1. DRINK UP
News flash: you’re probably dehydrated. Another news flash: being just slightly dehydrated will negatively affect your strength. Several research studies confirm that slight dehydration can limit strength and power by as much as 20%. Be sure to drink at least one gallon of water per day to maintain your body-fluid levels. Before workouts, drink at least 15–20 ounces of water, in your protein shake or otherwise. Then, drink 5–10 ounces of water or other fluid every 15 minutes during your workout. Weigh yourself before and after your workout, compare the two bodyweights and drink a quart of fluid for every two pounds you lost.
2. STOP STRETCHING IT
Old-school training advice says to warm up and stretch before workouts. The warm-up part is good advice. The stretching part? Not so good. Research shows that doing static stretching (reach and hold) before workouts can decrease strength by up to 10%, so save the static stuff for after training. You’ll be more flexible, get more out of the stretches and be stronger to boot. For a type of stretching that actually increases strength, refer to tip 10 (“Get Dynamic”).
3. GET CAFFEINATED
Few supplements provide immediate effects; usually you have to take a given product for at least a few weeks before you see results. And then there’s caffeine. Several studies have shown that taking one 200–400-milligram dose of caffeine about an hour before workouts immediately boosts strength. One study from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln reported that caffeine increased one-rep max bench press strength by an average of five pounds. Other research has concluded that taking caffeine one hour before workouts allows you to complete more reps with a given weight. If these reasons aren’t good enough to start taking supplemental caffeine, what is?
4. MIND YOUR NECK
When bench pressing, you may find yourself watching the bar as you lower it to your chest, in the process lifting your head off the bench (neck flexion). Stop doing this. Even the slightest bit of neck flexion can decrease strength. One study found a 6% decline in power for neck flexers compared to those keeping their heads on the pad. On the flip side, pressing your head downward into the bench can stimulate what is called the “tonic neck reflex” to increase power and strength.
5. LIFT FOR A CROWD
The company you keep when going heavy in the gym can make a huge difference on strength levels. Researchers at Arizona State University (Tempe) tested one-rep max bench press strength both when subjects were alone (except for a spotter) while attempting the lift and surrounded by 15 onlookers making no noise. In the latter case, lifters bench-pressed a whopping 30 pounds more on average than when they were alone. Just the presence of others seems to enhance motivation and, as a result, strength levels. If you’re looking to set a personal record and you have the choice of doing it at either a crowded gym or an empty one, opt for the audience.
6. GET A PAP
No, this isn’t the kind your girlfriend gets. PAP stands for postactivation potentiation. Basically, it means that if you do a plyometric exercise just before you attempt a heavy max, you can actually be stronger on that lift — for example, drop jumps before squats and drop pushups before bench press. One study from the University of Massachusetts (Boston) found that when subjects did drop jumps from a box about 30 seconds before a max set of squats, they were about 5% stronger on squats than when they did squats without the plyos — likely due to the fact that the plyometric exercise primes the nervous system to fire stronger and faster, for more powerful muscle contractions.
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