Strength comes from three main areas: healthy diet practices, solid workout routines and genetics. Since you can't change your genetics, diet and exercise are the two areas that need attention. Through proper exercise, nutrition and supplementation, getting stronger is a very straightforward process.
1. Exercise. Your body strengthens muscles in response to a repeated stimulus. Working out causes tiny tears in your muscle tissue which your body repairs during rest. This repair process is what makes your muscles stronger. Only a stimulus that consistently overloads your muscle will lead to strength gains. An overloaded stimulus means that you constantly have to increase the weights you lift or repetitions you complete. If you bench 225 pounds at 10 repetitions per set every week, your body will never have to get stronger because it clearly already has the ability to press that kind of weight. The body will only make a muscle stronger when a consistent stimulus that it can't handle is applied. Place an emphasis on compound exercises such as squats, deadlifts, bent over rows and presses as these will require the use of more than one muscle group. Isolation exercises (bicep curls, tricep extensions...) should be done in addition to, not in lieu of compound exercises.
2. Workout Journal and Gym Partner. The main purpose of exercise is to overload your muscles which causes them to grow. Tools such as a workout journal or gym partner will help push you to the required overload level. A gym partner can help you with forced repetitions. These reps will help to ensure that you're overloading your muscle. A workout journal will help you efficiently track your progress. You can write down how much weight you used on each set so that you know exactly what you need to do to overload your muscle. If you squatted 225 pounds 5 times last week, this week you should either increase the weight or number of repetitions.
3. Rest. In addition to a stimulus, getting stronger requires rest. The damage you cause to your muscle during a workout is repaired during rest. You actually get stronger during your time spent outside of the gym. The recovery phase starts as soon as you stop working out. To help facilitate this process, get at least 8 hours of sleep per night and don't overtrain yourself. Your body needs 48-72 hours of rest to fully recover. If you keep working out the same muscle before it has fully healed, you will never get any stronger. Signs of overtraining include excessive soreness, recurring injuries, getting sick (common cold, sore throat) and feeling lethargic. If you see any of these warning signs, take a few days off.
4. Nutrition. The recovery process requires rest and nutrients. If you don't give your body the nutrients it needs to build muscle, you won't get stronger. The first consideration of proper nutrition is to ensure you're eating enough calories. Getting stronger requires a calorie surplus - taking in more energy than you burn. When you combine a calorie surplus with exercise, your body uses the extra energy to make muscle tissue bigger and stronger. Use the calorie calculator to figure out how much energy your body burns each day. Add 500 calories per day to the amount your body needs and you will have enough of a surplus to build muscle. Monitor your weight weekly and if you're not gaining any weight after the second week, increase your calorie intake by 200 per day. Don't increase your calorie intake too much as that will cause excessive fat buildup rather than muscle gain. Below are the nutrition critical times during the day:
- Catabolic vs. Anabolic States. To understand the nutrition of getting stronger, you also have to understand the difference between a catabolic and anabolic state. A catabolic state is when your body is breaking tissue down. It happens due to energy deprivation resulting from fasting or physical activity. When your body starts to burn more energy than you have provided through food, you enter a catabolic state. A common misconception is that when you cut calories or exercise for long periods of time, your body automatically turns to body fat. Your body doesn't like to use body fat for energy because the system that burns fat doesn't provide energy at a fast enough pace. Your body would much rather breakdown muscle tissue for energy than go to fat stores. Catabolic states are detrimental to building muscle and strength. You can avoid catabolic states by eating frequently. An anabolic state is when your body is building tissue up. When you provide your body with the energy it needs, it doesn't have to breakdown tissue or draw on stored energy. You can put your body into an anabolic state by avoiding periods of prolonged fasting and excessive exercise. Read more: Avoiding Catabolic States.
- Breakfast. When you wake up, your body has been in a period of fasting since your last meal putting you into a catabolic state. Eating breakfast helps to move you to an anabolic state so that you body can begin building up muscle tissue. Skipping breakfast will cause your body to breakdown muscle tissue for use as energy.
- Before Exercise. Eating before a workout can help you avoid a serious catabolic state during exercise. If there is an abundance of simple sugars in your body before and during exercise, you will go into a much less severe catabolic state than if you avoid eating before the gym. Eat (or drink) a small meal that is high in simple carbs and contains some protein.
- During Exercise. If your workout lasts more than 60 minutes, consider drinking a sports drink such as Gatorade or Powerade while you workout to give your body access to more energy.
- After Exercise. After a workout your body needs two main nutrients to help start the recovery process: sugars and proteins. Your body's first priority is to stabilize blood glucose levels and and replenish stored glycogen in the liver and muscle tissue that was used up during exercise. The best way to help your body is by giving it sugars that the body can quickly convert to glucose and glycogen. Your body also needs protein which will be used to start repairing damage caused by exercise. The quicker you can give your body simple carbs and protein, the quicker it can start the recovery process.
- Pre Sleep. Another common misconception is that eating at night makes you fat. Eating too many calories whether in the morning, afternoon or night will make you fat. A big part of the recovery process happens at night. Your body needs energy to sustain that process. The recovery process coupled with a fast lasting 8-10 hours means that you need to eat before you go to sleep. Foods high in proteins, complex carbs and unsaturated fats will give your body a slow but steady supply of nutrients throughout the night which will keep you out of a catabolic state.
- The Rest of the Day. Nutrition matters all the time. If you're looking to get stronger and gain clean weight (muscle), you need to have a healthy diet. Stay away from unhealthy foods (saturated/trans fats, sugar - except before, during and after a workout, junk food). Focus on replacing those foods with healthier options (complex carbs, fiber, fruits and vegetables, unsaturated fats and lean proteins).
5. Supplements. There are plenty of supplements that claim to do everything. Separating the ones that work from marketing gimmicks can seem daunting. Here are a few that work and can help you get stronger:
- Protein. Protein should be the foundation of every supplement regimen. Protein is the building block of all tissue in the body. Your body uses protein to repair muscle damage after a workout. A post workout shake is the best way to get your body the nutrients it needs for recovery. The two main types of protein you should use are whey and casein. Whey is digested quickly giving your body access to protein right away. Casein is digested a lot slower. This will help give your body access to protein hours after the whey is already digested. Studies have shown that making a post workout shake out of 50% whey and 50% casein will produce better results when compared to 100% whey. You can also drink a nighttime casein shake as your pre sleep meal.
- Branched Chain Amino Acids. Protein is made up of amino acids. A group of amino acids, known as the branch chain amino acids (BCAAs), have been found to provide protection to your muscles from being broken down during a catabolic state. BCAAs can help if taken before, during and after a workout.
- Creatine. Your muscles don't use fat, carbs or protein directly for energy. Instead, those calories are converted into adenosine triphosphate (ATP). ATP is the energy currency of the body. ATP is a molecule that contains three phosphate groups. When a phosphate group breaks off of the molecule, energy is released and your muscle contracts. These phosphate groups are then recycled so they can be broken off again to release more energy. Creatine works by giving the muscle access to more of these phosphate groups. With more phosphate groups, the body can recycle and 'build' more ATP molecules which will allow you to overload your muscles.
- Multivitamin. A multivitamin shouldn't be used to make a bad diet good. Instead it should be used to plug any holes in an already healthy diet. Even healthy diets will have a hard time giving you 100% of every single nutrient you need on a daily basis. Don't rely on a multivitamin for all your needs. Getting a majority of your nutrients from food will help better prevent certain diseases and improve your overall health.
The Bottom Line
Getting stronger and building muscle are long term processes. They don't happen overnight and therefore require consistency and patience.