Building strength goes way beyond lifting heavy weights from point A to B.
While that can certainly help improve strength, it’s certainly not going to optimize it.
If you really want to bust plateaus or take your strength to the next level, this article is a must read.
While personal experience and heavy weight is the go-to for many bodybuilders, it’s time to work smarter and harder with these scientifically proven methods to build strength.
1. Utilizing External Cues to Maximize Force Output and Build Strength
Within resistance training there are two major forms of cueing, internal and external.
An internal cue may be something along the lines of “think about squeezing your chest together as you press up on the bench press”. An external cue would be “think about exploding and throwing the bar through the roof of the gym”.
Believe it or not research has shown that the type of cue you provide yourself while lifting can have a significant effect on your force output and muscle activation.
If your goal is to maximize strength and force output which one should you choose?
One group of researchers put this to the test and examined the effects of internal and external cues on maximum force output during a vertical jump test.
One group of subjects were instructed to direct their attention to the rungs on the jumping device (external), whereas the other group was instructed to focus on their actual fingers that were going to touch the device (internal).
The results demonstrated that those who participated in the external cues jumped higher compared to internal!1
But how is this possible?
Since this early investigation other researchers have attempted to replicate these findings and discovered the underlying mechanisms as to how cueing plays a role in force output.
These researchers have concluded that external cues may increase neuromuscular coordination and efficiency, which enable heavier lifting or increased power production. Based on this research, next time you’re performing a strength movement make sure you focus on external cues.2
Here are a few examples for key compound lifts:
Squat: Driving down into the floor to blast up as you drive out the bottom of a squat.
Bench Press: Throwing the bar into the ceiling above you as you explode up.
Deadlift: Ripping the bar from the floor.
Pull Up: Driving your head over the pull up bar.
2. Utilizing Repetitions in Reserve to Maximize Strength Gains
Another advanced method to enhance your strength training adaptations is by utilizing a new technique referred to as “Repetitions in Reserve”.
Utilizing repetitions in reserve allows you to more accurately adjust your weights on a set-to-set basis and therefore improve your adaptations similar to auto-regulatory training.
One way individuals adjust their training loads is based on their perceptual response to how hard the previous set was. A common way of doing so is by reporting your rate of perceived exertion or RPE.
An RPE of 0-2 indicates you’re not preforming any work at all or not exerting yourself much and could continue that activity for several hours. Whereas a score of 8-10 indicates you’re working at near maximal levels and cannot sustain that level of effort for long3.
While this method of adjusting loads has been successful for many, new research suggests that it may not be as accurate and reliable as once thought.
Recently utilizing repetitions in reserve has been shown to be a more accurate way to assess effort. Instead of reporting how hard that set was on a 1-10 scale, simply state how many reps you feel you have left in the tank. For example, if you hit the set ‘10’ reps, but felt you could have done 13, you would report 13.
Now instead of simply going for whatever is written in your program, for example 5 sets of 5, you would assess each set individually. So, after set 1, ask yourself “how many reps did I feel like I had left in the tank”.
If the answer was 2-3 then you can increase the weight on the subsequent set; however if the answer was 0 or 1 then you can keep the same weight if not even lower it4. This method can help a lifter who is training for strength by improving the accuracy of their loads and progression and really get a perfect balance between training failure and training volume.
3. High Frequency Training to Maximize Strength Gains
Another way you can maximize your strength gains is by training at the right frequency.
Your training frequency describes the amount of times you train each muscle. For example, if you train each muscle twice per week your training frequency is 2 - this would be classed as moderate frequency. If you train each muscle once per week, like the old fashioned ‘bro split’, your training frequency is classed as low.
Research suggests that initially you may be able to make adequate strength gains at low frequencies (i.e. the typical bro split, training each muscle once per week). However, as your training experience and level of ability increases, you may need to increase your training to continually optimize progress and advance as fast as possible.
The only issue with this technique is that strength training is also very physically demanding. If you train too frequently you could put yourself at an increased risk of overtraining, therefore, finding the optimal balance is key.
So What’s The Optimal Frequency For Strength Training?
Research is still being conducted today to test this question; however, previous research has compared the effects of strength training twice per week versus three times per week.
So far, two groups of researchers demonstrated improved strength gains in those who trained each muscle 3x per week compared to once or twice per week5,6.
In addition, another group of researchers compared all the possibilities, testing participants on a 3, 4, 5 and 6 days per week training split. These researchers noted that 4 and 5 days per week resulted in the greatest strength gains, likely because it allowed for an adequate amount of recovery but was still high frequency7.
Based on the current science, training each body part around 3x (and even up to 5x) per week is often recommended to maximize muscular strength adaptations8.
This can be achieved either in split body routines where you train upper on one day and lower on the other, or full body routines where you practice one strength movement for each body part on each occasion that you train.
Whichever method fits your lifestyle the best, I recommend starting with 3 days per week and progressing at your own pace. Remember, just like anything, you don’t want to (or need to) jump from training each muscle group once per week to five times per week.
In fact, to maximize progression and your current untapped potential, try increasing over several months. For example, if you currently train each muscle once per week, spend next month training twice per week, then the following month progress to three times per week and continue this progression up to 5 times per week.
After you’ve reached 5 times per week, you may want to have a mini de-load, which is a strategic 1-2 week low volume and frequency period. From here, you can then alternate your splits between training each muscle 2 and 5 times per week and use other advanced methods.
There you have it - 3 advanced methods, hopefully, giving you at least 1 new tool to apply.
Of course, as with your diet, these advanced methods will only help maximize your strength if you are also focusing on the fundamentals. For example, good technique, progression (adding more weight to the bar over time), the right exercises, a good diet and adequate recovery.
Once these are in place, these 3 scientifically proven ways to build strength will help you bust through plateaus or take your progress to the next level!
Here’s a re-cap:
- Apply external cues to increase force output and neuromuscular efficiency.
- Utilize repetitions in reserve to more accurately adjust your loads on a set-to-set basis.
- Lastly, make sure you’re training with the right frequency depending on your training status and goals.
- Wulf, G., Zachry, T., Granados, C., & Dufek, J. S. (2007). Increases in jump-and-reach height through an external focus of attention. International Journal of Sports Science & Coaching, 2(3), 275-284.
- Marchant, D. C. (2011). Attentional focusing instructions and force production. Frontiers in psychology, 1, 210.
- Morishita, S., Yamauchi, S., Fujisawa, C., & Domen, K. (2013). Rating of perceived exertion for quantification of the intensity of resistance exercise. Int J Phys Med Rehabil, 1(172), 2.
- Helms, E. R., Cronin, J., Storey, A., & Zourdos, M. C. (2016). Application of the Repetitions in Reserve-Based Rating of Perceived Exertion Scale for Resistance Training. Strength and Conditioning Journal, 38(4), 42.
- GILLAM, G.M. Effects of frequency of weight training on muscle strength enhancement. J. Sports Med. Phys. Fitness 21:432–436. 1981.
- GRAVES, J.E., M.L. POLLOCK, S.H. LEGGETT, R.W. BRAITH, D.M. CARPENTER, AND L.E. BISHOP. Effect of reduced training fre- quency on muscular strength. Int. J. Sports Med. 9:316–319. 1988.
- HOFFMAN, J.R., W.J. KRAEMER, A.C. FRY, M. DESCHENES, AND M. KEMP. The effects of self-selection for frequency of training in a winter conditioning program for football. J. Appl. Sports Sci. Res. 4:76–82. 1990.
- Tan, B. (1999). Manipulating Resistance Training Program Variables to Optimize Maximum Strength in Men: A Review. The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research, 13(3), 289-304.