I’m not the strongest guy out there by any means, but being someone who went from getting crushed under a 135 lb barbell trying to max out on bench press shortly after getting into training, to a few years later bench pressing 315 lbs for a set of three (full range of motion and no assistance) at a body weight of 165 pounds as well as completing a full range of motion one arm chinup with ease, I like to think I’ve picked up a thing or two about maximizing strength.
While I defer most people to seek the help of a qualified strength coach, here are a few tactics that have made a huge difference in maximizing performance that you can start to incorporate easily into your current routine:
Utilize Activation Sets
Activation sets, as opposed to warmup sets, are meant to stimulate the nervous system for a particular exercise without fatiguing the muscle. These activation sets usually call for an extremely explosive movement to amp up the nervous system. An example would be to do a couple high jumps before squatting, or do a single explosive rep on a squat at a relatively heavy weight that doesn’t wear the muscles out. My preferred activation exercises are: High jumps before squatting. Explosive pushups (think clapping pushups) off a bench before bench pressing, and explosive pullups before back exercises.
Utilize Slow Sets
While explosive lifts are important for activating the fast twitch muscle fibers, slow sets are important for taking out momentum and working a muscle through the full range of motion. I noticed huge gains in my squat numbers when I started incorporating sets of squats with a 3 second descent, a 3 second pause at the bottom, and a 3 second raise. This strengthened the bottom portion in particular which was my weak link to getting stronger on the lift.
Utilize Dead-Start Sets
A set done from a dead start means there is no lowering of the weight before it is lifted. Setting up a bench in a squat rack, setting a barbell just above chest level on the pins, and then pressing starting from the bottom portion of the movement is a challenging stimulus that takes the stretch-reflex (momentum) out of the exercise putting tremendous tension on the chest. Utilizing this technique in my training was part of how I was able to work up to a double bodyweight bench press at one point. Pausing for several seconds in the stretched position of a lift is another way to accomplish a similar outcome.
Here’s a sample of how I would set up a squat routine to utilize these things:
- 8 reps at 135 to warm up
- 3 high jumps for activation
- 2 super slow reps, then 1 explosive reps at 185 for activation
- 3 explosive reps at 225
- 3 high jumps
- 1 slow rep at 275
- 1 explosive rep at 275
- 1 explosive heavy rep at 305
- Start doing work sets at 315
After work sets, drop weight down to 225 – 275 and do 1 set with 3-3-3 tempo OR do 1 set from a dead start. Sets are not typically not done to absolute failure, but close.