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Getting Strong vs. Getting Big vs. Getting Lean (Part 1 - Getting Strong)

Many novices are not aware that your goals, with regards to your weight training program, will dictate how you lift. This becomes painfully obvious when you go into the gym and see a newbie trying to curl way too much weight for way too many reps. I think, with men especially, there is a mentality that if a little is good, then more must be even better, but this isn't the case. More often than not this person will see insignificant gains, become frustrated, and quit lifting.

In my last post I talked about three principles that govern weight training. Specificity, overload, and progression. Of these three, specificity will be the star today. How you train will be SPECIFIC to your goals.

Many peoples goals can be broken down into three basic groups. Getting strong (strength), getting big (hypertrophy), and getting lean (endurance). Now granted, some people may have more than one of these goals in mind at the same time and that's fine. It is completely possible to advance more than one of these areas at once, so long as you realize that it will more than likely take some trail and error to do so.


People often make the mistake of thinking that they can get strong by lifting the most weight possible for the most reps possible. Sorry. No. While this person will undoubtedly become stronger they will not attain their peak strength without training properly. Mirriam-Webster defines strength in about nine different ways, but the best way they define strength is "the power to resist a force". This definition in the true weight lifting sense is somewhat incorrect in that strength and power are different animals, but that is a different blog for a different day. So basically strength is the ability to resist a force, or in term of lifting weights it is the ability to generate a force. Not just any force, but what we call a maximal force. In the strength and conditioning world we measure a person's maximal force with something called a repetition (or rep) max test. There are many different variations of this test but most often we use the 1 rep max (1RM) test as the benchmark. As the name implies this test is the maximum amount of weight that a person can move, or the max force they can generate, for one repetition. The 1RM test is a true measure of a person's strength capability. When my client's goal is to get stronger I regularly test their 1RM at regular intervals. This way they can see the progress they're making in their program.

Keeping in mind that getting strong is about moving the most weight it is correct to draw the conclusion that when training for strength you should lift heavy weights. The part where most screw up is they attempt too many repetitions and they do not rest enough. If you ever get the chance to watch an Olympic weight lifter train you will notice that they will rarely, if ever, lift for more than 5 reps in a set. Many times their sets will be between 1-3 reps each. In addition, about 10% of their time is spent lifting, and the other 90% is spent resting. Rest periods when lifting for strength should ideally be between 2-5 minutes. Some people are of the mindset that resting for this long is counterproductive, but it is essential to allow for maximal recovery between sets. Maximal recovery means that maximal effort can be exerted in subsequent sets. This leads to more weight moved during a session and thus an overall more effective workout.

When starting a strength program the first step is testing your rep max. PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE always do this part with a professional! Testing your 1RM can be dangerous if you do not know what you are doing. If you go this website you will find a trainer locator:

I cannot stress enough the importance of using a trainer to help you find your rep max. Allow me to stand on my soapbox for a minute and also say that your trainer should be a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist or CSCS. This certification is only available through the NSCA and is only available to persons with a college degree. I do not mean to offend other certifications or personal trainers, but CSCS devote their life to strength and conditioning and their knowledge is unequaled in this area.

Once you get your rep max you now have your benchmark. You can use this number to compare your subsequent lifts and track your progress. If your future RM goes up than you have obviously gained strength. Just as with all training endeavors it is critical to note that people differ in many ways and what works for A may not work for B. With that in mind the following program should work for most beginners:

Week 1: 3 sets, 5 reps, (60%, 70%, 80%)

Week 2: 3 sets, 4 reps, (70%, 70%, 80%)

Week 3: 3 sets, 3 reps, (70%, 80%, 90%)

Week 4: 3 sets, 3 reps, (80%, 90%, 100%)

This is meant to be done for one month. After that month you will test you rep max again and you should see an increase in your 1RM.

When attempting this program please keep these helpful tips in mind:

1) Eat enough to fuel your body. You can run a car without gas, and likewise you cant run your body without food. Eating enough is vital when lifting for strength. Most often people lifting for strength should expect to gain some weigh in the process and should be consuming around 17-19 calories/pound body weight. In addition make sure you are getting at least 1g protein per pound. (especially making sure to consume around 25g before your workout and 40-50 after)

2) Rest is essential! I applaud your effort to want to go all out everyday, but going all out will lead to burnout. You need to rest at least one day, but ideally 2, between these workouts. Also make sure you are sticking to the 2-5 minute rest period between sets. When lifting less weight you can rest less, but as you get into the 90% and 100% of your RM the 5 minute rest is important.

3) Lifting for strength according to this plan is for the "big" lifts like bench press, squats and deadlifts...not for curls. If you are interested in bigger arms to impress the ladies then read future posts for my hypertrophy plans. Trying to lift heavy weights with some lifts is just ridiculous and can lead to injury.

So there are the basics. After you have done this a while you may begin to plateau. If that is the case then hire a CSCS and they can hep you revamp your program to see more gains. Keep reading for Part 2-Getting Big. Until then, stay healthy my friends!

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