3 Strength Routines that Will Help You Get Stronger and Maximize Results
A lot of thought and research goes into rep strategy in the weight room in an attempt to learn how to build strength.
Want to get a strong chest? Bench five sets of three reps at 85% of your max.
Need to stimulate anabolic hormones? Do three sets of ten back squats almost at your 10 rep max.
Toss in sets of 20 or 30 for hypertrophy of smaller muscle groups.
To be fair, these traditional strength training practices carry a lot of weight (pun intended) for good reason. In program design, we often provide the what, why, and even the how many, but then neglect exactly HOW the weight should be moved—which is a pretty important part. For example, you can pick the weight up, put it down, hold it for a while, pause at a certain spot, etc.
There are lots of variations in strength protocols, and here are my top 3 ways to get stronger.
For strength/power: concentric only
Weight training exercises like deadlifts, pull ups, and launching yourself off the blocks in a 100m race start with concentric movement, which means there’s no preload.
The concentric portion of muscular contraction is the muscle shortening, usually through a raising up action. Through exploding up from a static start, you aren’t getting to feel out the weight eccentrically (which is the muscle lengthening, usually by lowering) as you control it before pushing back up. You’re simply stepping up to the bar, gripping it, and ripping it.
By eliminating the body’s chance at “feeling out” the weight before contraction, your muscles miss out on the stretch-shortening cycle.
Stretch-shortening acts like a spring, loading up energy during the lengthening portion to rocket out of the bottom. It’s a great tool for efficient movement, as it takes less effort to do the same amount of work. So, limiting stretch-shortening then requires more force production, like through heavier weights or faster movement, to produce the same amount of power.
Advantages of concentric movement
You might be thinking at this point, But wait! If this stretch-shortening cycle makes it easier for me to move weight, why would I want to train without it? Good question. For one, you can produce the same amount of power with more weight. Pushing and pulling heavier things = more strength. Plus, if you can train your body to explode efficiently without a preload, just think how much better you’ll be when you do have that little push.
From an athletic standpoint, leaping out of the blocks on the track or in the pool, jumping off the offensive line, or just taking off unexpectedly in another direction involves minimal eccentric movement, so focusing on concentric-only movements means you’re trained those moments.
Best concentric exercises
There are only a few lifts you can feasibly do as only concentric, as most of them involve dropping weight.
High pulls (cleans and snatches), deadlift variations, step ups, and sled pushes are the easiest, as you can drop the weight, lower with the other leg, or just stop pushing. I also like using the squat and bench press, but this involves getting creative with equipment.
Anderson squats and the bench press from pins are excellent variations where you set up in a rack or a bench, press the weight directly off the pins, and almost let it fall back down (safely!). As in most strength/power workouts, the heavier you go, the less reps you’ll do. Max nervous stimulation is key here, as well, so allow for plenty of rest between sets to recharge.
For strength/size: Cluster sets
Oh man, there’s nothing like a good cluster set to wake you up in the morning! Cluster sets are exactly what they sound like: a set consisting of repetitions performed in a “cluster” until you get to the total number of reps. This might look like doing three clusters of two reps for a total of six reps.
Why make it so complicated, you ask? It’s simple: science.
Let’s say you can safely deadlift 315 lbs six times, but you can safely deadlift 405 lbs twice. Using cluster sets, you could “trick” your body into lifting 395 lbs six times by resting 20 seconds in between each cluster of two.
Advantages of Cluster Sets
Why not just wait a few minutes after doing two and do another set of two? Well a) that takes forever and b) you can get a lot more work done by doing 6 sets of 6 this way than 6 sets of 2, or even 12 sets of 2.
So, how does it work? In order to move weight fast, heavy lifting requires you access something known as the phosphagen system in your body. You’re using that creatine you’ve heard so much about to generate a short burst of energy.
Since it’s a long, arduous process to utilize oxygen and break down glucose, sometimes you need to do work faster than your metabolic processes allow, like when lifting heavy weights or sprinting away from a dinosaur. Unfortunately, this energy wears out quickly, so you can do a lot of work but in a short amount of time.
By doing sets in clusters, you can use a little bit of that fuel, let it recover a bit, use a little more, let it replenish again, and then finally burn it all out before resting fully. You’re also recruiting your high threshold motor units—the big guns in your muscles—which are the best for stimulating hypertrophy. A bit of rest gives your nervous system a break to recharge and fire on all cylinders again.
Training with Cluster Sets
For the best strength and size benefit, you’ll want to shoot for somewhere between 4-8 reps total over 3-5 sets. The more sets you’re doing, the less reps you’ll likely do.
For example, if you’re using the push press, you may do 2-2-1 with 20 seconds rest between clusters for four sets. As this is an exercise where you’re putting weight over your head, technique is paramount, and giving yourself a rest to eliminate fatigue errors will produce the best results.
Best of both worlds: tempo training
Imagine someone asks you to hold their two adorable twin toddlers for “just a second” while they quickly run inside a store. At about 20 lbs each, these little nuggets are no problem for you while their parent runs in for a few seconds.
But now, let’s say that parent does all of their grocery shopping, gets stuck behind a long line, and has trouble checking out. It’s been 45 minutes, and you’re still holding two 20 lb children. The task would become much more difficult. It’s the same task but for a different measure of time. This is the principle of time under tension, which also applies in the weight roo and allows you to manipulate the intensity of your lifts. Enter: tempo training.
To understand tempo training, you have to break down each part of your lift: the eccentric portion, the bottom position, the concentric portion, and the top of the lift. For example, in a squat, the descent is eccentric, the bottom of your range of motion is the bottom, pressing the weight up is concentric and the hold at full standing is the top.
(Only a few exercises deviate from this process, such as lat pulldowns, in which the work is being done as you pull the weight down [lower] and you’re not working as you raise the weight back up. Otherwise, bottom and top remain consistent.)
During tempo training, coaches designate a certain number of seconds for each part of the lift. If you really wanted to hammer home the eccentric portion of a squat, you could use a five-second count to descend. To add even more time under tension, you might add a two-second pause at the bottom.
To emphasize explosive movement upwards, note it on your training plan as an ‘X’ (for eXplosive) meaning to move the weight as fast as possible. Then you might want to give yourself a little break at the top before repeating. This sort of tempo training would be written 5/2/X/1 (5 eccentric, pause 2 at bottom, eXplode up, 1 second at top).
Now that you know how to use it, there are endless possibilities for tempo training. If you’re the average lifter, you’re probably currently moving the weight at about a 2/0/2/0 tempo, taking two seconds to lower and raise weight and no time at the bottom or top between reps.
To increase that intensity, eliminate stretch/shortening, and maximize fatigue, you might do everything else at a normal tempo but add a 10-second isometric hold at the bottom for a few reps, making it a 2/10/2/0 tempo. Another option for maximal speed, power, and reactivity, is to do a 1/0/X/1, dropping into a movement and exploding out of it as quickly as possible.
Considering you could literally put any number in those four positions, let me give you my highest recommendation for the best strength, size, and power combination: 3/1/X/1. Three seconds on the way down give you all the benefits of eccentric training. This will allow you to go slower, drive more blood flow to the muscles and stimulate more fibers.
As an athlete, you’re much stronger eccentrically due to the way your muscle fibers are oriented, so you’re able to control much more weight. If an NFL star wants to stop on a dime to cut past a defender, he has to control a ton of mass moving very quickly to slow it down eccentrically before exploding back in the other direction. This is where the importance of those numbers come in.
Pausing for just a split second at the bottom of the rep will prevent you from utilizing the elasticity of your ligaments/tendons as well as your reflexes to initiate upward movement. So, rather than getting a little push from your rubber band-like fibers, your muscles have to generate that force all on their own. It may be a small difference, but it can have a big effect on strength development.
Then, exploding that weight back upward mimics athletic movements like jumping, tackling, stiff arming, pressing off the ground, ripping down a rebound, etc. Moving in this way targets your type II explosive muscle fibers while shocking your nervous system into firing on all cylinders.
The result: size, strength and power.
Take a look at what your goals are, as well as which part of your program you’re in. Try to throw in some of these protocols, making sure to only use them during your core lifts and near the beginning of your workouts. These are tough on the body, and you’re not going to get much out of it if you try to implement them for every exercise and every set.
Remember, a little goes a long way here. Believe me—if you’re doing them right, you’ll feel it.
Also, since you will now be stressing that body out, you might want to consider finding ways of keeping it healthy. Read Improve Rounded Shoulders and Develop Shoulder Stability with 4 Exercises to keep your upper body in tip top shape.