There is an amazing experiment going on in boxes around the world.
For the very first time, diverse training methods from weightlifting, gymnastics, powerlifting, and even strongman are being tweaked and recombined to maximize fitness.
I’m not ancient. But after two-decades of hard training, I can say that I’ve never seen anything like this. Not even close. Strength has never been so common.
Stressed-out middle managers and soccer moms alike can now appreciate the beauty and benefits of a heavy snatch or squat. Even more to the point, this ground-up swell is impacting the classical strength sports, particularly weightlifting. More strong people means more great athletes.
This is all great news. But that said, there’s one HUGE and very common mistake that most athletes make at the start – They rush things. They idolize and mirror the training methods of higher-level athletes in an effort to reach their peak as fast as possible.
It’s an understandable urge, but that approach will never work. Leo Tolstoy couldn’t write “War and Peace” before learning his ABC’s. The same is true for you. If you have hopes of becoming high-level yourself, you can! You just need to build your foundation first.
You need to get big and strong before you get fancy.
How do you build your foundation?
What’s the best way to build muscle mass and strength? Where do you begin?
There are about a million things you could try, but of course, all that trying will come with a lot of error. The key is eliminating as much of that error as possible. If you want to make the journey quickly, start by asking someone who’s already been there.
I wanted a fresh take on the problem, so, I thought I would reach out to my homies Alex Maclin and Kurt Mullican, our head weightlifting coaches here at Barbell Shrugged.
These guys know training, but more importantly, they both have transformed themselves from undersized novices to national level weightlifters in just a few years.
If you take this advice you can change your life. You can become very, very strong.
5 Keys to muscle and strength
1. Why is a foundation of size and strength so important? – C
Alex: Honestly, it’s just plain physics.
Objects are stubborn. They will stay at rest unless acted upon by an outside force. The bigger the object, the greater the required force. Therefore, bigger and stronger muscles are inherently capable of generating more force and can move bigger objects.
You might ask, “What about those 125 pound Korean guys that can clean and jerk 375 pounds? They are super light, and can still clean and jerk 3x bodyweight!”
Yes that’s true. Relative to their bodyweight, pound for pound, they are some of the strongest people on Earth. However, they are competing in a weight class with people of similar size. They aren’t competing against people that outweigh them by 50-100 pounds.
Just imagine if they were 185 or 200 pounds. They would probably be cleaning and jerking 500 instead of 375, right? This is basically the challenge that most novice Crossfitters are facing now. There are typically no weight classes in a local fitness competition or at the higher-level meets, at least for now.
The relative strength you’re so proud of is actually irrelevant. For example, if you’re a 150 pound guy that can clean 275 pounds that’s great! But you WILL face someone that’s 190-200 pounds, and they routinely lift loads of 330 pounds or more. You will lose that fight every time.
This is also a huge advantage during tough WODS, even if there are gymnastics movements like muscle ups and handstands involved. Yes, being light is a temporary advantage, but the last time I checked you still have to lift big freaking weights FOR REPS during those same metcons.
If you have to clean 225 pounds for reps, the person with a max of 330 will have a much easier time than the person who lifts 275. The size and strength advantage means the bigger guy will fatigue less because the weight is lighter to them, it’s that simple. They will probably still out-motor the small guys.
Here’s a real life example: Look at Chris Spealler. He’s a phenomenal athlete with tremendous strength for his size and an unreal motor. But, has he ever won the CrossFit Games? He’s come close, but no. Weighing in at 150 pounds, he’s just not big enough to compete with guys like Rich Froning, Graham Holmberg, James Fitzgerald, Jason Khalipa and Mikko Salo. All of those guys weighed around 180 pounds or more when they competed.
The same goes for the women. The most successful female CrossFit athletes all typically weigh around 130 pounds or more. Just look at the podium finishers in ANY competition. I’m willing to bet most of those people aren’t small and skinny.
2. Gaining size and strength can be a huge challenge for the “hard gainers” out there. Why do so many people struggle with this?
Kurt: Here’s your problem – You don’t REALLY want to get strong!
If you are serious about getting onboard the #GAINZ train, then you must be 100% committed. All aspects of training need to be covered, not just your programming.
You train hard, but do you also go out drinking 3 times a week? Real athletes make sacrifices. Those that really want to succeed will do what it takes to cultivate essential key habits. They skip the party so that they can eat, train, sleep and repeat.
Decide what you really want, then put your effort there. Live the life of a strong person to get the gains you’re after.
Alex: In my experience, you HAVE TO BE CONSISTENT AND FOLLOW A PROGRAM
Too many people have A.D.D. in the gym. They don’t focus, they don’t set clear and measurable goals, and they jump from program to program because they “never see results.”
The problem isn’t the programming, they just never follow any program long enough to see the results. Patience is key. Extraordinary results take time. You may get some short-term results by jumping around, but hopping from program to program, in the long term, will retard your progress.
You can’t say you are following “X” program if you are still choosing to do your own thing here and there. Great programs are written with a clear plan and purpose – YOUR plan and purpose. They are carefully designed to help you achieve a specific goal. Don’t let your ego get in the way.
“Hey, I’m strong and in shape. I don’t need to take a break and unload.” “This is not enough volume for me. I’m used to doing more work, so I’m going to add some stuff in there.” This line of thinking is probably why you aren’t seeing progress.
Get a plan and stick to it.
3. What’s the biggest mistake that athletes make with diet and nutrition?
Kurt: Diet is usually fail city for most people. They don’t realize just how much they need to eat in order to be strong and muscular.
Maybe they worry too much about what their abs look like, or maybe they just don’t have a very big appetite. In any case, you have to go back to your daily habits.
Eating enough food is a critical! Always have prepared, nutritious, REAL food on hand. Set a daily timer if you have trouble remembering when to eat. Set it often. When in doubt, EAT! Food and sleep are just as important as your programming.
Alex: Again, consistency means everything.
If gaining size and strength is your goal then you have to commit to it daily. Don’t say that strength is important to you while at the same time hopping on a 30-day strict paleo challenge at your local box. Focus on one long-term goal, make sure what your nutrition is consistent with that goal, then STICK TO THE PLAN!
Check out Kurt’s story of transformation
4. Experienced lifters know that the work doesn’t make you strong, but rather, it’s the ability to recover from that work that makes you strong. What can people do right now to recover better?
Alex: I give this advice just about every day, because it works! Until you do this stuff don’t make any other changes to your programming:
- Eat high quality, whole foods. Make sure to get enough protein. A target of around a gram per pound of bodyweight is a great initial target. Also, get quality carbs and fat in your diet daily. If you are a hard-gainer, eat more! Don’t complain about it either. Just keep calm and eat another spoonful of mashed potatoes.
- Get at least 8 hours per night. No exceptions. Take naps if you need to. When you feel like shit during tough training, try adding in an extra hour. This will make a world of difference.
- Stick to your program. When the plan calls for rest, REST!
- Learn to manage your life to reduce stress. A lot of people overlook this, but mental stress can be incredibly detrimental to training and getting gains. When you are down, take care of the mind first. Remove the stress and productive training can resume.
5. Programming, diet and recovery are super important, but what else matters? How important is community?
Kurt: Watch some training videos from the worlds best strength athletes, or even bodybuilders. What is consistent across just about all of those videos? …It’s the support!
Strong people often come from small, privately owned gyms where like minded warriors gather. They push themselves fiercely, always enforcing accountability in the group and encouraging others when it is necessary. Progress doesn’t just happen, it’s enforced!
You won’t find any of that in your program, but it’s the ultimate secret to your transformation. Don’t try to take on this journey all on your own. Surround yourself with great people who want the same things you want. At least make sure they are super supportive.
Our Muscle Gain Challenge group has some really awesome and hilarious members. They decided Thursday is a day for #jorts. So in the spirit of #jortsthursday, Kurt and I joined the #jortsnation with our athletes. #barbellshrugged #musclegainchallenge #jortsaresohotrightnow #demtreetrunks #ilovemyjob @barbellshruggedpodcast @kurtmullican @dezcf @drewswinson @alousius89 @lindseyderoo @liftinglassie @fat_klokov
Be a part of a hunting tribe. Carry the very same spear, commit to the hunt, and lift your fair share of the load. Your reward will come.
- Do you need help putting together a great plan for gaining muscle and strength? We’d love to help you. Don’t miss your chance to join the MUSCLE GAIN CHALLENGE.
Well done guys. This is a fantastical article. Continuing to hammer away at building an unmovable fitness/strength foundation is why I know how intelligent and committed you are to this. Thanks
Great article. I really appreciate the last sentiment about being in a like-minded group. I joined one in August and it has made all the difference. Thanks for the great articles!
Can your muscle gain challenge be modified or will it work for women???
By far one of on my favorite pieces you’ve written so far!
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