By Eric Bach
Losing fat? The base is strength. Gaining muscle? The base is strength. When in doubt, the base is always strength.
It’s 2 p.m. You’re surfing Facebook, looking for the best posts to build muscle, shred fat, and perform like an athlete.
You sprawl back in your chair, hands clasped behind your head, and exhale.
‘Where to start,’ you think, overwhelmed and stressed by the endless information.
Your phone pings and you glance at the caller I.D. It’s a text from your workout partner, “what are we training today?”
Setting the phone back down, you mutter, “that’s a good question, what one thing will provide the greatest benefit to my goals in the shortest amount of time?”
Getting results isn’t easy. Yo-yo programming without sound principles leads to frustration, stress, and giving up altogether.
Mark my words: put a premium on strength development and you’ll see results. Emphasizing advanced methods like drop-sets, accommodating resistance (chains, bands), and finishing sets is pointless without a strong strength base. Problem is, many don’t view strength as important to their goal.
Strength is needed to generate force, control the body, build muscle, and preserve muscle and metabolic rate while dieting. Regardless of the goal, improving strength will improve performance and health.
Types of Strength
There are multiple types of strength, but this post focuses on relative strength and absolute strength.
Relative Strength is the amount of strength relative to body size. This reflects a person’s ability to control or move their body through space. All else being equal, smaller individuals have higher relative strength.
Absolute Strength is the maximum amount of force exerted regardless of muscle or body size. Greater amounts of absolute strength favor those with higher bodyweight and in general, larger individuals.
As you see, although the larger individual has greater absolute strength, they lag behind in relative strength.
Why this matters:
If you’re reading this, you have multiple goals—to get strong, shredded, and athletic. You want a body that performs as well as it looks. Both absolute strength and relative strength are needed for high-performance gains. Greater relative strength can be driven up by greater absolute strength and tested through activities that require moving the body through space—jumps, chin-ups, sprints, and bodyweight movements in sport.
The bridging factor between all of these goals is enhanced through heavy strength training, due to increased nervous system activation. In novice, or deconditioned athletes, neural adaptations are the initial driving force in gains, not muscle mass development. Improving efficiency does a few things:
1. Increases muscle fiber recruitment: the number of muscle fibers being recruited.
2. Increases speed of rate coding: the speed at which the body sends electrical signals to the muscles.
These both lead to greater adaptation and improvements in workout performance.
Building greater levels of strength creates an overload stimulus in the body, requiring adaptation to take place in response to stress to handle future stressors. Muscle fibers break down and require repair. During repairs, the body forges a larger, stronger muscle fiber to be resilient to future stressors. Stronger muscles and a super-charged nervous system allow the use of greater training loads to achieve greater levels of metabolic stress, mechanical tension, and muscular damage, which are the three primary methods of muscular hypertrophy, as shown in The Mechanisms of Muscle Hypertrophy and Their Application to Resistance Training.
Bottom Line: Placing an emphasis on strength training will directly build muscle if done by beginners, while advanced trainees will progressively build muscle as a byproduct of greater work capacity. Getting strong must be an emphasis if you’re looking to build muscle.
Fat loss is simple in formula, but difficult in execution. A caloric deficit, provided the body and metabolism are healthy, will cause weight loss.
Problem is, without proper training and dietary protocol, hard-earned muscle is stripped away, along with body fat—unless you lift to prevent that from happening.
Instead of opting for endless plodding on the hamster wheel and high rep resistance training, place an emphasis on heavy strength training.
Lifting heavy with sets between one and eight difficult reps will increase testosterone levels and stimulate fast-twitch muscle fibers, offsetting the catabolism of muscle tissue and preserving muscle mass when calories are low.
Bottom Line: Lift heavy when dieting down. Pick two or three exercises per week during “cut” phases and work to build strength numbers and preserve muscle mass.
Mental Growth: I can’t point to any study or research better than my own experiences as a coach and athlete—building strength builds the mind and character. Improving yourself, doing something you’ve never done before, and building your body to new heights is as powerful for confidence as it is for health and performance.
Bottom Line: Conquering the gym takes passion, perseverance, and a will to push past discomfort, a mental edge built through hard work.
Strength Building Recommendations
Strength and muscle are closely related when it comes to adaptation, but workouts should be planned well.
Feel free to tailor these suggestions based on your individual needs and goals. Strength training is multi-faceted: use dumbbells, barbells, bodyweight, or whatever is available to you while seeking progressive overload. Adaptation must be forced. Your body must experience and recover from new levels of stress. You have to get 2.5 pounds stronger before you can get 50 pounds stronger, or be able to do one more push-up, before you can do ten more. Small jumps and constant progress are your key to long-term success.
Maximum growth occurs with loads between 80-95% of 1 repetition maximum (1RM) (Fry 2004). This load should be trained in sets of 1-8 reps, depending on the trainee. This means bodyweight exercises, like chin-ups, can be near-maximal efforts for some trainees.
Weightlifters and powerlifters show more hypertrophy of type II (fast twitch) muscle fibers, whereas bodybuilders appear to have comparable hypertrophy in both the type I (slow twitch) and type II muscle fibers (Fry 2004). All trainees need some heavy strength work, but if you’re looking for additional hypertrophy, mix-in high rep work once the foundation is laid.
Multi-joint exercises have been shown to produce larger increases of anabolic hormones than single-joint exercises, and thus should be prioritized accordingly (Hansen et al., 2001). The strength portion of training should emphasize multi-joint movements as the primary focus. Some great choices are:
Push ups, pull-ups, inverted rows, bent over rows, chin ups – with or without external resistance, bench press, overhead press, push press, cleans, snatches, dumbbell rows. Squats – all kinds, lunges, split squats, deadlifts, kettlebell swings, and glute bridges.
Age Considerations: Getting older generally makes it increasingly difficult to recover from heavy strength work. As a general guideline, lifters over forty should keep heavy days to one or two workouts per week focusing on the lower and upper body strength exercises. Younger trainees get away with up to four heavy days per week, as long as a properly periodized program is followed.Older lifters often benefit from a slightly higher rep range, between two and ten reps per set.
When in doubt, keep in mind: basics are best. Specifically, progressive overload and improving strength is imperative to your physique goals. Getting stronger will improve performance better than endless sets of burpees or lightweight pump sets. Those have their place in training, but shouldn’t be the focus.
Building strength takes hard work. Embrace the challenge—it’s not for the faint of heart. Plan, chart, and track your progress. Failing to plan is planning to fail. Always be prepared to improve strength. You’ll build a steel clad physique as a result.
Fry A.C. (2004) The role of resistance exercise intensity on muscle fibre adaptations. Sports Medicine, 34, 663-679.
Hansen S., Kvorning T., Kjaer M., Sjogaard G. (2001) The effect of short-term strength training on human skeletal muscle: the importance of physiologically elevated hormone levels. Scandinavian Journal of Medicine and Science in Sports 11, 347-354.
Schoenfeld BJ. The mechanisms of muscle hypertrophy and their application to resistance training. J Strength Cond Res. 2010;24:2857–2872
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Eric Bach, CSCS, PN1 is a strength coach, author, and fitness consultant. An avid fitness junky, Eric has been featured in publications such as T-Nation, eliteFTS, and thePTDC. He is owner of Bach Performance where he coaches clients to take control of their lives, helping them become stronger, shredded, and more athletic. Eric is the author of 101 Tips to Jacked and Shredded, which is available FREE for a limited time.
101 Tips to Jacked and Shredded: http://bit.ly/101-Tips-to-Jacked-and-Shredded