‘Strength’ itself is defined in a myriad of ways, both physical and mental. It has to be one of the most powerful words in existence, if not just for the connotations attached to it. The development of physical strength has always intrigued me, and it was a significant motive for me in beginning strength training. Underpinning this article is the definition of physical strength (and specifically maximal strength) – that strength is:
“The ability to exert force against a resistance” (Brian 2005).
To say that developing physical strength in this context is a complex one would be greatly understating the process within the human system/body. Nevertheless, the act of trying to achieve increased levels of strength can be deconstructed and simplified to stop analysis paralysis within the subject. This article draws parallels with Tuchscherer (2008) and expands on others covering the topic.
This article will not be scientifically tedious, partly because I did not graduate with a degree in sports science and partly for practicality to the average reader! My assertions within this article are based off my knowledge over my training years and perhaps more vitally, empirical evidence from the literature. I hope you find that this article makes the process of getting stronger clearer for you.
The Process – Strength is a Skill
In my first Deluxe Nutrition article I wrote that powerlifting is the ‘sultan of strength sports’. I implied this because powerlifting is an excellent way of expressing physical strength through the use of the simplest but most effective strength tool – a barbell. In my opinion, the lifts of the squat, bench press and deadlift are the epitome of strength and provide a reminiscently primitive display in this modern age.
Moreover, adaptation itself is a highly primitive concept. At its core is the adjustment of an organism to its environment. If that environment changes, the organism will change to better cope with the new conditions (Rippetoe 2005).
If a training routine is planned and executed correctly, the result of systematic training is the improvement of a lifter’s physical fitness as the body adapts to the physically-applied load. This is because the body believes it should adapt to the ‘stress’ applied.
Please see my last article on Recovery – ‘Supercompensation and Adaptation Theory’ which discussed the ins and outs of this theory in more detail (Figure 1).
In a modern day training context, it is well known that muscular adaptation occurs in this case. But perhaps more significantly, neural adaptation also occurs. So, when you are lifting more weight week after week on a specific exercise, the real root of this effect is that your neurological ‘motor patterns’ are becoming more efficient (Tuchscherer 2008). This is one reason why people of lesser size can be stronger than people who may dwarf them.
Just like putting a shot, like serving an ace in tennis and just like that heel flip down stairs on your skateboard when you were 16 years old; it didn’t happen first time. You had to acquire the skills to do so first through repeated practice. Strength is a skill. It is a skill that through practice and over time, you can get better at in the way you would other ‘skills’.
In this process, the Central Nervous System (CNS) is of paramount importance. Zatsiorsky (2006) states that as a result of neural adaptation, superior athletes are better at coordinating the activation of fibres in single muscles and in muscle groups (known as intra and inter muscular coordination), which is a product of practice.
In correspondence with strength being a skill and the first training principal (specificity – see table below), it is more often than not the case that if you want to get better at back squatting (for example), squat close to a significant percent of your one rep maximum and create a stress for the body to adapt to and you will get better at the skill of squatting..fancy that!
Although there can be a transfer of training results from back squatting to other actions, such as to other lifts or to sprint speed and jumping length/height (Siff 2009), I don’t recommend you try to make your squat the best it can be by doing anything else other than the movement itself.
Keys to Returns
Quite simply, be aware and implement a training program with consideration of the following vital training principles in Table 1 – ‘SORAR’:
Also pertinent to the training process are the following:
- Frequency– How often training/an exercise is performed.
- Intensity – Percentage of your 1 rep maximum or the magnitude of resistance in an exercise.
- Volume– Sets X Reps or the sum of the number of sets and reps performed.
- Rest Periods– Length of rest periods will determine the type of adaptation.
- Tempo/Time Under Tension– Will determine the amount of muscle(s) recruited and muscle fibres broken down.
All of these keys to strength training progress should be carefully thought-out and calculated before starting a training program, and monitored/tweaked during the program itself.As stressed, skills are refined by extensive practice and in this case strength training is our practice.
Every learning or acquisition of a skill needs to take into account all of the above in order to lead to the highest desired adaptation and to the path of ‘technical strength mastery’ (Tuchscherer 2013 & Gary 2014).
In summary, one will get stronger in specific exercises by overloading the muscles while allowing recovery time which, in turn, will provide the platform for adaptation. Be aware of the principle of reversibility also, in that if you ease up or stop training you will lose your momentum and return closer to your untrained state.
These are the nuts and bolts of strength training programs, everything else is secondary. The first thing you should turn to in the creation or implementation of a training program is the above training principles.
It is sometimes easy to forget this when getting caught up in flashy programs and the like. Return to the fundamentals of training outlined here and progress will occur through stringing efficient days and weeks of physical and technical effort together over time.
Please see my next article on Programming for ideas for your training.
Michael Ferguson – Deluxe Sponsored Powerlifter
-Brian Mac. 2005. “Strength”.
-Flow with Purpose (FWP). 2013. “The patterns which define our purpose”.
-Gary, M. 2014. “Technical Mastery”. SSPT.
-Rippetoe, M. 2009. “Practical Programming for Strength Training”. The Aasgaard Company.
-Rippetoe, M. 2005. “Starting Strength”. The Aasgaard Company.
-Siff, M. 2009.“Supertraining – 6th Edition – Expanded Version”. Verkhoshanksy.
-Tuchscherer, M. 2008. “Reactive Training Manual”. Reactive Training Systems.
-Tuchscherer, M. 2013. “Technical Mastery”.
-Wordans. 2013. Designs.
-Zatsiorsky, V et al. 2006. “Science and Practice of Strength Training”. Second Edition. Human Kinetics.