OK, let’s make something clear from the get-go.
We’re not talking about bodybuilding, and we’re not talking about getting “jacked”, “swole” or “bulky”.
All that stuff tends to give strength a bad name.
Sure, we want to look good, but we don’t do narcissism around here.
That’s not how we roll.
We’re about getting and staying strong so we can live better, be more physical, and have a bunch more fun in the process.
Now that’s a really big deal as we get older.
How big? Well, keep in mind that stronger people are less likely to die from any cause.
Whether we’re talking illness, accident or Ninja assassin.
Plus the stronger dad plays a meaner game of golf/tennis/Twister, and has a better quality of life than he otherwise would.
So let’s find out the most effective way to get strong.
Our Survey Said
Ask 100 people what the best way is to get strong, and you’ll probably get 100 different answers:
• Heavy yard work
• Exercise bands
• Bodyweight exercises
• T’ai chi’
Which makes it seem like anything more strenuous than sitting on your butt has the ability to make you stronger.
But here’s the thing: those folks actually gave the answer to a completely different question.
The question they chose to hear was “How do you prefer to get some exercise?”
And that’s the question they answered!
Not that they were trying to be misleading, it’s just that everyone thinks whatever they’ve chosen is best.
It doesn’t matter if we’re talking about lawn mowers, hobbies or laptops.
So if we want to figure out the most efficient way to get strong, we need to ignore personal bias and go back to basics.
What is Strength?
OK, let’s keep this really simple.
Strength is the ability to produce force against an external resistance
• If you’re able to lift your 85-lb lawnmower into the back of your truck, you’re stronger than you were when you couldn’t
• The cyclist who can ride at 22 mph is stronger than when he could ride at only 18 mph under the exact same conditions.
In both cases there’s an external resistance: the weight of the lawnmower, and the force required to turn the pedals.
And the bigger the external resistance, the more strength is required to overcome it.
Simple enough, right?
But those two examples share something really fundamental that’s easily overlooked.
They both contain numbers that relate to the effort required to perform the activity.
In the first example, we’re quantifying force directly (the weight of the lawnmower).
While in the second example, we’re using speed as a proxy for force (since more force applied to the pedals makes the bike go faster).
So in both cases we’ve got something measurable that we can refer back to.
That’s absolutely essential when you want to get stronger.
Because without it, we’ve no idea if our strength is increasing, decreasing, or we’re just spinning our wheels going nowhere.
That’s why activities like pilates, yard work, t’ai chi, bodyweight exercises and yoga are far from optimal for building strength since force production can’t easily be quantified.
Now that doesn’t mean those activities are worthless – far from it.
They can be relaxing, invigorating, a great way to meet cool people, get your body moving and burn some calories.
But there are far more effective and efficient ways to build strength out there.
That leaves us with things like dumbells, sandbags, exercise bands, kettlebells and barbells.
All these can be quantified in terms of force production.
If we’re now able to use a 30-lb dumbell/kettlebell/sandbag for an exercise that originally allowed us to use only 20 lbs, we definitely got stronger.
After all, a bigger weight lifted equals more force produced, and more force produced equals more strength.
So it looks like if we can measure the resistance, we can use it to make ourselves strong.
But here’s something we should keep in mind: our bodies need to be gradually coaxed into getting stronger, not pounded into submission with evermore punishing workouts.
Hammering yourself into the ground (no pain, no gain!) tends to be a fast track to injury and frustration.
The bottom line is getting exhausted and collapsing on the floor in a sweaty mess is totally unnecessary for either strength gain or fat loss.
And just as fat loss is actually really simple, so is getting stronger.
All we have to do is send the body a clear signal to do so by using progressively heavier weights.
Just a little heavier this time than last.
It’s like the Goldilocks principle – not too much, not too little.
Add too little weight and we string out the process unnecessarily – what should take weeks ends up taking months or years.
Add too much weight and progress comes to a grinding halt.
So exactly how much is “a little heavier”?
Figure on using around 2 or 3 % more weight each time you work out.
Now that can be a problem when your dumbells/kettlebells/sandbags are only available in 5 or 10-lb increments.
While jumping from a 20 to a 25-lb dumbell may not sound like much, it represents a whopping 25 % increase in weight.
That’s far too much of an increase to allow sustainable progress and correct exercise technique.
I’m embarassed to admit that I wasted years trying to prove otherwise.
And it’s the same deal with exercise bands, suspension trainers like the TRX, the fancy machines at Anytime Fitness, and pretty much everything else.
It’s simply not practical to incrementally increase the load with the fine degree of accuracy that the body requires to get progressively stronger.
So what’s left?
And the Winner is…
The humble barbell.
Maybe not particularly sexy, definitely old school but simply the most effective strength-training tool bar none (sorry – couldn’t resist).
A standard 45-lb Olympic barbell can be increased in weight by as little as ½ pound at a time – which is only around 1%.
And when used for bread-and-butter exercises like squats, standing presses and deadlifts, the barbell provides rapid gains in strength that seem impossible to folks who’ve not experienced it firsthand.
No wonder it’s been the mainstay of every effective strength-building program over the past century.
Not only is the weight scalable to the ability of the individual, it can also be progressively increased for months, or even years, at a time.
When it comes to building strength quickly and efficiently, nothing else comes close.
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