training for strength

Training For Strength: 9 Ways To Increase Your Lifts

If you want to become stronger and increase the load you can move from A to B, keep on reading. From how to structure your training for strength, what exercises are best to become stronger, what load you should be lifting and for how long you should rest and recover, up to extra tips like grip strength, accessory lifts, and contrast training, we cover it all.

What is Strength

As a term “strength training” is not the same as “training for strength”. First of all, we need to define strength. Strength training is a very broad term used for anything related to fitness, including bodyweight, plyometric, or any fitness exercise whatsoever.

Training for strength, on the other hand, is properly structured training with optimal metrics (such as exercise, volume, load, rest, and frequency) which is aiming at increasing pure strength as an ability.

Strength is the ability to produce maximal force against external resistance. In physics, force equals the acceleration of mass and is measured in Newtons’. The more load we can push in a given exercise, the stronger we are. Strength is more of a whole-body thing than a one-muscle thing. For optimal strength, we need to work our body as a whole, best done through training with compound exercises.

Power vs. Strength

What most amateurs don’t distinguish between, is strength and power. Although both rely heavily on intramuscular coordination and neural adaptation, there are significant differences. Strength is about how much load can you lift from A to B, in a given exercise, independent of time. Power on the other hand has another variable, which is time. Power is the ability to produce maximal force in the shortest period possible. Think of it like the faster-paced, controlled application of strength.

How to Train for Strength

Power can be trained both with lighter loads or submaximal heavy loads. The sub 30% RM power training involves plyometric and ballistic movements, while the heavyweight power training aims at 1-3 reps of 80% RM+.

Strength on the other hand, is trained with sessions that emphasize heavy weightlifting. Loads can go up from 80-100% RM, and reps from 1-5 per set. The main exercises for building strength are multi-joint, compound exercises. The rest period between sets should be long enough to recover the nervous system and recycle creatine back into the muscle, so 3-5 minutes.

Neural Adaptation

The main goal of training for strength is to increase the load you can lift in a given exercise AKA become stronger. For this to occur, you need to optimize your training in favor of neural adaptation, instead of anatomical change.

While training for hypertrophy aims for high volume, moderate load, and slow repetition, it targets muscle growth mainly in the slow-twitch fibers causing anatomical change (muscle growth). Training for strength heavily relies on using this muscle, for which we need to train the nervous system.

The goal is to train the nervous system to fire up larger motor units. This allows our body to activate larger muscle groups, recruit more muscle fibers, and produce more force.

Both power and strength require neural adaptation. The force exerted from the muscle needs to be fast and high although the lift may seem slow. But power emphasizes speed, while strength aims at producing maximal force.

Can i train for strength without weights?

If strength means being able to do more reps, looking more muscular and leaner, than yes. If strength is meant in the sense of maximal force output which comes as a neural adaptation that results in faster and higher motoric neuron firing, then for the most part, no.

Is strength training twice a week enough?

It depends on your goals and current abilities. Training for pure strength is actually optimal at a volume of 2-3 workouts per week, with heavier (80% RM +) loads. In general, training for strength twice a week can be good for both progress or maintenance in strength, with the right metrics. Including full-body compound exercises like squats, bench press, overhead press, deadlift and weighted dips can ensure good strength for the whole body, as we are hitting larger muscle mass.

Can i train for strength and hypertrophy at the same time?

Yes, sure. Even if you try to only train for strength, or hypertrophy, you will experience improvement in the other ability. The main point is, which is the dominant focus of our workout, strength or hypertrophy? Anytime we lift, the muscle grows and becomes stronger. But, if we train for hypertrophy (high volume, low rest, 60%RM, 8+ reps) the muscle will dominantly grow, and may become a bit stronger. If we train specifically for strength (heavy weightlifting 80% RM+, 3-5 reps/sets, compound work, longer rest) there will be minimal muscle growth. Tackling both abilities at once can for sure be done, but beginners should focus on one individual ability at a time.

What is the difference between traditional and functional strength training?

Traditional strength training mainly focuses on 3 exercises such as the squat, deadlift, and bench press. Functional training means we work on more abilities at once, translating into a healthy body that can practically do well (in a physical sense) in everyday life. The most common trait of functional training is compound or multi-joint movements, which are a part of traditional strength training too. So all-in-all both phrases represent a similar topic, but functional fitness may add extra cardio, mobility training and additional tools in the picture.

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9 Ways to increase your Lifts

Since the main goal of training for strength is to increase the maximal force output, here are a couple of ways you can increase your lifts. These might be the tools, tricks, or just basic training structure ideas that can help you burst through the plateau or improve your strength gains.

1. Heavy Weightlifting

Lifting heavy is the basic rule you need to respect, to gain strength. For the muscle to produce more force, it needs to be used in such manner. This means lifting in a way that stimulates the nervous system to fire up more motor units, aiming at higher force production.

The heavier the load we lift, the fewer reps we can do. The weight of the load will dictate the number of reps and sets performed. Ideally, to gain strength we need to train with loads higher than 80% of our Repetition Maximum for a specific exercise. This means if we can squat 110 kg at most, we should train with 88 kg or more.

Ideally, at each load (% RM) we aim for a specific number of repetitions, such as:

  • 80-85% RM, 3-5 reps
  • 85%-90% RM, 2-3 reps
  • 90-95% RM, 1-2 reps
  • 100% RM, 1 repetition 

A study that analyzed the different effects of resistance training load showed that heavier weightlifting is beneficial for strength. From a total of 28 studies and more than seven hundred healthy adults, included training loads seemed as a very important factor. Hypertrophy occurred in all three groups, with low, moderate, and heavy lifting, independent of load. But strength gains were mainly the result of lifting with heavier loads. (1)

2. Low Volume, Moderate Frequency

While hypertrophy requires high volume and frequency, less rest, and more exercise, strength is a different beast. Training strength requires more explosive workouts, heavier loads, longer recovery, and fewer exercises.

To become stronger, you need to increase the intensity. This means higher loads and more explosive lifts. For this to be possible, your body needs to rest and recover more. This is why the volume of strength training is lower, along with its frequency.

Weekly, 2-4 workouts are enough to build a stronger body. Since you mostly work on strength with compound movements, you also have fewer exercises and you can target more muscles. For the Volume, you also do fewer reps (1-3-5) and sets (2-5).

The most popular strength programs use the 3×5 model. This model aims for 15 reps in total, done either as 3 sets of 5 reps, or 5 sets of 3 reps. It is by far, one of the most efficient training methods for strength. Here is a quick example of one workout, following the 3×5 model:

The total workout is comprised of 4 compound exercises, repeated 3 times per week:

  • Romanian Deadlift (3 sets, 5 repetitions, 85% RM Load, 3-5 minutes rest.)
  • Bench Press (3 sets, 5 repetitions, 85% RM Load, 3-5 minutes rest.)
  • Overhead Press (3 sets, 5 repetitions, 85% RM Load, 3-5 minutes rest.)
  • Front Squat (3 sets, 5 repetitions, 85% RM Load, 3-5 minutes rest.)

With frequency, studies show that actually low-frequency and high-frequency strength training which had equal sets in total, resulted in quite similar improvements in both lean muscle mass gained and strength. (2)

So, whether participants did each muscle group 3 times per week, with 3 full-body workouts or they hit each muscle with 9 sets per workout, 1 workout per muscle a week, results were similar. It is worth noting that all the participants were experienced, and the training lasted for 8 weeks in total.

3. Weight-Focused Training

The main difference in training for hypertrophy and strength/power is where the main focus goes. If you want to build muscle, you want to tear the muscle down and feel the burn from lactic acid building up, which is muscle dominant.

If you train for strength, you want to find the most efficient way to properly lift that weight, without caring how much you’re activating each muscle, being more of a whole-body thing. With strength, you are more concerned about the load, while hypertrophy can be done with lower loads at the end of a workout when the muscle is already tired.

4. Lift Explosively

As stated earlier, strength training requires the activation of larger muscle groups. It relies on neural adaptation and trains the nervous system to fire up larger motor units. For this to occur, we need to train in a way that requires nervous system stimulation, which is best done with heavier loads.

Explosiveness is the main skill/ability trained when trying to increase power, but strength is a bit different. Lifting for strength may seem slower because the loads are just that much heavier. But this is fine, as speed isn’t our main focus, but maximal force output.

If you are doing 90% RM + loads, the concentric part will require higher and faster force output, but the lift will take more time from A to B, as we need more time to lift the higher load. This means you don’t need to focus on the tempo that much, but getting the weight from A to B.

5. Compound Exercises

Compound exercises are crucial for gaining strength. The reason behind this is, producing maximal force output can be done with large muscle mass involved. We can’t aim for maximal strength by doing triceps cable-pushdowns.

We need compound, functional, and foundation exercises like the squat, bench press, overhead press, deadlift, pull-ups, and dips. The kind of exercises that will activate larger muscle groups, because those can stimulate the nervous system more than any other isolation exercise.

Research shows that training with multi-joint exercises with work volume equated results in higher strength gains and improved oxygen consumption than isolation work. (3)

Another randomized control trial has shown the endocrine effects of high-intensity weight training. As we know, training load and volume are crucial for that anabolic effect. In this trial, powerlifters performed 3 reps with 90% RM barbell squats with a variable volume of either 3, 6, or 12 sets in total. The results showed that 6 sets were the optimal volume for a greater hormonal response. (4)

Aside from the basic compound exercise that powerlifters perform, like the squat, bench press, and deadlift, some complementary or accessory lifts are also encouraged. These can include Arnold press, Front Squat, Lat Pulldown, Weighted Dips, T-Bar Row, Hip Thrusters, Leg Press, Skull Crushers, Upright Rows, Weighted Pull-ups, Incline Press, and more.

6. Post Activation Potentiation

PAP of Post Activation Potentiation is a great tool for improving one’s performance acutely. It is more of a “getting in the right state” kind of thing, but it may boost strength training performance. It can be achieved through a strong grip, submaximal lifts, plyometric exercises, or explosive jumps.

PAP is one of the best pre-workout techniques, which can take part right before doing your lifts, or as a part of the warm-up routine. Powerlifters, sprinters, and jumpers use it, to get their nervous system up and running.

The theory being it is that contractile history of the muscle will result in acute improvement of performance in later, subsequent contractions. It works by increasing the ability to produce force shortly after a voluntary contraction.

The higher the intensity of PAP, especially in experienced athletes, the better acute performance improvement we get. Two strategies can be implemented, like lifting 65% RM 1 rep with higher volume, or 85-90% RM 1 rep with longer rest interval. (5)

7. Intraabdominal Pressure

As a kinesiologist, one of the most important techniques I learned about was IAP. Proper breathing is crucial in strength training. When to inhale, when to exhale, and when to hold your breath are the three key points. It may seem unimportant to some, but this is absolutely crucial. It is the primary reason why you see lifters who lift heavy, wear a belt.

Increased Intra-Abdominal Pressure can result in decreased compressive forces on the spine. This may reduce the risk of spine injury. It is achieved by properly holding the breath and tightening up the core in the main part of the lift.

Studies show that the biggest IAP is measured during squats, after which comes deadlifts, slide row, and leg press. It turns out that untrained individuals shouldn’t use heavy loads on these lifts before they’ve trained enough to adapt to higher IAP. (6)

8. Grip Strength

One of the things often overlooked in strength training is grip strength. Having a strong grip can significantly influence your strength gains and allow your body to lift heavier loads.

Stable wrists and strong wrist muscles are a must for all the pushing and pulling motions we do in our strength training routine. Having weak wrists will result in immediate aches that prevent the individual to lift consistently.

Research even shows that grip strength is highly correlated with muscle strength. This cross-sectional study on children, adolescents, and young adults shows that grip strength is a great indicator of total muscular strength. (7)

Although training with weights will automatically improve your grip strength, training specifically for grip strength can also improve your strength gains.

To increase grip strength, you should start exercising your hands first. This is best done by squishing a hardball, exercising your extensors, and doing a fixed handgrip exercise. Pull-ups and Farmers Walk can also help, but try to squeeze the bar or dumbbells as hard as you can.

9. Rest and Recovery

Longer rest is one crucial factor for strength gains, especially between sets. That is the major difference between hypertrophy training, where we try to fatigue the muscle, and strength or power training, where we try to produce maximal force.

Since you lift heavy for strength, you need to rest. Part of that rest comes from lower volume and training frequency. You train less, you rest more. But also, the rest duration between sets should be 2-4, or 3-5 minutes, depending on the intensity. Anything under 2 minutes won’t let the nervous system recover efficiently, anything over 5 minutes will cool off your body.

Since rest is one of the most important variables that can influence training adaptation, we’ll take a deeper look at what science has to say about this. It turns out the rest of 3-5 minutes can help the body, muscles and nervous system recover better, which increases overall force output. (8)

Longer rest can also give creatine phosphate enough time for being re-synthesized back in the muscle, which means we start the next set with better fuel.

Frequently Asked Questions

How to train for strength?

The best type of training for strength is heavy and compound weightlifting, with low overall volume, heavy loads and longer rest periods. The optimal training metrics are: 2-3 workouts per week, 3-5 exercise per workout, 3-5 sets and 3-5 reps with heavier loads of + 80% RM, incorporating compound lifts mainly.

What is the best strength training to do without equipment?

To build strength with no equipment, it is worth looking into calisthenics and bodyweight training methods. The key to building muscle is to activate our muscles to produce force against external resistance. However, it is worth noting that for maximal strength gain, in a sense of maximal power output (pure strength) we probably won’t get far with neither one, as it is best to lift weights. In terms of general strength, building muscle and shredding fat, these two methods can be pretty effective.

What is a good strength training workout for a beginner?

Beginners should learn proper posture and start with lighter weights at first. Generally, learning the basic compound movements such as squats, dips, pull-ups, bench press, deadlift, overhead press, etc., is a great start. For absolute beginners who haven’t lifted any weights before, training focused on strength is a no-no. They rather focus on proper posture, mobility and lift lighter weights (60% RM) aiming at hypertrophy first. After a good balance is established, posture is correct, muscles and connective tissues are stronger, next step is translating to strength.

How does strength training improve body composition?

Strength training improves body composition in many ways. First it aids in muscle growth and regeneration, which stimulates anabolic hormones. As we gain muscle, our bodies are at a more efficient ratio of muscle-to-fat in terms of calorie burning. Theoretically this speeds up our metabolism, because of the increase in muscle which is metabolically active tissue (needs/burns calories at rest). Another way is by reducing or burning fat tissue, which comes as a side effect of training.

Keypoints: The Top 9 Ways To Increase Your Lifts Are:

  • Lifting heavy (80% RM +) to fire up larger motor units and more muscle, plus adapt the nervous system to produce more force
  • Low volume and moderate frequency, to allow the body for optimal rest and regeneration
  • Weight-Focused training, meaning the amount of weight lifted is more important than trying to fatigue the muscle
  • Explosive lifts for higher rate of force production
  • Compound or functional exercises, because in multi-joint exercises we can exert maximal force
  • PAP or post activation potentiation, acutely improving one’s performance
  • IAP or Intraabdominal pressure, reduces compressive forces on the spine, helps us lift more
  • Grip strength is crucial, practicing it allows higher force transmission through the wrists
  • Optimal rest and recovery, high protein diet, lower volume and good sleep
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conclusion

Training for strength relies on neural adaptation, with the main goal of lifting heavier loads from A to B. To increase your lifts, focusing on proper training metrics is important. These include low volume (3 workouts a week) with 3-5 exercises, 3-5 sets, 3-5 reps, longer rest periods of 3-5 minutes.

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