A: Keep form locked in and move the bar through the concentric with power. Don't worry about controlling the eccentric but take your time and reset fully before the next rep. Do your best to match rep target with RPE goal but understand it won't be perfect. Take full rest between these sets.
B: Get a full ROM on every rep and use whichever grip is the most comfortable. Do your best to match rep target with RPE goal but understand it won't be perfect. Take full rest between these sets.
C: Get a full ROM on every rep according to your mobility. Take your time and ensure your abs are braced and glutes are contracted to remove stress from the low back. Do your best to match rep target with RPE goal but understand it won't be perfect. Take full rest between these sets.
D: Perform 2 feeder sets of 5-8 reps before the first working set. Maintain a semi pronated grip. Drive up hard through the concentric but control the eccentric. Think about getting full scapular protraction and retraction during the row but avoid using lumbar hyperextension. Try to keep your spine neutral from pelvis to skull.
E1: Perform 2 feeder sets of 5-8 reps on the assist machine before the first working set. Scale the load up or down as needed to accommodate your strength levels. These can be performed with assistance, bw, or additional load but adhere to the rep range and intensity. Get a full ROM and try to bias the pecs. Rest for 60-90 sec before E2.
E2: Perform 2 feeder sets of 8-12 reps on the lying hamstring curl machine before the first working set. Keep your torso rigid and keep the movement confined to ONLY the knee joint. Aim to control the eccentric as far as you can under your own strength and then use assistance to complete the concentric and get back to the start of the rep. Scale these as needed according to your own strength level. Rest for 60-90 sec before E3.
E3: Perform 2 feeder sets of 5-8 reps on swiss ball body saws before the first working set. Get full extension on every rep here and keep your pelvis neutral. Avoid lumbar hyperextension. Scale these according to your own strength level. Full rest before returning to E1.
I know that I mostly speak and write about hypertrophy training but I still know a thing or two about how to get strong...
But before we try to hit 1RMs or set any PRs, it's good to start at a fundamental level and understand exactly what distinguishes training to build muscle from training with the goal of getting stronger.
When hypertrophy is the focus, the name of the game is TENSION!
And this rings true all the way down to microscopic levels...See, we actually shouldn't be exclusively concerned with the load on the bar or the exercises we're performing or what intensity technique is the flavor-of-the-week because our muscle fibers don't respond to these variables.
What they respond to is the tension they're experiencing.
If this seems like an oversimplification, that's because it kind of is. But follow along with me for a sec...
Within our muscle cells (sarcomeres) lives this really cool machinery that is responsible for all of the skeletal movement of our body. As with man-made machines, there are a ton of moving parts within our sarcomeres but two contributors stand above the rest and act as our own physiological conductors. These specialized proteins are called myosin and actin, respectively, and they are responsible for all voluntary skeletal muscle movement (along with troponin and tropomyosin but that’s a conversation for another day).
The way this happens requires a visualization—imagine that myosin is a strongman (or woman) competitor. And like any strongman worth their salt, myosin is really good at moving stuff through space. But rather than picking up cars and heaving kegs, our microscopic buddy is a specialist at the rope pull event.
You all know what I'm talking about here (please know what I'm talking about)—the rope pull is when our valiant strongman manages to move planes or yachts or 18-wheelers by meticulously rowing the rope hand-over-hand, inch-by-inch until they've managed to shorten the distance from themselves to whatever over-sized object had the misfortune to be on the other end of their might. And though it might feel like an unnecessarily descriptive analogy, it actually PERFECTLY exemplifies what is happening inside every single muscle cell, at all times, any time you move.
In our analogy, Myosin is the strongman and actin is the rope. The myosin attaches itself to the actin and, just like our strongman, slowly pulls it along. But what is the anatomical representation of the boat or plane? That would be what is called the Z-line. And though the name isn't important to remember, the Z-line can be thought of as the end of that single muscle cell.
So all-in-all, we have myosin tugging on actin (in both directions) to bring the ends of the cell closer together. This is known as the shortening-lengthening cycle and it is what happens every time we contract a muscle.
Pheww!! That was a lot!
But why should we even care about these invisible proteins? We just want to get jacked, amirite?!
AHAA! Exactly! But notice anything missing from our example above? Our myosin doesn't have anyone in the crow's nest! There’s nobody shouting to the rest of the team what exercise what being done to generate that tension.
The actin wasn't protesting its movement because this week's weight on the bar is less than the prior week. And they definitely didn't close up shop because you rested a minute too long or accidentally miscounted on your tempo.
All they know is whether or not they can complete their cross-bridging—And the external environment plays a shockingly small part of this equation.
But when our goals are strength oriented, this changes the game up substantially...Instead of tension, we're now going to be focused on expression.
Expression of what exactly?
Here is where we see a stark divergence from what would be suitable for hypertrophy versus the rigidity that comes with trying to get stronger. Because muscle building isn't discriminatory about the source of tension, we're able to utilize all sorts of novel techniques and approaches that aren't reliant on progressive overload, exclusively. Though being unconfined is ultimately a positive, the overwhelming amount of options makes things more confusing, convoluted and can even get a little bit weird at times. (Just look into blood-flow restriction if you don't believe me)
Getting stronger is comparatively simple—It's all about being able to efficiently and effectively coordinate bundles of sarcomeres to improve the expression of their collective cross-bridging potential.
That single sentence has a lot to unpack so let's break it down piece-by-piece:
Efficiently- We want to minimize as much energy leakage as possible. Conversion of electricity from nerve impulses into mechanical work requires a lot of steps and many complicated pathways. Energy that is wasted is energy that could have been assisting in doing work (i.e. moving heavy shit). This concept rings true from the hydrolysis of ATP at the cellular level all the way up to perfecting a max effort squat.
Effectively- Improving efficiency doesn't mean anything if we're not channeling that energy towards its best possible uses. Our neuromuscular system is plastic, meaning that it will get better at a task with more practice and as the demands become ingrained. Repeated effort (i.e. volume of sets and reps) will improve effectiveness.
Coordinate- Strength is much more reliant on externalities than hypertrophy; it's no longer just a mechanical tension problem. Complex systems have to be able to integrate seamlessly with one another in order to increase efficiency and effectiveness.
Bundles of sarcomeres- A large part of what makes acquisition of strength so unique is the role of the nervous system. A motor unit is a region of muscle cells that are innervated by the same neuron, and this unified recruitment is how our bodies are able to coordinate more general, large-scale movement. When performing something extremely refined like writing, the motor units need to be very small in order to allow for fluidity and precision. But if we're trying to max out on deadlifts, we want to be recruiting the largest motor units possible.
Improve the expression- Like I mentioned above, strength is all about expression. Think of hypertrophy training as building up the muscle cells and storing energy in the process. A bigger muscle should be a stronger muscle, but this doesn't always play out in practice. I'm sure we've all had our minds blown at some point by someone who appears totally average lifting superhuman amounts of weight. And vice versa—Muscles that would damn-near pop if pricked by a needle but couldn’t open a jar of pickles if their life depended on it. What is happening here? Well, due to the very different requirements for growth, it is possible to have a large cross-sectional area (how big a muscle is) but a lack of coordination within them. If all of those individual fibers aren't expressing their ability to generate tension in a common way, then the outcome will be less than the theoretical sum of the parts. Being able to express the stored energy created during hypertrophy is a skill that can be learned. That is what strength is.
Collective- Maximizing strength comes from a shift in thinking from isolationism to collectivism. To best grow a muscle, it is often necessary to get as specific as possible with exercise selection and execution. Reducing failure points and technical complexity are primary considerations when mapping out the right approach for hypertrophy. But repeating this over-and-over creates walled gardens of jacked but poorly integrated muscle groups. Strength training is the attempt to rekindle, and then optimize, these lost connections.
Cross-bridging potential- If we were to add up the force that each individual muscle fiber in our body was capable of producing, the result would be mind-numbing. Obviously, we're not able to maximally contract our quads and hamstrings at the same time (for example) so the thought experiment falls a little flat in practice, but dysfunction occurring in complementary muscles can also drastically reduce that force potential. Whether it's from a lack of coordination or physical limitations, we are always operating at less than 100% of our potential. The goal of strength training is, therefor, to extract every last drop of contractile ability out of our individual sarcomeres and direct it towards a given task.
I know that was a lot to take in…But understanding is 99% of the battle. Hypertrophy and strength training have much more in common than they do in opposition. And achieving meaningful gains in both is possible without ever concerning yourself with the nuances of their differences.
However, while our physical experimentation and expression is limited by linearity, knowledge is capable of logarithmic progressions. Taking the time to train your mind muscles will reap profound, continuous, and compounding rewards.
So what is the best way to get strong?
It’s to get smart!