What is strength training?

When we think of strength training we might imagine the free weight room in a gym, dumbbells, people flexing biceps, sweaty vests, and a lot of talk about protein. That might be true, but it’s only the surface. Once you get past the visuals, there’s massive evidence based benefits to strength training for everyone.

Strength training put simply, is any resistance movement practiced over time that uses the principle of progressive overload. Progressive overload simply means that when practice consistently, you’d put increasing loads or resistance on the movement. It’s how we get stronger: by slowly lifting more over time.

Within strength training are infinite programs, methods and disciplines that can be employed to reach different goals. For example if you train purely for strength, your program would look different to someone training to powerlift, although there may be similarities. Although powerlifting is a strength discipline, the rules about the competitions lifts means that the movements might be executed slightly differently. If you’re training for strength and hypertrophy (muscle size) you might training differently again, and use different rep ranges, pauses and rest phases.

If you’re training to rehabilitate injury, balance your physique, or condition yourself for a chosen sport, your training is going to look pretty different to everyone else. It is still, strength training. You don’t need to use barbells or even squat, deadlift or benchpress to train. You can use dumbbells, kettlebells, bands or lift random objects to get your kicks, and you need your own body up to a limit.

Each person, whether a 90 year old woman or 20 year old male athlete can use strength training in infinite ways to improve their posture, mobility, body composition, physical independence and self confidence.

The Best Activity For Posture

As modern humans going about our business, we might find ourselves sitting a lot. Whether driving, working or chilling out at home, sitting is enjoyable and comfy, but doing it for hours on end can create tight hip flexors, shoulders, shorted contracted muscles at the front and frequently eccentrically (lengthened) contracted muscles at the back. Our bodies are not adapted to the environment we provide for them, and if we examine what bodies evolved to do: run, twist, carry, lift, bend etc, its not difficult to unpack why most of us experience back pain.

If you’re here reading this, I imagine that you’ve already explored some ways of mobilising your body through activities like yoga, pilates, running etc. All of those are great and work well, but there are 168 hours in a week. Doing a 1 hour yoga class is probably not going to compensate for the other 90% of the time when you’re not.

Strength training is different though, and if you devote yourself to an intelligent program, over at least 2-6 hours a week, you can override some of the effects modern life has on our musculature.

When we train we must execute the movements with strict form and this means, adopting postures that protect the spine and other joints. When we lift on a regular basis, we gradually become naturally aware of when our body feels aligned and set correctly – this is the ‘mind-muscle connection’.  We embed excellent posture as a side effect of weight training and the changes made in our muscles and ligaments are structural: that is they are semi-permanent. The benefits of weights stay in the body and as long as we train, remain there for life.

Strength training is measurable

If you keep a log of your lifting program, you will see over time how your strength improves in tangible ways. If you start out by squatting your bodyweight 10 times to fatigue, but after 4 weeks your squatting 40kg 10 times, there’s no doubt you’ve got stronger. The bar doesn’t lie. You’re perception of how difficult lifting is changes as you become more proficient too.

Strength training creates adaptation

When you strength train you must execute the movements with good form. The muscles that are  too tight/too weak will gradually over time balance out with the effects of training. You will also develop muscle awareness through a mind-body connection, and your ability to stage an intervention when your displaying less than helpful posture will improve.

Knowing you’re getting stronger, not weaker, is pretty cool.


Strength training grows muscle

If you’re new to training, the potential to grow muscle in the first year is huge. Men have the potential to gain around 20-30lbs of muscle in the first year, whereas with women it will be significantly less, at around 5-15 lbs depending on the woman. This is possible with the adherence to a program that is intelligently written, takes into account your preferences, lifestyle, ability, and has you in the gym at least 3 times a week eating to fuel the training.

Growing muscle is not as easy after the first year, but it is still possible, at a slightly lower rate.

Eating well, training intelligently and enjoying both, is a recipe for optimum health, reduced stress and improved confidence.

Strength training is fun

It might take some time to ‘get’ the fun element, but once you’re into the culture of training, it’s a community that is supportive, inclusive and positive. Other people in the gym, engaged in the beautiful struggle of strength will cheer you on in your efforts to make gains, become more coordinated or just move a weight you’ve been after for months. It’s a long game strength training, and other lifters know how it’s a slog to show up, when your a bit tired or had a shitty day, and do your stuff. If you have the opportunity to join gym with decent personal trainers, or powerlifters, you’ll gain access to a world that is a warped as it is funny, because where else except wrestling do adults wear babygro’s to compete? In all seriousness though, powerlifting particularly, is a fantastic activity that celebrates an individuals progress, and cares not what you weigh, eat or wear.

But won’t strength training make me bulky?

Well, if you’re a man, you’ll probably welcome some mass in the right places. Men can achieve some appreciable mass if they eat right, train consistently with enough volume and progression to grown some muscle. Training is simply about programming stress intelligently into your body, to create enough stress to initiate mechanical and cell level adaptions. Muscle growth is reliant on testosterone, which men and women with PCOS have in higher levels than women who doe not have hormonal disruption. For women without medically elevated testosterone, muscle growth at the most optimal can be expected to reach a peak in the first year of training of about 6-8lbs. This is if you are eating in a marginal surplus, or are a complete new beginner to training. If you are a women eating to maintain a stable bodyweight, and go to the gym 1-2 times a week, the likelihood of gaining much muscle is slim. What can happen though, is that when women train they get hungry, so they eat. Chances are than what women are calling ‘bulk’ is actually a layer of lovely fluffy body fat cloaking the growing muscles underneath. None of that matters however, because quite frankly I’d rather be strong and regularly training, than not, regardless of how ‘bulky’ I looked.

Besides, as Rip says “strong people are more useful and harder to kill”. Mark Rippetoe