This article is all about strength; the benefits, best training methods and exercise tutorial.
Strength is an expression of one’s ability to exert force against a resistance – usually a percentage of or exceeding one’s body weight. The power lifter, body builder or strong man are synonymous with this component of fitness.
However, contention rages regarding what constitutes as ‘real’ or ‘functional’ strength as opposed to ‘static’ or ‘synthetic’ strength.
The former would be modelled by the gymnast who, though perhaps unable to bench press their body weight, can with ease perform highly complex controlled movements such as the crucifix. Static strength, by contrast, is seen in the highly-muscled weightlifter who can bench above his (or her) body weight but couldn’t perform 5 strict pull-ups.
Why strength training is important?
First the low hanging fruit answer: because by being stronger we are better able to meet the demands of daily existence; such as humping the shopping from the trolley into the boot of the car, squatting up off the toilet, reaching from the couch to retrieve the remote from the coffee table, etc., etc. But there are other reasons why strength training is important. For example, the American Heart Association recommends strength training because it has been shown to help ‘protect your body from injury’ whilst also boosting ‘your metabolic rate, which means you’ll burn more calories even when your body is at rest'.
But there’s more. The Harvard Medical School maintains that regular strength training can reduce age-induced muscular atrophy; that is, the rate at which our muscles lose their size and strength as we get older. ‘The average 30-year-old will lose about a quarter of his or her muscle strength by age 70 and half of it by age 90'.
By consistently engaging in strength-based training, preferably whilst we’re young, we can significantly slow this inexorable and inevitable decline maintaining into our advanced years a robust and strong physicality.
Can strength training burn fat?
The short answer: No – not really. To encourage the body to metabolise fat we need to stimulate the cardiovascular system, which means running, rowing, cycling, etc. Though strength training does of course burn more calories than, say, sitting down in front of the TV, in comparison to cardiovascular training it is a hugely inferior fat fighter. Still incredulous? Conduct a spot research and go compare the physiques of world strong men with those of triathletes.
Is strength training enough?
The short answer: Hell No! Of course it’s not enough – that’s why you see really strong people who still carry significant subcutaneous (and visceral) fat. For, as touched on above, strength training, though indubitably beneficial, does not adequately stimulate the cardio-respiratory system (the heart and lungs). Thus with each session we are burning fewer calories than if we interchanged between strength, muscular endurance and cardio. Also, to maximise our chances of obtaining the many benefits exercises has to offer, such as reduced risk of disease and increased longevity, we must regularly and consistently take part in all forms of fitness.
Best training methods for developing strength
The strength building calculation is a simple one (heavy weights + long rest periods = augmented strength). The trainer, after an extensive warm-up, would proceed at a leisurely pace to climb the poundage ladder until they had reached or were within arm’s reach of their 1 rep max. But though this is widely recognised as the most effective method it is by no means infallible.
There are all too many examples of world-renowned strength athletes who have broken the mould and pursued unorthodox methods that yielded remarkable results. (Consider The Great Gama, the undefeated Indian wrestler, he developed legendary strength largely by performing Hindu press-ups and Hindu squats; three thousand each of which he rattled off every day!) As with any method of developing a component of fitness it is certainly the case that one size does not fit all. You have to forge your own path.
How to test strength
1 Rep Max
The 1RM is the go-to test for ascertaining strength. After selecting a compound exercise – squat, deadlift, bent-over row, bench press – the trainer will begin the process of establishing their 1RM by using lighter lifts as stepping stones to their maximal poundage.
To conduct this test, then, you would firstly decide which compound exercise you wish to establish your 1RM on (see list of exercises below). Prior to initiating the series of lighter lifts it is ideal to have a perceived 1RM so that you can work up to it.
If you have never conducted this test before and you are clueless as to what your 1RM is, select a weight with which you can perform 5 repetitions. From this weight proceed to establish your 1RM. Remember: you are only performing 1 repetition with each lift.
Below I have outlined a number of points that should be taken into consideration prior to attempting this test.
Ensure to have a second to support and spot you through the lift. Depending on the compound exercise you choose, the 1RM can be dangerous to do on your own (this is especially so with the bench press and squat).
Make sure that you are thoroughly warmed up prior to attempting the test.
Take long rest periods between lifts (3 to 5 minutes).
If possible perform the test away from other gym users – for the reasons: a) you do not want to be disturbed or distracted; b) you do not want someone knocking into you; c) if for any reason the weight must be ditched you do not want to ditch it on that unsuspecting person to your left performing a set of sit-ups.
Increase the weight incrementally – 5kg/2.5kg/1¼kg.
Leave your ego at the gym door!
Range of relevant exercises
Traditional strength exercises are nearly all compound movements. A compound exercise is one that works multiple muscle groups and transitions through two joints: a squat, for example, stimulates the muscles of the legs and transitions through the joints of the hip and knee. Of course, strength is not merely limited to traditional compound exercises but can also be developed functionally.
Examples of strength exercises include:
Military (or shoulder) press
Clean and press
Strength can also be developed by performing calisthenics (body weight) exercises: press-ups, pull-ups, muscle-up, dips, burpees, bastods and squats. The effectiveness of these exercises can be compounded by wearing a weighted vest – a tactic The Great Gama implemented in his training regime; though he used ‘a doughnut-shaped wrestling apparatus called a Hasil’ which weighed 100 kilos.
Benefits of strength
Strength is usually pursued as an end in and of itself. Usually because the strong man (or woman!) receives backslaps, adulation and kudos from fellow gym frequenters and the physically enfeebled. As physical attributes go strength is by far the most coveted. This has been the case for thousands of years. In the Iliad Homer sings the praises of the strong man and it was Hercules’ strength alone that carried his name through the ages. However, when acquired in this mind-set – to be strong because it carries considerable social coin – strength is almost worthless. Honestly, in the real world when’s Billy Big Arms ever going to called-up to curl 100kees?
But when used to enhance performance in activities – such as a physical discipline like swimming or rowing – augmented strength is highly beneficial. Watson (1994) cites a study showing performance gains made by elite level athletes after adopting strength training techniques. A mere ‘four weeks of strength training produced a 19 per cent increase in power which resulted in a 4 per cent improvement in swimming speed.’ For a performance athlete a 4% improvement is enormous.
Purported Benefits of Strength Training Includes
Increased muscle mass
Stronger tendon and ligaments
Increased metabolic rate
Increased one density
Reduced blood pressure
Reduced blood cholesterol and blood fats
Reduction in injury susceptibility
Improved psychological well-being
(List adapted from Anita Bean’s Strength Training: The Complete Guide To)
Strength is an expression of one’s ability to exert force against a resistance.
The power lifter, body builder or strong man are synonymous with this component of fitness.
However, strength is more than static weightlifting. It can also include complex controlled movements seen in gymnastics or combat sports – such as wrestling.
The strength building calculation is a simple one: heavy weights + long rest periods = augmented strength.
Strength is best pursued for the purpose of enhancing sporting performance.
Two strength exercises to try
Muscles worked: When squatting the primary muscles recruited are those of the gluteus maximus (bum), the quadriceps (vastus lateralis, rectus femoris and vastus medialis), adductor magnus (hamstrings), the soleus (lower calves) and the abdominals and erector spinae.
‘The squat is the number one bodybuilding movement because it involves a large part of the muscular system,’
Delavier (Strength Training Anatomy)
Benefits of squats
Besides building strength in the obvious muscle group squatting is also an excellent exercises for developing strength in your core, transverse abdominus and pelvic griddle and I’ve heard it said that it can develop whole-body growth.
Squats have for a long time been recognised as one of the best strength and size building exercises. Arnold Schwarzenegger said that to develop his impressive size and strength he ‘included a lot of Heavy Squats in my leg routine, especially Half Squats.’ He goes on to tell us that, when trying to build strength and size, ‘you need to train according to basic power principals – fewer reps and sets, more rest between sets, but with increased poundage,’ (The Encyclopaedia Of Modern Bodybuilding – p.493).
Firstly prepare the barbell: ensure that you have not overloaded it and that, if you are using a free-weight bar, the clips are securely fastened so as to prevent the discs from sliding off the end. Also, ensure that the bar is set at the correct height for you: often you see people set it too high or too low which requires that they manoeuvre their bodies in an unnatural position to un-rack the weight. It’s best to set the bar slightly below your shoulders.
Now stand under the bar. Before attempting to un-rack it make sure that your feet are in the correct position, your hands are evenly spaced and that the bar is resting across your trapezius muscles.
When you are comfortable and have organised your anatomy in the correct position, only now should you consider removing the bar from the rack.
To do so tighten up the core, stand up under control and step back and away from the rack (of course whether you need to do this depends on the structure that you are squatting in).
Again organise your feet so they are just over shoulder width apart.
Under control slowly execute a squat ensuring to bend at the knee.
When there is a 90° angle between the calf and hamstring pause then fire through the quadriceps as you return back to the start position.
Maintain a smooth continuous movement from start to finish
Keep your eyes riveted on an indefinite point in the distance (or a spot on the gym wall)
Ensure that your entire foot remains flat on the floor – it is common mistake to lift the heel
DO NOT flex your spine – ‘this error contributes to most lower back injuries, especially slipped discs,’ (Delavier)
Don’t let your knees collapse inward – this is indicative of physical incompatibilities with the weight selected; in short, the squatter has gone too heavy: it’s better by far to lift less weight and to lift it well than to overload the bar and look like one of those fools fighting under the load, body quaking and creaking.
Don’t hold your breath
Don’t shift your weight onto your toes
Don’t collapse at the hips. You see this a lot in squatters and it’s usually a consequence of one of two reasons: 1) the squatter is not physically capable of correctly lifting the weight selected; or 2) they lack the necessary flexibility to dip lower than 45°. To compensate, and to delude themselves into thinking that they’ve completed the full movement, they fold at the waist. All this does it place massive stress on the lower back thus significantly increasing the risk of injury. Best either to reduce the weight or stop at 45°.
Muscles worked: the deadlift truly is a whole-body exercise and pretty much every muscle from your trapezius down to your calves are in some way stimulated when executing this towering giant amongst strength movements. The primary muscles engaged, however, include the quadriceps, gluteus maximus (aka the extensor muscle of the hip), erector spinae (a group of muscles which run the length of the vertebral column) and forearms – for when holding the bar of course (incidentally, though often overlooked as an essential link in the long chain of muscles recruited to perform the deadlift, the forearms are usually the first to fatigue during a heavy lift (which accounts for why some cheats use barbell wraps)).
Truly, if it’s strength you’re after then you absolutely must include the deadlift into your training regime. As Delavier says, as well as working ‘virtually every muscle . . . it builds terrific hip, lower back, and trapezius muscles mass.’ But the benefits of regularly performing this this power packed exercise do not stop at developing superior strength and size. Deadlifting will also improve your physical performance in other fitness and sporting disciplines – such as ergo rowing, rugby and most all combat sports.
But, a word of caution! Though all strength exercises pose a significant injury risk factor, in comparison, say, to calisthenics or light weight resistance muscular endurance movements, the deadlift is arguably the riskiest of them all. Why?
Well, when that egotistical moron overloads the bar in a crude and quite vain attempt to win some of that highly coveted gym kudos, in his extreme ignorance he’ll not only place huge loads on his lower spine but, in order to execute the lift, will no doubt resort to incorrect technique.
The potential consequence of applying incorrect deadlifting technique?
Ruptured erector spinae, slipped discs, popped nerves and burst blood vessels are all on the menu waiting to be served up. I’ve even heard a harrowing story of one overzealous trainer who sheared his spine in half when rounding his back and ratcheting an overloaded bar up his quaky quads.
Do me a favour, whenever completing a set of deadlifts keep the above list of potentially life-altering injuries in the forefront of your mind. By doing this it will ensure that a) you do not overload the bar; and b) that you maintain the strictest technique from the beginning to the end of the exercise.
*When deadlifting for the first time it is advisable to have an experienced trainer coaching you through the movement.* If you don’t have such a luxury make sure that you use a super light bar!
Firstly, then, begin by organising your weight and engineering your environment so that you will in no way be impeded whilst performing the exercise.
Start with your feet under the bar adopting a stance slightly over shoulder width.
Bending at the knee and ensuring to keep the back perfectly straight grasp the bar: the palms should face toward you and your hands should be spaced slightly wider than your feet so as to prevent your arms and knees clashing.
Before executing the lift take the slack out of the bar by applying force against the load.
Looking forward and slightly up fire through the quads and glutes pushing the hips forwards as you stand.
Once you are fully erect there should be a slight bend in the knees – not locked out. Also, from a side angle, a vertical line could be drawn from your shoulders down to your heels. A common mistakes is to lean back. DO NOT do this! All you will succeed in doing is compressing the intervertebral discs around the lumbar region.
To conclude the exercise simply return the bar to the start position making sure to retrace your steps.
Methods of Modification
Really the only methods of modifying the deadlift is by including chains or resistance bands which serve to increase the load at the point of peak contraction. There is also the option of including a plyometric jump at the end of the upwards phase of the movement – but I would only ever advise this when using low resistance.
Make sure you are in a comfortable position before executing the lift
Select a weight commensurate with your current strength
Keep the muscles of the core actively engaged throughout the lift
*Do not, under any circumstances, round your back!*
Do not snatch the bar from the floor – take up the slack prior to lifting
Do not lock out the knees in the top most position
Do not arch your back at the top position
Do not ratchet the bar up your quads – the movement from start to finish should be smooth and continuous
Do not hold your breath
Do not use bar wraps!
(As we are very interested in user experience here at Hungry4Fitness, we would be very grateful if you could take a few seconds out of your day to leave a comment. Thanks in advance!)
Adam Priest is a former Royal Marines Commando, personal trainer, lecturer, boxing and Thai boxing enthusiast.
Bean. A. (2008) Strength Training: The Complete Guide To. A&C Black. London.
Delavier. F. (2010) Strength Training Anatomy. Human Kinetics. USA.
Eddie Hall image taken from: FloElite
Schwarzenegger. A. (1998) The Encyclopaedia Of Modern Bodybuilding. Simon& Schuster. New York.
Watson A. W. S (1995) Physical Fitness & Athletic Performance. Longman. England.