Strength is the foundation for a long, healthy life. So if you want to fight the aging process, you need to pack on some muscle.
After age 30, each of us loses 3-5% of our muscle mass per decade. In fact, estimates say that men lose nearly a third of their muscle throughout their lifetime. This causes a host of health problems, as losing muscle makes it increasingly difficult to prevent weight gain, obesity, and fitness injuries.
Unfortunately, many athletes, lifters, and fitness professionals approach strength training the wrong way. They leap into two-a-day workouts, select the heaviest plate from the rack, or jump into a random weight training program without putting any thought or intention behind the movements. In reality, strength gains require a careful combination of weight training, cardio, nutrition, and recovery.
Below, I explain how to get stronger for life. And no, the answer isn't as simple as increasing your one rep max.
1. Activate Your Muscles Before You Use Them
Allow me to introduce you to the #1 question you should ask yourself every single workout: "Where should I be feeling this?"
If you perform a core exercise, you should feel it in your — drumroll — core. If you do a chest exercise, you should feel it in your chest. And if you do a glute exercise, you should feel it in your glutes.
Unfortunately, many of us have muscles that refuse to fire on demand. As a result, other muscle groups try to pick up the slack. Suddenly, you feel your hip flexors and lower back fire in a core exercise, or you feel your quads in a deadlift when you should feel your glutes and hamstrings.
To correct this, do two things:
Squeeze Your Muscles
As you're sitting there reading this, squeeze your left butt cheek. Now squeeze the right one. Those are your glutes. Now, squeeze your stomach like someone is about to punch you in the stomach. That's your core. Squeeze your chest muscles (it's hard, isn't it?). That's what you should feel in a pushup, dumbbell chest press, or bench press.
Every time you do an exercise, you should squeeze the muscle you want to use. (In other words, squeeze your glutes when you begin a deadlift.) This tells your muscles, "Hey! It's time to work."
Perform Activation Exercises
Many of us have difficulty firing our core and glute muscles. Therefore, before you work out, perform glute activation exercises (like clamshells, banded bridges, or banded abductions) or core activation exercises (like a hollow body hold or toe taps). You only need to do 1-2 sets of 15-20 reps to activate those muscles. Alternatively, you can do the world's greatest full-body activation routine.
2. Relearn Exercises With Proper Form
Many people don't see results in the gym because they don't perform exercises correctly.
If you want to build strength while decreasing your risk of injury, you need to take the time to learn proper form. (Pro tip: Many gyms offer a free training session with a personal trainer. Otherwise, the premium membership of my training program offers monthly check-ins where I can assess your form.)
But here's the frustrating part of re-learning familiar exercises: You'll have to go down in weight.
To learn a back or front squat, you'll need to rack the barbell and do a bodyweight exercise (air squat) perfectly. To perform a kettlebell swing, you'll need to choose a lighter kettlebell. And to do a push-up correctly, you may need to start by placing your hands on an elevated surface (I don't recommend going to your knees, as it can deactivate your core).
So check your ego at the gym door, and know this temporary setback causes significant gains later on.
Here are two tips to help you assess your form:
- Learn the basic cues: Nearly every single exercise starts with the same cues. Roll your shoulders up toward your ears, push them back toward the wall behind you, then bring them down as far as you can. Hold this position, while squeezing your abs like someone is going to punch you in the stomach, tilting your pelvis up toward your rib cage. Finally, keep a slight bend at the knee, with your feet shoulder-width apart.
- Take a video: Prop up your phone and take a video of yourself performing an exercise. It's shocking (and humbling) what faulty movement patterns you notice when watching a replay of your workout.
3. Never Skip Rest Day
While the fitness industry preaches "Never skip leg day," I take a different approach. When it comes to building muscle, I believe you should never skip a rest day.
Here's a quick biology lesson on the human body: In order for muscle hypertrophy (muscle growth) to take place, two things need to happen. First, your muscle tissue needs to break down during exercise. Second, that muscle needs adequate rest and nutrition (discussed in the next section) in order to rebuild.
When you do two-a-days, work out 10 days in a row, or otherwise overtrain, you literally rip apart the same muscles you worked so hard to build. Instead of building muscle, you continuously break muscle down, which completely halts your progress.
To prevent this from happening, I recommend three things:
- Take one full rest day per week: Don't overtrain. Once a week, you should forgo all workouts, and find yourself a cozy spot on the couch (or work on foam rolling those sore muscles).
- Follow a program: Following a workout program — like the Build Bullet-Proof Health program — prevents you from overloading muscle groups. It strikes the right balance between upper and lower body, push and pull, and strength and cardio moves to prevent overtraining.
- Get the right nutrition. Food fuels our body. Improve your recovery with anti-inflammatory foods or supplements.
4. Eat Protein After Every Workout
After your muscles break down post-workout, they need protein to rebuild. This process is called muscle protein synthesis, and it's non-negotiable when building muscle strength.
Ideally, you should consume a high-quality protein source within 30 minutes following each workout to begin the recovery process.
There are two ways to do this:
- Schedule meals around your workouts: Schedule your workout before a meal, so you can eat high-quality protein immediately following your weightlifting session.
- Use supplements: For many people, eating within a 30-minute window isn't possible (due to life/family obligations or a gym commute). If you fall under that category, I encourage you to use supplements like a high-quality whey protein powder or creatine.
5. Train Across Every Plane
Here's one thing our bodies were never designed to do: Move in a single direction.
Many athletes — particularly runners, bikers, and others who prefer aerobic exercise — only move in one direction: forward. In doing so, you train the exact same muscle groups over and over (primarily your quads, chest, and arms), ignoring the rest of the body.
There are three different planes of motion: sagittal, frontal, and transverse. The sagittal plane covers forward and backward movements (like jogging on the elliptical or doing a reverse lunge). The frontal plane involves side-to-side movements, like the karaoke or side shuffle in a warm-up. Finally, the transverse plane involves rotational movements, such as a bicycle crunch or a curtsy lunge.
Training your body across every plane allows you to hit muscles that often get ignored. If you truly want to see a change in body strength, you should train your body in new, surprising ways.
Here's a good way to start:
- Rethink your cardio: Many people see cardio as swimming, biking, running, or jogging on the elliptical — nothing else. Instead, switch up your standard cardio routine for a HIIT class that introduces new, unexpected movements.
- Follow a training program: I know I sound like a broken record here, but following an actual program — rather than standalone workouts — is the best way to see results. If you're choosing a random workout on Instagram each day, you run the risk of performing the same lower and upper body movements over and over, training your body in the same way.
6. Surprise Your Body With New Movements
The overarching goal of our 4 Legs Fitness model is to continuously improve athletic performance and overall health along our four pillars: resistance training, cardio, nutrition, and recovery. As you learned in steps one through five, each of these pillars plays a key role in building strength.
That being said, another way to tax your body, nervous system, and mental strength is to always look for innovative ways to develop and improve your fitness routine.
Rather than returning to the gym 3-5 times per week focusing on your main lifts — and your main lifts alone — introduce new forms of exercise into your training regimen. This could include pole fitness, ice climbing, balance board training, deep-water soloing, or even gymnastics.
I recently became interested in gymnastics. I got exposed to it first via CrossFit style training and natural movement oriented approaches.
One impressive person in the field is Christopher Sommer, former U.S. national team gymnastics coach and founder of GymnasticBodies. Tim Ferriss ran an excellent podcast with him about the Secrets of Gymnastic Strength Training. Another top resource for gymnastics and calisthenics is FitnessFAQs by Daniel Vadnal, who runs an excellent YouTube channel.
Considering that my goal is to continuously improve my athletic performance and overall health, gymnastics can play a very interesting role in achieving that. It's like Bruce Lee said: Absorb what is useful, discard what is useless, and add what is specifically your own.
If you incorporate gymnastics in your training, you will not only benefit from improving physical capabilities like coordination, body knowledge, balance, mobility, strength, power, or agility, but you will also challenge your mental abilities like discipline, attention to detail, alertness, toughness, and self-confidence.
In order to seriously get into gymnastics and reap the benefits from it, I set myself the goals to be able to do the ring muscle up, strict handstand, and handstand walk. But how did I go about it?
7. Set Goals and Get a Coach
If you want to accomplish anything — lifting heavy weights, increasing your rep range, mastering a strict pullup, or conquering a new movement — you need to set goals and find someone to hold you accountable.
When it comes to increasing muscle size and strength, I find that it's important to find a coach or personal trainer who can help you assess your progress.
Anders Ericsson describes in his book "Peak: How to Master Almost Anything" a method to master or at least become good at any skill. This method has four steps:
- Set a specific goal
- Practice with intense focus (more frequent, shorter sessions but with no distraction)
- Get immediate feedback from an expert
- Constantly push your boundaries beyond your current ability (adaptation will only occur by doing this)
Hence, in order to learn a new skill effectively, you need to practice purposefully towards a goal and get expert coaching along the way. If you are pressed for time, here is a helpful video summary of the book.
In my particular case of achieving my gymnastics goals, I receive my expert coaching from Simon Gibson. He is a very skilled personal trainer focused on gymnastics and injury rehabilitation. He programmed various individual progressions for my specific goals. And I am progressing well. If you are in or around Barcelona, I recommend reaching out to him (he always offers remote coaching).
Having a coach helped me master my gymnastics goals. If your goal is to get stronger, find a coach with the know-how on developing your overall athletic performance.
8. Lastly — Always, Always, Always Have a Plan
Throughout this post, I continuously returned to one piece of advice: In order to get stronger, you need to follow a program.
A program ensures you get the right balance of strength, cardio, nutrition, and recovery to help you get stronger. By choosing random workouts, you run the risk of breaking down muscle tissue or developing a chronic injury — both of which cause muscle depletion, not muscle growth.
To see the best results from your training, always follow a program designed by a fitness professional. The Build Bullet-Proof Health program combines cardio and strength training programs, nutrition plans, and recommendations for rest and recovery. Plus, with our premium plan, you get monthly calls with me to assess your progress, form, muscle activation, and any questions along the way.
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