The Science of Strength

Strength training science

Strength training isn’t rocket science, but it is science.

There’s a little more to it than just picking up and putting down weights. For a beginner this approach might work, at least at first. When you go from doing nothing to doing something you’re bound to see some results. But, these “results” are going to give you the wrong impression. Somewhere along the line your results are going to stall and you won’t be able to figure out why. You’ll think; I am doing the same things I’ve always done. 

Exactly! What worked for you before, when you had terrible form and no rhyme or reason behind your actions, will prevent making progress beyond a certain point. Unfortunately, that point is usually when most people get frustrated and give up. All that work for nothing? Heck, if I didn’t know any better I would give up to. But I do know better, and if you keep reading you will too!

Basic Training

Here’s the million dollar question: what happens when we strength train? Yeah, you’ll get swole bro. But, I am looking for a slightly more scientific explanation. It’s simple really, when we lift weights we are actually breaking our muscles down. Thankfully, they rebuild bigger and stronger – that’s what I’m talking about!

Trouble is our new and improved muscles, the neuromuscular system to be exact, will adapt to the methods we use to beak them down. To keep on growing we have to vary the amount and types of stress we are applying. This concept is known as PROGRESSIVE OVERLOAD – make a note, this will be on the quiz at the end of this article.

 If we expect our muscles to grow bigger [Read: hypertrophy] we must continue to shock, stress and test our limits in the gym. Sure you could just keep adding weight to the bar by adjusting the load, but at some point – no matter how strong you are – adjusting the load is not enough, or not an option. So we’re going to have to get creative.

All Mixed Up

VARIATION is your chance to get creative in the gym. It’s been said that variety is the spice of life. It’s also the spice of strength-training, and the only way to ensure continual progress. At some point we’ve all been bored with our workout routine, and our muscles have been too – boredom is psychological and physiological. When it comes to mixing things up, in addition to the load, here are a few things to consider.

When we exercise our muscles shorten and lengthen to allow for movement, those are MUSCLE CONTRACTIONS. When we add weight to these movements we are able to elicit growth. But, regardless of the load, there’s more than one type of contraction. Concentric, eccentric and isometric contractions can all be used to improve strength. You can shorten a muscle by curling  a weight towards your body, lengthen that same muscle by slowing lowering the weight away from your body, or hold the bar mid-way through the curl. Here the muscles do not change length, but are still under considerable tension.

Right there we have three different ways to manipulate an exercise. Employ this tactic using concentric exercises 70% of the time, eccentric 20% and isometric 10%.

Next up, we’ll consider the SPEED at which you complete a movement. Here again variety is a good thing. Slow movements rely less on momentum and more on the ability of your muscles to overcome the load. But, high speed movements put more stress on the body and stimulate more neural output. Translation: your training plan should be built around lifts complete at a moderate speed, with phases of slow and high speed movements.

Quick recap: we’re now using progressive overload to increase the amount of stress applied to our muscles. We know that we can increase the weight/load and vary the speed of each movement, as well as the types of muscle contractions. Got it? Good!

All the Right Moves

Since we’re already on the topic of variety what do you say we change up the EXERCISES and EQUIPMENT we use too? Rule number one, no more exercise machines! Prioritize free weights over exercise machines.

free weight training can produce superior results compared to training with machines, particularly when the free weight training involves complex, multi-joint exercises.

Unless you’re injured, there’s no reason to use exercise machines – so stop it. Once you’re really lifting you can alter angles and try new exercise that hit muscles you never knew you had. Varying the type and amount of stress applied to muscles will be as simple as switching between barbells, dumbbells and kettlebells. You can even try chains, truck tires, flex bands and a push-pull sled.

After making the switch to free weights, use compound movements to get the most out of your workouts. To be clear, I am referring to exercises that recruit multiple joints and muscle groups. (The kind referenced in the study/quote above) Exercises like the squat, deadlift, bent row and standing military press need to be a mainstay in your program. For experienced lifters, the front squat, power clean, push-press, overhead squat and snatch should be considerations. Either way, beginner and veteran lifters should focus on training the big movers of the posterior chain (the muscles from the base of the neck to the Achilles tendon) to improve kinesthetic awareness – the body’s ability to coordinate motion.

Get it Together

Now that we have all of these concepts flying around in our minds, it’s time to bring everything together in a training program. Ideally your training program will be designed specifically for you based on your abilities and goals. Training phases and sessions should be designed with a specific purpose in mind, allowing for completion of a specific goal. 

This approach is known as PERIODIZATION, and it’s a big picture approach to programming. In this article we’ve talked about a number of different ways to vary the stress places on our muscles. But, you can’t use all of these strategies every workout. To keep track of what you’re doing, when and why you should create a training program with macro and micro cycles that focus on different training goals.

For example, a transitional phase establishes total body strength and focuses on technique, an endurance phase features low intensity workouts that have you performing a high number of repetitions make up this phase, a strength phase would use high intensity, low volume strength workouts feature five to eight sets of three to five repetitions, and hypertrophy work is intended to increase the size of muscles using four to six sets of 12 repetitions.

Your best bet would be to define your goals and create a plan for achieving them. Using periodization, and the science of strength, it’s possible to create a training program that will allow you to achieve your goals without hitting a mental of physical plateau.