I hope this article sheds some light on what is necessary for getting strong and tough.

Looking at mental focus, adequate recovery, and intense effort

If I had a nickel for every relative or friend who asked me to write up an exercise program for them, I’d be wealthy. I often change the subject and they forget all about the request. I don’t mean to seem rude or act like I’m above helping people; I just know that they often lack the personal drive and are simply making small talk and have no intention of doing what is necessary to make measurable improvements in their health. 

Most folks think there’s a secret workout or pill that, if only they could access it, would bring back that youthful or dream physique. Unfortunately, the sad truth is that humans naturally move to a place of least resistance, which doesn’t leave much room for what is necessary to stay healthy, strong, and lean. 

Don’t despair! Today I’ll give you what I think is the single most important factor in any training program and that which holds the key to getting and staying strong and relatively lean (depending on your dietary habits). 

Getting Strong is All About the “I”

The secret? INTENSITY! I absolutely love watching athletes who are INTENSE and dialed into their training. Why? Because it’s so rare. 

I was extremely fortunate as a young man of 18, with absolutely no understanding of how to get strong, to have some men from the Fargo YMCA take me under their wing and mentor me. One of them, Rocky Gullicksen, has spent the last 35 years as a Strength Coach in the NFL, currently with the St. Louis (now LA) Rams. Rocky, 25 at the time, and his cohorts were into powerlifting, a sport I also knew nothing about. They lifted big, they ate big, and they got strong. Oh, and they RESTED big (as in between exercise movements). 

I see so many programs today that fall under the HIT acronym (High Intensity Training) and I don’t see any “Intensity” at all. I see volume training up the yazoo, but my idea of intensity and the HIT format of intensity are miles apart. My experience has shown me that it’s very difficult to get strong when you’re in a constant state of fatigue. Moving quickly from one exercise to the next is great for building up muscular endurance, improving cardiovascular fitness, fat burning, and flexibility (when the movements are done through a full range of motion), but it’s hard to get strong. 

Are there exceptions? Yes. Young athletes that are in full-blown hormone heaven will generally get stronger just by getting out of bed and applying any stress to the body. We all long for those metabolically charged days, but wishing won’t bring them back. 

I highly recommend alternating between Circuit Training (CrossFit) and Strength Training throughout the year, with circuit training taking on a larger role in the months leading up to hunting season. But this time of year, I like to focus on getting truly strong for a few months and then switch it up. 

Getting Strong

So how do you get strong? Without going into an in-depth program design, it really boils down to two things: 1) adequate recovery between sets, and 2) the intensity you bring to the exercise on each set. Research indicates the optimum recovery time between sets for muscles to recharge is 2.5-3 minutes. This amount of recovery time can be very challenging for folks used to constant movement. It requires self-discipline and an ability to stay focused and not allow distractions to pull you off your game. 

If you find that you’re pressed for time and want to get more work done, consider combo moves. These incorporate another exercise of a body part that will not affect the body part of the initial movement. In other words, you might pick a chest move (bench press/incline press/pushups) and combo it with a back move (pull-ups/lat pulls/single dumbbell rows), or perhaps a leg move (squats/lunges/step-ups) with a shoulder move (overhead barbell presses/upright rows/plate raises). 

For example, I wouldn’t combo squats with step-ups, or any chest pressing exercises with a shoulder move. An exception to this philosophy is squats followed immediately by some form of plyometric movement (weighted jumps, box jumps, etc). 

What you need to understand is that what you’re really trying to accomplish with a true strength workout really boils down to creating an environment where you can apply enough intensity that you achieve “self-induced muscular trauma”. By applying enough Intensity (stress) to a given muscle, you’ll create tiny micro-tears. Then, given proper nutrition with your post workout recovery shakes and with proper rest, the stage is set for strength gains. The secret to getting stronger is adequate recovery time between sets, which allows you the opportunity increase the resistance as well as the ability to emotionally bring the hammer at full strength on each set. 

The Light Bulb

Let me attempt to give you a mental picture of what is technically known as “progressive resistance”, which might help you understand what I believe is necessary to get strong. I often use a light bulb to make my point with athletes who just don’t get it. 

Take a small light bulb and think of this bulb as your muscle tissue. In order to get strong, you need to apply enough stress to the muscle (bulb) to create trauma. In front of my teams, I’ll set that bulb down and pick up a feather. This feather represents the intensity of the exercise that is brought to bear on the muscle. I take that feather and rub vigorously, but the lack of intensity created makes it impossible to create any trauma. The exercise was essentially a waste of time. 

Next, I set the feather down and pick up a stiff brush. I apply pressure from the brush onto that bulb in hopes of creating a change, and although there definitely were some increased forces applied, no real damage or trauma occurred to the bulb. More intensity was created than the feather for sure, but still no real damage to the muscle. 

I then set the brush down and pick up the hammer. One light tap with the hammer and the bulb explodes! This is the training effect you’re looking for. 

Now, understand that you have to bring that hammer rep after rep, set after set! In order to do this, you have to be fully recovered, dialed in, and absolutely focused on the challenge at hand. 

During my visual illustration, I will then pick up a slightly larger and thicker bulb. This bulb represents the muscle after it has recovered, repaired, and grown stronger. Guess what’s necessary to get stronger now? You guessed it; more/bigger hammer. I finish off with an even bigger bulb, which takes substantially more hammer to shatter, and well, they get the point. 

Jedi Mind Tricks

I can’t stress enough that getting stronger requires a mindset that not many people naturally have. You have to be wired a little different and be okay knowing that. Half the battle is the environment you create. If you need intense music, use it! Talk to yourself? Absolutely. A dedicated workout partner is also priceless. 

No matter what, you have to get your mind right before you start. I remember the day over 40 years ago when I read Arnold Schwarzenegger’s comments on his mental approach to his workouts. “ I pretend the bar is a car that is trapped on a friend and I have to get it off or he will die.” Dramatic? Maybe, but it works! 

Getting stronger isn’t for soft people. It starts with a powerful, motivated vision. Your “why”! My definition of a vision is “a picture of the future that produces passion”.  You and I absolutely love to hunt. We know we’re not the norm and we take great pride in the fact that we’re cut from a different cloth. Use that as a springboard to bring intensity, focus and a hammer to your workouts. 

Focus and Vision

You know the intensity and focus of a setup when a screaming bull is coming in. Adrenaline is coursing through your veins. It’s show time! We live for it. 

Now, try to recreate that in your workouts. Can you imagine if you knew you had a bull coming on a string and another hunter just walked up to you out of nowhere and starting talking to you about what kind of broadheads you shoot? Well, that’s what passes for working out today…social exercising. If that’s what you want, fine, but don’t come to me when your body turns to butter! 

Aggressively competing against yourself is critical, so avoid these folks like the plague. Record your workouts, hold your feet to the fire, and get after it. Laughing and getting stronger are not compatible. Author Christopher McDougall, author of Born to Run, put it another way. “Glee and determination are usually antagonistic emotions.” 

Bringing this kind of intensity to your workouts results in not only getting stronger, but also creating a deep sense of accomplishment…and toughness! Train like this long and hard enough and you will toughen up. 

I always appreciated Bill Belichick’s approach to drafting NFL football players for what has become the most successful franchise in NFL history. He said, “We don’t look for the most talented guys on the field; we spend our time trying to find the toughest guys.” 

Training with recovery and intensity develops toughness in people that softer training methods will not. My goal is to get you strong and to make you tough. You might be fit as a fiddle, but if you’re mentally light in the loafers, I’d encourage you to hunt close to the road. 

Remember, alternate your training methods periodically to keep things fresh and relevant based on what your needs are and where you are in your annual build-up to your hunts. But when you decide to get strong, bring the hammer. Here’s to talking to yourself! 

Live long, live strong. ~ Coach P.