What You Need to Know About How to Increase Strength

Your journey to getting seriously strong starts here.

You’ve decided that you want to get strong. That’s great. Increasing strength will help you avoid looking like you’re drowning in your sweater, sure, but your health will improve, too. 

A study in Current Sports Medicine Reports shows that strength training may improve your cardiovascular health, lower your blood pressure, and ease back pain. You’ll also lose body fat, gain muscle, think sharper, and be more confident. (1)

Woman doing a back squat
Credit: Pressmaster / Shutterstock

But before you load up that barbell and start clanging and banging, you’ve got some reading to do. Getting strong is a marathon, not a sprint. To gain strength steadily (and safely), you need to have a plan, the knowledge behind what goes into that plan, and the motivation to execute on it. 

Here’s everything you need to know about getting strong, and a whole lot more:

How to Increase Strength

Editor’s Note: The content on BarBend is meant to be informative in nature, but it should not be taken as medical advice. When starting a new training regimen and/or diet, it is always a good idea to consult with a trusted medical professional. We are not a medical resource. The opinions and articles on this site are not intended for use as diagnosis, prevention, and/or treatment of health problems. They are not substitutes for consulting a qualified medical professional.

How Getting Strong Works

There’s more than one kind of “strong,” but in the context of physiology, strength generally refers to how capable your body is at generating force. (2)

Physiologically speaking, gaining strength is quite simple: You apply external stress to your body (in the form of a loaded barbell, a dumbbell, a kettlebell, or a set of bands), and it responds by recovering and adapting to that stress. 

However, that stress isn’t just applied to your muscles. Strength actually starts in your brain, with your nervous system. 

Your central (CNS) and peripheral (PNS) nervous systems control all five of your senses, along with your ability to move and balance (as well as temperature control, sleep, and other vital functions). It’s also the system directly responsible for controlling your body’s force output. 

So, when you start hitting the gym with the goal of getting stronger, two things happen: Your muscles respond to the physical demands, while your brain learns to coordinate and generate force more effectively. 

How to Measure Strength

Broadly speaking, the most consistent and direct way to test your strength is by performing a 1-rep max, or 1RM, test. 1RMs are a straightforward, no-frills metric for your ability to generate force; either you can move the weight or you can’t.

The strength sports — that’s powerlifting, weightlifting, and strongman, among others — commonly rank their athletes by 1RM strength across specific exercises. However, max testing isn’t for everyone.

If you’re brand new to resistance training or exercise in general, it may not be wise to immediately attempt a max-effort lift, especially if you’re still learning the correct technique. Luckily, measuring strength by seeing how heavy you can lift for a certain number of reps (usually three or five, something called a rep-max test) is just as valid. 

One Rep Max Calculator

Weight Lifted
Reps Performed

Try out BarBend‘s own in-house 1RM calculator to see where your strength ceiling might fall. 

Similarly, the premise of 1RM testing doesn’t really apply to bodyweight training either. Your competence in exercises like the push-up or pull-up is generally measured by the number of reps you can do, which is more of an endurance test than one of true strength. 

Principles of Strength Training

Gaining strength is just as much about systems and spreadsheets as it is breaking a sweat — especially as you develop your strength over the course of months and years. 

Here are the defining principles that power strength training. 

Progressive Overload

Progressive overload is exactly what it sounds like; progressively overloading your body with harder challenges over a certain period of time. 

This principle is the bedrock of most gym-related goals and isn’t specific to strength training. For endurance runners, gradually covering longer distances is a form of progressive overload. Strength athletes improve their performance by periodically loading up more and more weight as they adapt to the rising challenge. 

Periodization

Training periodization is how you organize your approach to working out. Long-term strength training is a repetitious and cyclical process that absolutely necessitates some form of top-level planning. 

Day-one gymgoers and world-class powerlifters alike rely on periodized programs that match their unique needs, limitations, and tolerances to exercise. Periodization ensures you’re building strength at a safe, reliable, and sustainable pace.

A person wearing a black polo that says "coach" in yellow print points to a chalkboard while talking to clients in a gym.
Credit: David Pereiras / Shutterstock

Research shows that periodized or structured training is far more effective at producing results than randomized, uncontrolled workouts. (3

Periodization for strength training generally consists of three primary components or pillars — your intensity, volume, and frequency. Or, how heavy, how much, and how often you train. 

Intensity

Despite its name, strength training intensity doesn’t just describe how hard you’re working out in an abstract sense. Lifting intensity describes the value of the load relative to your maximum; it’s just not synonymous with “light” or “heavy.” 

So, if you’re working with weights that are above, say, 80 percent of your 1RM, you’re generally performing high-intensity work. 

Volume

Volume refers to the amount of work you perform in a given time period while training for strength. Most strength athletes colloquially measure volume by the number of “hard” sets they perform on a daily or weekly basis. 

While intensity is critical to gaining strength (particularly in the short term), your volume should also increase over time as you become stronger. Strength training has a significant dose-response effect at play — the stronger you get, the higher doses of training you’ll need to keep moving forward. 

Frequency

Frequency goes beyond being a measure of how often you hit the gym. Specifically, it defines how often you train to develop a specific quality (like strength). 

Since strength training requires motor skill development as well, high-frequency training is often integral to getting stronger in movements that have complex techniques. Think of it like learning an instrument; the more often you practice, the better you play. 

Strength training frequency also tends to be inversely correlated with volume. The more often you train, the shorter each workout has to be, since you can only tolerate and recover from so much exercise at a time.

Most strength training programs will have you “practice” a given exercise between two and three times a week. 

Technique

Technique is as integral to strength training as it is to art or music. Good form not only helps with things like safety and muscle activation, but your technique also affects your force output.

For the purpose of developing and expressing strength, your technique (on any movement) should be comfortable, replicable, and personalized to your body

It’s quite common for strength athletes to adjust their lifting technique such that it better aligns with their own bodies. For example, an athlete with long legs might perform squats with a wide stance, since it allows them to generate the most force and lift the heaviest weight. 

Specificity

Strength is a skill, and skills are specific. While stronger legs will help you do better at just about any form of athletic activity (not to mention carry you further on a cross-country hike), not all strength gains are 100 percent transferable to all facets of life. 

Just because you can bang out reps on the leg press machine with 10 plates on each side doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll have the strength to squat 500 pounds

man attempting bench press
Credit: sportpoint / Shutterstock

This idea applies to how you approach training and program design as well — if you want to get better at lifting heavy weights for fewer reps, your training should reflect that. (4)

Benefits of Strength Training

Physical training to develop your muscular strength is one of the highest return-on-investment activities you can perform, period. (1) Strength training isn’t just about your ability to lift a bigger rock than the week prior (though that’s certainly a good enough reason on its own). 

The science is crystal clear on this; some literature reviews have gone so far as to claim that, “that there may be no substitute for greater muscular strength when it comes to improving performance across a wide range of both general and sport specific skills while simultaneously reducing risk of injury.” (2)

More Longevity

Strength training is about more than loading up your barbell. It’s also an investment in your health. You can use strength training as a way to fight off many of the unwanted effects that can come with aging

For example, research indicates that adults lose between three and eight percent of their muscle mass every decade. (1) Muscular preservation is very much a “use it or lose it” thing, so getting stronger in the gym will ensure you retain more muscle as you age

Better Cardiovascular Health

It’s a common misconception that resistance training isn’t effective for heart health, which you need to improve by hitting the pavement and doing lots of cardio.

While endurance-based cardiovascular training certainly taxes your heart and lungs more than your leg muscles, both cardio and strength training offer heart and health benefits. In fact, they can augment each other.

A person wears a grey tank top while running on a treadmill.
Credit: Stefanovic Mina / Shutterstock

Research indicates that endurance athletes who mix in strength training experienced marked increases in their cardio game. (5) Strength training can benefit your cardiovascular capacity, improve your force output in short-duration tasks like sprinting, and help protect your joints against general wear and tear. 

Stronger Bones

You don’t have to want a 300-pound squat to get into resistance training. Its benefits extend far beyond just making you stronger for stronger’s sake.

Strength training — particularly with weights — is among the best possible preventative treatments for maintaining healthy bone density. This is especially relevant for older adults or those prone to osteoarthritis or similar conditions. (6)

Bigger Muscles

Despite being different physical traits, there exists a strong symbiotic relationship between your strength and the size of your muscles; improving one will generally confer gains in the other. (7

This is particularly true if you’re also eating heartily alongside your strength training. The progressive nature of periodized training demands that your tissues rebuild themselves larger and stronger than before. If you stick to a strength training regimen for a few months, you should notice some muscle gains along the way. 

Resilience to Injury

Strength training is a great way to help bulletproof your body. Developing muscular strength not only allows you to lift more; it also reinforces your soft tissue integrity, improves bone density, and makes you more resilient to physical stressors. 

All of which culminates in strength training being a valuable form of preventative care for bodily injury. (2) Improving qualities like deceleration capacity, joint control, and tensile tolerance are especially relevant to athletes. 

man with upper back muscles
Credit: Rawpixels.com / Shutterstock

That said, no form of exercise or training comes without risk, and nothing you do in the gym will guarantee that you never suffer a twist or sprain again. 

How to Build a Strength Training Program

Make no mistake; your best bet early on is to follow a pre-written strength training plan. Doing so removes many of the errors you yourself might make as you begin your journey.

However, there’s no shame in wanting to take the reins yourself. If you decide to go that route, you need a step-by-step guide breaking down everything that goes into a well-made strength training routine. Look no further. 

Step 1 — Pick Your Exercises

You can work with any exercise to get strong, but there’s definitely a pecking order and hierarchy when it comes to resistance training. 

Large compound lifts (and their many variations) such as the bench press, back squat, deadlift, overhead press, and row are considered solid cornerstone exercises for strength training.

Certain strength sports contest their own unique movements as well, but exercises like the snatch or log lift have intricate, nuanced techniques. However, most good strength movements share the same throughline: they replicate a fundamental pattern of movement, incorporate a lot of muscle, and are reliably progressible

Step 2 — Pick Your Accessories

Once you’ve worked out which movements you want to use to develop strength, you should also consider how you’ll “fill in the gaps” left behind. Even an exercise as robust and effective as the back squat won’t adequately challenge your entire body. 

Many strength training regimes include accessory exercises meant to supplement a mainline movement or shore up weaknesses. For example, the good morning is a common accessory exercise for the squat and deadlift. It works many of the same muscles, but doesn’t require nearly as much weight and comes with its own setup and technical demands.

A person prepares to perform a deadlift in a gym.
Credit: BAZA Production / Shutterstock

You can think of accessory work as the side of vegetables adjacent to your meat and potatoes movements. They don’t need to take up the whole plate, but are an integral part of a well-rounded strength training program

Step 3 — Build a Schedule

The more experience you have with training — or the more diverse your goals — the longer you’ll have to spend in the gym. However, early strength training programs are fairly lean regarding time commitment.

You should aim to practice your movements of choice about twice per week. Afterward, include a couple of solid accessory exercises as well. This should amount to three or four days’ worth of work. For example:

  • Monday: Bench Press, Deadlift, accessory work
  • Tuesday: rest
  • Wednesday: Squat, Bench Press, accessory work
  • Thursday: rest
  • Friday: Squat, Deadlift, accessory work 
  • Saturday: rest
  • Sunday: rest

That said, you’re free to experiment and organize your training however you like if you’re not following a pre-written plan (which would be wise if you’re new to resistance training). 

Step 4 — Plan Your Progression

Once you’ve determined your movements of choice and how you’ll organize them on your calendar, your next step is to roughly map out your approach to progressive overload

Gaining strength via lifting heavier weights is best accomplished by, well, lifting heavier weights over time. However, that’s easier said than done for the most part and there’s more than one way to get stronger. 

Back Squat Step 4
Credit: Riley Stefan

If you can’t add weight to an exercise, consider increasing the difficulty in another way such as doing more sets, performing additional repetitions, or changing your technique. 

Sample 3-Day Strength Training Routine

There are many well-crafted and time-tested strength training programs out there. Mark Rippetoe’s “Starting Strength,” Bill Starr’s “5×5” routine, the alternate “Stronglifts 5×5,” or the Candito “6-Week Template” are all good options that take the guesswork out of lifting. 

However, you can also get started in strength training by following this template. Think of this routine more as an illustration of principles rather than a comprehensive, periodized program: 

Day 1

  • Squat: 3 x 5 
  • Deadlift: 3 x 5 
  • Dumbbell Row: 2 x 8
  • Good Morning: 2 x 8

Day 2

Day 3

This array of exercises covers your fundamental movement patterns. It also contains mostly compound lifts that you should be able to consistently add weight to over time.

How to Progress

You can’t lift the same weight for the same amount of reps each week and expect to see strength gains. Remember, the body swiftly adapts to stress, and so you need to keep adding stress (meaning more weight, sets, or reps) to force it to re-adapt. This is why implementing a mode of progression is vital. 

Add Weight

If you’re interested in gaining strength, the most direct progression pathway is increasing the amount of weight you lift on a given exercise. 

For beginners, this often takes the form of simply adding another five pounds to the exercise on a weekly basis. However, this technique won’t work forever. Intermediate and advanced strength trainees should expect slower gains and often have to look to avenues beyond simply stacking another plate.

Add Sets

In the event you can’t lift any heavier on a given exercise, you can also drive progress by performing more sets. Adding volume via extra sets is a great workaround if you find it impractical to increase the weight you’re using, since it provides a tolerable stimulus that you can build on regularly. 

Add Reps

If you can’t lift any heavier and don’t have the gas to keep adding sets, you can find some success by increasing the amount of repetitions you perform.

However, this method can easily stray too far from relevance if your goal is to gain maximal strength. Lifting seven reps instead of five with a heavy weight definitely counts, but moving from 16 to 20 repetitions is more of an endurance-based test. 

A person performs a prone hamstring curl while wearing neon yellow shoes.
Credit: Burnt Red Hen / Shutterstock

You may have more success adding repetitions to single-joint isolation exercises like biceps curls, lateral raises, or leg extensions, where even small additions in weight can feel quite significant. 

Use Strength Techniques

Intermediate and advanced lifters often rely on specialized lifting techniques to drive progress. While you can certainly adjust the quantitative aspects of your performance — more weight, more sets, or higher repetitions — to gain strength, you can also amp up the difficulty by making technical adjustments as well.

For example, adding a brief pause to certain exercises (like sitting in the bottom of a squat) adds difficulty by removing the assistance provided by inertia. Additionally, some advanced lifters work with “accommodating resistance” by attaching resistance bands or heavy chains to their barbell. 

This extra resistance adds a stability-based challenge as well as increasing tension as the bands are pulled taut or the chains leave the ground.

Bodyweight Strength Training

You don’t have to lift weights to get strong (though it will certainly be the most effective long-term method for most folks). If you’re repulsed by the weight room or don’t have gym access but want to strengthen your body, you can make some impressive early gains by utilizing bodyweight exercises themselves.

Strength vs. Endurance

When it comes to calisthenics, you should think of muscular strength and endurance as athletic qualities that exist along the same spectrum.

If you can perform only one pull-up, you lack the strength to do another; if you can perform 21 pull-ups but no more, you’re mostly testing your muscular endurance. You’ll find that your body rapidly develops the requisite strength to lift itself in exercises like the push-up, pull-up, or crunch

A shirtless person performs an L-sit pull-up in the gym.
Credit: Dusan Petkovic / Shutterstock

You can certainly continue performing basic calisthenics exercises to build up your endurance, but if you want to use bodyweight movements for the purposes of strength gain long-term, you’ll have to progress through harder and harder variations.

Sample Bodyweight Strength Training Progressions

Many of the basic bodyweight movements — push-ups, chin-ups, and the like — quickly exhaust their usefulness for strength training if you don’t load them with external weights.

You can get around this issue and artificially make calisthenics exercises heavier by adopting more difficult or acrobatic variations. For example:

  • Kneeling Push-Up to Push-Up to Diamond Push-Up to Single-Arm Push-Up
  • Plank to Side Plank to L-Sit to Dragon Flag
  • Eccentric Chin-Up to Pull-Up to Single-Arm Pull-Up to Muscle-Up

The more advanced you are at bodyweight training, the blurrier the line becomes between strength work and skill-based gymnastics

There’s plenty of nuance to advanced bodyweight training. As a beginner, aim for at least 15 to 20 repetitions of a given variation before moving on to a harder version. Then, work your way back up again. 

What Are the Strength Sports?

If you can measure it, you can probably make a sport out of it. While feats and tests of strength have long been seen in pop culture, there are also several competitive sports built around seeing who has the strongest back, can carry the largest weight, or throw the heaviest bar overhead

Powerlifting

The sport of powerlifting evolved from public showmanship and, over the course of generations, came to test three barbell-based exercises; the bench press, back squat, and deadlift.

Powerlifters train exclusively to develop their capabilities across these three movements. The squat and deadlift measure lower-body and total-body strength, respectively, while benching tests your upper body

While powerlifters do try to get as strong as possible in their 1RM of each movement as their primary directive, they also train with a variety of other exercises to develop robust and comprehensive strength. 

Weightlifting

Weightlifting (colloquially known as Olympic lifting due to its status as an event at the Olympic Games) bears many similarities to powerlifting, but comes with its own stark differences as well.

Like powerlifters, weightlifters train for maximal strength in specific lifts. However, the snatch and clean & jerk, weightlifting’s two contested disciplines, are distinct from standard weight lifting. Moreover, weightlifting (the sport) is not synonymous with the activity of weight lifting itself.

Practitioners of weightlifting work to develop muscular strength in addition to extreme flexibility and high power output. These qualities are required to meet the demands of the sport, wherein the athlete must launch a barbell over their head as quickly as possible

Strongman

Some strength sports have more open parameters than others. While powerlifting and weightlifting have rigid and precise rulesets, the sport of strongman takes off the reins. 

Strongmen train for both maximal strength and bursty, high-intensity cardiovascular conditioning. They also often compete outdoors, since the sport contains a multitude of odd exercises and unique equipment

You’ll see strongmen (and women) compete in everything from pulling an 18-wheeler, hoisting a log to their stomachs and then overhead, and carrying boulders as far as they can. 

CrossFit & Functional Fitness

Certain functional fitness sports like CrossFit depart from measuring strength by only a handful of movements. CrossFit borrows from the other strength sports and often tests athletes on their 1RM (or rep-max, in some cases) prowess in moves like the snatch, overhead press, or deadlift as part of larger workout challenges

However, you’ll just as often see CrossFit competitors participating in endurance-based events like sprints, climbing, or swimming. Make no mistake; CrossFit is still a strength sport, but it generally has a much broader scope that tests athletes on a wide array of physical attributes

Your Takeaways

The principles behind increasing strength are straightforward enough. Resistance training, whether with a barbell, dumbbell, or using your own body as weight, involves developing both your skeletal muscle and neurological efficiency in tandem.

  • The most effective method of increasing strength involves progressive resistance training; lifting heavier weights over time. You can also gain strength with calisthenics to some degree as well.
  • All strength training plans follow some type of structure, known as periodization, to organize the logistical demands of the routine. 
  • Many strength training routines are built around a few barbell-based compound exercises; think of the bench press, back squat, or deadlift.
  • There are also several different strength sports in which athletes compete both recreationally and professionally, testing their maximal strength against one another.

Perhaps most importantly, remember that strength doesn’t belong to any one individual or group. No matter your age, experience, physical activity habits, or goals, you can pursue a stronger and healthier body if you approach it correctly.

Strength in Numbers

Your strength training studies may have started here, but you’re not done learning yet. The pursuit of strength is a years-long endeavor. Some athletes make multi-decade careers out of it.

But if you’re just trying to feel a bit better, limit aches and pains, or gain some muscular definition, you’ve come to the right place. All that remains is to grab a barbell (or your own body) and get to work. The gains await — you just have to seize them. 

FAQs

Getting stronger is simple in theory but can be quite challenging in practice. If you’ve still got nagging questions about what to expect on your journey, look no further. 

Is strength training safe for children?

In short; yes. There’s no substantive evidence supporting the idea that resistance training or weight lifting is inherently dangerous for any age group, barring pre-existing contraindications. If you’re unsure, consult with your doctor.

This conclusion is supported by a large body of evidence. Position papers and research reviews alike confirm that strength training won’t stunt growth and can benefit youngsters as well as adults, as long as they are supervised and adhere to proper training principles. (8)(9)

How strong can I get?

Your ultimate strength potential will depend on genetics more than any other factor. Research indicates that how people physiologically respond to resistance training varies wildly between individuals (as much as a three-to-one differential). (10)

However, the factor that you can control is your work ethic. If you train consistently and apply plenty of effort, you’ll find that you can get much stronger than you might think.

References

1. Westcott W. L. (2012). Resistance training is medicine: effects of strength training on health. Current sports medicine reports, 11(4), 209–216. 
2. Suchomel, T. J., Nimphius, S., & Stone, M. H. (2016). The Importance of Muscular Strength in Athletic Performance. Sports medicine (Auckland, N.Z.), 46(10), 1419–1449. 
3. Williams, T. D., Tolusso, D. V., Fedewa, M. V., & Esco, M. R. (2017). Comparison of Periodized and Non-Periodized Resistance Training on Maximal Strength: A Meta-Analysis. Sports medicine (Auckland, N.Z.), 47(10), 2083–2100. 
4. Schoenfeld, B. J., Ratamess, N. A., Peterson, M. D., Contreras, B., Sonmez, G. T., & Alvar, B. A. (2014). Effects of different volume-equated resistance training loading strategies on muscular adaptations in well-trained men. Journal of strength and conditioning research, 28(10), 2909–2918. 
5. Mikkola, J., Vesterinen, V., Taipale, R., Capostagno, B., Häkkinen, K., & Nummela, A. (2011). Effect of resistance training regimens on treadmill running and neuromuscular performance in recreational endurance runners. Journal of sports sciences, 29(13), 1359–1371. 
6. Hong, A. R., & Kim, S. W. (2018). Effects of Resistance Exercise on Bone Health. Endocrinology and metabolism (Seoul, Korea), 33(4), 435–444. 
7. Akagi, R., Kanehisa, H., Kawakami, Y., & Fukunaga, T. (2008). Establishing a new index of muscle cross-sectional area and its relationship with isometric muscle strength. Journal of strength and conditioning research, 22(1), 82–87. 
8. Stricker, P. R., Faigenbaum, A. D., McCambridge, T. M., & COUNCIL ON SPORTS MEDICINE AND FITNESS (2020). Resistance Training for Children and Adolescents. Pediatrics, 145(6), e20201011. 
9. Faigenbaum, A. D., Kraemer, W. J., Blimkie, C. J., Jeffreys, I., Micheli, L. J., Nitka, M., & Rowland, T. W. (2009). Youth resistance training: updated position statement paper from the national strength and conditioning association. Journal of strength and conditioning research, 23(5 Suppl), S60–S79. 
10. Hubal, M. J., Gordish-Dressman, H., Thompson, P. D., Price, T. B., Hoffman, E. P., Angelopoulos, T. J., Gordon, P. M., Moyna, N. M., Pescatello, L. S., Visich, P. S., Zoeller, R. F., Seip, R. L., & Clarkson, P. M. (2005). Variability in muscle size and strength gain after unilateral resistance training. Medicine and science in sports and exercise, 37(6), 964–972.

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