Here's what you need to know...
- Without a solid strength base, drop sets and crazy finishers are pointless. Stop majoring in the minor and get strong first.
- Building strength makes you more explosive. Strength builds a base for speed and power so you can develop athleticism.
- Building strength allows you to build more muscle. Focusing on strength means you'll be able to achieve greater metabolic stress and force muscles to grow.
- Strength is important to losing fat. Working on strength preserves muscle and increases metabolic rate while in a caloric deficit.
Put a premium on strength development and you'll reach any goal. Emphasizing advanced methods like drop sets, finishers, and the newest, baddest, muscle-building method on the planet is pointless without a solid strength base. Even losing fat is tougher if you're not strong.
The problem is, you might not see strength as all that important for your goal, but it's brutally hard work that yields huge dividends when you pay the price. It's time to stop majoring in the minutiae and take care of strength first and foremost. Then and only then can you specialize your training toward specific goals.
There are multiple types of strength, but for simplicity, let's address relative strength and absolute strength. Relative strength is the amount of strength relative to body size. All else being equal, smaller individuals have higher relative strength. Think of your middle-school fitness tests when the 90-pound wrestlers would destroy the pull-up test while big kids struggled. This reflects your ability to control or move your body through space, as in most movement-based sports.
Absolute strength refers to 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. Throwing it back again to your middle-school days, faster-maturing kids with greater absolute strength absolutely destroyed their counterparts in tackling or blocking drills.
Strength training improves your performance primarily due to increased nervous system activation. Increased nervous system activation via strength training does two huge things for your training:
- Increases muscle fiber recruitment
- Increases speed at which the body sends electrical signals to the muscles
Take a look at the following chart:
|Bodyweight||Deadlift||Max Absolute Strength||Relative Strength|
|185 pounds||405 pounds||405 pounds||2.2x bodyweight|
|205 pounds||405 pounds||405 pounds||1.97x bodyweight|
Notice that while the larger lifter has the same absolute strength as the lighter lifter, his relative strength is less than the lighter lifter. If you're a dedicated gym rat, your objective is to get stronger, leaner, and more athletic. Both absolute strength and relative strength are needed to maximize your high-performance beastliness.
Developing greater absolute strength builds greater relative strength. You develop greater absolute strength by improving technique on big lifts, improving neuromuscular function, and in many cases, increasing bodyweight. When bodyweight is kept the same, an improvement in absolute strength improves relative strength, thus improving your ability to generate force on exercises like jumps, bodyweight exercises, and moving your body through space.
To improve both maximum and relative strength, you need to emphasize multi-joint exercises to stimulate larger increases of anabolic hormones (Hansen et al., 2001). For well-rounded strength development, combine heavy strength work like presses, rows, cleans, and squats with relative strength exercises like chin-ups, jumps, and sprints with maximum explosive intent.
Strength is also hugely important in building muscle. In newbies, training primarily for strength gains leads to increased muscle because the body isn't used to the high stress environment. According to a study by Fry in 2004, maximum growth occurs with loads between 80-95% of your 1-rep max (1RM) when sufficient volume is present. This equates to sets of 2-8 reps, depending on the lifter.
This is why a base program like 5x5 works so well with beginners – consistent overload with big lifts is plenty to make big gains and outgrow your Baby Gap T-shirts. But, unfortunately, this method won't work forever.
Any lifter who's built decent levels of strength eventually realizes that lifting exclusively with loads over 80% of 1RM ultimately leads to problems. Your joints and nervous system will crack before your mind gives up. As a result, the way you build muscle changes as you get older and better at lifting. Once you've built a base of strength, you eventually adopt a two-fold approach:
- You maximize muscle fiber recruitment to get the most out of training.
- You train with enough volume to create progressive overload and to build more muscle.
Once you build your strength base, improved motor unit recruitment and work capacity allow you to stimulate more muscle fibers and handle relatively heavier training loads. This means you're able to achieve greater levels of metabolic stress, mechanical tension, and muscular damage, which are the three primary methods of muscular hypertrophy.
Therefore, you can't simply rely on heavy lifting to maximize muscle gains. Instead, you need a mix of high training loads to build work capacity and improve muscle unit recruitment, while mixing in lighter loads to increase total workload. Ronnie Coleman said it best: "Everyone wants to be a bodybuilder but nobody wants to lift heavy-ass weight."
Fat loss is easy, right? Negative energy balance coupled with tons of high intensity circuits and you're set, right? Well, not quite. This is the biggest pitfall in most diets. Excessively low calorie intake and too little heavy strength work cause a huge loss in muscle mass, which in turn decreases metabolic rate and stops fat loss in its tracks.
Without proper training, dieting strips away hard-earned muscle and strength, unless you lift to prevent that from happening. Instead of opting for endless plodding on the treadmill and high-rep circuits, the smart lifter understands heavy strength training is the superior method to holding onto lean body mass when dieting down.
Train heavy when dieting to maintain muscle mass. That means at least one day per week, lift 75-95% or 1RM in one or two major, multi-joint lifts. Each rep should be performed with as much explosive intent possible, thereby maximizing nervous system stimulation and muscle fiber recruitment.
The following types of movements can be mixed and matched based on your goals. Those training for athleticism should focus more on explosive and pure multi-joint movements, whereas those who want to maximize muscle gains would spend more time with moderate intensity and compound movements.
To build athleticism: Incorporate explosive movements like jumping. Jumping can improve high-threshold motor unit recruitment and, consequently, athleticism. Try 2-3 sets of 3-5 reps of an explosive movement like box jumps before you lift.
To build maximum strength and grow muscle: Use heavy strength and powerful multi-joint movements. These big movements, like squats in the 1-8 rep range, will create high levels of mechanical tension and CNS activation and stimulate the greatest anabolic response in the body. These should be the base for your training.
To grow muscle: Use moderate-intensity compound movements. You can't always train with very heavy weights as your training age advances. Performing sets of 6-12 reps in compound exercises with slower eccentric (negative) tempos can increase metabolic stress and muscular damage and lead to greater hypertrophy.
To maximize muscular damage and bring up weak points: Use high-rep compound/isolation movements. High-rep compound movements work great as finishing exercises to maximize muscular damage and metabolic stress, as long as risk is mitigated and sets end on technical failure. Bring up weak points with isolation work-sets of anywhere from 12-25 reps, with building fatigue and achieving a pump being the main focus.