Martin puts Strength Training in simple terms, shares the magic trick to getting stronger, and his recipe for a completely customizable strength workout.
Strength is simply the body's ability to produce force. As we discussed recently in our article, Mobility: Defined, Strength, Coordination, and Flexibility are the holy trinity of moving well. There is not one way to train strength; Weight Training, Bodyweight Training, and Resistance Training without weight are all methods of Strength Training that you may be familiar with. And they all have one thing in common: they require muscles to adapt.
Strength is the body's ability to produce force.
To understand the basics of strength training we need to define three terms that you may or may not already be familiar with: Adaptation, Progressive Overload, and Super Compensation.
For a Strength Training routine that uses dumbbells, see our photo-heavy guide, Full Body Dumbbell Workout for Any Fitness Level.
You know that your physical body changes with strength training, but did you know that your neurological system changes, too? Adaptation to Strength Training happens in two ways.
Muscular Adaptation - The muscle's filaments (or fibers) get bigger and more numerous. This means the muscle itself gets bigger.
Neurological Adaptation - There is an increase in how many nerve signals are sent to the muscle, how fast they are sent, and how specific the signals are. The result is that brain-muscle communication gets more efficient.
Over time and with consistent training, these two aspects of adaptation work together and the result is an increase in strength; your muscles are able to produce more and more force, and your body feels more and more capable.
Progressive Overload & Super Compensation
We'll take these two terms together. Progressive Overload means placing more demand on the muscle than it can meet. That could be more weight, more resistance, or more repetitions. And Super Compensation is the muscle's response to the increased demand.
When we place more demand on a muscle that it is used to, for example, trying to lift more weight that we comfortably can, the muscle sends signals to the brain that say something like, "Hey! We are struggling down here! We need to adapt! We need bigger muscles and better communication with you to meet this new challenge! Send reinforcements!" Then, after your workout, during the recovery period, the brain and body get to work, sending resources to build and increase muscle filaments and strengthen those neurological connections - the process we call, "compensation."
The next time you try to lift that amount of weight again, your body is a little more prepared. Repeat this process consistently and, over time, you build stronger, more capable muscles.
The magic trick to get stronger
Are you ready for it?.... Failure. Yep. The magic trick to getting stronger is to fail. Let me explain:
When we said earlier that we need to place more demand on a muscle than it is used to, we meant a LOT more demand. Lifting an extra pound here and there won't cut it. In order for a muscle to adapt, it needs to register the demand as pretty big. You need to work ALMOST to failure for the bulk of the workout and work all the way to COMPLETE failure at the very end of the workout. When designing a strength training routine we work with this recipe:
Chose a set; we usually start with 3 sets.
Chose a rep range; we usually chose 6 - 15 reps per set.
Chose a weight where the last 2-3 reps in sets 1 and 2 are very difficult to complete AND the last rep of the last set is COMPLETELY inaccessible.
Many, many people have an aversion to failure. They back off of the weight so that they can complete that last set. We get it - failure gets a bad rep. No one likes to fail. But when it comes to strength training, this is the way to make gains! Think of it this way:
The number of repetitions you do, the number of sets you do, even the amount of weight you use - these are all arbitrary numbers. They will change day to day, year to year. The specific numbers are not magical. What is magical is working to failure! Get close to failure for most of your workout and go all the way to failure at the end and you will see the magic happen! Consider failure your greatest strength training achievement!
Remember: We can strengthen a muscle only in the range we can access AND only when we have the organizational skills to use that muscle. That's where Mobility Training becomes so important. For more on that, see our article Mobility: Defined
We can only strengthen what we can access and organize.
We hope this helps organize your understanding of strength and gives you some language to use when working with fitness professionals, when searching for inspo online, or just for your own love of movement. If you haven't already read it, go back and find Flexibility: Defined - that article will also give you a better understanding of the language around fitness and how to use it to your advantage.
We are currently working on more articles about Mobility, Flexibility, Coordination, and Functional Movement. Let us know what articles or topics you'd like to see - what does Strength mean to you? Does our definition miss something crucial? Find us on social or email us at TrainMovePlayPT@gmail.com.