What it takes to get strong.
Often times I think hypertrophy and strength are thrown into the same boat or conversation. And I am not mad at that. There are certainly programs that involve both, and the two topics or training goals are related. Which brings us to the first point…
Let’s first start this episode with off with a precursor. “Consistency” is not one of my main points today because that is a given. You’re not maximizing strength in the absence of consistent training. So, there’s that.
Muscle mass holds the potential for strength
Strength IS a skill
In a very oversimplified sense, to gain strength, we need to stimulate the muscle beyond what it has experienced before.
When a person starts lifting for the first time, anything beyond body weight, or maybe even their body weight alone can elicit that stimulus. There are also massive neurological gains to be made. They are learning a movement pattern and building neuromuscular pathways. Thus in the first 4-6 weeks they likely haven’t built actual strength, rather improved neuromuscular pathways. Which I suppose you could argue is in fact gaining strength. Point is, these much larger jumps in weight lifted and force produced are going to happen early on in someone’s lifting experience. Even as an amateur. These gains can continue for YEARS before a lifter truly plateaus with their strength gains. But that largely depends on the lift.
Say with lateral raises, a lifter may hit 5lbs and realize that is going to be difficult for a very long time. AND the point of this more isolated movement with a long lever is maybe not the lift to drive strength with. Not every exercises is best used for maximal or near maximal strength. Maybe better to push control + capacity with these exercises.
As mentioned earlier you need a greater stimulus than a muscle has experienced to have an adaptation that results in more force produced.
This is in fact the definition of strength. Time is not a factor when looking at strength. It strictly refers to and measures force produced, period. If it takes you 20 seconds or 5 seconds, that is not of value – only the weight lifted.
In theory more muscle could be correlated to more strength if strength is being trained. Remember strength is a skill. A body builder with massive amounts of muscle – even more muscle than someone else may not be as strong as the person with less muscle mass but they’ve trained strength in a given skill. Training the skill is so freaking important when it comes to building strength. That is #2 for what it takes to get strong.
#1 is actually building muscle – because, I am a broken record, we need muscle to build strength. #1 and #2 can of course be trained in tandem. A perfect example of strength and hypertrophy working hand in hand. It can and often does happen. Built By Annie is a prime example. I call it strength and hypertrophy programming because that’s what it is. This is also the type or approach of programming I teach inside Pure PROgramming. Simply because most people want to have more muscle and also be stronger. Even outside of sports like body building or power and weightlifting.
Training the skill
If every movement is NOT necessarily best used for building maximal force, what movements should you focus on for strength? Let me be very clear with the fact that there is no black and white rule book. Generally speaking, large compound movements are where we most commonly drive strength adaptations: Multipoint, multi-muscle group movements like squats, horizontal and vertical pressing and pulling, and deadlift variations (sumo and conventional). But you can very much so drive strength in more single joint bias exercises like an RDL, hip thrust, bicep curl, or quad extension. With the single joint exercises, I see them better used for hypertrophy while still improving strength (load moved for a given amount of volume, vs working specifically MAXIMAL force of 1-3 reps).
Getting comfortable under 80+ % load IS A SKILL. The amount of time I spend as a coach building confidence in an athlete under the bar is massive. It can feel like I am coaching THAT more than the motor pattern itself. Even in a given workout, each warm up set is priming your nervous system for heavier and heavier loads, priming your muscles AND priming your MIND.
Every rep is feedback and a penny in the piggy bank of movements done with the intention of high force output.
As weight goes up, we ideally don’t want a large change in the pattern itself. Now buffer zones are REAL, welcome and expected when hitting near or at maximal loads. Don’t sweat movement variation too much. Especially as this shouldn’t be happening often.
That brings us to next two points
Using high RPE + Deload weeks
You do not need to be working at 90-100% all the time – in fact this would likely lead to under-recovering and a strength and performance plateau. One of my personal favorite things to see with clients is the fact that we work largely in 70-85% range most of the time. And yet, when we do creep up into those 90+ percentages – the 3 rep range, they can hit old numbers or even higher numbers with ease. And they do not need to torture their muscle or joints to do this. Keep in mine I work with women who just want to lift weights but come from some sort of lifting background – be it weight lifting, power lifting or CrossFit.
So, yes, strength is a skill, and it needs to be consistently trained, but also, that doesn’t mean balls to the wall 24/7. Which is why deload weeks should be unitized if strength is the true, number one goal. Back to point 1 – you need to provide new, more challenging stimulus to the muscle and pattern in order to push strength. That means and implies that we want to do what is called “over-reaching” – not to be confused with over-training.
If the body makes its gains in recovery, then IT NEEDS TIME TO RECOVER!!! You should need deload weeks. Your body should welcome them. And you should know that you NEED it heading into a new phase of pushing hard again. A reload is simply a week within a training phase that the overall taxation on the body and mind is lowered significantly. Likely that happens through load, volume, tempo, even movement pattern selection.
You should be very challenged by the work you’re doing in your program. It should be HARD – RPE 8 likely and above. And your deload weeks will come after a period you’ve been building up to, and/or before a challenging or new phase.
Training sticking points & or all degrees of the movement
When working on strength you’re training the skill of strength AND the movement patterns themselves. That means you will 100% come to understand the concept of sticking points. If you’ve ever head of someone getting pinned in the bottom of a squat or bench press, they likely hit their sticking point just before they got “pinned.”
We cover this in depth and how to train them in Pure PROgramming, but essentially a sticking point is the point in the concentric phase of a movement where the velocity slows significantly. Then the velocity picks back up after the sticking point. It looks as if more weight has been added to the athlete’s bar, of someone is suddenly pressing down on the bar as the athlete is trying to finish the movement.
Truly, you can’t miss it. When you see it, you know it. Luckily sticking points can be worked on and often times, bring up strength in the movement overall.
Isometrics and pauses (which really are using short term isometrics) are great tools to add more time under tension just before the start of the sticking point. That’s going to give the athlete a degree of strength gains just before and just after the angle at which the muscle is stimulated. The goal, put very simply is to increase strength specifically in the sticking point.
No matter what, when watching someone move a true or near maximal load, there WILL BE a sticking point. Even when watching the world’s strongest man. Strengthening every joint angle of a given movement will strengthen the overall pattern.
And I know that maximal strength is often demonstrated in the smallest or shortest range of motion possible. This is because it decreases the time under tension and room for error. BUT there are gains to be made working full range of motion. Both for overall muscle development, therefore potential for strength, and for longevity. Which you know I am about.
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I'm an adventurous introvert from Vancouver, Washington who lives on sleep + "me time." I'm a lover of lifting weights, dinosaurs, real talk and traveling with my husband. I am here to help you move better, lift more, bust the myths of the fitness industry, and inspire you to love the process.
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