Introduction to Strength Training

“Physical strength is the most important thing in life. This is true whether we want it to be or not. As humanity has developed throughout history, physical strength has become less critical to our daily existence, but no less important to our lives.” – Rippetoe and Kilgore

Feats of strength are well documented throughout history. Bending iron bars and lifting inanimate, or animate for that matter, are time honoured events. Only recently this pursuit has been considered a standalone discipline.

Historically, outside of the niche interests of sports like weightlifting, powerlifting, bodybuilding and strongman, the use of strength training as primary exercise hasn’t been accepted. In recent times, perhaps owed to the actual benefits, but most likely due to the “selfies” that follow it, strength training and lifting weights has become the trendy thing to do. Recently, even in the most hard-core and conservative strength circles, there has been a shift to natural bodybuilding and “raw” powerlifting (i.e. without the assistance of supportive equipment), reclaiming a previously divided middle ground. This interest in strength has produced a new wave of fitness enthusiasts, some transient gym-folk, some from the general population, in search of exercise with a common denominator: strength. Physical fitness, aesthetics, and strength are not, and shouldn’t be, mutually exclusive.

This is great news for strength enthusiasts – the general population is finally curious about what we’ve been carrying on about for all these years.

WHAT IS STRENGTH?

The textbook definition of strength is: 
“The ability of a given muscle or group of muscles to generate muscular force under specific conditions.”2

However, most of us are aware of strength, as Matt Perryman explains “most of us have an intuition for what strength is ― objects being picked up and carried around, and the heavier the better”3, even if we can’t describe or define it.

Strength is an innate characteristic to some, however, others can develop it through the process of strength training. At its most basic, strength training utilizes some form of resistance, when placed against the muscular contractions common to athletic movements (i.e. squatting, pressing), force the body to adapt by getting stronger and more muscular. Strength is a technical skill that can be developed, therefore it should be practiced and trained.

To the athlete this is important, with all else being equal, the stronger athlete is the better athlete. In a similar vein, the general population should also be concerned with the pursuit of strength.

WHY?

Strength training could play a prominent role against obesity. Body recomposition, the process of positively altering your body’s ratio of lean mass to body fat, focuses on the improvement or maintenance of strength as a main priority

SO, WE ALL NEED TO STRENGTH TRAIN?

Yes, we do and you should. But building strength takes time. Normally, a beginner will adapt to training fast (“newbie gains” anyone?) but after roughly a year, adaptations slow down. Considering how long it takes to create, strength is not something you want lose.

Exercise is a pillar in the mastery in health. A successful health program needs to include some form of resistance training. The primary outcome of this training should be an increase of strength, which can be measured through various means (i.e. maximal strength, amount of work completed). Additionally this type of training will often improve flexibility and cardiovascular fitness. However, these parameters are secondary to the primary aim of increasing strength.

So, strength training is important, regardless of your goal. Great – but how should we train?

A fundamental component of any strength training program will focus on mastering the “slow” lifts (appropriately named due to the speed at which they are performed). The “slow” lifts, comprised of the squat, press, and deadlift, are the cornerstones of any progressive, well-planned strength training program. NOTE: Olympic weight-lifting movements (snatch and clean and jerk) definitely have their place, but are highly technical movements that are not necessary until fundamental movement patterns have been established. The execution of these lifts is beyond the scope of this post, but will be covered at a different time.

Training is not random. Individual sessions fit into a larger, systematic plan. Most would assume this type of training consists of grinding out slow, heavy repetitions. In reality, this type of gut-busting, nose-bleed inducing effort is rarely used in training. A logical training plan includes mostly work with sub-maximal weights, allowing the participant to adapt to the demands of exercise and master the movement pattern. When planned correctly, a strength training program will demand an optimal amount of work, at a weight the athlete is prepared to handle, and will adapt from. Typically, displays of strength, as they were previously described, are saved for when the athlete is required to perform (i.e. testing, competition). Tests of strength are the indicator of strength, and consequently, not the ideal or required way to improve strength. This means testing your strength, without putting in any work in, is an exercise in futility. Well-planned training doesn’t ask too much or too little of the participant. When planned and performed successfully, the participant should consistently improve on some aspect of their strength training practice.

Although strength may no longer be an important for survival in contemporary life, it should be the focal point of most exercise programs. Future installments of this series will focus on strength training movements and program design. Stay tuned!

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