A Short Primer on Getting Stronger

Why it matters and how to get there.

Training is different from exercising.

Both are important and valuable, but not interchangeable.

Exercise is moving your body. 

Training is the logical and progressive combination of movements (exercises) towards a goal. 

I do and enjoy both, but I often see people using exercise to reach a goal that requires or would be attained far more efficiently with the appropriate training program.

This frustrates me because I see someone putting in the time (arguably the hardest part), hoping for a specific outcome (get stronger, get leaner, get bigger, get defined), and not realizing that their actions won’t get them to their goal. 

It breaks my heart that we don’t commonly learn how to train unless we are a professional athlete. 

If I was Madame President of the Known Universe, I would craft an educational system that teaches the fundamentals of strength, hypertrophy (muscle building), power and endurance training from a very young age. 

What’s the next best thing to ruling the universe? Writing a Substack of course.

Let’s first explore why you should want to get stronger. 

So you can live well. 

Carry heavy bags, pick up children, go for long walks, ski all day, hike up mountains, run faster and further, get in and out of your car, sit on the ground and get back up.  

As you age, these things should not become harder or worse yet, impossible. 

Not to mention, getting stronger will help you look good. 

Which is a perfectly fine goal to have. 

Further, it appears that being strong reduces your risk of common killers like heart disease. 

In a large-scale, multi-year study, men who could do 11 or more pushups were significantly less likely to have cardiovascular disease events. Men who could do 40 pushups were 96% less likely to have cardiovascular diseases. 

No data is available for women… eye roll emoji.

However, even though men typically have more muscle than women, the capacity of a given amount of muscle to produce force is not different between genders.

Put differently, female muscle is just as strong as male muscle - we just have less of it.  

My guesstimate, based on the fact that men are on average 20% larger than women, is that the numbers are probably 9 and 32 for women.

Let that sink it… if you can do 9 (or 11 for men) pushups, you are significantly less likely to have heart disease! 

I could go on, but I don’t want you to unsubscribe. 

Let’s assume you are game -- you want to increase your strength. What is the best method to do this? 

Lift heavy weights for relatively low reps and progressively lift heavier loads. 

What might this look like if you are new?

  • Frequency: In this program template, you lift 3 times per week with at least one day off between sessions. You could stick with this for as long as you keep progressing (3 - 9 months). 

  • Reps & Sets: For the squats, shoulder press and bench press, warm up to your working weight, then do all 3 sets of 5 reps at the same weight. For the deadlift, work up to one heavy set of 5 reps. . 

  • Progressive Overload: This is fundamental to all resistance training. You have to keep increasing the stress. Once you can complete all reps at a given weight, increase by 2.5-10 pounds in the following session. 

  • Chin Up Scaling: For chin ups, do as many as you can. If you can’t do one, try doing a chin up hold for as long as you can and / or try chin up eccentrics (jump up then slowly lower yourself down). You can also add in rows and lat pull downs if you lack back strength or want to add in back accessory work

How much weight should you lift? 

Strength training primarily requires lifting heavy weights for lower reps. Heavy means roughly 80%+ of your 1 repetition maximum (1RM) for a given movement. You don’t have to know your exact 1RM to figure out how much to lift. You can estimate it by multiplying your 10RM by 1.33. 

For example, if you can do 10 squats with 100 pounds, your 1RM is probably 133 pounds. You could start the above training program by doing 3 sets of 5 squats at 110 (83% of 133 pounds). 

If you are brand new, start with the barbell or dumbbells if you need lighter weight. You may also want to do higher reps (i.e. 3 sets of 10 reps) for a while because the extra volume will give you more chances to practice the movements. 

In the early days, you will be able to increase the amount you lift almost every session. As you progress, progress will slow down. You will eventually need a more advanced program. I will share my current program in a future edition. 

“This is great but I wouldn’t know what to do if a squat rack appeared in my garage.”

If the movements above are new to you, my suggestion would be to find a personal trainer and tell them you want to learn the basic compound barbell lifts (squat, shoulder press, bench press, deadlift) and chin ups. 

Or find a CrossFit gym near you - that is where I learned the fundamentals of lifting.

I would imagine that you could go from newbie to knowing your way around the gym in 3 months. At which point you will continue on the lifelong pursuit of strength… and continuous improvement. 

“But wait? What about cardio? Should I do cardio?” 

For sure, cardio (walking, running, biking, rowing, etc.) is fantastic for your health overall. Currently I’m trying to walk every day for 30 - 60 minutes and run twice per week on days I am not lifting weights. We can explore cardio in more depth later. 

“But wait? Will I bulk up like Hulk?”

For the women who are afraid of “bulking up”, let me assure you that your fears are unfounded. 

However, if you are already lean, it is possible that you will weigh more because muscle weighs more than fat, but you will have a svelte physique. 

For context, two years ago I weighed between 130-135 pounds. I was leanish. I don’t know what my body fat percentage was, but I know it was higher than today because I lacked definition.  

A year ago, I weighed 123 pounds. I had been dieting for several months (eating about 1700 calories a day) and my workouts were more muscle endurance and cardio focused because I didn’t have access to a gym. I looked more defined but scrawny. 

Today, after a year of being back to lifting heavy weights, I’ve returned to 130-135 pounds but I have more definition than ever before at 40 years old. 

In all this time, I have been wearing the same clothes. They never didn’t fit. But I feel better today than ever before. My stomach is flatter and my glutes and shoulders are bigger - AKA toned… a word I’ll return to shortly. 

I share all of this because I know we (myself included) can obsess about the scale. Yes, some people have weight to lose, however, a strong, defined body probably weighs more than you think. And that is OK. And that is not some Hulk version of yourself either. 

Let’s return to “toned” for a moment. 

To get “toned”, you need muscle because you can’t “tone” what isn’t there. To build muscle, you want to oscillate between focusing on hypertrophy (muscle growth) and strength training. You build up a little, make what you have stronger, so you can build a little more and so on and so forth. 

With hypertrophy, which we can dive into soon, you focus on building bigger muscles (again you will not become Arnold Schwarzenegger). With strength, you focus on getting stronger. 

These things are not mutually exclusive; however, the overlap isn’t as great as you might think. In other words, you can have big muscles, but not be as strong as a smaller person who focuses on strength training. 

Of course, everything in the world of physical fitness is on a spectrum. Will sets of 6 or 8 make you stronger? Yes. Will sets of 3 or 5 help you gain muscle? Yes. But in general, sets of 5 or less are building strength. Sets of 6-12 are building size. Sets of 12+ are building muscle endurance. 

I find training to be both simple and complex…. Which I realize is an annoying statement. 

The moral of this email is that you can do so much for yourself with a basic understanding of the principles.

If you want to go deeper, there is a fantabulous rabbit hole of science and a life of exploring available to you. 

But at the very least, we should all know how to maintain and improve our health, physical performance and physiques. 

There is one other benefit of strength training I didn’t mention earlier. By getting stronger, you will feel more empowered and capable of doing whatever you want to do. Which is perhaps the strongest of all benefits. 

👩‍⚕️ You should consult a medical professional before starting an exercise routine.

🙏 Seriously, thank you for reading.

❓If you have a question you think I might be able to help answer, please reply to this email and thank you to those who have given me some inspiration already! 

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