There comes a frustrating time for every lifter when he’s inevitably faced with a muscle-building plateau. While there are multiple reasons that may be responsible for this, including improper nutrition and recovery, placing a strength emphasis in your current muscle-building routine can be the solution you were looking for.
Lifting heavier and gearing your workouts towards strength, will create a different stimulus for your body, leading to greater size increases in the long run. Effectively mixing strength and muscle-gain training into one program is much different than following a pure powerlifting program since we are just focusing on shifting the emphasis into strength while still implementing the necessary protocols for muscle-building like high volume and time under tension.
We’ve interviewed New England Patriots’ Rob Gronkowski about this very topic and here’s a summary of what he had to say. Rob Gronkowski needs to preserve his mass and strength during the season, while building more mass and strength on the off-season, which is why his advice carries a lot of weight.
Build Your Workout Around Compound Core Lifts
Without the shadow of a doubt, the best way to build up your strength is by performing compound movements at the start of your workout because that’s when you have the most amount of energy and you are considerably more likely to lift more weight. Therefore, what I found to work best is introducing a 5x5 lift at the start of my workouts and then moving on to accessory exercises with high rep ranges which not only supplement the main core lifts but also add more volume to my workouts. This way I can ensure that I’m getting stronger while at the same time carrying out enough volume to build muscle.
So, if you are training one major muscle group per day, you can still do that but with the addition of an appropriate 5x5 lift at the beginning of the workout. In my experience, these are the best compound core lifts for each body part:
Any variation of the Squat will do just fine. Depending on your personal build and what you feel more comfortable doing, either a High-Bar Squat or a Low-Bar Squat are great compound movements to start your workout with. You can even choose the Front Squat, which due to its upright torso position will remove a lot of stress from your lower back, in case you are limited by a past back injury.
My personal favorite compound movement for the chest is the Reverse Bench Press. Albeit an underrated exercise, it is amazing for developing your pressing power and building your upper chest.
I always start my back workouts off with 5 sets of Deadlifts. The Deadlift is a phenomenal exercise that builds your posterior chain strength like nothing else and should be a staple in your workouts. If however, you have lower back issues and cannot perform deadlifts, you should consider either T-Bar Rows or Weighted Pullups as your 5x5 movement for your back workouts.
The Overhead Press definitely has its place in your workouts as it will not only help you grow your delts and triceps but it will also immensely boost your vertical pressing power.
If you decide to implement arm training into your back & chest training, that’s perfectly fine as presses and pulls work your arms indirectly and that’s usually enough as far as arm strength is concerned. Having said that, if you dedicate a specific day to arms, you should also be targeting them with their own 5x5 movement. I have found that vertical Dips and Barbell Bicep Curls are the most effective compound exercises for your triceps and biceps correspondingly.
Strength Training Protocols
Simply choosing to add these compound movements in your workouts and performing them by going through the motions, will simply do nothing to maximize your strength-building results. If you want to make the most out of your time and efforts, you should consider applying the following protocols in your 5x5 lifts.
Use Pause Reps
Imagine your muscles as rubber bands. Pulling them apart creates a tension that needs to be released by returning the bands to their original position. Stretching a muscle with weights creates the same effect and it’s called “stretch reflex”. That’s why it’s always easier to move a weight for several repetitions without any pause between the negative and the positive. If you are training for strength however, it makes sense to focus on the part of the range of motion that you’re weak at, by eliminating the stretch reflex. So the next time you perform a bench press or a squat (or any compound exercise for that matter), slowly control the negative and then pause for 1 to 2 seconds at the bottom before pushing the weight back up.
If you remember from your physics days, force equals mass times acceleration. Therefore, increasing bar speed will demand more force from your muscles which is a great way to increase your power fast. You can actually combine this with the previous “Pause Reps” method like this: as soon as you’ve paused for 1-2 seconds at the stretched position, explosively lift the weight back up to the top by exerting as much force as possible. If the weight is heavy, it’s likely that it won’t move very fast but that shouldn’t concern you. As long as your intention is explosive and forceful, you will be taking advantage of this technique.
Increase Your Rest Intervals
Incorporating strength training into your routine means you are going to have to increase the rest time between your sets. While a good rest time between sets for muscle gain purposes is anywhere from 30 to 120 seconds, you need to increase that to about 2 – 5 minutes for strength training. The actual time will depend on a few different factors like your recovery, work capacity and the actual exercise you’re performing. While with dips you’ll probably need around 2 minutes to recover, you may find that squats or deadlifts require up to 5 minutes to fully recover from, as they are extremely taxing to your Central Nervous System (CNS). Seeing that your goal with the 5x5 protocol is to increase your strength, feel free to take as much time as you need between sets in order to fully recover and focus on just getting stronger.
Supplement Accessory Exercises Where Needed
Since you are aiming to place a greater strength emphasis in your muscle-building routine, you need to focus more on using exercises that help you improve your main lifts rather than focusing on hitting your muscles from different angles which is something you would do if your training was purely centered around muscle gain.
So after you complete your 5x5 lift, you should already be aware of your weak points and you should pick some accessory exercises based on those weak points. For example, if you find that you are weak at locking out the weight on the Deadlift, you should definitely select the Rack Pull for your accessory exercise on your back workouts but if you are weak at getting the barbell moving off the floor, you should think about adding the Deficit Deadlift into the mix. So, know your weaknesses and plan your workouts accordingly.
Establish A Mindset With Your Training
Your brain always precedes your body. Don’t let your brain be a limiting factor when it comes to getting stronger and more powerful. You should always try to visualize a successful set before doing it. What I found to work best for me is taking a few moments before every set to clear my negative thoughts, eliminate my doubts and since I started doing that, I have never failed a single PR. If you think that you can get at least 5 reps with the weight, trust me, you are going to get at least 5.
By establishing the mindset of a winner, you run a much smaller possibility to stall or plateau and this sets you on the right path to reach your goals. If you think about it, establishing the right mentality will help you reach any goal in life.
Be positive, train smart, lift that weight…and most importantly…get your mind right.