Improving Relative Strength

Q: I have enjoyed reading your book Strength and Physique. I really enjoyed that your focus was on strength. For too long I trained only my “mirror muscles”, using as you put it “block head” programs. This lead to injuries and many weak links in the chain. I was wonder if you could help me with a few questions?

How would an athlete train to improve their relative strength and not gain size?

I want to increase the depth of my squat. Should I look at ankle and hip mobility?

Thanks, I look forward to hearing from you.

-Chris Barr

My Answer: If you want to gain strength but not any size, then block training would work well in this regard. If you want to get stronger in a particular lift, then you have to practice and practice frequently. That means doing an exercise repeatedly throughout the week. In order to practice the lift frequently, you have to reduce the volume to a low number of sets: 1-3. High frequency, low volume training is great for strength gains with minimal muscle growth.

There are other factors, of course. If you ingest a lot of calories, then you will gain weight regardless of what program you use, even if it is high frequency, low volume. So keep your calories at a moderate level.

What I suggest is choosing a few select exercises in which you want to improve on. For total body strength, let’s say pull-ups, bench press and squats. You will need to workout 3-5 times per week, doing 1-2 sets of pull-ups, bench press and squats every workout. Don’t add any other exercises, or you will gain more muscle.

Now your workouts have to be the same, and yet they also have to be different. So even though you will be doing the same exercises over and over, you should vary the grip, width or stance.

Now as far as your squat depth, increasing your hip flexibility will help. I don’t find that people can increase their ankle flexibility by much. I would suggest raising your heel ups by putting a couple of plates underneath them and squatting from that position. Doing so in this manner will shift the emphasis of the squat from your glutes to your quads.

What some lifters do for stretching is to squat down with just the bar and stay in the bottom for several seconds to allow gravity to pull them into a greater depth. What I suggest is just do a body weight squat and stay in the bottom position for several seconds. Maintain the arch in your lower back and simply allow your glutes to sink into a lower depth and stretch out.


2 thoughts on “Improving Relative Strength

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  1. James, since Mr. Barr does not want to increase size, would rep scheme also factor in? I'm thinking lower reps, since he isn't interested in hypertrophy. Generally 3-6 reps/set are recommended for strength training. Your thoughts?


  2. Good question. Reps do factor in, but it also depends on whether Chris is looking for pure strength (1-6 reps) or strength endurance. For example, one might want to increase their pullups or dips. In that case, more is better.


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