What is required to grow stronger?
The first ingredient is obvious – There has to be a training dose. And just like with a medicine you might take, there is always an initial exposure, then a response. An effect. But that said, it’s still hard to know for sure.
We can remove some of that response uncertainty by building great habits. For example, if you are mindful of the #windowofgainz after training and disciplined enough to make quality sleep a daily priority, then you will be able to tolerate and adapt to much higher training doses. In other words, you can grow stronger, much faster.
But there’s still another step to take if you want to get the best possible result. To make the very most of your training, you need to build a habit of measurement and careful observation.
The first step to measurement is figuring out what your strength numbers are right now. If you want help with this, take our free strength test now.
For optimal performance, measure.
There is training dose, food and rest. But you still need to close the loop by actively monitoring your response to training. Depending on what you observe, you can then adjust your dose up or down, whatever it takes to achieve a relatively steady rate of progression.
There’s no other way to grow stronger, actually.
While there are a million things you could measure, in infinite detail, the truth is that nothing complicated is required. The simple act of taking measure is itself most of the magic. When you pay close attention, to where your work is going and if it’s working, you’ll naturally notice more and more ways to improve. That’s just one of the perks that comes with making the effort and paying attention.
To get you started, here are some of the most useful variables to monitor.
Once you learn to monitor, strength progress is easy.
First, know your dose.
One of the most useful things you can know is the total amount of work performed.
That’s important because some training sessions will turn out great. You’ll crush PR’s and feel like you’ve made a ton of progress. But then other times things won’t turn out as planned. You might not even be able to identify a cause at first. In both cases, it can be hard to get a true sense of how well you’re actually progressing over time, and whether your training is serving your needs.
Keep a training log, preferably in a simple spreadsheet that will allow you to plot your numbers. Capture the movements you’re practicing. The number of sets and reps you are performing. And of course, write down the weight you lifted during each set. If you multiply those numbers together, that’s your training volume load, or total dose. A very useful thing to reference.
If that number is going up month to month, you’re probably well on your way to more new PR’s. Likewise, you might notice that everything was going great in training, right up until you exceeded a certain amount of work.
Now that you have some data to guide you, adjusting the dose is a simple step.
Get time on your side.
Another very useful performance indicator is time.
You start every training session with your plan, your program, the prescribed work for the day. Next to what you will do, the next biggest consideration is how long it’s going to take you to get that work done.
Think about all the time you take to warm-up, mobilize, to set up your barbell and adjust load between repetitions. Think about how long it takes you to complete every single repetition.
All things being equal, if you can get your work done quicker – with a heightened sense of urgency and intent – then you will grow stronger from the effort.
And likewise, if you notice that it’s taking you longer and longer to get the training done, then you can expect your overall performance to start taking a dive as well. A diluted training dose is obviously not as potent and carries less effect.
Track and be respectful of your time. It’s an honest indicator of your true priorities, and your real effort.
How long does it take to get your work done? The clock doesn’t lie.
Assess fatigue by getting vertical.
One thing you’re trying to measure directly is overall fatigue. After all, every single dose of heavy training is a stress that carries a big fatigue after-effect.
Your body will respond to each dose, but at a cost. And the more and more you dose, the higher the recovery debt. There’s nothing wrong with this. One thing you want to do in training is to purposely over-reach a bit.
For example, after 3 weeks of hard, heavy and progressive squats, it’s completely normal for fatigue, aches and pains to set in. That would indicate that you’ve placed sufficient demand on the body, enough to spur the flesh into adaptation. After a week of tapering and recovery work you can expect to feel great, and ready to push towards a new max. But sometimes it just doesn’t work out that way. Why not?
One reason is that fatigue creep is subtle. You can add weight quickly to a barbell for a long time, without really noticing how tired you’re getting. Strength is well preserved, for a while. But then even an empty barbell starts to feel heavy, and all the repetitions start looking a little slow. A big progress plateau or all-out regression is never too far behind.
Speed kills, in both directions. And that’s why it’s a great indicator.
Again, there a long list of things you could measure, but maybe the simplest, most repeatable test would be a basic vertical jump. This movement is a fundamental test of peak force, along with power and the rate at which you can produce force.
If you can jump higher, then you’ve improved these force and power variables. And it follows that the opposite is true. If your vertical jump starts to tank, and it’s not time to unload yet, then you need to be aware that there could be a fatigue and recovery debt building. Again, time to adjust dose.
And as a practical point, you can also use a decreasing vertical jump as an obvious cue to increase the amount of jumps in your training. That alone will help you get much stronger.
A useful thing to know – Are you jumping well or not?
Nail the simple, critical stuff.
Nail the simple stuff.
Again, there’s so much to track. Feel free to experiment and seek out variables that work best for you. But just before we close, there’s one more point to make.
Until you build a true habit of monitoring the most fundamental markers of performance, nothing else will matter or make much sense.
Heart rate made it on my chalkboard notes because, when measured consistently, daily, its variability can be a great indicator of parasympathetic nervous system function. If you notice heart rate elevation, a lack of variation from morning to night and activity to rest, or even too much variation in your heart rate, then you’ve got a big clue that something isn’t right.
An even simpler bit of advice is to track your body weight and total hours of sleep, particularly if you’re goal is also to lose or gain muscle mass. You’d be shocked to know just how many athletes are struggling and fiddling with their programming while all the while under-eating and getting 6 hours or less of quality sleep per night.
Note: There’s no program or coach in the world that can correct and accommodate such a gross oversight. You couldn’t make a more fundamental mistake.
Until you’re body-weight is stable, or increasing by a half-pound or so per week, and until your total hours of sleep is at least 8 hours per night (with an additional hour or so on tough training days), then you’ve really got nothing else to worry about. The only prescription you need is to eat and sleep more. The fancier, less effective interventions can all wait.
If nothing else, track sleep.
Remember your real training goal.
It isn’t to maximize the intensity or randomness of your training. That’s not what makes you stronger.
The best thing you could do is to know how much work you’re doing, where the effort’s going, and how well you’re responding to your training. If you can do that, you will quickly begin to string together more and more optimal training experiences. And, you will see for yourself that getting your work done, day by day, month by month, is the only real predictor of training success.
This is only a starting point. Feel free to leave some questions below, we’d love to help you with your training. Also, if you’ve got some other indicators that you’ve tracked successfully in your training, please share your experience. I’d love to hear about it.
- If you want help measuring your current strength numbers, take our free strength test now.