Why do we strength train? One obvious answer is to increase physical strength.
We’ll discuss what defines that in a moment, but for now let’s assume that all of the advertised benefits to be derived from strength training come from an increase in physical strength. And what are those advertised benefits exactly? The most commonly touted benefits are:
- Increases metabolic rate
- Decreases abdominal fat
- Improved balance/decrease in the risk of falls.
- Increased resistance to injury.
- Improved cardiovascular health
- Improved insulin sensitivity
- Improved flexibility
- Improved bone mineral density……and the list goes on.
For the sake of this post, the above benefits suffice as the major reasons most folks would want to take up a strength training program. It is important at this juncture to assert that it is not the mere activity of strength training itself that provides these benefits, but rather the adaptations made by the body in response to the stimulation from an exercise. It would then be safe to assume, owing to its title, that the desired adaptation is an increase in physical strength. This is correct, but we need to unpack exactly what defines physical strength in the context of the desired results.
So what is physical strength? Physical strength is defined as the measure of an individual’s exertion of force on physical objects. For all practical purposes this is usually measured in either foot pounds or kilograms. The heavier an object is(or the less movable), the more force is required to move the object and the more force you can produce, the greater your physical strength. At an elementary level, the more load you work with in an exercise, the stronger you are getting. This is the basis of the fundamental axiom of strength training: progressive overload. In order to increase your physical strength, the stress on the body must get greater overtime.
Pretty straightforward, right? It would seem that way. Keep making the load increase over time and you have evidence that the body is stronger. And it is. But does that mean that all of the touted benefits of strength training result from all that goes into the gross production of force during an exercise? Does simply making the weights heavier result in all of the aforementioned benefits? This is what we and the rest of the industry have been telling people for ages. Sadly however, it turns out that a gross increase in physical strength isn’t exactly the only adaptation that produces the desired benefits.
The adaptation from strength training that is responsible for most of the desired benefits is the actual increase in muscle tissue itself. In other words, we don’t want to just get grossly stronger, we want more actual muscle tissue if we are to derive many of its rewards that we partake in the training to obtain. This may seem confusing, but it’s actually quite simple. Here’s an example from the sports world.
Of all the sports in existence, the one that is the purest test of physical strength is the sport of powerlifting. In powerlifting the objective is to total the most load as a result of a maximum attempt effort in the Squat, Bench Press, and Deadlift. The athletes compete based on body weight. For example, if the athlete lifts 400 lbs one time in the Squat, 300 lbs once in the Bench Press, and 500 lbs once in the Deadlift, their total for the competition would be 1200 lbs. That total would be ranked against the other lifters in that body weight class. There are many more rules to the sport than this, but that’s the gist. The important take away is that if the lifter wants to win their weight class, they need to be able to move more weight without a subsequent increase in body weight. An increase in muscle tissue size would put them in the weight class above and thus reducing their chances at being competitive at their current level of strength. They need to find ways to move heavier loads without themselves actually getting heavier.
Please don’t misunderstand me; powerlifting certainly increases muscle tissue to a point. There is no doubt about that. In some sense it is a quasi requirement. The take home message is that simply making heavier weights go up and down(even with strict technique) doesn’t always directly correlate to an increase in muscle tissue. Yes, we want to move greater loads overtime, but within the context of what best increases the actual skeletal muscle tissue targeted with a specific exercise. An increase in muscle tissue is only part of what goes into the overall production of force in an exercise. The nervous system is the central governor and it is what transmits the signals to the neuromuscular junction that create muscular contraction. Because the body is an organism with a magnetic pull towards efficiency, it wants to accrue the greatest amount of strength with the least increase in energy expenditure. One of the metabolic benefits to having more muscle is an increase in energy expenditure. So it makes sense that just moving heavier loads isn’t sufficient to increase the density of skeletal muscle tissue. The neuromuscular system gets more efficient as one repeats a motor pattern. Part of this increased efficiency is the ability to move more weight for a given body mass. The body is getting very good at distributing the stress of an exercise more globally. The conundrum is that if we are engaging in strength training in order to increase our actual muscle tissue, we want the work of an exercise to be as directed and localized as possible. Just think of it like a game of tug o’ war. The more people you have on your side pulling with you, the less work you have to do. A greater level of strength is expressed with more help. You being the only one on your side pulling would force you to work harder even if you lost and got dragged into mud pit.
But muscular force, and the subsequent strength expressed, is only one factor in the total package that creates hypertrophy of the contractile and metabolic properties of muscle tissue. The physiology behind all of the factors that stimulate an increase in muscle tissue is complex and beyond the scope of this blogpost. We can however broadly cover it with three categories. The first is the mechanical tension in the targeted structures. The second is the micro trauma and the subsequent chemical reactions as a result of the actin and myosin filaments of muscle fiber sliding together and apart as the muscle is shortened and then lengthened. The last major category is the accumulated by products of fatigue produced from the energy expenditure of contraction. The ironic thing is that they are all interconnected and feed each other. Load creates tension, which increases micro trauma, which produces fatigue, which in turn increases tension, etc…
The key to any good exercise programming is to mange the variables of intensity(load), volume, and frequency so as to maximize all three of the major contributors to the stimulus. A mistake we and many others in the industry made for years with our clients is that we tried to maximize intensity to a degree that minimized volume and frequency. The assumption was that intensity was the main driver and in order to increase it we had to keep volume and frequency to a bare minimum. This is as it must be since intensity is inversely proportional to volume and frequency. This worked for making weights go up on a consistent basis, but it left trainees without the actual result they(ourselves included) really desired. We want the plethora of benefits from having a greater amount of metabolically active tissue not just the ability to move more load. Over the years we’ve seen too many people be able to significantly increase the amount of load they can use on their exercises without a significant increase in lean tissue to doubt this phenomenon. A retort to this position is simply that the folks who didn’t gain a significant amount of lean tissue were simply dealt a bad hand genetically. It’s our opinion that this position is an unfortunate cop out in order to protect an antiquated system and to reduce the complexity involved with effective programming. While effective programming is more complicated than the cookie cutter one set to failure programming, it is required if your objective is to derive the actual health benefits overtime from strength training.
We don’t have all the answers with regards to training protocols, but our experience over the years has been that more consideration needs to be given to all of the variables involved in a workout if it is to give us the results we are after. The past few years have been an exciting time for us. As we begun to refine our protocols based on the knowledge derived from the fields of motor learning and exercise programming, our clients have reaped much greater benefits from their training. Most report also having less joint pain and feeling more enthused for the workouts. Sounds like a recipe for consistency.
Future writing projects will address the ins and outs of our exercise methodology, but suffice to say for now that it is of utmost importance to always ask yourself, “What is getting stronger with my strength training.”