10 Keys to Optimal Strength Training

By Eirik Garnas www.organicFitness.com

When looking back at the start of my lifting career about 9 years ago I find that the biggest obstacle was that I didn’t have a basic structure to build my training on. Without a set of principles to guide the way, it’s easy to get lost by changing program every couple of weeks, trying various supplements, and not thinking about the long-term progress. While 9 years is a relatively short time compared to the most experienced lifters and strength coaches, I’ve learned a thing or two from training myself and clients during these years.

Perhaps the most important thing this journey has taught me is that it’s important to be humble in the sense that there is no optimal program or exercise technique that fits everyone. People have different needs depending on anthropometry, goals, mobility, and strength, and just prescribing the same program to everyone is a recipe for disaster. However, I’ve also learned that there are some basic ‘rules’ that set you up for successful training. Regular strength training isn’t only great for building the body and improving general health, but it also teaches the value of hard work and discipline. So, one could argue that progressive resistance training is as much about building the mind in the sense that mental toughness can be transferred into all other aspects of life.

mental toughness

Train your mind to be tough

The average commercial gym is a heart wrenching place for strength coaches and personal trainers. Poor technique is the rule rather than the exception, and people generally do a lot of weird stuff. Most folks seem to go into the gym with no real plan or purpose, and end up simply going from machine to machine and then finishing of with a couple of minutes on the elliptical trainer to ‘burn the fat’. Recognizing the difference between exercise and training is very important. While exercise focuses on the benefits of a specific workout, training is about achieving a long-term goal. The workout in itself is basically seen as a small part of a longer journey.

exercise vs training

Exercising vs training

While exercise is perfectly acceptable for the average joe, training is what really brings the best results. I’ve summarized my experiences as a lifter and coach into a set of the basic principles that I believe are the foundation of successful strength training. Here are 10 of them…

1. Base your training around a couple of compound lifts

While this might seem unnecessary to mention for experienced lifters, a lot of beginners tend to forget this point. The deadlift, bench press, press, squat, clean and jerk are the core lifts that really bring the long-term progress. Chins, hip thrusts, dips and push-ups are also valuable exercises that target big muscle groups. While you don’t have to perform these exact lifts to build muscle and get stronger, a variation of the most basic human movements should always be a part of the program.

squat and bench press 1

Squats and bench

2. Technique, technique, technique

This point can’t be stressed enough. Only a fraction of strength trainees at most gyms show anything that resembles good technique. While some people learn the basic compound lifts by simply doing the movements over and over again with little added resistance, others have to perform additional exercises and mobility work to really get a grasp of things.

bad clean form

How NOT to catch a clean

3. Focus on getting stronger in the major lifts

One of the primary reasons to strength train is of course to get stronger. Progressive overload is one of the basic principles of strength training and basically means that you have to increase the weight, intensity and/or number of repetitions/sets to create an adaptive response. However, this basic rule of strength training is something a lot of people seem to forget. It’s not uncommon to see folks at the gym doing the same lifts with the same amount of weight every training session. Although an experienced lifter can’t expect to get stronger every workout, the weights should increase over months and years.

4. Train the compound lifts multiple times per week

Although some very effective strength programs such as Jim Wendler’s 5/3/1 only hit every compound exercise once per week, training each muscle group and core lift multiple times per week is optimal for most people. Frequent training brings the fastest results as long as your programming, diet and recovery are all taken care of.

5. Keep track of your progress

A training journal is a great tool for keeping track of your progress, and it also increases your efforts in the gym by motivating you to beat previous records. Keeping score is especially important for lifters who are primarily interested in strength gains, but bodybuilders also benefit from tracking their numbers in the major lifts. One of the key benefits of using a training journal is that it allows you to look back at your lifting career and analyze the results from the different programs you’ve tried. However, it’s important to not lose the joy and spontaneity that exercise brings by following a rigid program every workout. Keep score of the major lifts, but don’t be afraid to try out new things and rotate around on some of the secondary exercises.

training log

Sample training journal

6. Try to get in the zone

Although socializing can enhance the experience of going to the gym, it’s also important to try to block out all unnecessary noise and just do the work.

7. Eat like a champion and sleep like a baby

Like all experienced lifters know, training is only part of the work. Eating a lot of high-quality food and getting enough sleep is essential for building muscle and strength.

clean eating

8. Make sure you target your weak areas

Most people like to train muscle groups and exercises where they are already strong, but focusing on the weaker parts of your body is clearly essential to building a well-balanced physique. Weak glutes are especially common and typically result in a poor movement pattern in the squat, deadlift, and other exercises that focus on lower body strength. Inability to properly activate the glutes during these exercises stalls progress and increases the chance of injury. Doing isolated glute work and strengthening the muscles that produce posterior pelvic tilt is very important for lifters with weak glutes and excessive anterior pelvic tilt.

Screenshot 2014-02-17 13.44.20

Excessive anterior pelvic tilt

9. Do mobility work and assistance exercises that are appropriate for your needs

This point can’t be stressed enough. Many lifters don’t have the necessary mobility and strength to harvest the full benefits from the compound lifts. It’s important to note that just doing some random stretching has little benefit. Everything you do in the gym should be done with a purpose, and mobility drills and assistance work should target the specific needs of each lifter. Upper- and lower crossed syndrome are especially common and should be addressed in order to avoid injury.

back to wall shoulder flexion cressey

Eric Cressey demonstrating back to wall shoulder flexion, a drill for shoulder mobility

10. Don’t beat yourself up over a bad workout

Even if you sleep 8 hours each night and eat the best possible diet, you will experience the occasional workout where you feel weak and fatigued. Don’t panic. Just lower the weights and/or remove a couple of exercises and come in stronger the next time. Remember that strength training isn’t about one single workout, but the accumulative effect of all the training sessions performed over weeks, months, and years.

Klokov going light

Even Dmitry Klokov goes light sometimes (for him)

Bonus: 11. Don’t make fitness your entire life

Whether it’s an essential part of every successful strength training program is up for debate, but I feel it’s perhaps the most important rule of them all. While you have to be dedicated to really see great result in the gym, it’s easy to get obsessed with eating and training and forget that everything doesn’t revolve around fitness. Going out with friends, drinking the occasional beer and skipping a day of training won’t kill your progress. Remember that strength training really is a marathon, not a sprint.

mazzeti curl beer

Don Mazzetti enjoying his gains and a beer

About the author

eirik-garnas_organic-fitness-authorName: Eirik Garnas
Website: www.OrganicFitness.com

Besides studying for a degree in Public Nutrition, I’ve spent the last couple of years coaching people on their way to a healthier body and better physique. I’m educated as a personal trainer from the Norwegian School of Sport Sciences and also have additional courses in sales/coaching, kettlebells, body analysis, and functional rehabilitation. Subscribe to my website if you want to read more of my articles on fitness, nutrition, and health.

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