What is strength? I bet if you asked this question to yourself your answer would be quite vague. “Well strength is..being strong?” As a powerlifter strength is my end all be all, what I strive to make greater after each session in the gym. Strength means adding twenty pounds to my squat for a new PR. To my clients strength takes on a different meaning. It may be as simple as being able to lift their grandson or granddaughter. Strength may mean carrying a bag of groceries inside after shopping. My point is, that while strength may take on different meanings to different people it is not an abstract concept. Strength is a science, a formulation measured with different variables. We all know that over time strength training will allow us to lift heavier weights for more repetitions. But understanding the process our body goes through to obtain these progressions is not only interesting, but helpful as well. As a student of this field I have found myself thirsting for knowledge about it. Below are some basic facts in regards to strength that I have recently learned in my studies.
From an outsider looking in strength can so easily be associated with local ‘bodybuilders’ migrating into the gym week day evenings. These guys can be found grunting in front of the mirrors as they finish up their last set of bicep curls, sporting cut off tanks and checking themselves out. I know, I’m being stereotypical, but only to prove a point. Physical strength actually only partially even involves the muscles.(1) Therefore muscle size really has very little in common when related to strength. In Maximum Strength (a book I very highly recommend for those of you interested in this subject) this is explained, “Two major muscular properties that affect strength are the muscle’s cross-sectional area and neuromuscular efficiency.” (1) So what does all that scientific mumbo-jumbo means exactly?
a) Well the muscle’s cross-sectional area refers to how thick the muscle itself is. In this case size does matter. The usual process goes likes this, the thicker the muscle is the more forcefully that muscles contracts. Thicker muscles equal thicker muscle fibers equal more contractile proteins. And those contractile proteins are the very fundamental mechanisms of a muscle contraction.
b) And what about neuromuscular efficiency? As I began to learn more about powerlifting and programming for the sport this concept changed everything I ever thought in regards to strength. So listen up! Being strong has just as much to do with the brain-muscle connection as it does with the muscle alone. Neuromuscular efficiency refers to this connection. Muscle contractions begin in the brain, an electrical signal is sent from the motor center of the brain, through your spine, and ends in your muscle fibers. Once the message is received the muscle contracts. (1) So in order to get stronger one of your goals should be to make this system more forceful, quicker, and more efficient. While training to get stronger neuromuscular efficiency occurs independently of muscle growth.(1) And this
my friends is why those ‘bodybuilders’ at your local gym probably aren’t strong as you’d think. Attempting to predict someone’s strength by size is a futile effort. While someone with smaller stature may not be as impressive, their neuromuscular efficiency may be high, therefore they may be able to outlift someone with more impressive muscle size and definition.
So now that we have a better understanding as to what strength is in a scientific manner, how do we get stronger? That is why you’re reading this article right? As a beginner no matter what you do you’ll gain some strength. Well, unless you’re the girl who only does lat pulldown and the abductor/adductor machines. (It’s ok, I was that girl once too.) In time increasing both volume and weight will increase neuromuscular efficiency and the cross-sectional area of your muscle. However there comes a time where you hit a wall. And once that wall is reached you must understand that you can no longer train both aspects of strength at the same time. Now this is a good place to be. By concentrating on high volume you will compromise the amount of weight you lift in order to not prematurely exhaust your muscles. (1) But if you’re looking to get stronger you will need to limit volume, because if you’re doing it right your muscles will fatigue too quickly with heavy weight, therefore you can’t focus on volume. To increase the muscles’ cross-sectional area (aka GET BIG, bro) you should be focusing on that high volume work.(1) Looking to just get stronger? In this case lift those heavy weights and lessen your volume, this will allow for more neuromuscular efficiency.
Now you’re asking, “Hey, you said I can’t train these two aspects of strength simultaneously. Can I still train them both, just at different times?” And if you asked that question, you’re a thinker! The ultimate goal is increase strength (the cross-sectional area and neuromuscular efficiency) together, just not in the same workout.
While this article is merely an introduction to what strength can be defined as, it’s a start. Everyone may have different goals when it comes to getting strong. Regardless, it all works in about the same way. By understanding your body and how it works you can make more knowledgeable and efficient choices when it comes to your training. Hopefully I gave you a little insight as to how your body increases strength. The best way to become a more well rounded athlete, student, and person is to immerse yourself in all the knowledge that fills the world around us!
1) Cressey, Eric, and Matt Fitzgerald. “Chapter 2: Building Strength.” Maximum Strength: Get Your Strongest Body in 16 Weeks with the Ultimate Training Program. Philadelphia, PA: Da Capo Lifelong, 2008. N. pag. Print.