A healthy, active lifestyle can yield more than just a better appearance. Building new muscle tissue not only gives you a more toned look, it also makes you more physically capable in the gym. If you are willing to push your comfort zone and test your limits in your workouts, you can teach your muscles to push heavier and heavier weight. There is a science to getting stronger and with a little consistency, you can defy even your own expectations.

The phenomenon of gaining strength can be broken down to the cellular level. A majority of your muscles, like biceps and quads, are skeletal muscle, meaning they attach to the bone. Skeletal muscles are composed of muscle proteins called actin and myosin, according to Scientific American. These proteins work together to create force through what’s called power strokes. The amount of force or strength that you have depends on how many power strokes can be generated at once. We can enhance these power strokes over time through muscle hypertrophy and neural adaptation.

It sounds like a bunch of confusing scientific garble, but these two methods are simpler than you think. Hypertrophy means your muscle cells are getting larger. To make your muscle cells larger, you have to exercise regularly, rest sufficiently and eat plenty of protein. 

Neural adaptation has a lot to do with power strokes as well. Not only do you want more power strokes occurring in the muscle at the same time, you want these strokes to be synchronized. When you are new to the gym, your muscles will fire randomly and unsynchronized as your body adapts to the movements. You neurons have been gathering dust over the months and years you’ve been inactive. Neural adaptation means your neurons are shaking off the dust and learning how to communicate with your muscles. This communication also keeps you from injuring yourself because your neurons can tell your muscles not to overdo it. Neural adaptation happens long before muscle hypertrophy, which is why you get stronger before you get bigger. 

The key to the whole process is the amount of stress on your body. Naturally, if you slowly increase this level of stress by bumping up the weights, your muscle cells will have to enlarge to support that weight. This gradual increase of weight in your workouts overtime is called progressive overload. It requires you to be mentally present and aware of your own progression throughout your journey. You have to know where you started and where you want to go. By keeping track of the numbers, you can slowly work your way up in 3-5% increments over weeks or months to build strength. You can also achieve this by breaking down your workout program into microcycles, increasing weight or the number of reps every 1 to 2 weeks. Find your body’s exact limits and constantly try to push them. 

That feeling of complete muscle fatigue and failure has been the subject of a lot of clinical trial studies over the years. Researchers are trying to nail down our real, numerical physical ceiling. How far can we really push? What’s fascinating is, our mind usually gives up before our muscles do. According to Men’s Journal, a study was conducted where electrodes were placed on the bicep as the subject was doing curls. When the subject just couldn’t do any more, the scientists externally stimulated the muscle and all of a sudden, the bicep instantly bounced back. The muscle still had some in the tank, but the central nervous system tapped out first. Clearly, that mind-muscle connection plays a huge role in how strong we can really be and how important it is to keep going when you feel like giving up. Overtime, your nervous system adapts and gets more comfortable under the stress, giving you more room to grow. 

No matter how much you build up strength in individual muscles, a strong core can make all the difference. Especially for compound, power-lifting movements like squats and deadlifts, a tight core is a vital foundation. Being able to move weight not only depends on your muscle strength, but also the balance, form and stability in your body as a whole. Many stability muscles are rooted in your midsection, to keep your spine protected. From your abs and obliques, to the pelvic floor and your diaphragm, there are 35 muscles that work together to help you lift the weight without getting injured.

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Take it from me

I have my own system when it comes to progressive overload. The basic rule for me is, if I can finish 10-15 sets without much struggle, it’s not heavy enough. I should be pushing with everything in me to get that 10th rep or I’m not reaching my potential. Once I find that ideal weight, I’ll keep practicing it over and over. I’ll improve form and get comfortable with the movement for a while, but when that 10th rep starts to feel too easy again, it’s time to bump up the weight. Usually, what my mind thinks I can lift and what I can actually lift are two very different things. So I go heavy, heavier than I want to. I grab the weight that kind of intimidates me. 

In a span of about a year and a half, I’m happy to say I’ve increased the weight I’m lifting substantially. No matter the body part, I make sure that I am putting myself through the pain. That pain is what yields results. That last rep that feels like your muscle is going to rip off the bone is what makes all the difference. Your strength can evolve just as much as your external appearance if you’re willing to push. When in doubt, go heavy.