench, start adding work sets.  Do 4 or 5 sets of 5.  This will add in the necessary volume for continued strength gains.  Then add weight, reduce the sets if necessary, and repeat.  These lifters likely won’t progress on a weekly basis but every 3-5 weeks there should be notable progress.

Allow full recovery between working sets: rest a long time

In my mind this is one of the most unrated aspects of proper strength training.  The idea is simple.  Strength is a skill.  When you are working to improve a skill, you want to practice it relatively fresh so your performance is high.  When you are training for strength you should rest a long time in between sets.  2-5 minutes is the standard suggestion in the textbooks and it is a fine start, but ultimately rest as long as necessary to get the job done.  If a longer rest will help you complete the next set, they by all means, take it.  If you squat 405×5 and after 2 minutes of rest you’ll get 3 reps but after 5 minutes you’ll get 5 reps, take those 5 minutes, it is worth it.  The main fuel for strength training is ATP and Creatine Phosphate (CP).  It generally takes ATP 3-5 minutes to near fully recharge; it takes CP 5-8 minutes to near fully recharge, and it takes the nervous system about 5-15 minutes to near fully recharge.  The stronger/better you are the longer it will take to recover, so 5+ minutes is common when good lifters start going heavy and that is why you usually get 10-15 minutes of rest in between attempts a meet.

As a side note if you are in terrible shape you’ll need longer to recover as well.  Here is a super simple test.  If you can walk 4 miles in one hour, you’re probably fit enough to train like a powerlifter.  Rest longer to get stronger.  If you can’t walk 4 miles in one hour, then do more cardio/conditioning and likely drop some fat to improve your work capacity so you can properly train like a powerlifter.

Set High Goals For Yourself

Your mind state and your belief about your self affects your physiology.  I don’t know how to say it any clearer than that.  When it comes to achieving goals, aim high and latch on to that goal with an iron grip.  A large part of goal setting – and goal achievement – is mental.  The 4 minute mile is a great example of that.  The 100M sprint records I see as another example.  100 years ago the world record for a 100M sprint was 10.6.  10.6!  That is agonizingly slow compared to today’s athletes, and that was the best sprinter in the world.  I have had several students running 10.2 just in my classroom alone.  The idea that now that 1000’s and 1000’s of people are suddenly faster than the faster person on earth was 100 years ago is crazy.  Our fundamental physiology has not changed.  Some of it is training and maybe some of it is drugs, but in my opinion the most important change is belief.  Fitness is all relative.  The first person to deadlift probably thought 315 was heavy.  When you see somebody else do it (or come close) you believe you can do it as well.  And when you believe you can do it, it happens.  What man’s mind can conceive, in his heart he does believe, in time he will achieve.

Train with other Strong People Following these Keys

I am not going to say it is mandatory that you train with others, but it sure as shit helps, and when that person is stronger than you it helps even more.  It all goes back to belief.  If they can do it, so can you.  If you really want to be strong, you are going to spend 1-2 hours most days a week training.  To me it is a hell of a lot more fun to spend that time with a group than by myself, so if for no other reason training with others is just more enjoyable.  But if you talk to most elite lifters they have a group of regulars they lift with (or they did) and they will often comment how that was key to their success.

Avoid Excessive Variation with your Exercise Selection and your Training Programs

Yes, it may be true that somewhere out there is an assistance exercise that would help you in a specific lift.  But it is also very true that since you don’t know exactly what that exercise is, the pursuit of discovering that exercise is equally likely to take away your energy and your reserves and it will make you weaker.  You only have so much energy – you only have so many good working sets in you per week.  If you start using them up in the hopes of a magical assistance exercise making you better, it may well backfire.  Remember this: Variation is the enemy of Overload.  Once you fundamentally change a lift or a movement pattern, you can’t compare one overload to another.  As we have already established, overload is undeniably important in building strength, and anything that interferes with that must be viewed with a skeptical eye.  I am not saying you should only perform the big 3 or only lift with a bar, but skipping from method to method, exercise to exercise, program to program will get in the way of developing true strength.

What about rep ranges and specific weight selection?  Honestly, I would not stress about it.  In general lifters training for strength will use low-ish reps (1-10) per set and the more advanced you get and the more specific your training becomes the reps will tend to drop.  Trust your gut and trust what you respond to.  In terms of using a specific weight as a % of your 1RM, that can be helpful and is used by coaches to give you a guideline, but as long as you are following progressive overload that is the real key.  I would rather a newer lifter start out on the lighter side with weights, using good form and giving themselves room to progress, than one starting a program that is beyond their capabilities.



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3 thoughts on “Tim’s Keys to Building Strength

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