1. Start with Bodyweight
No matter how much you can squat, pull off the ground, or get over your head - if you cannot pull yourself up to a bar there is a fundamental and functional strength concern that needs to be addressed.
In addition to the impressive levels of strength that can be built through bodyweight training, it requires an understanding of where your body is in space and where it is in relation to itself. These are crucial elements of any form of strength training. It can also be argued that the carryover from bodyweight strength training to barbell strength training is greater than the other way round, in the majority of cases.
2. Address Weak Links
Whether you like CrossFit or not, there is one aspect of the way CrossFitters train that you cannot deny - addressing weak links will make you stronger, quicker. Whereas CrossFit does this in a generalist fashion, you can be a little more specific when it comes to your strength goals. Work out which movements or body parts let you down when the going gets tough and the weights get heavy. Then address these elements systematically and specifically.
If you don't know what your weak links are, go to see a good strength coach and find out. Even better, get them to provide you with a program that will bring these up to scratch. Working on your weaknesses will have the biggest carryover to the rest of your life.
3. Utilize Carryover
We've seen this concept of carryover mentioned twice now. Time to drag it out from the back of the stage and give it a mic and a spotlight. You have limited time, energy, and other such expendable resources. To get the most out of your training, you need to work out what works for you, in terms of movements, reps, sets, tempo, and more.
There is only one way to truly work out what does work for you. Get yourself under the bar and experiment. Record your experiments and learn from them. You can also speed up that process by learning from those who have been there before.
4. Train with Strong(er) People
There are plenty of ways you can find strong(er) people. Seek out the strongest person in your gym and ask to train with them. Look up a club specific to the type of lifting you do and get yourself down there to train. Find people who eat, sleep, breathe, and compete in it at a high level. You think these people haven't learned something along the way?
If you don't think you can learn from such people, you are wrong. Leave your ego in your gym bag and soak up the inspiration from people who have been there, done that, and got the blood-stained T-shirt.
5. Build a Base with the Basics
So far we've looked at strategies to employ in order to get yourself stronger. Now let's make sure you have the strength basics down.
It doesn't matter what form of strength training floats your boat or what you are lifting - barbells, odd-objects, or kettlebells to name a few. Ensure that you are pushing, pulling, squatting, hinging, and carrying on a regular basis. These are basic human movements and foundational to building a solid base of strength. Make sure none of these are missing from your training.
6. Find the Missing Piece
Listen to your body. Minor tweaks or worse, full-blown injury can be your body's way of letting you know what's missing from your training program. A good sports therapist will supply you with a prehab or rehab program. Often the pieces in this program are a good indication of what is missing from your fitness routine. Or you could just let me shorten the process for you: You need to do more rows and rotational work.
7. Be Coachable
Whether you are lucky enough to be coached regularly or not, be open to any coaching you receive. There is a difference between being coached and being coachable. Coaching is a two-way process, and those that give the coach something to work with allow the coach to learn about how you work and how you respond to different styles of coaching. A good coach will use this information to help motivate and improve you in a way that works best for you.
8. Choose Your Flavor
Let's say you are already doing almost all of the points this article lays out. You have the basics down, are conscious of the gaps, and have the right people around you. Yet you do not seem to be getting much closer to your goal.
Don't take this the wrong way, but it's likely you are going about your strength training the wrong way. If you are working towards specific strength goals, you need to build the appropriate kind of strength. The foundation is that of absolute strength, but there comes a point where you need to make sure your style of training is a good fit. Take the Olympic lifts as an example. These are fast lifts. Training in slow and steady movements will not prepare you as well as explosive and powerful ones in terms of developing the flavor of strength required - in this case, speed-strength.
9. Less is Better
We have discussed a number of strength training principles here, and a number of them involve assessing the way that you train. However, do not confuse this with continually adding stuff to your training schedule. We are talking about efficiency of training. Make sure that as you develop your training, you also streamline your approach to optimise virtuosity, recovery and, of course, intensity. Keeping your program sharp in this way will also allow you to simply assess exactly which of the modifications you are make are working and which are not.
10. Test the Mind
Who sets your limits? The body will give up long before the mind does. Find ways to challenge your everyday training principles and push past perceived boundaries. Here are three ways to do so:
Competition: Put yourself into a competitive situation in your chosen field of play. Anyone who has done so will attest that lifting in a competitive situation is worlds apart from lifting on your own in your favorite corner of the gym. Some people seize up. Others revel at the chance. Whatever happens, you will learn more about yourself and the way your work (or don't work).
Coach: A good coach should know you better than you know yourself. Putting yourself in the hands of such a person can help you take yourself to places that you didn't think possible, knowing that you are still within the realms of safety whilst doing so.
Change: Mix it up from time to time. I advocate having one play session a week, where you can do whatever you want. Always do combinations of 5s and 3s for squats? Try 20 reps. Always lift with a barbell? Pick up an awkward object and lift that instead. Trying something new removes any notion of a reference point in terms of personal bests, or limits.
In summary - be considered about what you train, how you train, and who you train with. Yet sometimes, throw this consideration to the wind and dive head first into unfamiliar territory. Ingest, understand and adopt the strength training principles outlined above to drive your strength to the next level, and beyond.