Flip your strength switch to “ON”
Some athletes work for a long time and exert a lot of energy but realize only small increases in strength. Often, though, they can see significant increases in strength by implementing a few simple tips. Increases in strength come from strength training consistently and strength should be thought of as an athletic ability that can be trained. These tips reinforce the idea that strength is a skill that can be learned as much as trained.
When and how you breathe has a dramatic effect on your strength. Your nervous system gains a lot of information from your breathing and can many times inhibit your maximal strength ability based on what it perceives. Bearing in mind that strength is neurological, as much as it is structural, you don’t want to have to fight an uphill battle.
With any exercise movement there is a concentric or “exertion” phase and an eccentric or “relaxation” phase. Time your breathing so that you are breathing in during the eccentric phase and blowing out slightly on the concentric phase. During each breathing phase ensure that you’re trying to fill your lungs in all directions via your diaphragm. What most people have to watch out for is that they use the chest, shoulders, and neck too much while breathing instead of the diaphragm and belly.
Every muscle in your body is connected because of the kinetic chain that runs from head to toe. What you relax or tense in one area will affect another area. You can use this principle to your advantage in trying to gain strength.
Not only should you focus on the contracting muscles of whatever movement you’re performing, but you should also focus on the other muscles that can help stabilize or provide a better platform to produce force.
During a push-up, for example, instead of just focusing on the arms or the chest muscles while you’re performing the movement, also focus on tightening your hips and midsection, as well as your legs. The more tension you can create throughout your body, the more strength you can pull from your muscles no matter what the movement is. You can’t shoot a cannon from a canoe very well, so if you can provide a firmer foundation by tightening up other muscles not directly involved in the movement, you’ll gain more strength instantly.
Because your nervous system is so involved in your ability to express strength it’s helpful to know this trick to get every ounce of strength when you want it. Your hands and feet have an enormous amount of proprioception—the ability to sense the relative position of neighboring parts of the body and strength of effort being employed in movement—compared to the rest of your body (except for your head). So if you actively try to create more tension specifically in your gripping of an implement or surface while you’re performing an exercise, you’ll automatically find another level of strength.
For example, during a pull-up make sure to squeeze the bar as hard as you can throughout the entire number of repetitions. The stronger your grip, the stronger you’ll be. This is also why when doing pull-ups your grip is the first thing to go. Your body is too weak to pull you or even hold you up so it forces you to let go by not allowing you to grip the bar anymore.
This tip can also work with the gripping of your feet. This is why thinner soles on your shoes allow a better feel for the ground. Therefore, when performing a squat, no matter what variation, think about your feet and toes gripping the ground beneath you as you come up from the bottom position. This increased sensation will allow more strength to be expressed.
Follow these tips the next time you’re performing strength training exercises and feel the difference a little focus on breathing, tension, and grip can produce.
- Technique and Training