An Anvil T&D Training article by Marshall Officer
What is the Anvil Training Series?
The Anvil Training Series is a series of 12 articles throughout 2020 about key training concepts, written for the general reader. Physical training, in some form or another, should be a part of everyone’s life. Most of the basic concepts are very easy to understand and implement, although these days - the industry has become muddied with complicated variations of basic concepts that can make choosing how to train quite intimidating. These articles are here so that you don’t need a degree and ten years’ experience to separate what matters from what doesn’t, and aim to help you navigate the muddy and ever-changing waters of the online fad fitness industry.
There is no end to the number of resources, both free and purchasable, that are available for someone to learn about Strength training. Although this article will cover many of the same topics, much like the rest of the Anvil Training Series - I aim to make things as clear and simple as possible. Strength is a broad topic, and is becoming more and more popular these days, as many more people discover the benefits of strength training. However, there are just as many myths, misdirections, and downright lies that are out there - and hopefully by the end of this article, you come away with a basic understanding of what works, what doesn’t, and why, as well as an appreciation for why you should want to be stronger, and whether or not size actually equals strength.
How do we define Strength?
As usual, when I begin an article like this, I like to define the topic so there is absolutely no misunderstanding when I discuss strength. Strength is usually classified by a number. What does this mean? Well, when we look at the “strongest” people to walk the earth, we generally look at how much they can lift. Who are these people? Usually, they are powerlifters, olympic lifters, and strongmen. Sometimes, they are bodybuilders, who tend to have a disproportionate amount of muscle mass compared to the numbers they move in the popular lifts. But, what about other types of strength? Rock climbers, although not large, have the ability to manipulate their body weight for long periods of time, using just their toes, fingers, and core. Gymnasts, long and high jumpers, shot putters, and even traditional team athletes like rugby players or American footballers are required to not only be aerobically fit, but have to maintain a high level of muscular strength to rise to the top. So, how should we define strength so that it applies to all of these people, regardless of the category in which they fit? This may be a controversial statement, but strength in all these cases can be defined as the ability to use muscular tension to generate an appropriate amount of force, against resistance, over a period of time. For example, a powerlifter may want to squat 200kg. A squat requires almost every muscle in the body to be engaged in some way, with the eccentric and concentric contractions sometimes taking up to 8 seconds in total. That means the lifter must be capable of maintaining tension in their muscles capable of controlling a 200kg load as the hips come back and down to below the line of the knee - breaking parallel according to the rules of powerlifting, and then reverse the direction of that load and bring it back up to where it started. In comparison, a rock climber may need to lift their entire body weight, potentially through one or both hands, for however long it may take to climb a surface. The load might only be 70kg (their body), but the time may be upwards of half an hour. This requires muscular endurance and might be trained in a different way to how the powerlifter trains, but it is difficult to argue with the grip strength of a rock-climbing professional. They may not be able to squat 200kg, but the powerlifter probably can’t climb the surfaces a professional rock climber can. In both cases, the athlete is generating an appropriate amount of force, against resistance, over a period of time. Both of these people have relative strength.
Two types of hypertrophy
Training a muscle correctly can result in a physiological response known as hypertrophy. Different types of training give different results, and the ability to generate force over any amount of time requires a very specific type of training. There are two forms of hypertrophy - known as sarcoplasmic hypertrophy and myofibrillar hypertrophy. The first thing to know is you can’t have one without the other, but you can force a majority. You can manipulate the way you train to produce results that prioritise one or the other. The first type of hypertrophy, sarcoplasmic, has to do with the size of the muscle itself. If you work a muscle for a period of time, it will sustain more and more tissue damage. When the muscle repairs itself, it will grow in size where that damage has occurred (as long as you consume the right nutrition to allow the body to repair the damage - recovery is a whole different topic, which I will touch on later, but for now, let’s keep this hypertrophy stuff as simple as possible).
Myofibrillar hypertrophy has to do with how strong the neural connection with the muscle is. For example, you have probably heard the term “practice makes perfect”. Well, when you do a squat, your brain is communicating with a whole lot of different muscle groups, telling them to relax or contract. The first time you do this, the brain is sending signals along the pathways that already exist, doing its very best to make your muscles do what it thinks you want them to do. Bend the knees, break at the hips, sit back and down, stop, straighten the knee, lift the back up, bring the hips through, stand back up again. All of these things happen because signals from your brain are zipping around your body along your nervous system, and if you haven’t done many squats before - these signals are going to follow the pathways that already exist. To build new pathways, you need to force your body to do things it’s not used to doing. And forging these new pathways to create the perfect, strong squat? Well, that takes time. Practice only makes you better at doing something you already know how to do. Perfect practice makes perfect. What you practice becomes permanent, and over time, your brain creates a default firing pattern to complete a movement or task. This is why it’s important to practice good technique at all times.
The neural side of strength
What does neural connection have to do with strength? Well, a big muscle is not necessarily the strongest muscle. The strongest muscle is the one capable of generating the most amount of force over the required period of time, and this requires a crystal clear neural connection. This explains why there are people out there that weigh 70kg who can squat over 200kg. These people are living proof that muscular size is not nearly as important as developing the most efficient neural pathways for movements to maximise individual leverages. If you want to squat as heavy as possible, you need to teach your brain how to use every single muscle the best possible way in order to move the most weight in a squat. If you want to develop the grip strength of a professional rock climber, you need to take the time to teach your fingers and toes how to grip onto tiny ledges for long periods of time. Different kinds of strength, but it all starts with the brain.
Principles of Strength Training:
So, how do we teach our brains (and by extension - our bodies) to be strong? Well, there are a few scientific principles that apply to these methods. These principles are explained in different ways by many different people, usually in the context of a certain sport. However, before I go into my explanations - I’d recommend following the link at the bottom for Juggernaut Training Systems’ Scientific Principles of Strength Training. They have made a series of videos designed for raw powerlifters, who are arguably some of the strongest people alive, and their explanation of the principles they use to guide their training are some of the best explanations I’ve come across.
Our first principle is specificity. The human body is an incredible thing, a meat suit designed to move our brains around from place to place, fuel it, and keep it alive as long as possible. It has the ability to learn, grow, heal, and improve. I read recently that your tires don’t get thicker the longer you drive on them, but the human hand develops callouses the longer you lift weights to protect them from further damage. The principle of specificity, however, says that your body will go in the direction you make it. To put it bluntly: If you want to be a strong squatter, you need to squat. If you want to be a world-class rock climber, you have to climb rocks. We can go into endless detail about whether you can develop the same strengths without doing those exact movements, and you can - but at the end of the day, specificity is king. Specificity means knowing your goal. If I want to become the best powerlifter in the world, and I have the perfect recovery strategy, perfect nutrition, perfect sleep, train for the perfect amount of time per week, but only train with kettlebells, I might become extremely strong eventually, but I will fail at my powerlifting meet because my body has not adapted to a barbell. Do you want to be able to manipulate your bodyweight with incredible strength? Then, your training must focus around making yourself stronger with your own body weight. Do you want to squat heavy? Then, at some point, you’ll need to get under a barbell. Your training must be specific to your goal.
Progressive Overload is the second most important part of strength training. If you want to constantly improve, you must constantly do more. It’s as simple as that. As stated earlier, your body is capable of learning, growing, and adapting. The more you throw at it, the more capable it becomes. If I never exercise, and I start exercising 1 day a week, I will improve. But, inevitably - my body will adapt and 1 day will not be enough. The same goes for strength. If I can squat 100kg for 1 rep, and I do that once per week - I will get better at squatting 100kg. Eventually, I will be able to do more reps, but even then - 100kg will not be enough to make me stronger. To improve, you must constantly do more. For powerlifting, the goal is more weight, for 1 rep. This can be achieved in many different ways, but the consistent theme is more. For example, 5 sets of 5 reps at 100kg for a squat totals 2500kg. You don’t necessarily need to lift heavier to overload that movement. The next time you do this session - you may do 5 sets of 6,6,6,5,5 for a total of 2800kg. You may also stay at 5 sets of 5 reps at 100kg, and reduce your rest period from 3mins to 2min 45s. If you’re box squatting, you may increase Range Of Movement by 2cm. The principle remains the same: if you do not do more, you will never be able to get stronger.
Your body needs to do more to get stronger, but it also needs to recover. Recovery allows the body to normalise, or return to a condition known as homeostasis. The body runs on fuel, which it produces from digested food. When we exercise, especially strenuously to develop strength, our bodies consume large amounts of fuel, as well as the associated substances (like salt, for example) that allow for the transfer of energy through the muscles. Unless these fuel stores are restored prior to the next time you exercise, then the muscles will not be able to perform what they are required to do. If you do too much at one time, recovery will be slower. If you add more while still recovering, you are heading for injury. So, it is important to find the limit of how much you can do in one session, or on one day, or in one week, where you can recover and do a little bit more the next week - without running yourself into the ground. Every session you do should feel hard. It should never feel impossible, and you should never be training in a way that you can’t get back up and work just as hard again the next day. But, no session should ever feel easy. Find your sweet spot, push yourself, and know your limits. This is learned over time, and is usually best learned with an experienced coach.
Stimulus Recovery Adaptation
Stimulus, recovery and adaptation are a cycle that takes place over time and encompasses the first three principles. Your training program is the stimulus. Your time between reps, sets, exercises, sessions during the day, types of sessions, weeks of the program, and phases of the program, all play into the SRA cycle. The main point to take from this cycle is the frequency of training. If you are a beginner, or you are at the beginning of a training cycle where the loads and volumes are the most manageable, the frequency of sessions will be high. If you are approaching the end of a program, or you are an experienced athlete lifting huge amounts of weight or doing extremely high-intensity work every session - then the frequency of sessions per week will be lower, in order to allow your body to recover between these sessions and adapt over time. A general guideline should be the higher the intensity of each session, the lower the frequency of those sessions. Intensity, in this situation, is measured in total volume lifted over 90% of your max, or sets done to failure, or even a session that pushes you to a certain absolute limit, like sprints, sets for time, or max out sessions. This can be manipulated by an experienced coach, but it is important to learn how this can best work for you.
Variation is an interesting principle. Depending who you talk to, it could be the most important part of the program, or the least. Depending on what your goals are, or how far you are out from competing or what you need to be capable of - this will change the importance of variation. For example, if a powerlifter is competing in 6 months, a high level of variation in their exercises may allow them to maintain a high intensity, work on their weaknesses, avoid injury, and bulletproof their overall ability to generate force at many different angles or at many different parts of a lift. However, if that same powerlifter is only 6 weeks out from their meet - a high level of variation will have an adverse effect on their ability to squat, bench, and deadlift, because these are the three exercises they need to be excellent at if they want to be as successful as possible on the day. Alternatively, a sprinter might need extremely strong legs to get better at sprinting, but closer to race day - needs to know exactly how to accelerate their legs to take away the win. Put as simply as possible: you can be okay at a lot of things, or really great at a few things. Raising the level of all the things you are okay at will contribute to how great you are at those few things - but ignoring the few to focus on the many for too long will do more harm than good. Variation is great for turning weaknesses into strengths, but it needs to be managed closely with specificity for the best results possible.
This principle is very specific to training an athlete. All it takes to become good is to set a goal, put a plan in place, and then stick to that plan no matter what. No excuses, if you want to get fitter, stronger, faster, whatever. Set a realistic time frame, make a plan, and then work your ass off. But if you want to become great, the plan needs to be a bit more complicated. It must be structured into phases, with smaller goals for each phase. If you wanted to squat 200kg - you could get in the gym and squat twice a week, gradually increasing the weight, resting for a week every 6-8 weeks, and eventually, you will get there. But, if you want to become a powerlifter with an all-time world record squat - you must have a plan that builds your weaknesses, maximises your recovery, deloads appropriately, tapers, and covers what you are doing every week. This plan must cover how these things will affect the next 3 months, how that block will improve your overall performance for the year, and how that year will bring you closer to the all-time world record. For the layperson, phase potentiation can be as simple as having an upper/lower body split through the week, that increases gradually over 6 weeks, then deloads, then continues for another 6 weeks, for an ultimate 14-week increase on a few 1RM lifts. If we take it right back to basics, it’s your plan to succeed. Because as the adage goes, if you fail to plan, you plan to fail.
Some people might put this at the top of the list. And to an extent, it is important. But, as I will cover in a later article in much more depth - there is THE perfect squat, and there is YOUR perfect squat, and then there is your CURRENT strongest squat, and your FUTURE strongest squat. The human body is full of minor variations and little developmental differences that mean everyone moves and lifts differently. But, almost everyone has the same muscles, bones, and leverages. My legs might be longer than yours, and my torso might be shorter. I might be naturally built for better deadlift leverages, and you might be naturally built for better squat or bench leverages. But, that doesn’t mean I shouldn’t ignore the best way to squat to achieve my goals. Are my goals lifting the most weight possible with a bar on my back? Then I need to get my personal squat as close as possible to the “perfect” powerlifting squat. So when it comes to individual differences, they must be taken into account in order for an individual to achieve success. But, they should never be used as an excuse to keep doing something the way you have always done it. If you want to constantly improve and become as strong as you could possibly be - a happy medium must be achieved between maximising your leverages, maintaining your current strengths, and (most importantly, in my opinion) building your weaknesses. The hardest part of this is admitting to yourself where your weaknesses are, and then putting in the hard work of changing those neural pathways, all in the name of getting better.
Why get stronger? Well, strength isn’t just for athletes, even if strength should be a priority for all athletes. Strength allows your body to hold up where it might otherwise fail. It not only increases your ability to produce force, but it increases your ability to resist it. A strong body is a difficult body to break, and can be the difference between a broken leg and a sprained ankle, or the difference between walking away from an accident or being carried away. Physical strength can also translate to mental and emotional strength - as someone who knows what their body is capable of can find themselves with more self-confidence, and more resilience in difficult situations. The benefits explained in my last article, training for health and wellbeing, are also achieved from improving your strength, and these benefits are life-changing.
So, what should you take away from this article? At the end of the day, if you want to get really strong, you need to know what that strength is going to look like. Are you going to be a really strong squatter? Better get squatting. Are you going to be a really strong sprinter? Or are you going to climb a mountain? What kind of strength does that require, and how are you going to use your time to build that strength? Understand the why, and then work your ass off, using the principles mentioned above to start building that strength. The sky is the limit.
Train Smart. Train Hard.
Book of Methods, Louie Simmons
https://acewebcontent.azureedge.net/SAP-Reports/Post-Exercise_Recovery_SAP_Reports.pdf - Article on Recovery
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(Article Edited, Proof Read, and Fact-Checked by Charlotte Officer)
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