How and Why Strength Helps You Gain Mass, Lose Fat, and Stay Injury Free
This is guest article written by Mr. Eric Cressey.
Now, first and foremost, I just want to get the obvious nonsense out of the way: yes, this post is intended in large part to support the sale of Cressey’s book, and sell a few copies. However, it’s also full of important information.
So, whether you’re already interested in the High Performance Handbook or curious as to whether it’s right for you, this is going to be of interest.
This topic is one I’m particularly passionate about, as I’ve always been eager to help people understand the role of strength, and how they can use it to hit their goals—whether they be muscle gain or (more relevant to the interests of my readers), fat loss.
Cressey is pretty much the perfect person to write the first piece in this series, for a few reasons, not all of which are immediately obvious.
One thing you should know is that Cressey and I have known each other for a LONG time; close to 12 years or something. When I first met Eric, he had been drawn to the bodybuilding side of training; he wanted to get big, as do so many young guys.
I’m not spilling any secrets here, because EC would tell you himself, but the fact is, he didn’t have much luck.
When it came to building muscle, Eric initially struggled. Having been a fat kid with a small frame, his endo-ecto tendencies made it seem unlikely that he’d ever gain a ton of muscle.
At the point I’d met him, Eric had been training diligently, intelligently, and intensely for just about a year—with less than 5 pounds to show for it, in terms of muscle gain. In that same year, I’d put on close to 20, with less effort. So, while I was hanging out at a cool 180 with little effort, Eric was struggling to break 150.
Just for fun, he’s a random shot of us hanging out at some mall in his hometown of Kennebunkport, Maine in 2002…and a recreation of that same picture, taken 13 years later at my place in Cali.
As you can see, Eric was a little dude. Thankfully for him, he was so cool that wearing sunglasses inside was a viable option, and the fact that he was weighing in at a buck-fifty didn’t seem like such a big deal.
Eventually, however, Cressey got a bit frustrated with his lack of progress, as anyone would. Rather than give up training, he simply switched gears and started to train for strength. He began training the squat, bench and deadlift diligently, intelligently and intensely as he worked his way into the powerlifting world.
Just two years after beginning his journey towards strength, my man Cress pulled 567.5 pounds in a meet, setting the world record in the 165 pound weight class in the juniors (at a bodyweight of 163, to be precise).
Now, while you’re probably dumbfounded that he was able to get so damn strong in just two years, the important thing to note is that he gained 15 pounds in that time.
Meaning, that he gained muscle when training for strength…but couldn’t gain it when training for muscle.
Still not convinced? Okay, how about some more history.
After graduating from the juniors, he kept training eventually went on to deadlift 660 at a bodyweight of 181. These days, he pulls in the 600-pounds range whenever he wants, and walks around at about 190 pounds.
All of which to say is that training for strength—and getting to be strong as a beast—was the thing that helped Cressey gain over 40 pounds of muscle over the years. Oh, and he’s done it while maintaining visible abs nearly the whole way. Cressey is lean, strong, and pretty damn jacked. Not to mention one of the smartest coaches in the world.
Which is why I restate my earlier point and say that he is the perfect person to write this article, and the guy you should be listening to.
With the introductions out of the way, prepare to get your learn on. Before I leave you in Eric’s capable hands, I just want to note that I personally wanted to call this article “How Trainin’ for Strenf Makes You all Jacked and Sexy and Shit: An Examination of the Role of Near-Maximal Loads on Muscle Hypertrophy.”
It’s Eric’s article, though, so he wins.
It’s no secret that the average man’s testosterone levels have dropped significantly over the past few decades. Meanwhile, dodgeball has been outlawed in most schools, and we hand out participation trophies to kids so that they couldn’t possibly ever perceive that they might actually fail at something in their lives.
Luckily, we have men like you to oppose it. After all, you read RFS, eat dead animals, lift weights, and might even have a mustache. You’re the anti-wussification mechanism that is preventing the apocalypse from occurring. You couldn’t possibly be contributing to it.
Or could you?
Ask yourself, honestly, if the weights you’ve been lifting have steadily been improving in recent months. You see, it’s called resistance training, weight training, and strength training…because you’re supposed to increase the resistance/weight so that you can gain strength.
I’d make the argument that lifting weights and not worrying about whether your strength is going up – or at least not dropping – is contributing to the wussification that’s plaguing our society. Simply training for a “pump” or going through the motions to burn some calories just won’t get the job done. It’s like bragging about a turkey bacon and egg whites breakfast.
Don’t believe me? Please allow me to make the case for strength being important.
What many people don’t realize is that strength is the foundation for joint stability, and you can’t have good mobility unless you have an adequate foundation of strength. You know what happens to people who lack stability and mobility? They get hurt, and then wind up relying on others to help them out.
Maybe it’s a buddy giving you a ride to and from the doctor’s office for a cortisone shot in your shoulder. Or, perhaps it’s your girlfriend waiting on you hand-and-foot while you’re on the mend after a surgery to fix an ACL tear. Finally, it might be a co-worker picking up the slack on the job while you’re on the shelf for a few days because you blew out your back when you bent over to tie your shoe.
Being weak doesn’t just make your life worse; it makes others’ lives worse, too. Stop being selfish. You think your buddies like it when you have to ask them for help moving your couch?
NFL running backs are supposed to be powerful. We know this.
However, what you may not realize is that one of the biggest contributing factors to injuries in the elderly is the loss of power they experience as they age.
Just so we’re all on the same page in terms of definitions, in the context of strength training, power is a function of force divided by time. While it’s different from strength, power is a measure of how quickly we can make use of the strength we’ve got—whether it’s to dunk a basketball, catch our dog before he runs into oncoming traffic, keep a child from touching a hot stove, or preventing a fall when we slip at age 85.
Very simply, if you don’t have strength, you can’t have power.
I use the analogy of a glass (strength) and the fluid (power) in it to illustrate this point. If you don’t have a big glass, you can’t hold much fluid. This actually applies to a number of different fitness qualities, too: the fluid could just as easily be endurance, agility (also a function of power), and stability.
Your training should focus on making the glass bigger.
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: you won’t find a muscular guy out there who hasn’t gotten dramatically stronger from his training. You simply can’t have muscle mass if you don’t have some strength to create that adaptation.
You see, when you first start training, you get stronger quickly. The strength comes via two avenues: increased cross-sectional area (bigger muscles) and improved neural efficiency (your nervous system learns how to better recruit more and bigger muscle fibers). This second factor is the bigger player – and it actually impacts the first one very quickly. If you need proof, watch a beginning lifter’s arms shake during a dumbbell bench press in weeks 1-2, and then see how much more smooth the movement is by weeks 3-4. That’s neural efficiency at work, and it helps you stimulate more muscle with every rep you do.
Contrary to what you might have been taught, strength and size are not mutually exclusive. As Roman touched on in the introduction to this article, I’ve actually gained more muscle mass “accidentally” in years as a powerlifter than I gained “intentionally” in years as a confused, aspiring pseudo-bodybuilder. I say “pseudo” because I never really identified myself as a bodybuilder (I just wanted to get bigger), and because I really wasn’t doing a very good job of it.
For me, the biggest window of adaptation was in getting stronger – and that’s what I did. Small muscles don’t stay small if you lift big weights.
Now that I’ve established the importance of strength, I think it’s important that I point out that this doesn’t just mean that you abandon any semblance of sanity in your quest to build this strength. You’ve got to be smart about it.
You can’t lift absurdly heavy weights in every single session; it’ll burn you out quickly. You’ll either feel exhausted all the time, your joints will hurt, or you’ll be one of the fortunate ones who experience both of these lovely side effects of training without intelligent restraint. And, taking this a step further, the older you are, the more conservative you need to be with your weight selection, training frequency, and overall volume. “Deload” periods need to be strategically implemented.
Form matters, too. Using brutally awful technique might help you move bigger weights in the short term, but over the long haul, it’ll only set you back, as you’re destined to get injured and miss valuable training time in the gym. As Gray Cook has said, “We should not put fitness [strength] on movement dysfunction.” Lifting with poor form will only lead to poor results in the long-term.
You might be thinking: “Cressey really didn’t tell me anything I didn’t already know.” However, think about your training from the last few months or years: have you really been getting stronger? If not, it’s probably time to stop going through the motions with your training sessions and start making it a priority – and stop being a wuss.
And, if you’re looking for a great plan-of-attack to help you with this question, I truly encourage you to check out my resource, The High Performance Handbook. This versatile resource can be customized to accommodate any goal, and it begins with some quick and easy-to-perform self-assessments to ensure that you’re building strength safely.
Best of all, the damn thing is on sale at a great introductory price this week only. Click here to learn more.
If that isn’t enough to convince you that you should be trying to get strong, I don’t know what will. But, I think you’re there.
I’m going to follow this post up with an article investigating where your NEED to get strong to build size, and, perhaps more curious, if you can get strong WITHOUT building size.
But, those things aside, you should know that getting stronger generally increases athleticism. Here’s some proof—none other than Eric Cressey, who stands at a towering 5’8’’, dunking a (mini) basketball in a regulation hoop:
Finally, just so you know how damn awesome the book is, Cressey was kind enough to hook us up with a FREE workout. Check it out right below. Even in just this workout, you can see how the program prioritizes not only strength (both bilaterally and unilaterally, the latter of which is key for athletic performance), but also mobility (Prone 1-arm Trap Raise) and core function (Anti-Rotation Chop) so you get strength while improving function. This is the program that will make you better at everything else.