What exactly is strength training? This is a broad term referring to any type of activity that makes our muscles stronger.
Strength training is “the ability to overcome or counteract external resistance through muscular action.”
Strength training programs gradually increase our muscles’ ability to resist against force via free weights, machines or bodyweight exercises. Like any skill, the more you practice strength training the better you’ll become and increase strength over time.
Big muscles don’t mean strong muscles
Strength training is not designed to increase the size of muscles. In fact, muscle size and strength are not necessarily linked. When we strength train, we build better neurological pathways from our brains to our muscles. Our nervous system is our body’s control panel and this also applies to our strength, meaning we get stronger because our nervous motor patterns become better traced. What the heck does that mean? Just think of it like turning a dirt road into a smooth freeway.
Different types of strength
Generally, strength is divided into several different categories – absolute, maximal, explosive, speed and endurance.
Absolute strength: The amount of force that someone can exert under involuntary muscle stimulation (i.e. electrical stimulation).
Maximal strength: The amount of force that someone can exert under voluntary effort. To improve maximal strength, you must incorporate “pure strength” workouts into your exercise routine. In pure strength workouts, you lift very heavy doing a maximum of 6 reps per set and rest for long periods of time (3-5 minutes). Rest is long because your body (energy system as well as nervous system) needs time to recover.
Explosive strength: The ability to express significant tension in a short amount of time. To maximize our explosive strength potential, you need to do speed training in addition to pure strength training (force × speed = power). Olympic weightlifting falls into this category.
Speed strength: The ability to quickly execute an unloaded movement or a movement against a relatively small external resistance. Plyometrics would be included in this category.
Strength endurance: The ability to effectively maintain muscular contractions or a consistent level of muscle force for a longer period of time. This type of strength training relies on the aerobic energy system (and improves the aerobic capacity of working muscles). Compound and/or single-joint movements using your bodyweight and/or a variety of equipment such as free-weights are great ways to train strength endurance.
"You’ll never get stronger if you always lift the same amount of weight."
If you want to get stronger, progressive-resistance training is a great option. Progressive-resistance training is a collection of exercises that help build physical strength by lifting progressively heavier weights over time.
Two topics to understand before you dive into a progressive-resistance training program are the overload principle and 1RM. The overload principle says to reap the benefits of this training, the load placed on our bodies via exercise must continue to be increased as our bodies adapt and get used to the current load. Your one 1RM (one-repetition maximum) is the highest amount of weight you can add while performing one repetition of an exercise with correct form. For example, if 15 pounds is the maximum amount of weight you can lift in one bicep curl, you’ll start by doing 5-10 reps of bicep curls using 10-pound weights, gradually increasing that weight over time.
Sample 16-week training program for strength
Typical progressive strength cycles consist of three major exercises — the squat, the deadlift, and the bench press. The main reason for this is safety. In these exercises, it’s easier to maintain proper form and muscular stability required to prevent injuries when working with maximum weight loads.
Here is a sample strength cycle that takes 16 weeks to complete. It consists of four mesocycles that are each four weeks long with the exception of the last one which is broken up even further. Perform each mesocycle 2-3 times per week, leaving 48 hours in between for recovery. The exercises you will perform are the squat, the deadlift, and the flat barbell bench press. Working your percentages is key to progressing. Test your strength and measure your 1RM for each exercise at the beginning of the program as well as between each mesocycle. Do this under the supervision of a trainer if you are new to weightlifting.
10 sets of 6 reps at 65% of your 1RM, for 4 weeks
8 sets of 4 reps at 75% of your 1RM, for 4 weeks
6 sets of 4 reps at 80% of your 1RM, for 4 weeks
6 sets of 2 reps at 90% of your 1Rm for 2 weeks,
6 sets of 1 rep at 95% of your 1Rm for 1 week
4 sets of 4 reps at 70% of your 1Rm for 1 week
Don’t forget to rest
There should be 3-5 minutes of rest between each set of these to allow your ATP energy system to build back up to full strength. If the weight feels low at first, trust me when I say that building true strength isn’t about pushing your limits all the time, it’s about building those strong neural connections.
During your strength workouts, take your time and focus on form. Before you know it you’ll start to feel stronger and notice that other workouts – HIIT, yoga, running – might feel a little bit easier.