33 Tips, Tricks & Hacks to Be Instantly Stronger in the Gym

Increasing your strength potential is a process of slow adaptation via consistency and progressive overload. Importantly, there’s a key word in the last sentence: potential.

You may already know that we are much stronger than we will ever display in normal life or even in the gym. Our muscles have the potential to do super-human things, but we never access it unless in a life or death situation.

If you’ve ever been chased by a gang trying to beat you up or heaven forbid, lifted something heavy that is trapping a loved one, you will be aware of this. You will tap in to potential you didn’t know you had and run faster, lift more than you ever could under normal conditions.

If I remember correctly, the average person will usually only display around 65% of their strength potential, even when trying their absolute hardest. Accessing your potential is a skill that can be trained, so the average guy that works out will be able to use more and an elite level weightlifter, thrower or sprinting (pure power sports) will be able to access around 80%. Not only does training make you stronger in the absolute sense, it also allows you to access a greater percentage of your strength potential.

Strength is primarily a function of the nervous system, rather than the muscles. That’s why light weight class weightlifters can lift 3 times their body weight over their head. It’s not about muscle mass and bulk, it’s activating as much of your potential as possible and complete neural efficiency.

I’ve got a list of 33 tips that will make you stronger immediately. Or rather, allow you to access more of your strength potential and lift more weight immediately. This will lead to you getting stronger, because you’re overloading the body more and increasing the work load. I’ve broken them down in to 3 categories; mental, physical and technical.

Mental is all about your mind and is in my opinion the most overlooked part of training. Physical are hacks you can do to your body and technical are specific ways of doing a lift or programming that will make you stronger. While this is written with strength in mind (think 1-5 reps) a lot of them will also work for eaking out a couple of extra reps on hypertrophy sets (6-20 reps).

This is an epic 4000 odd word post, so feel free to skim it for the strategies that catch your attention.

Phil Hawksworth strength

8 Mental strategies to be instantly stronger in the gym

    1. Visualise the movement sequencing in your mind and body. Before you lift close your eyes and rehearse the movement in your mind. I stand a couple of feet away from the bar and rehearse everything from the set up, breathing, taking the bar, down and back up. I also feel the movement throughout the relevant muscles as I visualise, they fire slightly; I’m not actually moving but I do nod my head in rhythm with the visualisation and mirror the breathing pattern. The more real the visualisation, the better it will work. It’s a skill that takes a little while to master but each attempt will get better.

 

    1. Visualise successful completion and feel the emotions. At the end of the visualising I will actually visualise successful completion, re-racking or dropping the bar and whatever celebration I might do – which differs depending on the difficulty. For example a new PR is a big deal, the 7th set of 8 sets of 3 isn’t so I just walk away and sit down. Throughout this I am feeling the emotions I will feel upon completion. Let the positive emotions wash over you and really feel like they are real.

 

    1. Get fired up/adrenaline. Aggression and adrenaline will make you stronger straight away, so get yourself fired up for big lifts/sets. I stomp my feet on the floor before a big lift. Other people slap themselves, jump up and down, listen to aggressive music, slam the bar. Whatever feels natural for you and gets you fired up. I used to train on a platform that had a punch bag right by it. I would actually headbutt the punch bag before a PR attempt. It works.

 

    1. Have a routine and mental anchor/trigger. You should have a set way of going through a lift, from the point you begin to approach the bar (or before if you visualise sat down). My foot stomp also acts as an anchor and I have my routine of how I get set up. For example on a clean I will walk up to the bar. Stand about 1 foot behind it and take a deep breathe. I step forward, stomp my feet, left foot and then right, before I hinge at the hip and spin the bar forwards. Next I grab it, left hand first, set my grip width and then extend my hips high, set my eyes forward and take a deep breath. I flex my abs, drop my hips down to a squat, give one mini knee pump and then initiate the lift. The whole process takes maybe 5 seconds and is exactly the same on every lift.

 

    1. Go by feel rather than weight. Mental blocks around numbers are super common. Bodyweight, 100kg, 3 plates, double body weight. They all feel significant and can become mental barriers. It seems heavy or like it’s on another level. I stagnated for weeks on a bodyweight snatch (about 80kg at the time) and then again at a 100kg snatch, this time for months. It was the mental significance I attached to the number. Once surpassing it I zoomed straight beyond it. Indeed the first time I snatched 80kg, I actually went right up to 90kg in the same session for a massive 10kg PR. Load random odd plates or just have someone else load for you without looking at the weight and keep going up in weight by feel. Don’t calculate the total weight. Often you will be able to lift more than normal if you’re on a good day because you don’t have the mental blocks dragging you down. It also works if you switch between pounds and kilos. Plates in pounds are slightly heavier, I just stick the same equivalent plates on if I’m working in pounds and actually end up lifting a couple of extra kilos.

 

    1. Centre yourself before the lift. Getting fired up and adrenaline flowing is important, but you can easily be over stimulated and have too much nervous energy. You don’t want to rush or panic so it is important to centre yourself and find a deep focus before commencing the lift. Having your routine and anchor will help do this, also ensure you take a deep breath in and out before you get under the bar.

 

    1. Don’t hesitate. Take your time and keep your rhythm throughout the set-up, but once you’re in position, get on with it. If you break your normal rhythm and take longer because it’s heavy and you’re nervous, you will almost certainly miss the lift. Sequencing and rhythm should remain consistent. When you come to face the bar, your mind should be empty and your body operating from pattern (which it will when you master the visualisation).

 

  1. Will yourself/belief. This is mostly relevant for sets of 3-5 reps, to get the last rep or two. You know you can lift the weight (you just did a couple of times). The difference between squeezing out the final rep when you’re out of breath and tired is mostly mental. Before you start it you will beat yourself if you allow any doubt. I like to use another adrenaline shot which fills me with absolute belief I will make it. I will set myself, take a big breath and just project mental anger in to the bar and scream or grunt. It’s kinda hard to describe but it’s the difference between guaranteed make or guaranteed miss. If I’m not with it mentally, I won’t grind through when I hit a sticking point because I know I won’t make it. The lack of belief creates nerves, which puts my timing off, I rush the descent and just don’t get it right. Whereas when I know that I can do it, I can grind it through every time.

Phil Hawksworth strength

13 physical strategies to be instantly stronger in the gym

    1. Maintain spinal alignment. Your nerves run through your spinal chord. If they’re inhibited, kinked or compressed they will not transfer signals as quickly as possible. Muscle contraction strength depends on the amount of muscle fibres fired by the nerves at any one moment in time. You cannot control the strength of a muscle fibres’ contraction, they are either on or off. It is how many are firing that determines the strength of the whole unit. Maintain spinal alignment to maximise the efficiency of nerve signalling. For example, keep your head straight when squatting – not looking up at the ceiling. Looking up creates a kink in the neck and slows nerve signalling. Keep the neck aligned with the rest of the spine.

 

    1. Drive the head. Pushing the head activates ancient reflexes that increases strength. Honestly, not totally sure why we have this reflex, but it works. If you’re bench pressing, drive your head back in to the bench.

 

    1. Full body activation for stability. You can only display as much strength as the platform can sustain. Something about shooting cannons from rafts…The more stable your body, the more the primary muscles can display their strength. Especially on presses. If you’re pressing overhead, squeeze the abs, glutes and quads as hard as you can to maintain a stable base. If you’re benching, use the lower body to create rigid tension. I very rarely bench, so I’m not used to the movement. When I do, I usually get glute cramp from stabilising!

 

    1. Use the stretch-reflex. Your muscles act like an elastic band, the more they’re stretched the more tension builds up and the stronger the snap back will be. For example, on a pull up, lower yourself 90% of the way to the bottom and allow yourself to drop the final 10% and your muscles will automatically fire you back up. Creating momentum and a stronger contraction on the way back up.Don’t try to be clever and drop from too high because you will lose stability. The body then has to put energy in to regaining stability instead of pulling back up. Any backwards/forwards movement is costing potential that could be pulling you upwards.

 

    1. Potentiate (ramp up) using light movements. The body does not recognise weight, it can only recognise force. Force is mass x acceleration. So adding weight creates more force, but so does accelerating harder. You can use light movements with high acceleration to potentiate the nervous system (get it firing at high force) without tiring yourself. Work at the low mass/high acceleration end of the curve rather than a high mass/low acceleration. For example, after warming up, but before a work set of heavy back squats, do a couple of max effort vertical jumps (no weight). Be careful not to fatigue yourself – the purpose is potentiation only. Stop well short of fatigue and performance drop off.

 

    1. Stretch opposing muscle between sets. This is most relevant for isolation exercises, because in compound movements the opposing muscle is always working with the primary mover. For example if you’re doing heavy skull crushers, stretch the biceps between sets. There’s a phenomenon called reciprical inhibition which basically means the tension in an opposing muscle (biceps) is pulling against the primary muscle (triceps) adding greater resistance.

 

    1. Wake up stability muscles before lifting. Already mentioned stability in a gross sense above, but at the individual joint level it is also about releasing inhibition. You will not be able to press as much weight overhead if your shoulders feel unstable, because your body will protect itself to stop you potentially dislocating your shoulder. By warming up the rotator cuff and getting all of the stabilising muscles firing first, it will be more stable and thus more comfortable, allowing you to access more potential strength.

 

    1. Walk out a heavier weight/partial/cheat lift. This works on a mental and physical level. If you take a heavier weight and just hold it at the end of the movement, the same muscles are working to hold you there and they can feel the weight.  When you then take a lighter weight, it feels less and your body is more confident dealing with it. Mentally, it just feels lighter which gives you confidence. You can even do a littler partial movement. Stick an extra plate on top of your back squat and walk it out of the rack, give it a little 15 degree knee bend and hold for a couple of seconds at the top before putting it down. Trust me 140kg feels light after having 180kg nearly crush you.

 

    1. Attempt an impossible isometric. Similar to the above but working more on the acceleration side of the force curve. Load up a weight you simply cannot move. Maybe hang with 100kg and try to do a pull up. You won’t go anywhere, but pull as hard you possibly can for 4-8 seconds. Give it everything. Then drop down to 50kg and as soon as you start to move it will feel like the brakes have been let off and you will shoot up.You can always lift more than you are. The potential is always within you. If you can generate more force through an isometric attempted lift than you need to lift the actual weight, you will be able to lift it. Also works pushing against an immovable object. For example set up two sets of pins on the bench press, starting from the bottom, push up a couple of inches where it hits the pin above and will not move. Try your hardest to push through it. Then remove the pins and press away.

 

    1. Scream. Something primal about screaming that releases adrenaline and allows you to tap greater potential. Only do it on a max otherwise you look like a retard. It should be more of a roar than a scream if you’re a guy who lifts weights…

 

    1. Warm up like it’s your max. I watch most people go through the motions in their warm up sets, moving the weight from A to B with little thought. Then they load the bar up and try to perform a heavy set. They haven’t found their rhythm or groove and it suddenly feels hard. You should warm up with every set from the empty bar upwards like it is a max. Keep the same routine, same rhythm, breathing patterns and technique. Even go for maximum acceleration to potentiate the nerves. Perfect practice makes perfect and the more you haved practiced the technique, rhythm and mental tricks of lifting, the better you will be at it. Use the same set up and rhythm as your max on all sets.

 

    1. Pre-load muscles before taking the weight. On a bench press, you want to set yourself, tense the lower body and create your platform, screw the shoulders down and get everything set before you take the weight. When you have a heavy weight in your hands, it’s hard to move yourself around and the majority of your neural potential is already directed at holding the weight still. Load up before you touch the weight.

 

  1. Warm up at extreme end range of motion. The end range of motion is generally the most ‘dangerous’, where you are at greater risk of injuring yourself. By warming up in extreme range of motion (beyond where you normally lift) your body is more comfortable there and thus happier to exert greater force at the end range – which is generally the weakest spot.Your muscles have something called golgi tendon organs in the origin and insertion points of the muscle (where muscle attaches to tendon to bone) which are a protective feedback mechanism which release tension before it can potentially cause damage. If the tendon is under too much tension, the golgi tendon organ will inhibit neural firing and ‘turn off’ muscle fibres. By working in the end range during your warm ups, the point where the tendon feels stretched to its limit gets larger, meaning the golgi tendon organ is less likely to fire and inhibit your contraction.

Phil Hawksworth strength

12 technical strategies to be instantly stronger in the gym

    1. Pre-tension on dead movements. Deadlifts and military presses are what I mean by dead movements. Where the concentric phase is the first part of the movement, without a prior lowering phase. Also Olympic lifts or squats/presses from pins. On most movements the lowering phase builds tension which is then used to accelerate back up. On dead movements there is no prior stored tension so you have to manifest it all to overcome inertia. By pre-tensioning you are creating some stored tension to fire back up. On a deadlift, pull on the bar without actually trying to lift it for a second before you intend to initiate movement. You want to take the slack out of the bar and have plenty of tension in your glutes and hamstrings before you move. For military presses, use the lats to pull the bar down in to your shoulders before actually trying to press up.

 

    1. Accelerate throughout a movement. Always accelerate through an ‘easier’ part of the lift, don’t wait until you hit a sticking point to start giving it everything. Especially movements like pull ups or bench press (for those with weak lockouts) where it is easier at the bottom and gets harder toward the top. Build as much momentum and tension before you get there to blast right through a sticking point.

 

    1. Wave load. Wave loading is where you take the weight up and down to potentiate the nervous system. For example go 90/95/100 then drop back and do 95/100/105, drop again 100/105/110. Your body seems to like wave loading for various reasons mentioned above and you will usually be able to do more weight and more reps/set above a given weight/percentage by waving up and down. Keep the reps the same. Don’t do more reps when you drop back down. The idea is when you drop weight it feels easy.

 

    1. Find best leverage. In the Olympic lifts for example, you want to get the bar in as close to the hips as possible to explode upwards. However to get the bar to your hips from the floor, the knees are in the way. If you start with straight legs and knees back out the way, you won’t shift the weight off the floor (how much harder is a stiff leg deadlift compared to normal deadlift). To get around this you initiate the movement with bent knees, straighten them out of the way (like a deadlift) and then bend them again back underneath the bar as you approach the hips, to get best leverage for the explosive upward drive. Outside of weightlifting this is mostly useful for overhead pressing. As soon as you clear your head get your head through. You are more stable and able to push through a straight line (more efficient) when the bar is directly over your centre of gravity (mid foot, hips, spine). Problem is when you start with the bar under your chin, your head is in the way. As soon as you pass your head, push your head through to centre the bar over your centre of gravity and you will find better leverage and more strength.

 

    1. Stabilise from the middle out. When you’re setting up you want to stabilise from the middle out. This means intra-abdominal pressure first (breath), then flex the core (abs and glutes), then the limbs. The centre of gravity is the strongest and most stable part of the body and the further out you go, the less stable it becomes. Build a pyramid of stability with the big bricks at the bottom if you don’t want it to topple over.

 

    1. ‘Screw’ joints to create tension. Remember that muscles are like elastic bands? Create tension through rotation. Rotation of the joint ‘winds up’ the muscle and creates more tension. Screw the feet in to the floor and knees out in a deadlift. Screw the shoulders down, back and externally rotated for pressing movements.

 

    1. Do a ‘feeler’ set. When you’re doing sets of 3-5 reps you can go up to the weight you are using and do a single rep to allow your body to get acquainted with the weight and work out the strength of contraction it requires to lift. The first time you go up in weight it always feels heavier than the second time. Doing a single before your work set builds confidence, makes it feel lighter and allows your body to adjust and be prepared.

 

    1. Micro load. Progress is progress, no matter how small. It feels great to whack another plate on the end of the bar, but once you get to intermediate level you will be grinding for weeks or months for that kind of increase. Try to do a tiny bit more each time by microloading. Get some micro plates (1/2kg, 1kg) and go up 1 or 2 kg at a time. If you ‘max’ at 100kg, you won’t jump straight to 105kg, but theres a good chance you can do 101kg (because you didn’t use your true full potential for 100kg anyway). Small and consistent increases add up and are more satisfying than plateaus.

 

    1. Actively pull the negative portion. Most people don’t do the lowering phase of lifts very well. It’s not just an intermediary phase between active reps. It is an opportunity to create tension to put back in to the next rep. Rather than letting gravity do the work, actively pull or push the negative to create tension. For example on a bench or overhead press, use the lats to pull the bar down. On squats use the hamstrings and hip flexors to pull your hips down. It will create tension that helps you get back up.

 

    1. Use correct breathing patterns. Breathing controls intra-abdominal pressure which is the first stage of stability (closest to centre of gravity). For maximum stability you would just breathe in to create optimal pressure and maintain that. Problem is you will pass out if you don’t breathe! You need to get the pattern right so you are breathing when you don’t need the pressure.Breathe in before you start on pushing movements (squats, presses, deadlifts) hold it in on the lowering phase and breathe out on the way up. Breathe again before the next rep. For pulling movements (pull ups, rows) you actually want to breathe in as you pull because the muscles that breathe in are connected with the muscles that pull. Expelling air at the sticking point makes you stronger. Honestly I don’t know why, but it does. Breathe out as you start to grind on a squat or press. Be careful to never fully exhale as you will lose all of the intra-abdominal pressure and with it your stability. I recommend breathing out through your teeth in a hiss.

 

    1. Practice getting out of missed lifts. Perhaps this is mental rather than technical, but you should know how to get out of lifts you aren’t going to make. It gives you more confidence and allows you to maintain your normal technique without trying too hard out of desperation to make the lift. Personally I think the only time you should ever have a spotter on strength lifts is heavy bench press and if you squat like a power lifter (super low bar, bent a long way over). For everything else, you should be able to get out of it by controlling the weight to the bottom or otherwise dropping it/changing leverage to cheat. This isn’t true for hypertrophy work where you want to push right to concentric failure and beyond.

 

  1. Maintain rhythm and speed. This could go in all three categories to be honest. The importance of maintaining your rhythm and consistent speed allows you to get the timing and firing sequences right, to mentally be confident and for your body to be in a groove it has done thousands of times before. As soon as you lose the rhythm, it is a new experience for the body and it will lower its comfort in force potential.

Phil Hawksworth strength

Would love to hear if you have any additional things to add to the list. I’m sure there’s more but this was all I came up with on the spot. Ask in the comments if you need more info on any of these and their application to your training and different lifts.

 

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  • Terrfiic post, this a terrific reference for anyone interested in serious training, I’ve learned a few new ideas here myself. This is the kind of content heavy article you don’t see on most fitness blogs, should be used as a reference manual to be reread or saved in evernote and come back to as each technique is mastered.

    Since you asked for additional ideas I’ll give you mine.

    Stims: Caffeine being the most consistent and ephedrine if its legal in your country -combined this is a lethal combination and will add a rep or sometimes two to my personal best- that is huge

    Kratom- Maeng Da specifically is a light opiate, legal and acts as stimulant/painkiller/moodlifter this not only gives you more energy but dulls pain on key exercises, I used to use this on deads to fatigue, would give me an extra rep or two and more importantly make the experience more pleasant instead of excruciating.

    No ejaculation: Ejaculating before training will cost you at least one rep off your personal best, sometimes more, especially if its multiple times prior to your session. The less ejaculation the stronger you get, thats not instant so outside the scope of this post but a month of no ejaculation is a great way to break plateaus.

  • Thanks for the kind words Will.

    Stimulants definitely help, I’m just a full time coffee fiend, so it’s not something I associate with training per se, but it definitely helps if you don’t drink 5 coffees a day anyway.

    Never tried ephedrine, or Kratom. Interested to give Kratom a go and see what effects that has, do you have a post on that?

    Channeling sexual energy in to training definitely works, a lot of pro athletes will go a week or so without sex before a big competition. As an ongoing strategy its probably realistic to not ejaculate earlier in the day. You definitely feel more aggressive and stronger when you have some pent up sexual energy.

    Good tips man

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