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Written by Education Manager, Stefan Ianev

Maximal strength is defined as the ability to exert maximal force against a resistance or load. It is typically measured by your 1 rep max or 1RM. 

Maximal strength depends on several factors including: 

  • Intermuscular coordination
  • Intramuscular coordination
  • Muscle fiber type 
  • Muscle size
  • Lever length 
  • Connective tissue strength 

While some of those traits such muscle fibre type, connective tissue thickness and lever length are genetically inherited, most of the other factors are trainable. 

Let’s look at each of these factors individually then talk a little bit about how to put together a training plan aimed at increasing maximal strength. 

Intermuscular Coordination
Intermuscular coordination refers to the synchronization between muscle groups. It accounts for the early increases in strength as you are leaning how to perform a movement. 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. 

Since you are acquiring the skill of how to perform a movement, this is developed through multiple repeated exposures or high-quality volume. This means you will need to perform lots of sets of your criterion movements, in order to become very proficient at them. 

Intramuscular Coordination
Intramuscular coordination refers to the recruitment, synchronization, and firing frequency (rate coding) of motor units within a muscle group. Lifting heavy loads (>80% of your 1RM) 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, at the highest frequency possible.

Muscle Size
Once your lifting proficiency improves, muscle size begins to make a greater contribution to maximal strength. All things being equal a bigger muscle is a stronger muscle. The cross-sectional area of your muscles is like the size of an engine…the bigger the engine, the more power it can generate. Increasing hypertrophy is best accomplished by using moderate loads (60-80% of your 1RM) for multiple sets.

Connective Tissue Strength
Connective tissue strength is often an overlooked factor in developing maximal strength. In fact, according to the former Bulgarian weightlifting coach Ivan Abadjiev, joint thickness is the number one predictor of a weightlifter’s success. While the thickness of your joints and connective tissue is genetically predetermined, certain training methods like eccentrics and isometrics are effective for thickening the tendons. 

Now that we have covered each of these factors, let’s take a look at how we can set up a training cycle to increase maximum strength.  

There are 3 main periodization models when it comes to developing maximum strength. 

1. Linear Periodization
This is the most common method and it involves starting with lower intensity and higher volume and progressively increasing the intensity and reducing the volume over the cycle. The early stages focus more on structural adaptations such as increasing hypertrophy and connective tissue strength, while the later stages focus more on neurological adaptations.   

Example Linear Cycle:
Weeks 1-4: 4×8-12  
Weeks 5-7: 5×6-8   
Weeks 8-10: 5×3-5
Weeks 11-12: 3×3,2,1 

2. Undulating Periodization:
This method alternates 2-3 week blocks of higher volume and lower intensity (accumulation phase) with 2-3 week blocks of lower volume and higher intensity (intensification phase). This allows you to maintain both neural and muscular adaptation while managing fatigue. 

Example Undulating Cycle:
Weeks 1-2: 4×10-12  
Weeks 3-4: 4×6-8   
Weeks 5-6: 4×8-10
Weeks 7-8: 5×3-5
Weeks 9-10: 5×5-7
Weeks 11-12: 3×3,2,1

3. Daily Undulating Periodization:
This method, also called concurrent periodization because you are training multiple qualities at the same time, involves alternating heavy and light days within the weekly micro-cycle. With this method the primary lifts must be rotated every 2-4 weeks to prevent stagnation, because you are going heavy every week.  

Example Undulating Cycle:
Weeks 1-4: Heavy: 5×4-6, Light: 4×10-12  
Weeks 5-8: Heavy: 5×3-5, Light: 4×8-10
Weeks 9-12: Heavy: 5×2-3, Light: 5×6-8

Each of these methods has their respective advantages and disadvantages. At this point the literature is inconclusive if any one method is superior to another. However, what you will notice is that they all cycle the intensity and volume in some form or another in order to promote structural and neurological adaptions, and to manage fatigue.  

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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