If there's one thing I've heard from athletes, clients and the stranger at a party who has me cornered asking my opinion on Crossfit - it is "I want to be stronger". The issue is, to some people being stronger means having bigger muscles. To others it means hiking faster, with some folks seeing strength as "toning up" or filling out their sleeves. To start I'll set a definition of what strength is, then I'll talk through how to approach improving it.
This article is intended for people who are training that may not have a scientific background. I'm hoping to provide context without getting into too much technical jargon. What this article won't be is a training plan for you to follow, there are thousands of generic strength plans on the internet. I'm hoping this article will be able to help you view those programs a bit more skeptically.
Strength - "May The Force Be With You"
In simplest terms, strength is how much force you can produce in a movement regardless of the speed of that movement. One way to think of force is: imagine there is a 2000lb stone on a weight scale. If you pulled up as hard as you can on the stone, how much would the scale change? Oftentimes strength is tested with 1 rep max (1RM) tests, meaning: what is the heaviest weight you can lift for 1 rep with good form. Below are a few other key terms.
Strength: focuses on amount of weight lifted, regardless of movement speed.
Power: moving weight as fast as you can.
Endurance: sustained work, typically 15+ reps.
Hypertrophy: increasing muscle size.
%1RM: a percentage of your 1 rep max for a given exercise, used to prescribe weights for training.
First Things First
Before I explain how we improve strength, it's important to understand how muscles contract.
A signal is sent from your nervous system asking your muscle to contract. If there is enough energy available then your muscles will contract. This shows three distinct portions of your physiology we can address.
Nervous System: speed of contraction, size of contraction (how many muscles are activated at a time), rate of force development.
Energy System: how much energy is available, rate at which energy is replaced.
Musculoskeletal System: how big are your muscles, how much tension can they hold?
A good example of a similar process is starting a car. You turn the key (nervous system), if there is enough energy (battery), the engine will start (muscular system).
The 4th component that will heavily impact your 1RM is form. If you are able to move more efficiently then you can put more weight on the bar without actually improving your nervous system, energy system or muscle size. To use the car example: you'll use less gas driving 100km straight on a highway than 100km on a windy road.
How Can I Improve Strength?
As always, there are simple and complicated answers to this question.
Question: How do I get better at lifting heavy stuff?
Simple Answer: lift heavy stuff.
Asking how to get stronger is kind of like asking how to get better at hockey. Hockey is comprised of a number of components (skating, handling, passing, shooting, contact, tactical, communication, fitness, etc...). This is similar with strength, we need to take a step back and look at our 4 key components:
- Nervous System
- Energy System
- Muscular System
In reality, we are going to train all of these characteristics to varying degrees every time we lift. However, there are times where we are going to be focusing more on one than the other. I'll start with the most important.
Most people lift weights to feel better, move better, look better. You accomplish none of those by injuring yourself. Having correct form while training is crucial not only to improving and increasing your numbers, but also to keeping yourself healthy enough to train for weeks/months/years to see those improvements. There are thousands of exercises I could talk about, so instead I'll talk through some common themes.
Pain = Bad: Pain is your body telling you something is wrong. Do not confuse this with soreness, you will be sore. It will suck. But there is a distinct sharp pain that means you should stop what you're doing and take some weight off the bar. If that pain is still there, you should seek help from a professional. There are cases where elite athletes will push through pain to accomplish their goals - these are isolated cases and these decisions are typically guided by professionals.
Bar close: It is very rare that you will do any exercise where keeping the bar away from your body is a good thing. Anytime you have a barbell in your hands and are pulling (deadlift, row, RDL, clean, snatch, etc...) you will want to pull your shoulders down and use your lats to keep the bar close to your body. It'll save your back and you'll thank me later!
Glutes On: When doing any lower body or full body movement, you will want to focus on using your glutes. Using your glutes will put your knees and back in a better place to perform and avoid injury. Common cues for this are "knees out" or "twist your feet to spread the floor".
Chin Tucked: I can't think of any strength movement where reaching with your chin is a good idea. Great for selfies, terrible for lifting. When setting up for a lift, tuck your chin like you're trying to show off your double chin.
Core Tight: When doing heavy lifting, it's important to brace your core muscles to protect your back and move effectively. You will also want to focus on keeping your ribs on top of your hips and not flaring at the back. A classic example is when pressing weight overhead: if the weight gets heavy your instinct will be to flare your back and point your chest to the ceiling. In this scenario, to counteract that you would squeeze your glutes and try and keep your stomach tight like you're doing a plank.
At their core, your muscles are just elastic ropes that attach bone to bone. When you do a bicep curl, your biceps shorten and bring your wrist bone towards your upper arm bone. That's it. So if you think about what kind of rope will hold more weight the answer is simple: thicker rope.
Muscle size is increased when there is damage done to the muscle and there is enough protein available to repair it. When you are looking to increase muscle size, higher repetitions (6-12) will lead to more time under tension, more muscle damage and therefore more muscle growth. Higher rep sets also allow you to practice your form by virtue of more repetitions. This is one reason why beginner lifters typically get a 3x10 prescription. Lots of reps to practice form, while also focusing on hypertrophy.
You can also increase your time under tension by primarily focusing on the eccentric (downward) portion of the movement where the muscle is lengthening. Because you are contracting (shortening) the muscle while it is lengthening there is much more muscle damage than seen just in the upward portion of the movement. Examples of hypertrophy sets are below:
Bench Press: 4 sets of 8 reps @3sec down per rep
Hammer Curl: 5 sets of 12 reps
Back Squat: 4 sets of 6 reps @ 6sec down per rep
The energy system can be a real limiter in performance. If you don't give yourself enough rest between sets, your muscles won't be ready to lift heavy meaning you will either have to drop weight (thus not gaining the nervous system benefit) or decrease reps (thus not gaining time under tension and hypertrophy benefits). Depending on the level of intensity typically strength sets will have anywhere from 2-10min of rest between sets to allow your energy system to recover. Most people will use 2-4min rest between sets.
Nutrition can also have serious effects on performance. One of the most commonly used and thoroughly vetted supplements in the world is creatine. Creatine is used to replenish energy inside the muscles during contraction. By introducing more creatine to the system, your muscle can be provided with more energy quicker, allowing for more weight to be lifted.
Nervous System (slight nerdy talk coming - fair warning)
Each muscle fibre is part of a motor unit. Going back to our car analogy, imagine that when you start strength training you are driving an old Chevy truck. It takes a few seconds for that engine to get going. As you train more and lift heavier weights you upgrade your motor units to Teslas. They turn on faster and have more power when they switch on.
When you are just starting out strength training almost any training will get you stronger. This is why you will typically see lots of progress for the first ~12 weeks of training then plateau. The first few weeks of training typically are just tuning up the Chevys you already have and putting them to use.
As you become more advanced you will need to go to further lengths to provide a stimulus to your nervous system. Methods such as accommodating resistance (bands, chains, etc...), complex training (supersetting heavy movements with plyometrics), clusters (adding rest in the middle of a set so you can lift heavier weights for more reps), etc... There are lots of ways to stimulate your nervous system to improve. When we're talking about normal reps, typically you will get maximal nervous system recruitment when you are lifting above 85% of your 1RM.
This doesn't mean that you aren't improving if you are lifting less than that, but if you are at the point where you're stalling progress for a few weeks and you haven't lifted that heavy yet, it might be a good time to drop the reps and safely increase the weight!
Wrapping it up
I hope I was able to answer some questions and provoke some others - I tried my best to make this informative but not overbearing. If you have suggestions for other topics you'd like me to explore send me an email firstname.lastname@example.org or shoot me a message on instagram!
Until next week - happy lifting! Mylan
Mylan Clairmont MSc, CSCS