How to Get Strong (Like, For Real)
It's more than lifting weights and drinking protein shakes.
I’ve been fat, strong, skinny, and weak, and I’ll tell you this:
Being strong is best, every single time.
The problem is, there’s a lot of crap out there when it comes to learning what you have to do to become strong.
People say you have to do weird things like jumping on those weird bosu balls, sit-ups to the highest number you can count, or following a ridiculously confusing “program” that requires you to spend as much time using a calculator as you do training.
Don’t do any of this.
Here’s the simplest guide to getting strong I could possibly write:
Step 1: Lift weights (the heavier the better).
I’m not a competitive powerlifter, I’m a competitive Jiu-Jitsu athlete.
Still, I’ve managed to deadlift nearly 2.5x my body weight, rep out 30 pull-ups in a row, and bench press close to 300 pounds.
There is no secret.
I’ve never taken a steroid. I’ve never followed a program I thought was confusing. I’ve just lifted weights every week, 2–4x per week, basically without fail, since I was 16.
I also push myself when I get to the gym. I walk into the gym anxious about my workout because I know it’s going to challenge me, and then I leave the gym with wobbly legs or arms and significantly less anxiety than when I walked in.
That’s the “secret”.
The truth is that if you want to get strong, you have to do resistance training. The harder you challenge yourself in said resistance training, the stronger you get.
Obviously, pushing yourself too hard will result in injury. Learning to train is also about learning to not hurt yourself while you train. If you need a starter program, ask a trainer or try Jim Wendler’s (painfully simple) 5/3/1 program (I used this when I was in college). Whatever program you use, remember this:
Good strength training is simple.
Here are some exercises I like to do:
Back Squats (when I’m fatigued from Jiu-Jitsu, I use a box to make sure I’m not going to injure my back)
Deadlifts (Sumo and Conventional)
You’ll notice that isn’t a very long list. You don’t need a million exercises to get strong.
Occasionally I’ll mix in other exercises to spice it up, but these 8 exercises are pretty much the staple of my strength training routine. A good workout doesn’t need a lot of exercises, it needs a lot of focused intensity.
Get a friend to be your spotter. Put on some loud music. Have some fun.
Learn to enjoy pushing yourself. This will help you more than any program.
Learn to enjoy seeking failure in the weight room. Learn to do this without getting hurt.
Learn the difference between lazy and exhausted.
There are few things more empowering than discovering how much your body is capable of with hard work and discipline. It’s probably a lot more than you think.
Step 2: Run sprints.
Strength training is great, but it’s not enough.
If you’re trying to be a powerlifter, maybe it’s enough, but I’m not a powerlifter.
If you’re trying to be a strong person and more athletic, this means you need to be fit. You need to run.
Oh, and by the way, I’m not talking about jogging. This isn’t supposed to be pleasant. I don’t want you to notice the birds chirping as you stroll by them.
I want to be focused on your breathing as you haul ass past those tweety birds.
See, sprinting helps you build fast-twitch muscle fibers, which will help your lifts go up when you strength train. This will also improve your endurance.
However, there’s a deeper reason why you should sprint.
Sprinting builds mental toughness.
Oh, and a side note, you don’t need to run to get the benefits of sprinting either.
See, after years of getting my legs ripped off in Jiu-Jitsu, it’s hard for me to sprint without my knees and ankles becoming wobbly. It’s kind of miserable.
So instead, I plop my ass on the Airdyne bike (a device designed by an agent of Satan, I’m sure) and I sprint. I sprint as hard as I can. I try to not hold anything back.
I do intervals of 10, 20, 30, and sometimes 40-second sprints. If I’m feeling really ambitious, I’ll try a 50-second sprint. Admittedly, this has only happened once since I started using the bike.
Either way, the time after the bike is bliss — it’s like runner’s high (I used to run, so I get it), but way better. It’s a feeling that you can conquer the world. Nothing is physically harder than sprinting as hard as you can for longer than you think you can.
It’s this feeling that makes you believe you deserve a big meal fit for a king.
This takes me to my next point.
Eat a lot.
The nutrition advice on the internet is so confusing.
Fast for X amount of hours, eat 12 rabbit-sized meals per day, avoid carbs, only eat carbs, only eat plants, only eat meat… it’s all too much.
It’s confusing because you’re disconnected from your body.
I’m not a nutrition coach, but I’d actually recommend at some point trying some fasting just to get reacclimated with your body. Learn what it feels like to be hungry. Learn what it feels like to be starving. Learn what it feels like to be full, satisfied, and too full.
Starving is bad for muscle growth (and it usually leads to overeating later). Being too full too often is bad for your waistline. Learn to avoid both as much as you can.
In terms of which foods to eat, fruits and vegetables are good. I don’t know anyone who died from eating too many blueberries or too much broccoli.
Meat is good too, but I also know plenty of strong vegans and vegetarians.
For most people, more important than what you eat is how much you eat. A slice of pizza is not killing you, eating a whole pizza and never working out might be.
If you’re trying to lose weight, realize that you are going to have to dial back on your calories, and your training performance is probably going to suffer.
I’ve cut weight for martial arts competitions dozens of times, and every time I do I suffer a slight performance decrease. This is just the reality of trying to perform at a high level and lose weight at the same time.
There are things I do to minimize my performance decrease, but my body performs better in Jiu-Jitsu, lifting, and intellectually when I’m eating more.
That’s why I always tell people that you don’t have to make weight for a sports competition, do not pay much attention to the scale. Focus instead on your body composition, your performance in the gym, and how your body feels. These markers will tell you more about your health than a weight fluctuation of a few pounds.
Sleep a lot.
Not sleeping enough is the single worst thing you can do for physical performance, mental performance, and happiness.
The harder you train, the more you need to sleep.
I train 6–7 days per week, often 2–3 times a day between grappling and strength and conditioning, and I also write 2–3000 words per day.
I do a lot of stuff, and it’s not just because I drink a lot of coffee (although, that definitely does help).
The real reason that I am able to stay productive comes down to 3 basic concepts:
When I begin an activity, I do so with focus and intention (this is because I practice my work with a fresh and recovered mind).
I treat my brain like a muscle, and I train it and allow it to recover every single day. When my sleep (recovery) suffers, everything else is not far behind.
Finally, I know through experience when I am approaching diminishing returns, meaning that I need to stop.
A day in your life is like a set of an exercise. If you train to failure every single workout (if you work to exhaustion every day) you will burn out and you will stop making progress.
Train hard, work hard, and then rest your body and brain. Eat a lot of good food. Have meaningful relationships. Set big goals.
Do everything with intention, and then when the day is done, plop your head on your pillow and sleep for 7–9 hours.
This stuff isn’t complicated, but it’s hard. It’s also the fastest way to reach long-term, big goals.
A lot of fitness articles are confusing.
This is the closest thing to my first “fitness article” ever. This isn’t my favorite topic to write about.
Most fitness guides offer complex advice that typically you need to purchase a coach or buy a book to understand.
I am not a fitness coach. I’ve never been to gym school. I am not a personal trainer.
I have, however, been training as a professional athlete for the last 7 years and I’ve been competing in the highest levels of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu for the last 2 years now. I know a thing or 2 about getting my body to perform at the highest levels I can.
Maybe the things that I’ve learned can help you too.
I don’t need to be there for you to get strong. however, you need to be there. You need to advocate for yourself. You need to get after it for yourself.
If you follow everything in this article for a month, you will get stronger. If you follow it for 6–12 months, you will be pretty strong. If you make this advice part of your life, there’s no telling what you can do.
Give it a shot, and if it doesn’t work, then you can come and tell me I’m an idiot.
“You want science and studies? Fuck you. I’ve got scars and blood and vomit.” — Jim Wendler
Other things I did this week:
A Twitter thread on problem-solving:
A mini-collection of journal entries on learning:
An article on how you should sprint more:
Thanks for reading another issue of The Grappler’s Diary. If you enjoyed this post, share it with friends!