Strength is the foundation of all iron sports. Each sport has its own challenges that make them unique and special in their own way. Crossfit has one the most diverse movement and cardiovascular demands of any sport. Olympic Weightlifters all know that technicality is king. One slight error might be the difference between success, or failure when it matters. For bodybuilders, they know the value of metabolic build-up, or that “burning” sensation we’re likely all too familiar with. Despite the differences that set sports apart, strength is at the cornerstone of them all. 

So what is strength? Why should I care about it? In a technical sense, strength is the maximum amount of force one can exert in a given movement pattern. The way that we generally view it is, “How much can you bench?” But it really isn’t all that simple. Your 1-repetition maximum is a great test of your maximum strength, yes. But when you’re in the gym, do you max out or perform sets of 1 repetition on every exercise? Absolutely not! And do you continue to get stronger despite not doing those 1-repetition maximums? Absolutely! And it isn’t magic. Strength is a multifaceted concept that includes both muscular and neural components within your body. In a general sense, the communication between your nervous system and your muscles is a great indicator of your strength that’s often ignored. 

So let’s talk about the different aspects that affect strength internally. 

We’ll start with the factor we can’t control: lever systems. We’ve all seen it; the guy with extraordinarily long arms who can deadlift mountains of weight, or maybe it’s the woman with short femurs compared to her lower legs, who can squat more weight than we can possibly imagine, with seemingly no soreness or injuries… How are they doing it?! The short and unfortunate answer is physics. Long arms, shorter range of motion. Your hips get to start higher, and you end up being a great deadlifter. On the other end, the woman with short legs maintains a better upright position, and as a cherry on top, there’s less stress on her knees! So these lucky individuals get to squat heavier, and more frequently? 100% they do. At this point, you might be thinking to yourself, “How is this helping me?!” This leads us to an important learning experience: Understanding one’s anatomical makeup is a great hack for understanding how you respond to exercise, and potentially reducing your incidence of injury. For example, people with longer femurs don’t always respond well to high training volume on squats. Their bodies may struggle to recover from their training, and their motivation may begin to decline. Sound familiar? It could be you. Adjusting your training to reflect these limitations can be a great practice for your physical longevity. 

So now we have the things we can control. First off, we have muscle size and muscle quality. How big your biceps are, and how much of that mass is muscle and how much of it is fat? These measures are greatly correlated to maximal strength, and as you age, they become increasingly important for maintaining your quality of life and independence. Second, we have those fancy neural factors we mentioned before. This can include firing frequency, motor unit synchronization, and a list of mechanisms we won’t get into. These are things that aren’t discussed commonly, but they are the primary drivers for strength beyond a certain level of training experience. When you see a 220-lb man squatting twice as much as the 300-lb pro-bodybuilder, we can confidently assume that the efficiency of their nervous systems is what sets them apart.

Now that we’ve discussed some of the ways in which our strength is affected internally, how can we adapt our training to better improve strength?

Repetition, repetition, repetition. When it comes to strength, generally rep ranges between 1 – 6 are great building maximal strength. Doing 2 very heavy repetitions is far better for improving strength than 10 light to moderate repetitions. But we’re also human. If we spent 8 weeks working up to a 2-RM and it was always supposed to be heavy, our legs would fall off by week 4. Balance is key right? The old-adage stands for strength training too. So as a good rule of thumb, designating 1 day of your week to pushing heavy for your bench, or for your clean & jerk is going to really improve your quality of training. The other day is usually better for lower load, higher volume, where perhaps your technique is emphasized more. 

How many sets should I be doing for strength? Much like most scientific questions, the answer is never fully clear. On a scientific level, trained individuals benefit from doing 3 to 4 sets significantly more than doing 1 to 2 sets of an exercise. Further, it’s consistently shown that after 4 sets, the effectiveness falls off quite a bit. Doing 5, 6 or even 7 sets really isn’t going to benefit you further. Now does this mean that you should start to do 4 sets on every exercise you do? Unfortunately, following a program with 4 sets of every exercise is likely going to cause some serious mental and physical burnout. So, a fine balance between 2, 3 and 4 sets for your exercises is likely going to be the best option for you. Creativity with your set and rep schemes can make your training far more enjoyable. 

Now what about training frequency? Well, it’s a complex question, and varies for different movements. An upper-body movement like bench-press may recover much quicker than the squat. Bench-press uses smaller muscles and lighter loads. Squats are heavy, they use several large lower-limb muscles – and taking it a step further – they add in the stress of spinal load. Not only do your legs have to recover, your nervous system needs to recover from the physical stress placed upon it. For trained individuals, the general consensus is that training a muscle twice weekly is optimal for both strength and muscle growth. Is that an end-all statement? Not at all! Plenty of individuals can thrive on lower or greater training frequencies and continue to make great gains in strength and muscle mass. This is highly dependent on one’s lifestyle too. Don’t forget that the best lifters in the world lift for a living; it is their job. So recovery tends to be far greater for those at the highest levels of competition.

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