Just a few short years ago it was a rare occurrence to walk into a gym and have to wait for a squat rack or a deadlift platform. These days, thanks to Cross-Fit and social media, everyone and their mom (literally) are doing strength training and powerlifting exercises which means the line for the power rack looks similar to Starbucks on a Monday morning.
However, even with strength training being all the rage these days - there’s still a big portion of gym goers who aren’t ready to abandon their beloved cardio routine. Like an ex who you just can’t quit - there’s a longing to keep “shredding” fat and pursuing the aesthetic look.
Well - there’s good news. I mean really good news. You can pursue strength and power while still obtaining that tight and toned physique. You can still pump out some high rep training or sweat buckets doing HIIT cardio while having a strong and powerful body.
The trick is knowing to how properly set up your programming and periodization while manipulating your total volume, intensity and frequency of training to properly fit your goals. WAIT….what the heck did I just say? Ok...let’s keep it simple. In order to hit your goals - you just need a little common sense and some real truth to keep things moving towards your ultimate physique goals.
Why Should You Want to Be Strong and Powerful?
People often throw around the word “functional” when it comes to modern training. The idea is that we should be doing more movements that translate to everyday life. Picking up things, pulling our body weight over things, holding our kids, etc. are all things that we need to be able to do throughout our daily life - therefore training for “functionality” is a smart idea.
But how the heck do we perform functional training? Well, a good place to start is by getting really strong. Think about it. If we are strong and powerful that will translate really well to everyday life. Our posture will improve (core strength), we can move things easily (pick up cars if someone is trapped - ok maybe that’s just a movie), and other random life occurrences that require strength.
Ladies- before you say “I don’t want to be too big or bulky” - the truth is that being strong actually builds curves. Trust me on this one. Adding some strength and power training to your routine can build your butt, hamstrings, and tighten up your arms and abs. Can I get an amen?!?
How to Set Up Strength and Power Training
Ok so you’re down with some good ol’ fashion strength training and you’re ready to start lifting heavy things. Well slow down champ - let’s map this thing out.
First, we need to understand that building strength and power is a skillset that we must teach our bodies. That means we need to become masters of proper form as well improve our mobility and flexibility (our body’s ability to move naturally through movements). For people who enjoy reading I suggest picking up a copy of “Becoming a Supple Leopard” by Dr. Kelly Starrett.
Mastering the form of key movements such as the squat, deadlift, bench press and standing overhead press will pay dividends for your entire training lifetime. Proper form will also help prevent injuries. Becoming more mobile and flexible will help decrease aches and pains as well as help you push through strength plateaus.
With strength and power as our primary goal it’s important to structure your training to maximize recovery and help you bring tons of energy to each training session. I suggest training your power lifts (squats, deadlifts, overhead press and chest press) each on their own separate days. Or if you can only train 3 days per week I would suggest picking 3 of the 4 movements and focusing on those for 4-6 weeks before swapping one out for another.
Since we are looking to progressively build strength we should move our cardio and accessory work (arms, calves, abs) to a separate day or move that work to the latter half of our workout. This maximizes our focus and energy around the strength days in our program without completely ignoring the aesthetic side of the equation.
Another trick is to avoid training to failure on all your sets. Training to absolute failure on each set will tax your nervous system. I suggest picking your spots and pushing to failure on the last set of 1 or 2 main exercises per workout. This also ensures that you complete your target reps and sets each workout instead of getting completely burned out by hitting failure on all your sets.
Power training is a form of strength training that should be included as well. Power training involves working on the speed and execution of your main lifts. For example, a power focused day centered around deadlifts would have you focusing on the speed of your lift (with perfect form). Each week you’d attempt to lift the same weight faster and more efficiently so that on your strength days the real heavy weight is lifted with greater ease.
How Should Cardio be Incorporated on a Strength Training Plan?
A good rule of thumb for cardio when focusing on strength is to limit cardio to 25-50% of the total time training with weights for the week. So if your weight training totals 4 hours per week I’d suggest no more than 1-2 hours total time doing cardio.
The type of cardio you do on a strength focused routine should help maximize your goal of building strength while keeping an aesthetic physique and healthy heart/lungs. A good tip is to utilize cardio that uses similar body parts being trained on a specific day. For example on your squat focused day you might end your session with bike sprints. On your bench press day a good strategy would be to use battle ropes or do burpees.
Notice I haven’t mentioned any long duration medium intensity cardio like the 45-60 minute sessions on the stepmill that most people do when trying to cut fat. The reason I suggest avoiding that type of cardio when focused on building strength is due to the fact that doing that type of cardio will tax your energy reserves and hinder your strength gains.
Instead opt for short duration - high intensity cardio to end your workouts. On days in between its completely fine to go on long walks, but keep the intensity low! Use the recovery days for stretching, low intensity cardio, meditation and fueling up for the next day's strength workout!
Incorporating Strength Training into Aesthetic Based Training
Whether you want to look like Thor, Kim K, a fitness cover model, Brad Pitt in Fight Club, J-Lo or any other “ideal” body - there’s always a benefit to including some strength training. If your primary goal is aesthetics (looking awesome) then it’s a good idea to add some strength based work a couple times per week.
If you’re focused on losing body fat adding some lower rep strength and power training can help your body hold onto muscle as you torch body fat. This is incredibly helpful when it comes to keeping your metabolism running super high, maintaining a tight and toned look and burning fat with ease. You can add some low rep sets to your deadlifts, squats and presses a couple times per week to start - this will help maintain strength on a cut.
It’s important to remember that when we are focused on losing fat and building a lean physique our calories will be lower, thus our energy will be less than when we are focused on building muscle and taking in more calories. Therefore, you shouldn’t get frustrated if you aren’t adding a ton of weight to the bar each week. In some cases you may have to go lighter or just maintain your previous best weight and reps. Don’t get discouraged, instead remember to focus on form and efficiency of the lifts.
The Final Word
Strength Training and Training for Aesthetics don’t have to be separated. You can have some of each to create a unique recipe for your specific goals. It’s a good idea to focus on one or the other while keeping small parts of the other side included to maximize results. The truth is that you can be a beautiful beast!
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I'm a husband and father of 2 who stays fit year round and enjoys LIFE 24/7/365 - so I like to write about that.