The Science Behind Building Strength

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Written by Stefan Ianev (Clean Health Research & Development Specialist)

No matter what your goal is, anyone training with weights should be striving to get stronger!  

Strength is defined as the ability to exert force against a load or resistance. It is the quality upon which all other motor qualities are built. A good strength base can help increase hypertrophy, power, strength endurance, and prevent injury.

Strength helps increase each of these qualities in the following ways:

  • Being stronger helps you lift more weight which can directly translate to more hypertrophy provided sufficient volume is being performed.  
  • Being stronger allows you to produce more force and since power equals Force x Velocity, being stronger can help you become more powerful. 
  • Being stronger allows you to perform more repetitions with a given load hence your muscular endurance also improves. 
  • Being strong especially at the extreme ranges of motion helps prevent injury because you have better motor control and stability in those ranges. 
  • Being strong also helps you decelerate your limbs hence preventing muscle tears during high velocity movements. 
  • Being strong helps you absorb landing forces hence reducing the wear and tear on your tendons and connective tissue.
  • And let’s face it, being strong and lifting heavy shit is fun and it does wonders for your confidence  

The stimulus for strength development is tension. Tension is proportional to the force applied. Since force equals Mass x Acceleration, tension can be increased by increasing the load or by applying greater acceleration to the same load. Strength increases are brought about by the improvement of inter and intramuscular coordination. 

Intermuscular coordination refers to the synchronization between muscle groups. It accounts for first 30% of strength increases. For example, when you are learning to bench press, you are teaching your synergistic muscle groups like the pecs, shoulders, and triceps to all fire in synchrony, while switching off the antagonist muscle groups. 

Ever notice when someone performs an exercise or a sports skill for the first time, they look all stiff and jerky whereas someone who is very skilled looks smooth and it seems effortless. That is because the skilled lifters or athletes have learned how to fire all their synergistic muscles in synchrony while switching off the antagonist muscle groups.    

Intramuscular coordination refers to the recruitment, synchronization, and firing frequency (rate coding) of motor units within a muscle group. Lifting moderate to heavy loads with maximal intent is required in order to recruit all available motors units and teach your body and nervous system how to fire those motor units in synchrony, and at the highest frequency possible. 

Due to these neural adaptions and the high learning component required to express strength, that makes it possible to get stronger without necessity getting bigger. However, increasing muscle size increases potential force development because it increases the size of the motor so to speak. So, provided that neurological efficiency and skill is equal, a bigger muscle will produce more force.  

When training for strength there are 3 primary methods that we can utilize:

  1. The Maximal Effort Method

The maximal effort method requires the use of heavy loads, typically between 85-100% of your 1RM for 1-5 repetitions.  This method trains your nervous system to become more efficient, but since the overall volume is lower, it does not lead to proportional increases in muscle size. This is the preferred method for someone looking to get stronger without gaining a lot of body weight. 

  1. The Dynamic Method

This method requires the use of submaximal loads, typically 40-60% of your 1RM for 1-5 repetitions, but focusing on applying maximal acceleration to the bar. This method is very good for increasing the rate of force development or power. Typically, this method is used by power athletes closer to a competition when they need to teach their nervous system and muscles to express their strength as rapidly as possible. 

  1. The Repetition Method

This method involves the use of moderate loads, typically between 60-80% of your 1RM, for 8-15 repetitions.  Typically, incomplete rest periods are used here to increase muscle fatigue. This method helps improve strength endurance and it is also generally most effective for increasing muscle size or hypertrophy. This method is also used to prepare the muscles and connective tissue to withstand the higher forces encountered from the maximal effort method and the dynamic method. 

For most recreational lifters that are looking to get stronger and improve their body composition, the repetition method should be their go to method. However, strength and performance athletes will need to rely more on the maximal effort and dynamic method to maximize strength and power, and will typically only use the repetition method during general preparatory phases or when they are trying to move up a weight class. 

So, while every lifter should be striving to increase their strength, the type of strength you seek will depend on your goal!

Want to learn about the science and fundamentals behind program design in great detail when it comes to developing effective strength & conditioning programs such as load selection, technical execution, rest periods, programming principles and more?
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