Technically we could describe strength as ‘the ability to produce maximum force against a resistance’. In other words, how much weight you can push, pull, lift etc in one go
Firstly we will look at the athlete. Athletes often need to be able to run fast, jump high or throw, hit, kick a ball with force and speed (power). To best perform these tasks, as much strength as possible is required. Obviously technique, genetics and physical make-up all play a part in athletic performance. However, the more force the muscles can produce, the higher the speed that can be achieved, ultimately resulting in optimum performance during play.
Now we will look at why the rest of us benefit from being strong. I’m going to start with women.
Many women avoid lifting weight for a fear of looking bulky. Lack of testosterone in the female body makes this highly unlikely! The truth of the matter is that by increasing muscle mass we increase our metabolism and burn more fat. A slender firmer figure is the most likely result achieved. IN addition to this, strength training can reduce the risk of osteoporosis by increasing bone density; this is something that affects many women and the elderly.
Men will also burn fat more efficiently through strength training, developing raw strength and solid muscle. This will result in muscular balance and good definition rather than the ‘pumped up’ look.
There are many health benefits of strength training for both men and women, young and old. Reduced blood pressure and cholesterol levels are two examples. There are psychological benefits too; a reduction in stress and anxiety is one, also by increasing our strength we experience a sense of achievement, a belief in our physical capabilities with a significant increase in self confidence.
Other benefits are increased flexibility as a result of working through a full range of movement. As well as this, we see improved posture, balance and stability, and an ability to perform everyday tasks, for example lifting and carrying, with greater ease.
To produce maximum force we generally need to use our largest muscle groups, performing multi-joint movements. An example of a multi-joint exercise is a squat. For this we are using our hip complex and knee joint, as opposed to a hamstring curl in which we are using one joint, the knee. Focusing for a moment on the squat; this is an exercise greatly utilized by athletes to increase strength and power in the hips, glutes and thighs, ultimately improving performance in their sporting field. These attributes are required for a number of sports from track to playing field to tennis court.
For functional strength gains I highly recommend compound barbell exercises (and variations on exercises) like the squat, the deadlift and the over head press, as well as exercises like bench presses, rows, spilt squats and lunges, and to an extent pull-ups, push-ups and dips, to name just a few. The reason I say ‘to an extent’ regarding body weight exercises is that it isn’t quite as easy to progressively add load to these. Of course they certainly play their part in developing strength.
Then we need to progressively lift more weight. At the beginning of a strength training program the most gains are usually achieved, and ideally once technique is grasped, the amount of weight lifted should regularly be increased, in some cases in every session. It is often a good idea to learn technique with the help of a coach before challenging one’s self with heavy weights. 3-5 sets of 5 reps are a good starting point as we can obviously lift more weight when performing fewer reps, resulting in larger strength gains. Another reason to keep the rep range lower is that too many reps in one set may compromise our technique during complex movement patterns and stabilizing muscles may start to fatigue too.
Once we are past the ‘novice’ period we can really start to up the ante by occasionally working heavy triples, doubles, singles (3, 2 and 1 rep) and occasionally testing our one rep max, this is how we measure maximal strength (the most we can lift in one rep). However, I would resist from doing the 1RM test too soon as at the beginning strength needs to be built, but once the foundations are there the true testing of strength can begin.
To conclude, including strength training into your regime can result in many positive changes both physically and mentally. Once you embark on a journey to be the strongest you can be you certainly won’t regret it; the results will speak for themselves!
Louise Appel, Personal Trainer
LLouise Appel Personal Trainer, St John's Wood & Personal Trainer Maida Vale offers customised, individual Personal Training and Pilates at Lords Cricket Ground, St John's Wood. Personal Trainer Harpenden & Personal Trainer St Albans is located at EsTR Fitness.