This post will teach you the most basic fundamentals of strength training as a natural athlete. If you haven’t already hit the “Decent” level in at least 3 of my strength standards, I want you to forget everything you think you know about weight lifting. Because it’s probably suboptimal at best.
As a natural athlete, building muscle and gaining strength mainly comes down to one thing: getting stronger on key movements. Read that again. Now read it again 5 times. It’s really that important. Technically, this principle is what’s known as progressive overload, but we’re going to keep things simple, so you don’t need to remember terms like that. I’ll add more advanced/technical articles later for the nerds out there (myself included).
The key movements are all compound barbell movements. A compound movement means that the exercise involves multiple joints in the body. For example, the overhead press involves both the shoulder and elbow joint whereas the lateral raise involves only the shoulder joint. There are many reasons that compound movements are superior to isolation movements, but for the sake of simplicity just trust me right now.
The key movements are: the squat, the (strict) overhead press, the deadlift, the weighted chin-up, and the bench press.
By training these five movements, you will improve your coordination, mobility, nervous system efficiency, and overall athleticism. It’s really about much more than just strength. And if you only ever did these four exercises, you would still have a better body than at least 90% of people out there. Once we add in a handful of other compound movements plus a few isolation movements, you’ll have the exact formula to achieve your genetic potential.
You’re going to prioritize rest and recovery – that means lifting 3 times per week max. Not only is this the most effective way to gain strength for naturals, it’s the most sustainable. You’re also going to train at lower volumes than most programs, but you will also be training at higher intensity.
There is a lot of confusion regarding the best rep ranges. I like to call the 5-8 rep range the prime rep range. Almost all of your compound lifting will be done in this rep range. This is a great mid-to-low rep range that’s in between what most people consider low rep and high rep ranges. Maybe slightly more toward the low end. It’s low enough to not be excessively painful or mentally taxing but also high enough to not place unnecessary stress on the joints or nervous system and ensure that you will have good control of the weight throughout the set. Lower rep ranges also make it easier to accurately asses your rate of perceived exertion (RPE) which is absolutely crucial, more on that later.
To summarize thus far: you will be training compound movements at a mid-low rep range with long rest periods and high intensity. Much of the rest of my writing on strength training will be dedicated to elaborating on that one sentence.
You will also rarely change your programming. The basics will not change for at least your first 2-3 years of consistent training which is approximately the time when you could start reaching “advanced lifter” status. Every few months we might make a small tweak like adjusting rep ranges, swapping dumbbells for barbells, or alternating an isolation movement. But in the bigger picture, every workout will look extremely similar to all of the others. I’ll go into the rationale behind this in another post. This style of lifting is not sexy, and that’s probably one of the reasons why most trainers don’t use it (remember they’re salespeople). But it will get you results.
To be clear: I’m not saying that my program is the 100% optimal, perfect program. I could write you the scientifically optimal program based on the current state of sports research, but you would never stick to it! It would be complicated and it would suck. And it would be constantly changing because that’s how research works. My programming is effective because it’s simple and sustainable.
Notice some of the things that I didn’t mention: supersets, dropsets, burnouts, and probably whatever other buzzwords your favorite instagram influencer posted about today. These things are not only complicated but completely unnecessary. They’re promoted because they’re complicated, and that helps people sell programs because it seems sophisticated. Until you get to the point where you can write your own programming, ignore all of these distractions.
This post has been a very high level overview of the fundamentals of strength training as a natural athlete. There is much, much more to learn, but this will give you a good start in understanding what it takes to gain strength and muscle.