That’s a million dollar question and the answer is most certainly “it depends.” As a Lifetime Athlete, you naturally want to be strong, fast, agile, and durable. Weak, slow, stiff, and fragile are not the objectives.
The definition of strength. The ability to produce or withstand force. It is most often equated to a 1RM lift but can also be estimated with other measures such as tensiometry or calculations from 5RM’s or 10RM’s.
Strong enough for everyday function. This may seem Captain Obvious but can you lift, carry, push, and pull everything you need to in your daily activities? Can you get up and down from the floor, the chair, or any position easily?
Strong enough for your body type. It is reasonable to expect that larger humans with more body mass are or should be stronger than those of slighter stature. This is usually true. The dude who looks like a bear is generally the one who gets asked to help move couches and refrigerators.
Strong enough for your age. Strength through the lifespan follows a curve, and it is roughly bell-shaped. Strength increases through the developmental years and stays fairy high for much of adulthood. It declines with senescence. The goal is to put strength in your capacity bank because the stronger and better-trained you are in later life, the less you lose and the slower it goes away.
Strong enough for your sport. This is the real conundrum in training. Strength is an athletic requirement. If you don’t have as much as you need, it’s a real problem and it shows up in almost every movement pattern. But there is a point at which getting stronger won’t necessarily make you better, and spending time working on supramaximal strength may take away from the development of other aspects like speed and agility. This is true in almost every sport with the exception of powerlifting and strongman, which are almost entirely strength sports. What we have seen, however, is that too much time in the weight room, at least when working on slow, grinding, heavy lifts, has consistently been shown by research to negatively affect vertical jump and sprint speed in many athletes. You gotta have enough…but once you get it you have to ask yourself “will more strength make me better or can I now take the level I have and blend it into my overall performance?” And the needs of a 24 y/o defensive tackle will be different than those of a 71 y/o golfer.
How and when to test your strength. Honestly, I rarely test a true 1-rep max with my athletes. I hope you are asking “why?” Most of the people I work with are competitive recreational athletes in a variety of sports and high level fitness enthusiasts. These folks differ slightly from athletes in strength sports (weightlifting, powerlifting, bodybuilding, line positions in football, etc.) because it really doesn’t matter if they know their 1RM. All that matters is that they feel stronger and perform better. But it’s not all subjective. Most athletes are testing as they train on an almost daily basis. You know you are getting stronger when you get 1 more rep in a set or add 5 pounds to an exercise. You can even tell when a lift feels “easier.” The reward of knowing one’s exact 1RM just isn’t worth the risk in most cases. All that stated, however, I do like triples as a test. Backing down to 3 reps creates a safety margin and still allows us to fairly accurately gauge strength training efficacy. I also frequently use the 1-rep max calculator available from bodybuilding .com, which allows you to input your best weight for up to a 12-rep set, and it estimates your 1RM as well as percentages of that number from 95% to 50%. I’m sure the algorithm can be off by a few percentage points for some athletes, but it actually works fairly well when I have an athlete who likes to train with percentages more than rate of perceived exertion (RPE) or repetitions in reserve (RIR) alone.
Strength vs. hypertrophy. Resistance training builds strength. This can include bands, springs, tubing, machines, bodyweight and other means, but mostly it’s about lifting weights. The iron game is where it’s at. True strength has a very high neural component and is dependent on the recruitment of motor units connecting the cerebral cortex to the neuromuscular junction. Integrity of connective tissue is of paramount importance. Well-applied resistance training affects these things, but we are primarily working on metabolic and mechanical properties within the muscles. Hypertrophy is the process of enlargement in our muscle fibers, which is most pronounced in the fast-twitch, or Type II fibers. You can be strong without being huge. Take for example the Olympic lifter vs. the bodybuilder. The lifter maxes out strength at a given body size, while the bodybuilder is certainly strong but maxes out muscle development or hypertrophy. It’s all good.
Stimulus, recovery, and adaptive response. This is Workout 101. Your training session is the stimulus. How you use the time between workouts with sleep, nutrition, and metabolic processes is recovery. That leads to adaptation, or supercompensation. The art form lies in getting the mixology correct. Just the right amount of stimulus in training. Not too much which may cause excessive breakdown or contribute to injury. Not too little which won’t create the impetus for the body to change (get stronger). The Goldilocks amount…and it fluctuates throughout the year based on many things such as sleep and stress levels. Recover long enough but not too long. Studies show that depending upon the stimulus, a muscle may undergo anabolic (buildup) process for anywhere from several hours to several days. Beyond that, it needs another dose to keep gaining. Program design and coaching are most valuable in this context.
The 3 drivers of muscular adaptation. The adaptation of muscle building is dependent upon three factors.
- Total tension: This is sometimes referred to as time under tension, but more completely it is the duration of tension times the magnitude of that load. Not just how long you lift, but how much. If you amass 100 seconds in a workout under a load of 100 pounds, you have a total accumulated tension of 10,000 pounds. Most lifters just track reps x sets x weight to approximate this figure.
- Muscle fiber microdamage. A small amount of tissue disruption, or microtearing, particularly with heavy eccentric work, will occur in a well-designed session. The body then repairs this “insult” with what is like a mindset of “let’s not let this happen again.” So, instead of rebuilding at .95 after this mini-injury, it fortifies at 1.05 (arbitrary figure).
- Metabolic stress. This is often appropriately called the “suck factor.” You need to have some amount of high effort for a workout to be optimal. This is primarily indicated by lactate production, which is a signal that the fast-twitch fibers have been stimulated. You don’t want a beat-down, drag-out sesh, but you do want to taste effort and savor it like a warrior.
The nutritional aspect of muscle protein synthesis. Those last 3 words are key. Muscles are built from the peptides and amino acids of protein, and this process is dependent upon the ingestion of dietary protein. Basically, give or take, you need about 1 gram of protein per day for every pound of lean body mass you have or are trying to build. Most folks can just use bodyweight as a target because it makes the math super easy. If you weigh 200 pounds, try to eat 200 grams of protein per day. Do this by having 40-50 grams over 4-5 servings. The literature suggests that muscle protein synthesis is best triggered when you have a minimum effective dosage of close to 30 grams of protein which contains just under 3 grams of the amino acid leucine. This tends to happen automatically when you consume mostly animal-based protein sources.
The periodization of strength in your training year. Nothing in nature is static. There are seasons and fluctuations in how things work. Our strength training should be no different. Depending on all those things we discussed (age, body type, sport, goals), you may only want or need to place a high emphasis on strength development for a few months of the year. In fact, this is a common off-season pursuit in many sports. Once developed to the optimal level, strength can then be maintained (again, with intelligent programming) while the athlete works on speed, power, agility, endurance, and specific sports skills. It takes a lot of dedicated effort to build strength, but once you have it, there is quite a bit less work required to maintain it.
Today’s topic came up for two main reasons. The first is that while we must recognize the importance of strength development and maintenance, we also need to consider the ideal amount for each individual. This has become a significant focus in the peak performance world. The second driver for this discussion is The Training Tribe. That’s TLA’s online group coaching and training team, and we’re diving into a 3-month strength-focused block this week. Members will be meeting weekly in our MasterClasses, and discussing the finer points of training, nutrition, health, and ass-kicking. If you’d like to become a member, receive cutting-edge programming, and get Hard to Kill, just check out T2 today.
As always, I salute you for being a brilliant human beast and a member of The Lifetime Athlete community.