So you want to get stronger? But, what is strength? Strength can be defined as the ability to exert force against an external resistance. Strength Training, therefore, can be described as the act of going to the gym to intentionally increase strength (or force production). Finally, we can assume that if we have a working definition and an outlined process to increase strength, we must have methods associated with the process. Our aim today it to discuss a few those methods to hopefully take your results to the next level.
Resistance is General but Strength is Specific
As we’ve already noted, strength is the ability to exert a force against an external resistance. You might be asking “what is an external resistance”? That’s a reasonable question and an important one. For some, resistance is getting off the toilet, for others it’s pushing against a lineman. The end goal is an obviously important consideration when building a strength program. Let’s assume to lifters perform an 8 week squat cycle. Lifter A performs 5 sets of 4 front squats @8RPE while lifter B performs 2 sets of 10 back squats @8RPE. At the conclusion of the cycle, which athlete is stronger? If you answered “lifter A”, you made some assumptions. You may have assumed one squat variation to be superior for strength development, you may have assumed the test was a 1 rep max performance. Reasonable assumptions but we must look a bit deeper when designing client programs. In fact, strength is specific to:
- the muscle contraction speed (how fast or slow you move)
- the exercise performed (back squat vs. front squat for example)
- the joint angles associated with the exercise performed
- the rep range the exercise was performed in
So, we can’t conclude lifter A is stronger unless we know a few things. The experiment would need more clarification to make any definitive assertions (even then, we couldn’t really know until after testing). If we knew each lifter would perform 8 weeks of barbell squatting at an @8RPE for 20 total work reps and lifter A will work the front squat in the 4 rep range, while lifter B will back squat in the 10 rep range we might now have more interesting experiment. Finally, we could really shake things up and say we’re going to test the athletes using a 7 rep max on the leg press (a test that’s neither specific to the rep ranges or exercises used in training). Certainly, I wouldn’t recommend preparing either athlete in the manner discussed above, were the test a 7 rep max leg press, the program samples were to illustrate a few points. The TLDR: if you want to get stronger at a specific task, squatting for example, you need to perform that task using variables know to correlate to increased force production in a way that is similar to the test you’re preparing for.
The S.A.I.D. Principle and Goal Setting
When we begin working with a new athlete, part of that process revolves around goal setting. Like everyone, we ask the athlete work to develop goals that are specific, measurable, achievable, realistic, and time-sensitive. In other words, we use S.M.A.R.T goals, and while this process is advocated by nearly every coach, the importance cannot be overstated. Because strength IS specific, we need to program according to the athlete’s needs or goals. If an athlete wants to front squat in order to increase his/her performance in the clean and jerk, we might not want to spend a lot of training time on the leg press. Certainly, the leg press would have some carryover (it would build the muscles used in front squatting / standing up a clean), but the timing, coordination, and postural demands associated with the front squat / heavy cleans would likely remain under developed. A program that doesn’t prioritize the front squat / clean and jerks might leave the athlete underwhelmed when it comes time to test his/her clean and jerk. Why does this matter? If you’re a coach, delivering results is how you get paid. The S.A.I.D. principle (specific adaptations to imposed demands) should be top of mind for each coach working with clients. If the S.A.I.D. principle tells us we’re going to get better at what we do, we better spend some considerable training time doing the thing we want to be better at, right? This doesn’t necessarily mean that we only do what we’re going to test but it does mean that we allocate time appropriately.
Specific vs. General Preparedness
Up to this point, we’ve made a case for specificity in regards to strength development but this assumes that everyone heading into the weight room wants to desperately increase their squat or has specific strength goals. However, it’s not uncommon for folks new to progressive strength training to not have specific goals. Perhaps they just want to be “healthier”? Such a client might enjoy higher levels of variety in training. Perhaps, their exercise program is done to elicit performance improvements in a non-barbell context (running speed, fat loss, low back pain). At Brentwood Barbell, we would take the opportunity to incorporate a higher variety of “squatting” exercises to build general leg strength. These exercises might include leg presses, squat variations, step ups, lunges, belt squats, sled drags, etc.
For the powerlifter, back squatting is the most specific to the goal of increasing their 1RM back squat. In this scenario, the back squat represents specific physical preparedness or SPP. All other exercises other than the competition back squat would represent some degree of general physical preparedness or GPP. This concept can be thought of as a spectrum from top (most specific) to bottom (least specific). Here are some examples to consider.
|Specific||Competition Back Squat for heavy singles|
|Highly Specific||Back Squat for heavy sets of 5|
|Moderately Specific||Box Squat|
|Moderately Specific||Front Squat|
|Less Specific||DB Lunge|
|Less Specific||Step Ups using Belt Squat Machine|
The obvious question becomes, how much specificity in programming is desirable? The answer of course, is that it depends. Each athlete will respond in a unique way to a particular stimulus. Below is a snapshot of programing from our upcoming Beginner’s Guide to Strength Training. As you can see, this particular program is likely best suited for someone looking to:
- train 5 days x week at a commercial fitness facility
- increase general strength (push, squat, pulling motions in a wide range of repetitions)
- increase general cardiovascular performance
- does not wish to / feel comfortable training with a barbell
- new(er) to progressive resistance training (high frequency, lower variety of exercise selection)
Using Reps to Represent “Adaptations”
The program cycle above uses various rep ranges (sets of 4 all the way up to 12). Why? Simple, this program was designed to give the beginner a wider exposure to strength training stimuli, to hopefully develop a wide range of adaptation(s). Primarily, we have done this to best serve them down the road as their goals will likely become more clear. Once the beginner program is completed, the athlete would likely have developed some top end strength (the sets of 4) as well as some muscle growth (sets of 7), and finally some endurance (sets of 12) setting them up nicely to prioritize endurance, maximal strength, or muscle size in future programming. This of course, is an oversimplified view of what reps correlate to a specific adaptation, but it’s reasonable for programming purposes and helps us “customize” programming to each athlete’s needs.
|~ 100 (maximal)||1 rep max||neuromuscular|
|~ 85% (heavy)||5 rep max||neuromuscular + structural|
|~ 70% (moderate)||10 rep max||structural + conditioning|
|~ 60% (light / moderate)||15 rep max||structural + conditioning|
Optimizing the Client Experience
At Brentwood Barbell, we utilize a wide range of strategies, exercises, and reps to illicit optimal program results for our clients. We work with our clients to narrow their goals as they’ve developed some experience with introductory training programs. Often times with new clients, our biggest goals are to (1) help them get comfortable in the weight room, (2) find exercise variations that work best for their needs, and (3) develop a level of higher level of consistency with exercise. Many of the concepts we touched on today are “down the road” considerations for our beginner athlete but it’s important to have a path for constant progress. We’re often pegged as a “powerlifting gym” because we use barbells, bench a lot, and love to deadlift but in reality, we’re using the best methods available to achieve results for our clients. Once you understand a bit more about how to design programs, it’s pretty easy to see that we do not specialize in any particular sport, rather we invest in our clients and help them get what they’re looking for.
Strength training is hard, no bullshit so our jobs as coaches is to make it as enjoyable as we can without sacrificing too much effectiveness. We keep this in mind when we start our work with a new athlete. If you’re thinking about becoming more active or joining a gym, give us a call. We’d love to sit down with you to discuss your goals and how we might be able to best serve you.
If you enjoyed this article, give it a share (it really helps us grow our business)! You might also enjoy reading:
- How to Maximize your GainzZz in the Gym!
- Is Your Gym Programming for You?
- A Quick Review of Programming Principles
Good luck with your training friends!
Baker, A. & Rippetoe, M. (2013). Practical Programming, 3rd Edition. Wichita Falls, Tx: The Aasgaard Company.
Feigenbaum, J, et all. (2019) Barbell Medicine Seminar Attendee Handbook
Narvaez, I. (2018). Programming to Win, 2nd Edition. Retrieved from: www.powerliftingtowin.com
Zatsiorsky, V. & Kraemer, W. (2006). Science and Practice of Strength Training, 2nd Edition. Champaign, Il: Human Kinetics.