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How to Workout to get Stronger

By Elliot Fisher MS, CSCS, PES, NSCA-CPT

Gaining strength is a common fitness goal. When I first started lifting consistently in high school I always wanted to get stronger. I found it difficult to consistently get stronger over time. After working as a personal trainer for many years, I’ve found that it’s actually really easy and simple to get stronger.

All workout programs are based on a handful of principles. These include progression, intensity, volume, directed adaptation, specificity, and variation. We’ll look at these factors and how to make a workout plan that helps increase your strength overtime. We’ll also look at other factors that affect your strength.


Progressive overload is an important aspect of training. Progressive overload is basically doing more overtime. This can include doing more weight, doing more sets, having better technique, etc.

When your goal is to get stronger, it’s very important to focus on increasing the weight you’re lifting as your main progression. Increasing the weight you lift each week is a great way to stimulate the nervous system to get used to lifting heavier loads.

This might look like:

Week 1: Squat 135 for 5 sets AMRAP

Week 2: Squat 145 for 5 sets AMRAP

Week 3: Squat 155 for 5 sets AMRAP

Week 4: Squat 165 for 5 sets AMRAP


Intensity refers to how much you’re doing compared to how much you can do. If you can squat 135 lbs for 10 reps, and you do 10 reps, that would be 100% effort, if you did 5 it would be 50% effort. If you can lift 225 lbs for 1 rep, then about 112.5 is 50% of your max. Somewhere around 80, 90, or 100% effort probably gives the most progress for strength gains. I would either keep the effort/set the same week to week or increase the effort weekly.

Same Weekly Effort:

Week 1: Squat 135 for 5 sets at RPE 8

Week 2: Squat 145 for 5 sets at RPE 8

Week 3: Squat 155 for 5 sets at RPE 8

Week 4: Squat 165 for 5 sets at RPE 8

Increasing Weekly Effort:

Week 1: Squat 135 for 5 sets at RPE 8

Week 2: Squat 145 for 5 sets at RPE 8

Week 3: Squat 155 for 5 sets at RPE 9

Week 4: Squat 165 for 5 sets at RPE 10

*RPE stands for Rating of Perceived Exertion, it’s often rated on a scale of 1-10. 10 meaning you couldn’t do anymore, 9 meaning you could do 1 more rep, 8 meaning you could do 2 more reps.

A good percent of your one rep maximum is starting around 80% and moving up from there. I’m personally not a huge fan of one rep maximum percentages so you could also say a heavy set up to eight at RPE 10.


Volume is a way of measuring the amount of work you’re doing. To keep it simple we’ll say volume refers to the number of hard sets you did for a movement or muscle group. So if you did 5 sets of bench press on Monday, 3 sets of bench press on Wednesday, and 1 set on Friday, that would be 9 hard sets of bench press. About 10-20 hard sets/movement is a good range for best strength gains.(1) The best way to gauge this is by how you perform and how you feel your recovery is. So if you’re making improvement in your lifts and feel good, keep the volume where it’s at. If you aren’t making progress and you’ll feel super sore and fatigued try dropping the sets down. If you aren’t making progress and you feel fresh and like you could do more work in the gym, try increasing the number of sets.

Directed Adaptation, Specificity, and Variation

When choosing what exercises to do during a strength program, directed adaptation, specificity, and variation are important principles to consider. Directed adaptation, in short, refers to doing the same things overtime in order to get better faster overtime. So a non-fitness example, if you're learning different languages you might want to dedicate time studying french exclusively instead of studying French one week, then Spanish the next, then German the next and repeating the cycle. You would learn french better if you stuck to learning French for three weeks rather than hopping around language to language. This is true in strength programs too. Doing different exercise variations all the time leads to less improvement because your body has to relearn the exercise to some degree making it harder to progress quickly.

Specificity refers to doing things that are specific to your goals. If your goal is strength, then training with heavy weights would be more specific than light weights with high reps, even though both are hard. It is also important to choose exercises that are more similar to your goal than ones that are less similar. If you want to get better at squats, some similar exercises might be front squats, hack squats, leg press. Less specific exercises might be lunges, leg extensions, etc.

Somewhat contradictory to directed adaptation, changing exercises through variation is helpful for progress. Now I'm not contradicting what we said before. Doing a couple variations in a training block helps with strength gains. This is different than doing different exercises randomly every workout. (Notice the difference?) In strength training doing one or two (maybe three at the most) exercises helps increase strength the fastest. If you ONLY do bench press and never close grip, incline bench, wide grip, machine bench, you can stall out on your bench press progress due to adaptive resistance.(1) This is where you do something over and over again and it doesn't seem to give the same or any stimulus to training at all.

Recovery and Adaptation

Just a quick note on recovery and adaptation. You could be doing the best workout plan but if you don’t take care of yourself outside the gym, your results will suffer and this could prevent you from making good strength gains. I will note that you don’t have to be perfect in these areas, but if you’re really struggling with one of them, take the time to try and remedy it.

  • Sleep - sleeping 7-9 hours/night on average, making sure you’re not overly tired during the day regularly

  • Nutrition

    • Calories - eating around maintenance calories or a slight surplus. If you’re losing weight or intentionally dieting this can impair your strength gains

    • Protein - eating about 1 gram/pound of bodyweight should maximize muscular adaptations

    • Carbohydrates - carbohydrates are important for energy and performance. Low carbohydrate diets can negatively influence strength gains

    • Water and sodium - drinking enough water to stay hydrated (you can tell if you’re hydrated by both not being thirsty, and having light yellow pee). Sodium and other electrolytes are important for keeping your body hydrated so salting your foods to taste can be helpful for strength progress (talk to your doctor is you have high blood pressure)

  • Rest Days - you probably only need to train a movement two maybe three times per week. Taking days completely off weights will also help

Hypertrophy Training

Strength progress is mostly neural adaptations, and your nervous system can only be as strong as the amount of muscle you have. Before focusing a ton on strength work on doing some hypertrophy programs to build up a lot of muscle. Training in a rep range of 6-12 and 10-20 are great options for building more muscle tissue.


  1. Israetel M, Hoffman J, Smith C. The Scientific Principles of Strength Training.Renaissance Periodization.

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