Getting Stronger 101

One of the most commonly-held fitness myths is that post-exercise muscle soreness is an indicator of an athlete getting stronger.

We know that muscle soreness, especially after a killer leg day, is carried like a badge of honor, but we’re here to tell you that it is not necessarily the best measure of a great workout. In fact, it’s been proven that you don’t need to be sore to get stronger and see improvements in body composition, muscle size, muscle growth. 

In case you didn’t know, when it comes to tracking your strength training progress and goals, the research shows that there are certain methods that will help you get stronger and hit your personal record (PR) that don’t necessarily result in muscle soreness. 

The good news for you is, we have tested those methods and can speak to their effects on athletic performance and mentality. 

So, without further ado, here are the 7 best kept secrets to getting stronger and hitting your next PR.

1. Specificity of movement needs to be prioritized 

Why is specificity of movement so important that we placed it first on our list? 

Because specificity is king.

Simply put, the daily work that you do in the gym needs to match your long term fitness goal

You will not be able to accomplish your end result, or any result, if you simply show up at the gym without a plan. Yes, your general strength and overall physical conditioning might improve, but you will most likely not achieve any sport-specific or training goals. 

And, of course, accessory work is helpful, but nothing is more effective than practicing the actual movement that you want to master. Although accessory work is essential for injury prevention and rehabilitation, it should not be a primary focus when you want to get stronger to hit your next PR in a movement.

Let’s use the back squat as an example. 

Somewhere along the line, you may develop problems progressing your squat due to hamstring weakness.  Performing four sets of hamstring curls may address the hamstring weakness, but practicing squats with proper form and less weight will translate directly to improvement in the squat. Those four sets of hamstring curls will make you more efficient at hamstring curls and potentially prevent a hamstring strain in the future, but is unlikely to improve squat performance to the same degree.  

The moral of the story is, if you’re not squatting, then you’re not getting better at squatting. 

Powerlifters use this principle better than any other athlete. They perfect their squat technique by performing more squats, at various loads, under different speeds, using several variations of the typical back squat. They do the same thing with bench press and deadlifts, which is one reason why they excel at those three lifts.  

2. Volume matters if you are building strength

female athlete getting stronger with bicep curls on an ez curl bar

Recall from one of our earlier posts that:

 Volume = (load of weight that you’re lifting) x (number of sets) x (repetitions). 

Understanding how volume works is important to hitting your strength and fitness goals. To figure this out, ask yourself the following questions: 

  • Are you doing a high number of reps for endurance or muscle growth?
  • Are you hoping to gain strength and power, in which case you would do less reps? 

These questions are crucial, because they relate back to specificity and how you should tailor your workouts to meet your end goal. 

Similar to knowing when to progress your weights, you should also know when it is okay to scale back your volume. Bad recovery, injury, general body fatigue, illness or poor form can all be indicators that you need to back off. 

Oftentimes, people get stuck in the notion that volume is a fixed number and should not change from session to session, but don’t let that deter you. It’s okay if your volume fluctuates, especially if you’re having an “off” day, but make sure your new volume still matches your end goal. Conversely, increase the volume when you feel ready to tackle that challenge. 

Experts recommend tracking your weekly volume to measure progress and help you to avoid injury. Use the formula above to calculate your total volume for one week. Then, gradually increase the volume every other week, taking care to avoid sudden increases in volume that can lead to injury. 

Have you ever wondered how strength and conditioning coaches track their athletes’ progress? In addition to creating workouts programs, these coaches do an excellent job at tracking volume throughout the athletes’ conditioning season. They use total volume data, as well as volume for specific lifts or body parts, in order to enhance the athletes’ full physical potential. 

While tracking your numbers isn’t something that absolutely has to be done, it definitely helps you understand the process of getting stronger. Programs that don’t utilize this, like general weight loss programs or group fitness classes, may struggle to produce the large strength gains since everyone is doing the same program. 

3. Pain can hurt your gains, and much more

male athlete lifting a barbell focused on getting stronger in the Crossfit gym

Pain has been shown to affect the way your muscles work, as well as increase the risk for injury and compensatory motions. 

To visualize this, let’s use a professional baseball pitcher as an example. 

A professional baseball pitcher has firmly embedded the motion of throwing into his muscle memory. Therefore, it would be extremely difficult for him to “forget” how to throw, even if he stopped playing for a few months. 

Say an active individual wants to learn how to pitch and signs up for a one week course. After the course, he forgets to practice his pitching skills and doesn’t do well when he tries to play in his work league’s softball game a month later. 

Working out with pain is similar to our pitching example. 

Let’s pretend that your shoulder hurts, but you decide to just push through it. Now, two years later, your shoulder still hurts when you lift and it has begun to affect the way you perform certain overhead lifts. Your body has now learned to be in pain with certain movements, which can be difficult to “unlearn.” 

Unlearning a bad habit that you just picked up a few days ago is much easier than unlearning chronic pain patterns. This is because your brain doesn’t really get the chance to learn to be in that painful state. 

And, a lot of times, we don’t associate “learning” with “pain.” 

But, think about it this way: the body is incredibly intuitive, and it can learn pain patterns as well as pain with movement. What’s even worse is, the longer that pain is present, the more our brain views it as “normal.” 

To combat this learned pain pattern, rehabilitation specialists, like physical therapists, will prioritize strength training and restore healthy movement patterns in the muscles that are affected. This is necessary in order to rewire the muscle’s natural activation process and allow it to operate at its full potential. 

4. Quality sleep is the key to recovery

There is a common misperception that you can “sleep when you’re dead,” but we strongly discourage this mentality.

Studies have shown enormous benefits from having consistent sleep, including recovery and overall cognitive function. Researchers have also found improvements in athletic performance and reaction speed when compared to inconsistent sleeping patterns. 

Sleep has a large influence on your ability to train and workout. Keep in mind that what happens outside of the gym is equally as important as the work that you accomplish within the gym. 

That being said, here are some ways to improve your sleep hygiene: 

  • No electronics before bed
  • Go to bed at the same time every night
  • Regulate your morning routine and training schedule
  • Reduce stressors

Struggling to get restful and rejuvenating sleep? You may be suffering from a sleep disorder, possibly sleep apnea. Check in with a pulmonary or sleep specialist to see if you have an underlying issue that is preventing you from getting quality sleep. 

5. Mentality can make or break your gains 

gym filled with weight benches and dumbbells for strength training and conditioning

At times, the physical aspect of strength training may seem easier than the mental component. 

Being in tune with yourself and having the right mentality when it comes to your workout is crucial, which is why it’s #5 on our list. When it comes to strength training, the right mentality includes knowing how to train to fatigue as opposed to training to failure. 

Why is this important? 

During any type of strength training, there’s a threshold you need to reach in order to gain the most benefit from the exercise. What you may not know is that this threshold may fluctuate from day to day. 

Therefore, avoid getting caught up in the “I need to do 3 sets of 12 because that’s what my program says” mentality. Maybe today is the day when you can do 14 reps instead of 12. Conversely, you may only be able to do 9 reps until fatigue hits, as opposed to 12. 

Heavy strength training follows this principle, too. 3 sets of 5 reps may or may not be enough to meet your threshold of fatigue. It takes mindfulness and body awareness to find that delicate balance of “too much” and “not enough.” 

So how can you find this so-called sweet spot when training to fatigue? One way to do this is to listen to your body during a certain rep scheme or set. If you are locked into your strength training program, then you should be able to feel when your body is nearing fatigue.  

Many people mistakenly believe that training to fatigue and training to failure are the same concept. However, this is definitely not true. Failure means “you have zero left in the tank,” whereas fatigue generally indicates that “you have 2-3 reps left in the tank.”

There is a huge difference between training to failure versus training to fatigue that will significantly affect your ability to hit your next PR. Consistently training to failure will lead to physical exhaustion and regression in your strength training, which should be avoided at all costs. 

6. Incorporate velocity-based training whenever possible

Velocity-based training is a part of strength training that relies upon the speed of movement when lifting a certain weight. The overall goal is to improve your total power output, which includes: (1) the force at which you’re working and (2) speed. 

Simply put, velocity-based training is all about how fast you’re moving the weight. Be aware that you are not working to fatigue or failure with velocity-based training. Therefore, you should not feel exhausted after you’re finished with your sets despite providing near maximal effort. 

An ideal program for velocity-based training would be: 

  • 2-5 reps 
  • Light to moderate loads (ex. 40-75% of your 1RM)
  • Moving at specified speed (ex. 0.8 m/sec)

To accurately calculate speed (velocity) of movement, you will need access to special equipment that measures velocity. However, you can also do this by using certain repetition ranges and loads based on 1 RM if you lack the right equipment. The goal is to perform a maximal contraction in order to move the weight as fast as possible. 

athlete getting stronger using velocity based training in a deadlift

Velocity-based training is considered to be a component of strength training because it can enhance different types of muscle strength or endurance, depending on your overall training goal. 

The two components of velocity-based training are: 

  • Speed strength – moving a light load as fast as possible, thus creating an “under loading” effect 
  • Strength speed – moving a moderate load as fast as possible, which ends up being a moderate speed

Both of these concepts, as well as other types of velocity-based training, are perfect for deloading programs. 

Deloading programs are necessary for people who need time off from their current strength training program. Therefore, velocity-based training, if programmed correctly, may be a great alternative strength training mode in which you can still build power and speed while using lighter loads. 

For elite lifters and athletes, deloading programs are essential for getting stronger and hitting PRs. 

In individuals who are not at that elite level but train consistently, listen to your body to know when to take time off. For you, deloading programs may look different than that of an athlete. For instance, you may require a week off from the gym or a few days with lighter weight as opposed to a structured deloading program. 

Some are quick to dismiss deloading programs because they feel like they will lose their hard-earned progress. Luckily, research does not support that myth, so there is no reason to be concerned that your performance will suffer when you need to deload. 

7. How your nutrition affects the big picture

Understanding how nutrition affects the big picture can truly make a difference in your workout performance. To help you with this, think about your performance or strength training like a pyramid.

At the base of the pyramid is genetics, which represents the way in which people are physically shaped and built. 

The next layer of the pyramid represents your nutritional habits and their connection to your overall strength training and workout goals. 

Lastly, the top of the pyramid is the training itself. While strength training is important, this example shows that there are other key factors to consider, especially when it comes to getting stronger.  

Many people choose to consult with a dietician or nutrition specialist to optimize their nutritional needs. Because your diet is closely related to your overall health, it may be worthwhile to find someone with related experience and professional expertise. Finding a professional also ensures that your nutrition plan is right for you and does not interfere with any pre-existing medical conditions. Check out the Straight-Talk Physio Podcast for an episode where Dr. Junak interviews nutritionist Rachel Landis on the importance of nutrition and training.

Take home points

  • Know that fitness is highly individualized, and there is no one-size-fits-all approach to getting stronger and achieving your training goals. 
  • Make sure each workout reflects your overall strength training goal(s). 
  • Mentality, nutrition, and sleep are overlooked factors when it comes to maximizing your training benefits. Being in touch with yourself, as well as your actions outside of the gym, will yield enormous results. 
  • Vary your strength training program with appropriate deloading intervals and utilize velocity-based training to optimize your power output. 

We know that this has been mentioned before, but it’s worth talking about again. Finding a specialist to work through some of these secrets with you can be the difference between “okay” results and “amazing” results. 

Dr. Andrew Junak is located in Columbus, Ohio and has been working with active individuals and athletes of all ages for many years. He is a board-certified clinical specialist in orthopedic physical therapy and is highly trained to find the best method that works for your goals. If you’re feeling “stuck” in a workout rut, then take 15-minutes to chat with Dr. Junak about your issues. It’s free, and you have nothing to lose. Learn more here. 

About the Author

Dr. Andrew Junak is a Doctor of Physical Therapy and Board-Certified Orthopedic Specialist. Dr. Junak received his Doctorate of Physical Therapy from Walsh University and completed his Orthopedic Specialist training at the Cleveland Clinic Orthopaedic Residency Program. He is the owner of Peak Physiotherapy and Performance, a physical therapy clinic in Canal Winchester, Ohio where he serves the local communities of Lancaster, Reynoldsburg, Grove City, Pickerington, and Columbus. In his practice, Dr. Junak helps clients with jaw pain, neck pain, and headaches find relief without resorting to medications, injections, or surgery.

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