How to Get Stronger: A Guide to Building Raw Strength

How to Get Stronger: A Guide to Building Raw Strength

Strength training is one of the most beneficial physical activities an athlete can engage in. Unlike other methods of exercise, such as running, cycling, or participating in organized sports, strength training provides the individual with the ability to continuously improve by making periodic changes to the training plan. 

When performing many other forms of physical activity, the body eventually acclimates to the demands placed upon it, and stagnation in improvement occurs. With strength training, we are afforded the tools to consistently provide stimulus that allows for improvements in athletic qualities and traits to be made. As accommodation sets in, we make subtle adjustments to the stimulus to ensure further progress can be achieved. 

At Westside, we have helped athletes develop strength for many years, and can attest to the importance of strength-focused training for both the average human and the high-level athlete. No matter how gifted an individual is, simply participating in sport is not enough to allow for continuous athletic improvement to be made. If an athlete wants to reach their full potential, the athlete must train to improve strength. 

Understanding the Basics of Strength

As an athlete begins barbell training, the main concern is how to get stronger. From there, the athlete may be concerned with how to get stronger arms, how to get stronger legs, how to get a strong core, or how to get stronger forearms. Fortunately, at Westside Barbell, we specialize in teaching athletes how to get strong. 

The development of raw strength allows the athlete to enhance absolute and explosive strength levels, while also providing physiological benefits such as increased bone and tissue density, along with a higher level of durability and resilience. Simply put, by improving raw strength, an athlete becomes stronger, faster, and tougher.

Strength is defined as the quality or state of being physically strong or the capacity of an object or substance to withstand great force or pressure. So, how does one go about becoming stronger? By consistently training at levels of intensity and volume that provide meaningful stimulus to trigger physiological adaptations that lead to improved performance in sport.  

If we look at the big picture, it is a simple process; we need to consistently increase the demands placed on the athlete to bring about further positive training adaptations. However, as we look closer, there is much more that goes into developing the strength of an athlete. 

Proper strength training calls for a synergistic relationship between strength and hypertrophy-focused training. Not only do we want to improve the physical strength of the athlete, but we also want to improve the physical composition of the athlete. Both goals can be achieved when strength training, as long as training intensity and volume are regulated appropriately. 

At Westside, we follow a basic workout template to ensure both gains in strength and physical composition are able to be made. Each workout will feature a main exercise focused on the development of a specific strength, followed by hypertrophy-focused exercises designed to increase muscle mass and further develop muscle groups identified as weak.

When developing strength, we focus on training at specific levels of intensity and velocity to target specific special strengths. While training volume is still a factor to some degree, the main focus is ensuring the athlete is training at intensities and velocities that allow for beneficial neuromuscular and musculoskeletal adaptations to occur. This is where max effort and dynamic effort training enter the equation. 

Improving physical composition is a bit different. Instead of focusing solely on training intensity and velocity, we are more concerned with training volume. The goal here is to train with weights that provide optimal levels of mechanical tension to trigger a growth response in the targeted muscle or muscle group. Accessory training is considered repeated effort training and will provide the athlete with improved physical composition and enhanced work capacity. 

The Importance of a Solid Foundation

An athlete’s ability to accomplish and endure a demanding training program all depends on the level of foundational strength and skill the athlete possesses. In simple terms, we refer to this as “base building,” which refers to the introductory phase of strength training. This phase can last as little as three months, or as long as three years, it all depends on the individual.

Typically, the more naturally gifted an athlete is, the less time they will need to take to build foundational levels of strength and movement skills prior to moving onto a more advanced level of training. Appropriate base building training uses basic exercises prescribed at varying levels of intensity and volume to simultaneously develop base strength, work capacity, muscle mass, and movement skill. 

This introductory phase is also where the “beginner gains” phenomena usually occurs. Beginner gains refers to the initial gains made by an individual during the first few months of training. Typically, these gains are amplified due to the training providing a brand new stimulus to the body. This initial gain in strength will depend on the training and genetics of the individual, but will occur in all athletes to some degree. 

Beginner gains are simply a response from the body to meet the sudden demands placed upon it. However, as training progresses, the rate of progression will begin to decrease slightly. This is due to the body acclimating to the demands of training, which decreases the physiological adaptations caused by the training. 

This is exactly why we begin using exercise variation with more experienced athletes; to avoid accommodation and continue to allow positive training adaptations to occur at a reasonable rate. 

Additionally, base building-focused training provides an athlete with valuable practice reps to learn proper technical execution of basic barbell exercises. As the athlete begins training, it is important to ensure each movement is performed to standard on a consistent basis. Bad habits formed in the base building phase can follow an athlete as they progress and lead to catastrophic injury in the future. 

When building base strength, the goal should be to perform basic variations and movements at different levels of intensity and volume to allow for as much positive adaptation to occur as possible. This training will essentially set the course for the individual as far as their strength training journey goes, so it should be taken very seriously. 

Structured Training Programs for Strength

When it comes to strength training methods and periodization, it all boils down to two approaches: linear-based and Conjugate-based training. Linear-based training incorporates the use of long-term or short-term training phases to focus on the development of one aspect of strength or athletic ability at a time. Conjugate-based training eliminates the use of phases all together, focusing on the simultaneous development of strength and athletic qualities instead. 

Here is how to build strength using each method:

Linear-Based Plan

Month 1-3: Volume/Hypertrophy

Month 4-6: Explosive Power

Month 7-9: Absolute Strength 

Conjugate-Based Plan

Day 1: Max Effort/Hypertrophy Lower

Day 2: Max Effort/Hypertrophy Upper

Day 3: Dynamic Effort/Hypertrophy Lower

Day 4: Dynamic Effort/Hypertrophy Upper

As you can see, the approaches are very different from one another. With the linear-based plan, substantial blocks of time are dedicated to specific aspects of strength. This is less than optimal, considering the amount of detraining that occurs between phases. As the athlete progresses in the linear plan, detraining continues to occur between phases, leading to a peaks and valleys pattern of improvement. 

With the Conjugate-based plan, we address all aspects of strength on a weekly basis. This leads to very little if any detraining, and allows for athletes to progress in a pattern resembling stair-steps. Instead of sacrificing one strength to improve another, we improve all strengths and athletic traits simultaneously. As long programming is properly designed, and recovery is appropriately managed, Conjugate-based training is the most efficient and effective training method for training athletes. 

The Role of Progressive Overload

Progressive overload refers to the gradual increasing of training intensity, volume, or density over time to allow for continual adaptation. Simply put, for training to remain effective it must become more difficult as the athlete improves. Just as it does an athlete no good to try and train at levels of volume and intensity well above their ability level, it does an athlete no good to continue training at levels of volume and intensity they have already adapted to. 

When using the Conjugate Method, athletes will strive to escalate their accessory exercise training weights on a weekly basis as long as energy levels allow them to. Additionally, athletes will strive to achieve PR’s during max effort main exercise variations over the course of the month. Typically, if we are running a rotation of four exercise variations, we will expect to PR in all four within 6-8 weeks. 

Then, as these PR lifts occur, our dynamic effort main exercise working weight will be adjusted to match the newly established PR lift. This provides an additional layer of progressive overload, providing us with three ways to progressively overload the athlete; accessory training, max effort training, and dynamic effort training. 

As long as training is programmed and executed correctly, the Conjugate Method provides multiple avenues of progressive overload, leading to rapid gains in strength and work capacity. If an athlete is focused on getting stronger, the Conjugate Method is the way.

Using Variations and Accessory Exercises

One aspect of Conjugate-based training that makes it so effective is the use of exercise variations and specifically-selected accessory exercises. When we design a Conjugate training program the main focus is optimization and efficiency. We want to put together a plan that meets the athlete where they are at currently, and delivers appropriate stimulus that leads to rapid improvement.

No matter the issue or weakness an athlete is experiencing, we are able to evaluate the athlete and put together a comprehensive training plan that can solve whatever issue or weakness they are currently dealing with. In the case that an athlete has no glaring weaknesses, the use of main and accessory exercise variation can help to avoid gaps in strength or imbalances. 

For instance, if an athlete is dealing with a lower-body posterior chain weakness, we can use a main exercise such as giant cambered bar good mornings to immediately begin correcting the issue. Conversely, if the athlete is dealing with a lower-body anterior chain weakness, we can use a main exercise such as the SSB squat or front squat to address the problem. 

Same goes for accessory training. If an athlete is dealing with a triceps weakness, we can increase the volume and intensity of triceps accessory training, or we can select an exercise variation that precisely targets the weakness. This is what makes the Conjugate Method the most effective method; we can always devise a plan to improve the athlete regardless of the condition the athlete is in. 

Deloads, Recovery, and Injury Prevention

The ability of an athlete to recover from training will always dictate the level of success the athlete has with the training program they are currently undertaking. No matter if the athlete is using linear or Conjugated-based training, an appropriate recovery schedule must be implemented and maintained to allow for continuous improvement to be achieved. 

At Westside, we typically train four days per week, every week. If we are working with an athlete with a demanding sports practice schedule, we will cut this training down to three days per week. This leaves us with 3-4 recovery days per week. It is absolutely essential to take advantage of these days and get as much rest as possible if training is to remain optimal.

Failure to properly recover will result in stagnation in strength and athletic improvement at best, or injury at worst. When issues with recovery arise, it is important to address the problem immediately to avoid excess fatigue becoming a longstanding issue. 

To do this, we will make slight adjustments to the training program. Typically, our first move will be to begin lowering our accessory exercise training volume. If this fails to work, we will then begin leaving 1-2 sets in the tank when performing max effort training. If neither of these options completely alleviate the issue, we will then lower our dynamic effort training percentages by 5-10% each week.

Usually, most athletes respond positively to the slight reduction in accessory exercise volume combined with additional focus on maximizing the use of recovery days. However, if all three strategies have been implemented and fatigue is still a major issue, a week off from strength training may be warranted. 

Keep in mind that every situation is different and there is always nuance involved when working with athletes. As a coach, it is important to make the most rational decision based on the evidence presented in the execution of training and the accompanying training data. 

Not only will this help to keep recovery on track, but it will also help to reduce the risk of injury while training. Excess fatigue can cause issues with execution and recovery rate that will almost certainly result in injury if corrective actions are not taken. The best way to prevent injury is to ensure recovery is properly managed on a weekly basis. 

Mental Aspects of Getting Stronger

While strength training is clearly a physical pursuit, there is of course a mental aspect to it as well. Having the correct mindset and outlook on training helps to keep an athlete focused and engaged in the strength training process. Typically, the more mentally engaged with the training that an athlete is, the greater the results and outcomes of the training will be. 

As with nearly anything in life, simply going through the motions will not be enough to achieve optimal training results. For training to be successful, an athlete needs to be locked in every set and rep. Not only will this allow the athlete to benefit more from the training, but it will also help to reduce the chance of injury due to improper execution of an exercise. 

Aside from remaining focused during training, athletes also want to try and maintain a positive attitude and outlook in regards to the training process. Poor workouts and bad weeks of training happen, it is a part of the game. However, the successful athlete realizes this is just a moment in time, and remains optimistic about the future. This mindset helps to keep focus and motivation high throughout the training process. 

The worst thing an athlete can do is dwell on poor performances. Whether in sport or in the gym, an athlete cannot let one instance of failure dictate the outcome of future attempts and training sessions. Bad days will happen in the gym, there is no way around it. Don’t let one bad day lead into another, get your mind right and make the best of the next training session.

Always remember, bad training days occur due to execution of the plan. Either an athlete is failing to recover properly, or failing to execute the training plan properly. No matter what, the responsibility is on the athlete to get their mind right and correct the issue. Just as a hitting coach can’t talk a batter out of a slump, a coach cannot talk an athlete into a positive state of mind.

It is on the athlete to control their mental state, remain disciplined, and keep emotion in check. If you wish to become as physically strong as possible, you must become as mentally strong as possible. 

Frequently Asked Questions

Q: How do I get strong as fast as possible?

A: While there is no “fast” route to strength, there is an efficient route; the Conjugate Method.

Q: How do I get stronger without getting bigger?

A:  Increasing body weight will depend on excess caloric intake. To avoid gaining excess weight you need to find the correct amount of calories to allow for recovery to take place without any excess calories that could result in weight gain. This will take time to get dialed in. 

Q: How long does it take to get stronger?

A: As you begin training, you may recognize differences in strength as quick as 4-8 weeks. 

Q: How soon should I implement exercise variations into training?

A:  This will depend on the individual. However, we recommend sticking to basic movements for the first 12-16 weeks of training. 

Q: Should beginners use bands and chains?

A:  While accommodating resistance training is beneficial for all athletes regardless of level, we typically recommend athletes wait at least 12 weeks before using accommodating resistance. This ensures that the athlete understands basic exercise execution, and has built the strength necessary to safely use accommodating resistance. 

Strength Training is the Answer

Improving physical strength and body composition is a surefire way to become a better athlete. Aside from the performance enhancing effects, strength training also provides stimulus to improve quality of life both short and long term. A properly trained athlete will have increased strength and speed, enhanced bone and tissue density, improved mobility, and the ability to endure and recover from intense training and competition. 

Aside from the fact the grocery bill may increase a bit, there is really no downside to improving the physical strength of an athlete. Too often, you see individuals obsessed with cardiovascular or speed-based training who believe strength training is either too risky or results in decreased athletic performance. This is an absurd stance for any respectable strength and conditioning coach to take. 

No matter if you are a powerlifter, football player, MMA fighter, or golfer, becoming a stronger version of your current self will only help to enhance your sports performance and overall quality of life. Are we saying a golfer should work to become 300lbs with traps to their ears? Of course not. Should a golfer work to become a stronger, more physically fit golfer? Absolutely. 

As athletes find the sport that best suits their genetics, they must also find a training program that allows them to develop their genetic gifts as much as possible. This is where strength training and the weight room enter the equation. If you are looking for the best way to gain strength, the Conjugate Method is the answer. 


Simmons, L. (2007). Westside Barbell Book of Methods. Westside Barbell.

Verkhoshansky, Y., & Siff, M. C. (2009). Supertraining. Verkhoshansky.

Zatsiorsky, V. M., & Kraemer, W. J. (2006). Science and Practice of Strength Training. Human Kinetics

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