If you had to pick one superpower, what would it be?
Most answers would range from the whimsical to the utterly insane. Sure, you won’t be able to leap tall buildings in a single bound. Nor would you be able to stare someone to death by laser
Superhuman strength is also impossible. Of course, this would depend on your definition of “superhuman”.
But, what if we were to tell you that you can at least come close? At least, close enough to be able to deadlift three times your body weight? Or, perhaps, squat your body weight for reps? Have
you been chasing that elusive strict muscle up? Or do you just want to have the ability to help your granddaughter place a star atop a Christmas tree?
What we are talking about is strength. Though not precisely "superhuman," having a respectable
amount of it can impress many people. Why? It is the primary physical adaptation that translates into other “sexy” ones like speed, power, and even coordination and agility.
Strength can mean the difference between quality lives and lives in a state of dependence.
However, despite the health benefits of strength, training is not always fun. Ask any strongman, powerlifter, gymnast, or Olympic weightlifter what it takes. Many would tell you that physical preparation can either fatigue you or drive you insane.
In fact, training to achieve respectable levels of strength is not as sexy as the result. It is a process
paved with much toil — toil from moving serious weight leading to soreness in the muscles.
Building peak force production has also been more difficult owing to the confusion surrounding its results and methods. Left and right, gyms abound with people using the wrong exercises. Worse yet, they are always expecting the wrong results. These are the very same people who think that repping out on the pec deck will give them major pushing skills.
As a result, many either quit or join the bandwagon of some new fitness craze designed like a timeshare pyramid scheme.
This article delves deeper into some of the lesser-known and accepted ideas surrounding strength training But, let's be clear on what strength is first before we move on.
The Big, Jacked Question: What Is Strength?
So, what exactly is strength? With the number of physical adaptations the body can have, how do you know it’s your strength you’re tapping into?
Here is an easy way to think of what strength is:
Force, in physics, is what makes a pull or a push possible. Strength is the ability of the body to generate force. How do you know your body is exerting force?
Ask yourself the following:
Are you pushing something that resists? If not, are you pulling something that resists your pull?
If your answer to at least one of these questions is “yes,” then you are exerting strength. Now, does this mean that you only use your strength when you pull or push a loaded implement like a
barbell or kettlebell?
Again, force is a push or pull. In the context of training, force production is force production regardless of the tool, provided that the tool creates some form of resistance.
Your tool can be a barbell, a kettlebell (or two), or maybe even a rock. Your resistance may even come in the form of your own body weight.
What Is Strength Training?
You might be thinking along these lines:
"But, everything we do requires force production. Even running and high-rep box jumping!"
Indeed, this isn't totally inaccurate.
Nonetheless, think of what happens to people who run for miles and jump 24-inch boxes in AMRAP fashion. Compare their results to a person who does four to 10 reps of strict ring muscle-ups. Or, how about their results against those of a person who front squats 245 Ibs. Who develops a better set of lungs? Easy — the people who run or do box jumps.
Now, who develops the capacity to move against resistance? It is the athlete who trains his strict
muscle-ups. It is the person who works to squat more than his body weight. This is where the difference lies. It is in the result.
And, it is in the desired result that any training method earns validity or scrutiny.
In short, strength training occurs when a person learns to move against varying degrees of
resistance. It is for this reason that the primary method of training for the desired adaptation is resistance training. Simply put, you need to pull on something that won't budge right away. And, you need to push something that will resist the effort with your arms or legs. The more resistance, the more force your body needs to produce. Under newly increased demand, your muscles and nervous system will have to adapt somehow.
Go about this methodically, and you will officially be strength training.
What Few Would Tell You About Strength Training
Gone are the days of strength training's simplicity. In the 21st century, we have witnessed many
fitness trends fall by the wayside, only to be replaced by the "next biggest thing in fitness".
These developments in the fitness industry have caused much of the confusion of many novice lifters. Even intermediate lifters aren't spared from the information overload fitness trends and social media have engendered.
Some have also decided to keep their secrets in strength development to themselves. As a result, many beginners are kept in the dark regarding physical activities or "proper form and exercise selection".
Here, we share with you some of the lesser-known facts about growing stronger. A word of caution though: some of the things you'll read here might surprise you.
Training for Size or Training for Strength?
Here is an analogy.
Ever been on a roadtrip? As you drive towards your destination, you make a few pitstops along the way. Maybe, you got hungry. Perhaps, your driver was getting drowsy at the wheel. Nonetheless, you made it to your destination, but at a later time than expected.
The difference in training for size and force production is kind of like this analogy. Have either one as your goal (or destination, if you will), and you get the other as an accidental by-product of your workouts.
Of course, just like the analogy, you could have arrived at your destination on time had you not made those stops. Training is the same. Muscle and strength may be related. Yet, training for strength may not be the same as developing muscles that fill up shirts nicely.
Strength training hasforce production as the goal. Not hypertrophy, although this does happen to a reasonable degree. Hence, chasing that pump may get you the strength to do eight to 12 reps. Does it get you closer to that five-rep max back squat or deadlift? Do you think your overhead press will increase in weight with that rep range? The answer is no.
It may take some experimentation and ego-thrashing on your part. Strength training is not about
the pump or reps. Nor is it about isolation exercises to get those guns and buns. It's all about one thing and one thing only — using as much muscle mass as you can to move a challenging load.
And the sooner you know the difference between training for mass and training for strength, the sooner you'll be marveling at your newfound strength.
Barbells Are Not the Only Way!
Many think barbells and weights are the only ways towards effective weight training. If this were true, how do we explain the serious gains made by the likes of Milo of Croton and the Great Gama? The former lifted a calf, whereas the latter swung a mace (or Gada, as it's called in India).
Once again, strength training is all about moving an increasingly heavy load. So long as your training is geared towards this end, you are training your body to adapt in a way that allows it to produce force.
As mentioned earlier, the amount of force produced by your muscles and your nervous system results from strength.
The truth is this: it does not matter what tool you are using. A 100-pound kettlebell is just as
heavy as a 100-pound barbell or rock. The lifting form or mechanics for each tool may differ. However, 100 pounds will always be 100 pounds.
You'd still have to use the same amount of force, Luke.
Strength Carries Over to More Than Just Sports
Sessions of slapping on the plates and snatching those bells can bring athletes success on the field. Strength can contribute to a marathon runner's endurance. Hardly can it ever be the other way around. Also, no sprinter ever complained because his legs were too strong.
You don't need to be a marathon runner, sprinter, or football player to experience the benefits of
using heavier weights in your workouts. Being stronger enables you to perform various tasks, like moving a couch or pushing your car. Even your joints will thank you for the myofibrillar hypertrophy you've developed.
Young and old clients will find that strength is an important asset to develop. Not only does it allow you to fill your pants snuggly from all those squats and deadlifts. Strength, through the activities required to enhance it, also leads to numerous physical adaptations that can make your later years more fun.
How's that for making a long-term investment with lifelong returns?
The Secret Is the Movement Pattern, Not the Exercise Itself
You may have heard it before:
"SQUAT! BENCH! DEADLIFT!"
What if you cannot or do not want to be limited to these exercises? What if there is too much risk to doing any of these?
As humans, we can perform the following movements. Alumni of "old school" training swear by pushes, pulls, hinges, and squats. When you build your program around movements and not exercises, you open yourself up to options.
For example, canonized as the "king of exercises,” the deadlift is an example of a hinge movement. But, let's face it. A barbell is not always available. Also, picking a bar may create some difficulties in those with hip or lower back issues. This version of the exercise can cause some to abandon training altogether.
On the other hand, thinking of training the hinge instead of a deadlift allows a lifter to consider other movements. Instead of the deadlift, the lifter can choose heavy kettlebell swings or a trap bar deadlift done with similar intensity.
Sure the barbell deadlift may not have been performed. But, the muscles and joints involved were still trained — lesser risk, no excuses.
Strength Training Leads to Better Metabolism (Even Without Cardio)
No weight loss drug or cardio exercise can outdo consistent and intelligent strength training.
Getting stronger calls upon the body's adaptive mechanisms. As you train, eat, and sleep enough, you develop lean muscle mass. This is relevant since muscles consist of myocytes.
Myocytes have the highest concentration of mitochondria of any type of cell.
Mitochondria is the part of the cell that produces energy.
The more you train for strength, the more muscle mass you develop. More muscle equals more myocytes, which in turn adds to the mitochondria already present in your body. As a result, your muscles continue to produce and use energy — even at rest.
By having the right proportion of lean muscle mass, you may be able to keep body fat levels at bay. Hence, strengthening yourself is key to weight management.
Can you do some supplemental cardio on top of your strength training? Of course. Just remember that the keyword is "supplemental".
More Is Not Always Better
How often should you train? How many reps and sets do you need to do with a given exercise? How much weight should you lift?
Maybe the answers on forums would be the following:
-three to four days a week
-three to five reps for five sets
-more than your body weight, or 80% of your one-rep max
In the realm of strength, these are tried and tested numbers. If these figures can guarantee results, the results should be better with more sessions, volume, and weight, right?
Again, strength training is not hypertrophy training. Nor is it conditioning or endurance training. The numbers for frequency and volume are low because of the weight required. Do more with a lighter weight, and you will be training for something else.
Also, even if bigger numbers on the lifts are the goal, going heavy day-in-day-out can do more harm than good.
In short, when strength is the desired adaptation, volume and frequency ought to be low, but the load should be going up over time.
Training Is Only a Small Part of Strength Development
Training introduces the stress necessary for physical adaptation. Beginners notice this as early as the first few weeks of their strength-building program. For the most part, very few people you speak to in the gym would tell you much about recovery.
You can only get stronger if you can recover from the stress you place your muscles and nervous
system in. The reasons for this go back to how a person gets stronger (i.e., muscle development, joint reinforcement, energy production for tissue regeneration).
This means that what you do when you aren't lifting is just as important. First, you need to care
about how much sleep you are getting every night. In case you're wondering, studies show that you need about seven to nine hours.
You also need your nutrition dialed in. For strength, you need to eat more calories. Your appetite will grow at a proportional rate to your gains, so be prepared to gorge on more food. You will have higher carb and protein requirements.
Other than meeting your carb and protein targets, you need to have dietary fats. Fats, despite their reputation, have a place in your diet. Dietary fats aid in supporting hormone production (i.e., testosterone production). They also provide your body with an additional energy source for when you miss your macros.
Last, but surely not the least, make sure you drink lots of water.
Getting a Grip: An Easy Sign To Monitor for Overtraining
When strength is the goal, it is easy to overtrain, especially if you are an intermediate or advanced lifter. Overtraining is not always easy to spot.
Some nights, you may be sleepless. You may experience extreme thirst. Also, you might be unmotivated to complete that next set with the same usual intensity. But, let's face it. These can happen on any given day. Having them isn't always a sign of backing off.
There is one readily available way to see if you've been doing too much — test your grip. Has the bar been slipping from you despite baking your hands with chalk? One of the signs of overtraining is a noticeably weaker grip.
A weaker grip is not just a sign that your muscles are tired. It is also an indicator of nervous system fatigue. As soon as you notice this, consider taking a week or two off. Muscles may recover quickly, but it's a different story with the centra nervous system.
Always taxing your nervous system can leave you on the sidelines for an indefinite period of time.
Final Word: Get Stronger, And Everything Else Follows
In the wise words of Dan John:
"Chase multiple rabbits, and you will go home hungry."
There is conditioning.
There is body composition.
And, there is strength.
Trying to achieve all of these within the same program can lead you to mediocre results if any.
Strength is one of the most useful adaptations you can develop. Get stronger by training the right
movement patterns with the use of any tool you fancy. Dial in your nutrition and sleep. And, watch out for overtraining.
Do these, and you will get stronger. Once this happens, every other ability becomes achievable and manageable.
Now you know why strength is a superpower.