Within the health and fitness industry, things tend to come and go at a somewhat alarming rate. This tends to hold particularly true when discussing specific training methodologies, with various training methods and different means of loading, swinging in and out of popularity like an uncontrollable pendulum.
More recently, we have seen the rise and fall of high-intensity interval training, combined with the increasing popularity of bodybuilding style training, targeting improved body composition and muscle growth.
While each of these does have merit, there is a reason they don’t always stand the test of time.
Because they are not the most effective mode training.
However, each of these exercises stems from more traditional methods of training, and it is these training modalities that often offer the most effective means of promoting improvements in body composition, muscle growth, and physical performance.
And strength training is one of these modalities.
While it may not garner as much attention within the mainstream health and fitness industry as some newer training methods (ultimately due to both its simplicity and lack of ‘flash’), traditional strength training has stood the test of time. It is used by physique competitors and performance athletes alike, and its core principals underpin the basis of the vast majority of newer training techniques plugged by the health industry.
What Do We Mean By Strength Training?
So, in this article, I would like to outline the key principles and practices of strength training in somewhat broad terms, and part of this is explaining what I mean when I say ‘strength training’.
For the sake of this article, I am ultimately referring to resistance training in its entirety, with specific emphasis on barbell based movements and bodyweight exercises. This style of training can be implemented in a number of ways, causing vast improvements in a number of different areas. These include improved measures of health, increased levels of athleticism, improved body composition, and of course, increased strength performance.
It is worth mentioning that with strength specifically, it is traditionally performed with the intent to improve the body’s ability to produce force (which is demonstrated by increases in strength performance), while also increasing the amount of muscle mass on the body (which is demonstrated by increased muscle growth and development).
Traditional Loading Parameters to train for strength
Training for strength is something that has occurred for thousands of years, and while the methods may have changed slightly, it quickly becomes quite apparent that the old school strongmen weren’t actually all that far from the truth.
Strength adaptations occur when using lower rep ranges and heavier loads.
In more practical terms, this means using loads between 80% and 100% of your one repetition maximum (also known as 1RM, it describes the maximum amount of weight you can lift for a single repetition), for 1 to 6 repetitions. This can be performed for anywhere between 2 and 10 sets (although 3-6 appears to be the sweet spot for most) and is a tried and true method of improving strength performance.
Although higher rep ranges (3 to 4 sets of 8 to 12 repetitions using 60% to 80% 1RM) have shown to elicit some gains in strength, they are more geared towards maximising muscle growth, and as such appear to be inferior to more traditional loading parameters when it comes to strength development specifically.
How does the body adapt to strength training?
The heavy loading associated with traditional strength training affects the body in a number of ways, ultimately causing it to adapt and become more resilient. This occurs through improvements in both the neural system of the body and through changes made to the body’s tissues.
Strength training places demand on the neural and muscular systems of the body to produce the force required to overcome external loads placed on the body (think loaded resistance during a bench press or a barbell squat). To overcome this loading, the nervous system recruits the necessary muscle fibres required to produce the movement with the required amount of force.
Be repeatedly forcing the body to overcome this stress (through frequent strength training), the nervous system becomes more efficient in its ability to recruit muscle fibres, which causes a significant improvement in the body’s ability to produce force (and subsequently, express strength).
In the same vein of thought, this repeated stress places a significant demand on the muscle tissue of the body. The stress actually causes damage to that tissue. In response to that damage, the body repairs and develops that muscle tissue so that it can handle increased loading, which results in muscle growth (and larger, more resilient, and more developed muscle tissue).
While the heaving loading associated with traditional strength training has shown to causes large improvements in neural strength development, it is also known to stimulate muscle growth and muscular development, making it one of the largest bang-for-buck exercise modalities available.
Beginning strength training recommendations
While it would be nice to jump straight into heavy squats, deadlifts, and presses, there are a few things worth mentioning before we get started.
1. Learn the movements well
While strength training revolves around large compound movements such as squats, deadlifts, rows, presses, and split squats, these movements are incredibly complex (as they require the integration of many muscle groups over a number of joints).
This complexity means that if they are performed with poor technique under heavy load (which is obviously an important part of strength training), there is an increased risk of injury. We can limit the likelihood of developing an injury significantly by ensuring that we learn how to perform the movements correctly before loading them up.
This will also guarantee that the correct muscles are working during the movement, which can lead to improved strength gain and muscular development over time.
2. Prioritise compound movements
Once we have developed proficient technique in those movements mentioned above, then it is time to train them, and train them hard. These large, multi-joint, compound movements use a HUGE amount of muscle mass, while also allowing us to use the greatest amount of weight.
This ensures that we elicit the greatest amount of mechanical stress on the body, leading to maximal strength development and muscle growth. These movements are best performed using the more traditional loading parameters outlined earlier in the article to maximise the load used, and subsequently, the training response elicited.
As a bit of a bonus, these same movements are those that burn the most amounts of energy (due to the large amount of muscle mass involved). As a result, they can also contribute to fat loss.
3. Check your ego at the door
Now, this is a big one.
While it can be quite easy to get caught up in the moment, and as a result, keep throwing more and more weight on the bar, we need to take a step back and realise that we are loading our body with heavy weights, and that one wrong move (or one breakdown in technique) does have the potential to result in injury.
While I don’t want to scare anyone off of strength training, I do want them to realise that they should respect the weights and be aware of their individual limitations. Keep working on a weight that you can perform with a high technical proficiency, and progress slowly.
When it comes to strength training, it is definitely a marathon and not a sprint. As such it is imperative that we improve by making small and consistent increases in weight, rather than going above our limits for a single session and getting injured as a result.
4. Train with people who are stronger than you
Now while it is important to keep your ego at the door and make sure that your technique is on point at all times, to see improvements we still need to work hard and push ourselves. In my experience, when I am training by myself, I can easily get complacent and tend to settle into a bit of a common routine.
When it comes to strength training, complacency is your worst enemy! If we settle into a common routine, it is a sure sign we are not pushing ourselves, and therefore stressing the body enough to stimulate adaptation.
By training with people stronger than us, we can promote healthy competition, and force us into an environment where it is necessary to push ourselves and work hard – which will promote muscle growth and strength development at a much faster rate than if we were to train by ourselves.
As a bonus, people who have developed a high-level strength often have a good understanding of both technique and different loading methodologies. These same people can help us learn and improve, as well as train harder!
5.Don’t train through pain
While this one shouldn’t really need saying, it can’t go unsaid.
Within the more hardcore realms of strength training (with particular emphasis on elite powerlifters, strongmen competitors, and Olympic weightlifters), pain and injury tend to be somewhat common. And the expectation is you train through that pain as a means to compete and improve.
While this may be essential for those who participate in competitions, it is not required for those of us who undertake strength training recreationally. While small injuries and niggles will occur, it is best to train around them and not train through them.
This means avoiding movement that aggravates the injury and prioritising those that do not. In doing so we can promote constant improvement and very quick recovery times, leading to a lasting and sustainable training life time. If we train into pain, we risk the development of more chronic injuries which can be detrimental down the track.
Strength training using large compound movements is a great way to improve function, increase physical performance, make lasting body composition changes, and can even improve confidence and self-esteem.
By using the loading parameters and recommendations outlined within this article, you can improve your body’s ability to express strength, in which you can become a stronger, more muscular, and a more resilient individual!
It is important to remember that strength training is for everyone, and the benefits associated are available for people of any age and gender, so you should get started today!
Why not check out our other Strength Training Guides:
- The Principles and Practices of Strength Training
- The Beginner’s Guide To Strength And Muscle Growth
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- Häkkinen, K. “Neuromuscular and hormonal adaptations during strength and power training. A review.” The Journal of sports medicine and physical fitness 29, no. 1 (1989): 9-26. Viewed at: http://europepmc.org/abstract/med/2671501
- Sale, Digby G. “Neural adaptation to resistance training.” Medicine and science in sports and exercise 20, no. 5 Suppl (1988): S135-45. Viewed at: http://europepmc.org/abstract/med/3057313
- Jones, D, Rutherford, and D. F. Parker. “Physiological changes in skeletal muscle as a result of strength training.” QJ Exp Physiol 74, no. 3 (1989): 233-56. Viewed at: http://allasamsonova.ru/wp-content/uploads/downloads/2014/12/1989_D.-A.-JONES-0.-M.-RUTHERFORD-AND-D.-F.-PARKER_REV.pdf
- The Principles and Practices of Strength Training
- The Beginner’s Guide To Strength And Muscle Growth