Being strong can solve a lot of problems.
A high level of maximal strength is the most influential quality in performance. Whether you are an elite athlete, recreational competitor or someone who simply wants to look and feel amazing, training for strength will make you better.
Naturally, you won’t train for maximal strength every time you work out. Instead, you’ll train to achieve your primary goal, with strength workouts phased in where they are most appropriate. The critical point is that you will enhance your performance with heavy-load strength training.
For Instance, Building Maximal Strength Delivers the Following Payoffs:
• The more strength you have, the faster and more powerful you can become from subsequent training.
• Being strong and having a balanced body helps you avoid injury and move with ease.
• Greater muscular strength means you can apply more stimulus if your goal is to build muscle.
• You can throw up higher, more impressive numbers if you’re pursuing a lean, athletic physique.
• Strength is a major bonus when you need to lift heavy objects or if you find yourself in a tricky physical situation.
• Baseline strength levels correlate with levels of hormones such as testosterone and growth hormone that are beneficial for body composition and health.
Do You Really Have to Lift Heavy to Get Strong?
Absolutely. Although it is possible to gain strength by using light loads, you’d have to train to the point of failure (the point at which you can’t lift the weight any more) for this to produce results. It’s simply not as effective as maximal strength training, especially if you’re not a complete novice.
In addition, lifting light loads to failure is not much fun, particularly compared to breaking new lifting records. Who cares if you can squat 75 pounds 75 times instead of only 70?
How The Body Gains Strength
The goal of maximal strength training is to increase muscle motor unit recruitment and neural drive. This means that when you lift something extremely heavy, your body will recruit more motor units to perform the activity.
By continually challenging yourself with higher intensities, you teach your body to recruit more motor units, thereby activating more muscle fibers and allowing you to move more weight faster.
Getting Strong Is A Skilled Act
Training for strength is a skilled act. You have to juggle performance with body composition goals and recovery needs. The results from a series of studies presented at the 2012 International Conference on Strength Training in Norway highlight three essential points about gaining maximal strength:
• Greater Base Strength Allows You to Get Better Performance Results from Training.
Researchers divided young men into two training groups based on their strength level: A Strong group that had a back squat 1RM that was 2 times bodyweight, and a Weak group that had a back squat 1RM that was 1.3 times bodyweight.
After 10 weeks of power training, the Strong group increased power, jump height and 40-meter sprint speed significantly more than the Weak group. The stronger athletes experienced a much larger improvement in peak power ability and vertical jump, supporting the idea that for athletic development, it is best to attain a high level of strength prior to training for athletic performance.
The stronger athletes were better able to utilize the stretch shortening cycle and tolerate high forces than the weaker group, which led them to experience greater benefits. A higher strength threshold allows for a better functioning central nervous system, more efficient muscle-tendon activity and stronger connective tissue.
• Train for Strength to Build the Fast-Twitch Muscles That Matter.
Everyone benefits from building the fast-twitch, powerful muscles with heavy-load training: All athletes perform better with greater strength, including distance runners, rowers, kayakers, cyclists, football, rugby and soccer players, gymnasts, cross-country skiers, martial artists and track and field athletes.
A review of muscle fiber types that was presented at the conference found that there is no benefit to having a high percentage of slow-twitch Type I fibers. Everyday folks don’t need ’em, power athletes certainly won’t benefit from slow-twitch fibers, and even endurance athletes don’t benefit from greater Type I fiber makeup.
Endurance athletes will improve performance by training the high-stamina Type IIA fibers with intense strength training. Although strength training does build the fast-twitch fibers, studies show the hypertrophic effect is blunted by endurance exercise, producing no increase in bodyweight.
• Strength Is Maximized with Shorter Sessions If Frequency and Volume Increase.
Elite Norwegian powerlifters are getting superior strength results from shorter, more frequent training sessions with a higher volume. The best lifters typically train squat, bench press and deadlift 5 to 6 times a week, with regular twice-a-day training.
Researchers suggest that higher volume produces the following benefits:
• Stronger connective tissue so athletes can handle heavier loads
• Better utilization of the stretch shortening cycle and elastic properties of “gear”
• Enhanced function of the muscle-tendon unit
• Lower injury rate due to better neuromuscular function and greater hypertrophy
You CAN Lose Fat and Train for Hypertrophy with Heavy-Load Training
Lifting heavy is a sometimes ignored but extremely important component of any fat loss or muscle building program.
The metabolic advantage of lifting heavy loads is seen over the long term. Building the fast-twitch muscles with a maximal strength cycle every now and then allows you to exponentially raise your metabolism because it builds the fast-twitch fibers.
Remember, due to the size principle of muscle fiber recruitment, working the most powerful Type II fibers requires that all the lesser fibers be trained in a cascade fashion, making heavy-load training all the more beneficial.
Researchers from Boston University explain that “the Type II muscle fibers have a previously unappreciated role in regulating whole-body metabolism through their ability to accelerate the energy burning processes in remote tissues.”
Greater Strength = More Muscle
If your goal is to gain muscle, then maximal strength must be a component of your programming. In addition to all the benefits of Type II fibers already mentioned, they also grow two times larger than Type I fibers. Strength training at a high intensity produces a relatively larger proportion of muscle cross-sectional area being made up of fast-twitch fibers for maximal hypertrophy.
A second reason that being strong is critical for getting bigger is that near-maximal load training (93 percent of the 1RM) has been shown to activate satellite cells, which are “quiet” or dormant cells within the Type II muscle fibers. Satellite cells regulate the hypertrophy a trainee will experience.
Typically, trainees can increase muscle size by 25 percent over baseline and will then hit a plateau unless the satellite cells are optimally trained. Research shows that maximal-load training causes an exponentially greater activation of satellite cells and gene signaling involved in muscle hypertrophy compared to traditional or ballistic training.
How Do You Put All These Points into Practice?
1. Ensure structural balance. Use unilateral training to make sure the right and left sides of the body are balanced.
2. Train the assistance lifts for strength rather than for endurance. A common mistake is training assistance lifts with light loads and high reps (10 or more) all the time. Instead, periodize your structural balance exercises for strength just as you do with your primary compound exercises.
3. Favor barbell training over machines. A machine here or there may provide benefits, but barbell compound lifts are a staple for maximal strength development for athletes and everyday folks alike.
4. Use thick-handle dumbbells over normal-grip weights to enhance the muscle building stimulus of any exercise. Research shows thick-bar training increases handgrip and forearm strength to help prevent tendinitis and pain in the elbows.
5. Use recovery nutrition to enhance the clearance of stress hormones such as cortisol, while promoting tissue repair with protein feeding. This can build strength of connective tissues and tendons, allowing you to handle greater loads down the road.
6. Being strong is about continuing to make things harder, not easier, when training.
7. Do eccentric-enhanced training with super heavy eccentric loads or by modifying the tempo of the eccentric motion to increase satellite cells and Type IIA fiber strength.
8. Use Drop Sets
Include drop sets in your protocol to produce a large quantity of motor unit fatigue. A style of drop sets that is especially effective is a high-intensity set followed immediately by the same exercise at a low-intensity with 50 percent of the 1RM. Such a protocol yields a greater hormone release and larger increase in muscle cross sectional area than a strength protocol alone.
9. Try Forced Reps
Forced or assisted reps also enhance muscle mass by recruiting more motor units. It is suggested that you perform forced reps with a load that is heavier than normal for the given number of repetitions rather than doing extra reps: For example, for a program that includes 3 sets of 12 squats, identify the maximal load you can perform for 12 reps. Then increase that load and perform 12 reps, getting assistance when necessary. This has been shown to maximize hormone release and motor unit adaptation.
10. Separate Strength & Cardio Workouts
Steady-state cardio is well known to impair strength adaptations. Therefore, it’s recommended that you always separate your strength and conditioning workouts, doing them on separate days. Additionally, interval training doesn’t have as much of a negative effect on strength as steady-state cardio, making it your go-to form of conditioning.