Of all the reasons to set foot in a gym or pick up a dumbbell, increasing strength is undoubtably the most beneficial. Sure, it’s nice to improve fitness. And yes, we’d rather have a six pack than not have one. But seeing your strength improve week after week is not only hugely satisfying, it also has massive functional implications too.
Getting strong will benefit you in every day life, whether it’s building your back for manual labour, fortifying your legs for extra long hikes, or simply making you less prone to injury. And strength sessions pay off later in life, too, lowering your risk of mobility issues and even heart disease.
This isn’t about size. Let’s make that clear. Building strength is not necessarily about lifting the biggest weights possible until your legs resemble oak trunks and your arms Christmas hams. No, strength comes in all sizes. Thankfully, when it comes to getting strong, there are a number of basic rules you can follow, whatever your ability or experience. So let’s get building.
The Benefits Of Strength Training
“In fitness terms, strength refers to muscle strength and usually your ability to lift weight. Basically, the stronger you are the more you can lift,” says Keith McNiven, founder of London-based personal training company Right Path Fitness.
“People do strength training for lots of reasons; for aesthetics so that they look good and feel confident, or perhaps because they have a physical job that requires them to lift, carry and even defend and protect themselves,” says McNiven. “Strength training with weights not only develops muscle but strengthens tendons and connective tissues, and prevents age-related bone loss.”
“Strength training is important, period,” adds Luke Worthington, movement and performance coach at London’s Third Space. “It’s the ‘cup’ that every other aspect of physical fitness sits within.”
Worthington says that strength underpins speed, endurance, mobility and flexibility. If you want to move well, you need muscles that are up to the job. Even cardio addicts can benefit, he says. “Endurance training requires strength; a 10k run is essentially 1000s of repetitions of hopping from one foot to the other. This requires an absorption of force (strength) and propulsion through the air (strength).”
It pays, then, to stay strong.
The Science Of Strength
“Strength training focuses more on the weight you can lift doing certain exercises rather than building up specific muscles,” says McNiven. Take a minute to read that again, because that part is key.
“As you train, muscle fibres are torn and as your body repairs these damaged fibres they fuse to create muscle strands,” he continues. “Eventually, as you get more muscle strands and then get bigger in size, hypertrophy occurs (aka muscle gain).” This means they’re capable of exerting greater force, which in turn means you don’t risk a hernia lifting your suitcase onto the conveyor belt at check-in.
Breaking down your muscles is arguably the easy bit. You train hard and lift big and the fibres recover stronger. “However, this requires consuming adequate protein,” adds Worthington. “Aim for 2g per kilo of bodyweight if you’re undertaking a regular and progressive strength programme.”
What’s A Typical Strength Workout?
Now you understand why you should build strength, let’s put it into practise. There is, of course, no single method for building strength, but there are certain moves you should incorporate into your training in order to provide a solid basis for most kinds of strength training.
“For overall strength, look at training all areas of the body,” says McNiven. “Keep reps low and rest periods high between different exercises so you can start again with the new exercise without being depleted from the last.” The first exercises to try are the traditional strength training moves like the following:
Front Squat With Barbell
Hold a barbell across your upper back with an overhand grip, hands shoulder-width apart – avoid resting it on your neck. Keeping your chest up and back straight, press up through the legs. Then slowly lower. As with all squats, be vigilant not to round your back.
Deadlift With Barbell
Stand up straight with your feet shoulder-width apart while holding a barbell at hip level. Keeping your shoulders back and your knees slightly bent, lower the bar by moving your butt back into a squat as far as you can. Keep the bar close to your body, and return to the starting position by driving the hips forward to stand up tall.
Lie on the bench with your eyes under the bar. Grab the bar with a medium grip-width (make sure to keep your thumbs around the bar!) Unrack the bar by straightening your arms, and lower the bar to your mid-chest. Press the bar back up until your arms are straight.
Seated Dumbbell Press
Hold dumbbells in each hand and sit on a military press bench or a utility bench that has a back support on it. Place the dumbbells upright on top of your thighs. Bring the dumbbells up to shoulder height at each side, rotating your wrists so that the palms of your hands are facing forward. Push the dumbbells up above your head until they touch at the top. Slowly come down back to the starting position.
“Strength training should always consist of multi-joint closed chain exercises,” Worthington says. “In other words, those that have two feet on the ground, and that use multiple muscle groups to perform large movements. These are your best bang for your buck strength exercises for muscle growth, fat loss, maintaining healthy joints, as well as strength.”
In other words, any strength training programme would benefit by using the six major movements of the human body: Squat, hinge, push, pull, lunge, and carry.
“How you choose to divide these up over a week will depend upon time and equipment available, as well as training experience and end goals,” says Worthington. “Typically, I like my more advanced clients (and myself!) to train four times per week: 2 x upper body, and 2 x lower body sessions. One each of the lower body will be squat and hinge, and one each of the upper body will be vertical pull (think pull ups and overhead presses). The other upper body will be horizontal exercises (think bench press and rows).
“I look to incorporate single leg work into every lower body session. Loaded carries can fit into upper or lower body sessions and serve as a great way to add in some metabolic conditioning (a fancy name for cardio).”
As you can see from our experts’ advice, there is no one prescription for building strength, but there are key muscle groups to hit, and ways to train to ensure the best results. As always, when lugging heavy weights around the gym, it’s best to speak to a PT so that your programme can be tailored to your physique, experience, and eventual goals. Start lifting weights randomly, and you might see results, but the progress may not continue evenly, which can be frustrating.
The Rules Of Building Strength
“Weight training isn’t just going to the gym, going through the motions and repeating 10-12 reps of any workout,” says James Castle-Mason, PT at London’s Roar Fitness.
Castle-Mason goes on to explain that while strength is built by slowly increasing load over a period of time, the way most people measure their strength is based on the heaviest load they can move for any single exercise, usually for a small number of reps. You’ve heard of your ‘one-rep max’, right? With that in mind, Castle-Mason has five rules to help you lift stronger.
Rule 1: Lift In The Lower Rep Ranges
“To lift the heaviest weight possible, we need to spend most of our time in a lower rep range. Typical strength programmes tend to gear toward anything between 3-6 reps. In these ranges, we work our type 2B muscle fibres which respond best to heavy explosive work from heavy loads for short set durations.” In other words, lift more for fewer reps.
Rule 2: Lift With Precision
“To gain strength consistently without stalling or hitting a plateau, you need to execute all lifts with excellent technical skill. For example, many people deadlift poorly because they try to squat the weight up from the floor rather than take the load in the hamstrings and glutes by hinging at the hips. The easiest way to tell this is happening is feeling stress on the lower back.
“Lifting with skill and sound technical execution comes before anything else, otherwise you are building strength via a method that’s eventually going to injure you or [cause you to] quickly stall.”
Rule 3: Don’t Knock The Accessory Work
“Many of the movements such as squat, deadlift and bench press – collectively known as ‘the big three’ – require the use of multiple muscle groups to execute. They’re large, compound movements. Many strength trainees often make the mistake of training just the lift but not doing extra work around it.
“For example, the triceps play a role in the execution of the bench press; if it is the first muscle to fail in the lift, it might be lagging behind other body parts. To resolve this, some supporting isolated tricep work may be beneficial.”
Rule 4: Use Strength Standards
“What’s more impressive, a 100kg guy doing a 200kg deadlift or a 70kg guy lifting the same weight? The answer is the 70kg guy, of course. The load might be the same, but it is more difficult for a smaller person to move a greater load than a large person (assuming both are trained to a similar standard).
“Strength standards use body weight as a multiplier. A 200kg deadlift at 100kg bodyweight is a 2x bodyweight deadlift, but for the 70kg male, it’s just under 3x; a far more impressive feat of relative strength.” Let the numbers guide your targets.
Rule 5: Eat & Sleep A Lot
“You can have the best programme in the world and have the best coach, but it counts for very little if you aren’t taking care of your rest, sleep, and diet. Heavy strength training is very taxing on the central nervous system. This requires ample recovery time; I’d even suggest not training back to back days, even if you are training different body parts. Make sure you get a good night’s sleep every night and go to bed on time to help further facilitate recovery.
“Likewise, if you’re going to get strong, you need to eat plenty of protein and you need plenty of calories. If you’re new to the gym, your strength will go up for a while regardless and your body will adapt, but as you advance your training skills and progress from a beginner to a more experienced lifter, you’re going to need to eat to grow.”
McNiven has more to add on feeding your strength. “Get three healthy meals a day with a good mix of carbs, protein, fats, vitamins and minerals. Make sure you have plenty of complex carbs like wholemeal wraps, brown rice, oats and quinoa so you get that consistent release of energy rather than it all being released in one go.
“Regular healthy snacks are also advisable if you’re following a strength training programme, particularly before you train so that you avoid your body grabbing your carb reserves to power you through the workout.”
Does Cardio Limit Your Gains?
The thinking goes that excessive running, cycling or time of the cross-trainer will sap your muscles of the stuff they need to grow, and even break down the tissue in order to power your pavement pounding. But it isn’t necessarily so.
“Cardio diminishing strength gains is a bit of a misnomer,” says Worthington. “Getting stronger will require a calorie surplus (consuming more than we expend), and the truth is that this is simply harder to achieve if you’re doing regular cardio sessions. No one would argue that a professional rugby forward isn’t immensely strong just because he does vast amounts of cardio.”
McNiven says that it would be worse to overtrain and skip rest days than add a little cardio to your routine. “Your goal is to have more muscle being built (which happens when you rest) than muscle being damaged (which happens when you train), so stick to 3-4 training sessions at a maximum. It doesn’t matter if you want to jog to the gym.”