One of the most common goals of exercise (whether it’s articulated this way or not) is to build strength. We want to be able to lift heavier objects, go up more stairs without feeling winded, run longer or faster, and all of these things require some form of strength. Now we all know that exercise can make you stronger. But are all training methods necessarily equal? Not to mention, how does exercise make you strong, and what are the best ways to increase strength?
Spoiler Alert: Before getting into the details, any kind of exercise can build strength as long as you are working your body. While some methods will be tailored to your specific goals, not all of them have to be. Ultimately, results come down to two key factors: CONSISTENCY and VARIATION. Consistency gives your body time to change, while variation keeps your body on its toes by constantly challenging it.
The Science of Strength
We increase strength in two ways: (1) neural adaptation and (2) hypertrophy. We all have nerves that connect our brains to our muscles. These nerves carry signals from our brain to activate muscles as well as to inhibit them. Neural adaptation involves enhancing this nerve-muscle interaction so that your muscles become more efficient (and powerful). One way exercise results in neural adaptation is by teaching your nerves to recruit more muscle cells at the same time for a given exercise. This recruitment is call synchronous activation. Muscle cells are grouped into bundles called muscle fibers. As your body learns to active more muscle cells at a given time, the more power the muscle fiber will be able to produce. The second way exercise results in neural adaptation (and therefore strength) is by reducing neural and muscular inhibition. Inhibition is a natural response that prevents your muscle from overworking and helps prevent injury when the muscle is under a level of force that it’s not used to.
Because neural adaptation utilizes nerve and muscle cells that are already present, it is the primary way we gain strength from exercise. It is also the first method to produce strength gains in people new to working out, and responsible for much of the gains seen in women and adolescents. Neural adaptation can occur with very little hypertrophy, which is why you can exercise for strength and not “bulk up.”
Hypertrophy increases strength by increasing the size of the muscle cells. If you take a look at the diagram above, you’ll see that each muscle cell has numerous filaments of two types — actin and myosin. Actin and myosin are contractile proteins that work together to create force when a muscle cell is activated by a nerve cell. Each force generating interaction between an actin and myosin protein is called a power stroke. The more power strokes that occur, the greater the force that is produced. When you place your muscles under stress, they respond by increasing protein synthesis. These proteins, including actin and myosin, are incorporated into the muscle cells. The increased number of actin and myosin proteins increases the number of power strokes thereby increasing the force produced with each contraction. This process also increases the size of muscle cells, which is why we see hypertrophy. The amount of hypertrophy experienced by an individual is largely dependent on hormones (i.e., testosterone) and genetics.
Traditionally it was thought that strength increased only when doing heavy weight / low rep workouts, with 8-12 reps being the range for hypertrophy and 2-6 reps being the range for maximum strength. (Maximum strength refers to the maximum weight you can lift for one repetition). To this day, we rarely see workouts that incorporate sets of more than 20 reps.
Strict adherence to this notion is changing, however.
New research is finding that strength gains occur with low, medium, and high repetitions (although the percent increase varies). Research also shows gains in muscular endurance at all levels, with the exception of low reps and relative endurance. Additionally, there is some indication that ending a heavy weight / low rep workout with a low weight / high rep set might result in even more strength gains. This could be because of higher volume or working to fatigue / failure. Interestingly, several successful bodybuilders have admitted to incorporating short phases of very high repetition exercise (32-100 reps).
Overall, there appears to be very little consensus on what actually produces the best results as far as strength gains. What there is consensus on is that the only way to continue to see results over time is to (1) continue challenging your body, and (2) vary your workouts by periodically changing the weight, number of reps, and specific exercises. As an added benefit, varying your workouts helps you find what works and allows you to tailor future workouts to your individual preferences. For some tips on varying your workouts, click here.
More Tips for Increasing Strength
Looking for ways to compliment your strength training routine and help maximize results? Here’s a few tips (for more details, click here):
- Don’t worry about whether you workout first thing in the morning or after work. Timing is much less important than consistency.
- Protease, a digestive enzyme found in the stomach, may reduce inflammation and aid in recovery meaning a more effective workout tomorrow. Protease is found in pineapple and papaya.
- Eat enough protein. If you are regularly strength training, a good guideline is to try for about 30 grams of protein at each meal.
- Utilize supersets to save time and maximize calorie burn.
- Get a workout buddy or try a group class to increase endorphins and exercise tolerance.
- Get a trainer or workout partner who can provide positive psychological reinforcement to increase motivation and train harder.
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