You get stronger by:
- Introducing stress. Often (not exclusively) by lifting heavier weights.
- Recovering. Through optimal nutrition, sleep, and binge watching Somebody Feed Phil.
- Adapting. Boom, you’re stronger.
If you’re new to strength training, you can pretty much add weight to the bar every week (often for several months). But like all great things, this steep progression eventually comes to an end. If it didn’t, every 13-year old kid would be squatting 1,400lbs straight out of high school.
I’m not going to tell you for the 746th time that any strength program worth it’s salt needs progressive overload. You know this. While adding weight to the barbell is obviously a byproduct of getting stronger, it isn’t the only way to achieve said outcomes.
Here are four ways you can get stronger without adding weight to the bar.
1. Add more reps and/or sets
Volume is the total amount of work completed in a training session. For example, 3 sets of 5 reps with 100lbs is 1,500lbs of total volume (100lbs x 5 reps = 500lbs x 3 sets = 1,500lbs total).
So, let’s say last week you squatted 100lbs for 3 sets 5 and this week you did the same weight for 4 sets. That’s 500lbs more total volume than last week.
Some benefits you’ll notice with volume work are:
- A strong foundation to build on. Accumulating volume by adding reps or sets helps you build a base level of strength so you’re able to lift heavier weights down the road.
- Muscle mass. A bigger muscle is a stronger muscle.
- Work capacity. Your ability to recover between sets will improve with the added work you’ll be doing each week.
- Improved technique. More reps/sets means more opportunity to practice your technique, which will carry over to your heavier sets when you eventually want to add more weight.
- Grit. Have you ever doing sets of 8-12 back squats? It’s basically cardio if all you’ve never gone past 5 reps. Get ready to build some grit with volume work.
Now, just like you won’t be able to lift heavier on a weekly basis, you won’t be able to complete more reps every week, either. That said, it’s a useful way to get stronger and step outside of the “I must lift heavier or I’m a useless sack of shit” mindset.
2. Move the weight faster
The faster the bar moves, the stronger the lift is. That said, heavy weights tend to move about as fast as a line at ServiceOntario (if you know, you know).
So, if that last rep was a grind and you move the same weight faster and smoother next week…you’re stronger. You can get real technical and use fancy equipment to measure the speed at which you’re lifting the barbell. But for 99.99999% of us, it’s (very) unnecessary. Go by feel and you’ll know whether or not your top sets are moving faster. If you want something a little more objective, take videos of your sets and compare them week by week.
3. Move the weight with better technique
While the ultimate goal is for every rep to look identical (from your warm-up sets to your heavier working sets), you may end up “grinding” one out from time to time. Here, your goal should be to move the same weight, but with better technique.
Louie Simmons said treat the light weights like they’re heavy and the heavy weights will feel light. When you focus on optimal technique for every rep of every set, your heavy sets will eventually feel like your warm-ups. And you’ll get strong af.
- Effective strength training should build you up, not beat you up. And if you think the only way to get stronger is to lift heavier weights, you’ll eventually run into issues since you can’t sustain that type of progression long-term.
- Focus on volume accumulation to build your base. Prioritizing more reps and sets for certain periods results in more completed work over time. Doing so will establish a strong foundation for you to lift heavier weights in the future.
- Be consistent. At the end of the day, none of these strategies will work for you unless you’re consistent.