For a lot of people who’ve been training for a long time, building strength comes pretty easily. I’ve been training for most of my life, so by now I know what adjustments I need to make to increase strength in certain ranges or for certain activities.
But for many of my clients, especially those who are newer to training, it’s not as simple. They often get frustrated when they feel they aren’t making the kind of progress they’d like to.
And since strength is, more often than not, associated with lifting heavy things, it can be tough for someone who’s new to bodyweight exercise to know when they’re getting stronger and to feel confident that they’re on the right path.
If you’re a trainer who works with clients, the tips I’ll share below will give you a template to help your clients who are dealing with these frustrations and uncertainties.
And if you’re a trainee who’s not always sure if you’re building strength in the best way, or you’re not sure how to gauge your strength progress with a bodyweight training program, the strategies I’ll share will help you approach things in a more productive manner.
I’ll share my three most effective strategies for helping my students build strength and feel confident that they’re making progress toward their goals.
Why Do Some People Have a Hard Time Building Strength?
Just like any aspect of training, strength is something that tends to be oversimplified by a lot of trainers or experienced trainees.
There are all sorts of formulas out there for building strength, and for most people, those formulas work. But sometimes the most straightforward formulas don’t have the desired effects for certain individuals.
As a coach, I see a lot of individuals who fit into that category.
After all, the people looking for help from a coach are usually going to be those who haven’t been able to get the results they want on their own.
So why do some people struggle more than others?
What I’ve found is that, in most cases, it’s not a failure with the formula; rather, it might be that my programming needs to be adjusted, or there may be a mindset issue that’s holding those clients back from making the progress they want.
No matter the cause, it’s important to recognize when something isn’t working the way it should, and to be open to making adjustments to get the desired results.
You may be a coach who does things a certain way, but if that certain way isn’t working for a particular client, it’s time to make a change. And if you’re a trainee who’s following a program to a T and still not getting the results you want, you can use the following strategies to make modifications as needed.
1. Start With a Detailed Strength Assessment
If you don’t know your starting point, it’s damn near impossible to know how much progress you’re making. For newer trainees, it’s really important to get a baseline assessment so they can clearly see what they need to work on, and down the line, how far they’ve come.
We’ve talked in previous articles about the importance of assessments, and how to use assessments in the most effective ways.
But what I want to discuss now, is how, as a coach, I assess my students’ strength when it comes to bodyweight training, and how I help them see when they are getting stronger and making improvements.
With weight training, it’s easy to know when you are getting stronger. You may start by doing biceps curls with the little 10-pound dumbbells, and eventually, you’re curling those heavy black dumbbells in the back of the gym. It’s easy to see that you are getting stronger. This is not necessarily the case with bodyweight training.
Here’s my favorite strategy for assessing bodyweight strength:
- Video is key–With bodyweight training, strength improvements aren’t always correlated with higher reps or sets. A client may go through my initial assessment thinking she can do 10 push-ups, but when I make modifications to her technique so that she is accessing her actual strength, she may find she can only do 2 solid push-ups. That can feel like a big step back. What I focus on, then, is max reps with perfect form of a few key exercises. The most important part, though, is taking video footage of the assessment so they can see their starting point.
Later on, when my client feels like she is not making the progress she wants, we do another video assessment and then I can show her evidence of how far she’s come.
Whether you’re a trainee or a coach, I highly recommend using video for your assessments. It’s the clearest way to compare your progress, especially with bodyweight training. Improving technique is one of the best signs of strength gains, so look at technique over anything else.
2. Keep Your Student Motivated
As I spoke about in a previous article about flexibility, consistency in training is the real key to continually improving strength. And to help my students stay consistent with training, I always prioritize keeping them motivated.
Here are some tips for maintaining motivation:
- Figure out what’s important to your client–Before you try any fancy motivation tactics, start by making sure that getting stronger is actually important to your client. It very well may not be, and if it isn’t, they will always find a way to not stick with the program (usually subconsciously). Ask your client how important it is to them that they reach their goal, on a scale of 1-10. If it isn’t a 9 or 10, then you need to work with your client to find their “why.” You may find out they don’t really want the goal you’re helping them work towards, and they want something else altogether. Or, you may be able to help them figure out why this goal is important to them.
- Break big goals down into more manageable chunks–When a client nails a new strength move such as first pull-up or first handstand push-up, they can immediately see that they have made progress, but it is important to create milestones in-between. Going from nothing to a full pull-up can take months so having some small steps in between can help to keep them motivated.
- Make sure your client understands your methods–Ensure your students “buy in” to your methods and understand why you teach things a certain way. For example, you might explain to your client why doing one slow pull-up can be more challenging than five fast pull-ups. With slow pull-ups, you are not using any momentum, plus it can be an equal amount of time under tension which is really the key. If the client does not understand this, they may not make good form a priority.
While motivation can come from a lot of different places, when I see that a client of mine just isn’t motivated to keep showing up and doing the work, I know there are things I can do as a coach to address that.
It’s important to meet your clients where they are, and not try to force what’s important to you on to them. So, help them find what they really care about, make sure they understand why you’re programming things the way you are, and adjust your programming to give them some “wins.”
3. Make Your Programming Enjoyable for Each Particular Student
In my many years of experience with coaching students, I’ve found that the #1 thing that ensures good results is creating a program your student will enjoy and stick to. If the scientifically proven best ever workout program is boring and not fun at all, then why would anyone continue with it?
Here are my favorite strategies for giving your clients fun programming they’ll actually want to do:
- Throw “dessert” exercises into the mix–Everyone has some exercises they prefer over others. I call these “dessert” exercises–those exercises you know your client will enjoy working on. Put them at the end of the session so they have something to look forward to (like dessert–get it? 😉). This can be a simple activation exercise, Focused Flexibility-style stretches (if you know your client likes to stretch), or simply an exercise they are good at and love. If I have a student whom I know loves calf raises, my programming for her might be:
- Activation Drill: Lat activation drill (this is relatively easy for this student, but beneficial for the main exercise, pull-ups)
- Main Exercise: Pull-Ups (this is an exercise this student hates doing, but needs to practice for her goals)
- Dessert: Calf raises (her favorite exercise)
- Give the program enough time to work–We often hear about students with training ADD chasing after the next fitness trend like a squirrel. The same is true for coaches. We want to keep our clients interested and excited about the training, but if the students never get a chance to really learn the exercises, they will not progress as you hope. Plan your training programs for 6-12 weeks and stick with the basic plan. Yes, you will have to make modifications for the students if they progress slower or faster than expected, but it is important for you as a coach to be consistent.
Part of being a coach is learning to individualize programs for each client. A big part of that is not just looking at how your client’s body responds to your programming, but also looking at how you can make your programming fun and engaging for your client.
You know from your own experience that, if you don’t like something, you’re not going to stick with it and therefore, you won’t get the results you want.
Apply that principle to your students and you’ll see a big impact on their progress.
When in Doubt, Use a Strength Program That’s Adjustable to Individual Needs
If you’re having a hard time building strength (or teaching your clients how to get stronger), start implementing the strategies I’ve suggested. You probably won’t need to use them all, but experiment with the ones that speak to you the most, and see what works best.
Of course, the best strategies won’t work unless you’re applying them to a smart strength training program that fits your needs.
Integral Strength starts with a detailed strength assessment, and takes into account each person’s level of ability, so that the program helps you get stronger exactly where you need it. It’s helped even those who are new to training build the strength they need, like Topi from Finland:
Build Strength Where You Need It
Over eight weeks, Integral Strength will help you build strength exactly where you need it, without the guesswork that often comes with standard strength programs.