There are hundreds of strength training programs out there. They all promise results.
But, what makes those strength training programs work? Let’s dive into the factors that affect maximal strength and how strength training can be effective.
The Basics Of Strength
There are a few underlying principles of strength that are necessary to understand.
Strength Is Specific
This means that doing Push-ups won’t transfer to getting better at Squats. It’ll simply get you better at Push-ups. Also, this means that training in the 15-20 rep range won’t help improve your 1 rep max as much as it helps you increase your strength within the 15-20 rep range.
Strength Is Relative
Some people think of strength simply as how much they can lift for 1 rep. Others train hard to increase their 5 rep max, or 15 rep max, or any other rep range. All this equates to strength. Maximal strength is exerted at low reps with high loads and strength endurance is utilized with low loads and high reps.
Strength Isn’t Linear
You’ll experience times of lower strength and times of higher strength within a training cycle. Factors like your diet, sleep quality, stress, daily activity, and hydration all affect strength daily. Progressions aren’t linear from day to day, or even week to week. That’s why proper programming is key.
Strength Training Variables
There are variables in strength training that you can manipulate. This depends on an individual’s goals, limitations, and capabilities. These are frequency, intensity, volume, progression, equipment availability, and exercise selection.
Each has its place to optimize in a strength training program. Here, we’ll look at how they work and what the science says about optimal usage.
Frequency is how often a muscle group and/or a specific exercise pattern is trained.
Typically, this is addressed for how many times a movement pattern is trained in a week.
If you look around, you’ll find programs that only train a muscle group once per week. Others train each muscle group 5-6 times per week.
With such a drastic range, it seems the optimal training frequency is up to debate. The research supports this as well.
When volume is equal throughout the week, more frequency doesn’t mean more strength gains. This was shown in this meta-analysis done in 2018. What it does show is that if a higher training frequency allows for more total volume per week, gains are increased.
To make things easiest: you should train each muscle group as often as you need to hit your weekly volume landmark (discussed later).
Intensity deals with the load while doing an exercise. If you are doing Pull-ups or dips, the load is your bodyweight. When doing Deadlifts, the load is the barbell and plates you are lifting.
The intensity of a set is the percentage of your one-rep max for an exercise.
So, if you can bench press 250 lbs for one rep, then 200 lbs will be 80% of your one-rep max.
A study in 2018 looked at the differences in strength and hypertrophy gains with varying loads. The loads were 20%, 40%, 60%, and 80% of the subjects one rep max.
All intensities proved to be effective for strength and hypertrophy. But, the 20% group gained less strength and the 80% group gained the most.
This essentially lets you know that as long as you aren’t able to do 30+ reps with a load, it can be effective for strength training.
When looking at volume on strength training, we measure it by the total number of sets performed each week for a movement pattern.
A meta-analysis done in 2017 examined the strength gain differences between different volumes. Doing 5 or fewer sets per week wasn’t as effective as training 5 or more sets.
Also of note, the more advanced trainees needed 10+ sets per week to see better results.
This gives us a good baseline to start with 6 working sets per exercise per week, and build up over time after hitting plateaus.
You can’t do the same workout over and over and expect never-ending results. That’s why progressive overload is the main factor in strength training success.
To continue to get stronger, one of the previous training variables must be adjusted. More training frequency, volume, intensity, or a mixture of all 3 are necessary to progress.
A simple way to do this is to have a set rep range for an exercise and increase the load when you hit the upper range for all sets.
Here is an example: Let’s assume we training calisthenics and we want to do a dip progression. The training session prescribes 3 sets of 5-8 reps/set. You start with out own body weight and train until you can perform 8 good form reps in all 3 sets. When 3×8 is achieved, you can add the weight to 5lbs to bodyweight using a dipping belt. Keep using that weight until you hit 8 reps for each set again.
This is a perfect example of linear progression, which works for most trainees for the first few years of their training careers.
After that, progressive overload becomes a bit more complicated and involves periodization.
If you are one of us who trains at home, you don’t have unlimited training equipment. Luckily, your bodyweight will provide a great strength training stimulus, as long as you can’t hit 30+ reps per set on an exercise.
When you can do that, you need to use a harder exercise progression or add external load, like a weight vest.
Or, you can invest in dumbbells and barbells, which are much easier to use for load manipulation.
No matter the equipment you use, the variables of strength training still apply.
Compound movements provide the most bang for your buck. These are exercises that involve movement at more than one joint.
For example, Push-ups stimulate the pecs, triceps, and delts effectively. If you were to do isolation movements you’d need to do Chest Flies, Triceps Kickbacks, and Front Raises to equate the training stimulus.
Stick with compound movements when you can and add in isolation movements if necessary.
Here is a list of the best compound movement patterns:
- Upper body push (Push-ups, Overhead Press, Bench Press)
- Upper body pull (Pull-ups, Bent Over Rows, Inverted Rows)
- Squat/lunge (all squat and lunge variations)
- Hip hinge (Deadlifts, Good Mornings, Nordic Hamstring Curls)
Notably absent is core and calf training, which is isolation work.
Right diet in the Strength Training also pay a key role. This is not the time to be on calorie deficit, as we will be building new muscle tissue to allow us to gain strength. Especially when it comes to protein intake we need to make sure we consume enough. In this article I explain how much proteins do you need.
Putting It To Use
Strength training seems complicated by trainers and coaches that swear they have the secrets of success. Yet, all that is necessary for a proper strength program is to use the program variables listed in this article correctly.
It may not look exciting or cutting-edge. Fortunately, glitz and glamor aren’t necessary for results!
On my fitness journey plenty of times I have trained specifically for strength. The most recent is my journey of achieving a muscle up on gymnastic rings. My weight oscillates around 100kg, so there is a lot of strength required for me to even attempt any body weight exercises. For example my pull up progression started with 2 bad form pull ups and I followed 5 sets of 5 reps workout. Since I was only able to pull up 2 times, I perform 3 negative movements to make it up to 5.
After 3 weeks I was able to improve on my form and pull up 5 times. At this point I started attaching weights to my waist and followed with the same 5×5 workout. In video below I show my current pull up form. I still have some work to do on increasing my pull up depth.