Nick D’Amelio – Exercise Physiologist
Exposing the body to resistance or high resistance strength training is a popular means of physical activity that enhances muscular strength and size. This can be achieved using ones own bodyweight, free weights, machines or other exercise equipment. These muscle strengthening adaptations occur broadly via two mechanisms:
- Increased overall muscle size including individual muscle fibre enlargement, and;
- Neurological adaptations which include learning and coordination.
In the early weeks of resistance training an increase in strength is seen mainly due to these neurological adaptations before any improvements in muscle size. With repeated resistance workouts, your brain and nervous system become better at innervating and recruiting your motor units (groups of muscle fibres) to contract and perform the movement to overcome the load. The more musculature that is able to be activated or recruited, the greater the force production and potential workload overcome.
Strength training can be thought of as a skill in which you can become more efficient at certain movements regardless of your size. In the first 2-3 weeks of training you will see an initial increase in neural drive and therefore strength. The lifter becomes better able to overcome more resistance which in turn results in greater muscle mass improvements. Whilst strength improvements occur relatively early, the accompanying muscular size adaptation usually occurs around the 6 week mark.
So what are the best ways for a beginner to improve strength?
Exercise selection: compound movements, enjoyability and sustainability
Choose exercises that use multiple joints and recruit large amounts of muscle mass. The typical exercises used for strength improvements include: squat, bench press, deadlift, horizontal row, vertical pull (pull up or lat pulldown) and overhead press or variations of these movements. There are other exercises that can of course be included in your program however the priority should be on the aforementioned big, multi-joint exercises like bent-over rows and less emphasis on single-joint exercises like bicep curls.
That being said, there is something to say for choosing exercises that are enjoyable and sustainable so that you can do them consistently enough to see an improvement. Working on your technique and the ‘skill’ of strength training helps to improve strength and prevent injuries that may set your progress back. It is a good idea to invest in a trainer or Exercise Physiologist if you want to be guided through a program safely and correctly.
Each week or workout there should be the attempt to lift heavier weights, do more reps, up the intensity or speed of the movement or take less rest in order to ‘overload’ the muscles. That’s not to say that every week you will always able to go heavier and get stronger and but an attempt should be made to make the exercise harder than last time. Progressively overloading your muscles by slightly increasing the difficulty is essential to see continual gains in muscular strength. If the training is not hard enough your body has no reason to use its resources to make you bigger and stronger.
Lower rep range, heavy resistance and high intensity
Generally speaking, 5-8 repetitions of an exercise is ideal to see the quickest improvements in strength. Low rep ranges with heavier weights and longer rest require greater force production, yet still enough volume that the muscles can fatigue and come close to failure. In terms of overall intensity it should be high for the 5-8 repetitions and feel as though you couldn’t do many more with good form (if you can get to 10 repetitions then the weight is too light). Technically the weight should be >85% of your 1RM or 1 repetition maximum, the maximum amount you can lift in one go, but many things may affect what the intensity of the exercise feels like on the day.
If, however, pure muscle size or hypertrophy is the goal (which indirectly improves strength) then a range of 8-12 reps with a moderately heavy 65-85% 1RM intensity and shorter rest is ideal. Using weights or exercises where you can easily perform more than 12 reps will likely just improve your muscle endurance and have little effect on actual strength (unless you are already strong, well-trained and going to failure).
A strength workout, for example, could be 5 sets x 5 reps, performed with a heavy weight with a 2-3min rest between sets. This workout might consist of three exercises from above and alternate to a different three exercises on the next workout, with a day rest in-between sessions.
A typical resistance training program for beginner for the goal of hypertrophy is 3 sets x 12 reps performed under a moderate load with a 30sec-1min rest between sets. This could either be performed as a whole body or a split-routine workout.
Train, Eat, Sleep, Repeat
The frequency of training sessions for optimal strength gains is varied depending on which research you look at. You can technically get stronger with 1 session per week, but generally will see better results if doing 2-3, and possibly more for experienced lifters. Having a rest day between strength sessions or using the in-between day to work a different body part is helpful to allow the worked muscles to rest and grow. The strengthening and muscle building mechanisms occur when the body is at rest and are aided by good sleep and adequate nutrition.
As the first nutritional priority adequate calories need to be consumed regardless of the proportion of protein, carbs and fats. In order to gain muscle you must ensure you are consuming more than your body needs for daily maintenance. Secondly, adequate protein should be a focus depending on your bodyweight as well as ensuring recommended daily intake of vitamins and minerals are met.
Age, gender, training history and hormones all affect how quickly you can increase muscular strength. In terms of supplements, creatine is very well researched and proven to increase muscular size and strength within a training program.
In conclusion, given the right stimulus (training) with sufficient intensity, muscles will grow bigger and stronger! Adequate rest and food, consistency in training and choosing the right exercises are all important in ensuring the body has the time and resources to adapt and see those changes in your muscles strength and size. Talk to one of our experienced Exercise Physiologists to find out more!