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5 (simple) ways to lift more weight

There is such a thing as free strength. Push through your plateau with these easy techniques.

Can you lift more without getting stronger? Matt Berenc, certified strength and conditioning specialist and director of the Equinox Fitness Training Institute in Beverly Hills, thinks so. “Lifting heavier is not only about building muscle,” he says. “It’s also about mastering the skills of strength.” Berenc teaches his clients simple techniques that prime the nervous system to participate more fully in each lift, allowing the muscles to work harder. His top five:


crush the bar

Before you start a lift, grip the bar or dumbbells extremely hard. “Imagine trying to leave your fingerprints on the metal,” Berenc says. This will stimulate nerve endings in the hand, sending a message up the arm to the shoulders and the brain that effectively says, “Get ready for a big effort.” The technical term for this strength-boosting effect is “irradiation.”

clap your hands

A second way to exploit irradiation for free strength is by smacking your palms together (hard enough that it stings a bit) before you grip the bar. This technique also works by stimulating nerve endings in the hands and is useful for any of the major strength lifts.

tense everything

When you’re doing multi-joint movements such as deadlifts and pull-ups, think about creating maximum tension throughout your entire body—even seemingly irrelevant parts like your calf muscles. Known as “total body tension,” this technique boosts lifting performance by bringing every available muscle fiber into the movement and puts your nervous system on high alert. It also creates a solid foundation or point of stability for the working muscles to pull from.

breathe right

Believe it or not, even your breathing can be a source of free strength. “Your breath is the first point of stability for any lift,” Berenc says. “Proper breathing provides a more stable platform by creating intra-abdominal pressure.” Correct breathing is diaphragmatic breathing. Inhale from the belly (imagine “pooching” your tummy) right before starting the lift. Exhale forcefully as you start to move the weight.

get an alignment

The alignment of your body segments affects performance in many lifts, especially those where you are under the weight, such as a barbell squat. Poor alignment sends a danger message to the brain, limiting motor output to the working muscles. Good alignment sends a message to go for it. According to Berenc, you don’t have to work with a personal trainer to improve alignment. You can make progress on your own by experimenting with slightly different foot placements and selecting the combination of foot separation and external rotation that makes you feel that you “own” the lift. Start with an unweighted bar and then add weight as you gain confidence.