Strength Training 101

Strength training is one of the most research-based and powerful tools available to us to increase longevity, improve performance, reduce injury risk, alter body composition, and improve overall health, However, it is often misunderstood or not implemented properly. It can be intimidating, or cause pain if not done properly. This post hopes to clear up some confusion about strength training.

We filmed a Facebook Live video summing up the main points — if you prefer video/audio, check it out! Otherwise, read on.

Basic Muscle Anatomy and Physiology

Muscles are surprisingly fairly simple. They contract and relax. While different muscles cross different joints or have different actions, they all essentially have one job to do: Contract, which creates motion or force, and subsequently relax, when the need for contraction has passed.

One of the main goals of strength training is to improve the function of our muscles.

So, if all a muscle does is contract and relax, that only leaves us a few options to train it. We can:

  • Train a muscle to contract more quickly (speed)

  • Train a muscle to contract more forcefully. (Speed and force together = power.)

  • Train a muscle to grow bigger, which thereby increases its potential for speed and/or force. This is called hypertrophy.

That’s about it. If we want to train to improve the function of our muscles, we need to optimize for at least one of those three factors.

Strength Training vs. Endurance Training

One key area of confusion with strength training is the difference between strength and endurance training, and how to stimulate appropriate adaptations.

A key concept here is the idea of a limiting factor. We will get a training adaptation based on what body system is challenged most, and limits further performance. If our goal is to improve the muscular system (get stronger, faster, more power, change body composition), then we must challenge the ability of the muscles to contract more than the other body systems. The activity we do to achieve those goals must be limited by the ability of the muscular system, not other systems. Endurance, on the other hand, is limited by cardiovascular and respiratory system. Endurance performance rarely suffers due to failure of a muscle to contract and relax. Rather, it is limited by the ability of the heart, lungs, and blood vessels to deliver and return oxygen and other compounds to and from the muscles. Runners, for example, usually have the quadricep strength to keep going, but get out of breath or glycogen (fuel) while trying to maintain a fast pace for too long.

Strength training is typically accomplished by lifting something fairly heavy for a relatively low number of repetitions. Whether the goal is speed, force, or muscle size, we need to do an activity that is limited by the ability of the muscle to contract and relax.

A common mistake made by individuals new to strength training is performing an exercise with a low weight for a lot of repetitions. While this, in theory, can ultimately challenge the contractile qualities of a muscle, it often is more limited by the cardiovascular and respiratory systems — you’ll need to put the weight down because you start getting out of breath. This isn’t necessarily bad - it’s just a different training effect.

So, to sum up strength training and endurance training target different physiological mechanisms. Strength training should challenge the contractile capacity of a muscle. Endurance training should challenge the oxidative/metabolic capacity of the muscle.

Benefits of Strength Training: The benefits of strength training are practically endless. When done properly, it is an incredibly powerful tool for your overall health, appearance, longevity, and sport performance.

  • Lean body mass and body composition: There is no better tool aside from nutrition to change body composition. Not only does strength training increase lean body mass, but it also stimulates hormones that can increase metabolism and help maintain a healthy body composition.

  • Bone health: Stronger bones that are less likely to fracture or be affected by osteoporosis later in life. This is especially important for females who are at a higher risk of osteoporosis.

  • Joint health: Moving heaving loads through full ranges of motion is good for joints! Strength training in a range of your 10-repetition maximum is advised for hip and knee osteoarthritis, even after total knee replacement surgeries.

  • Tendon and ligament health: Strength training makes tendons and ligaments less susceptible to injury

  • Sport performance: Listen up endurance athletes. We can’t name a single sport or activity that would not benefit from strength training. Increasing strength improves endurance economy, power output, coordination, and so much more. There is rarely a downside to getting stronger.

  • Injury risk: Strength training, when done properly, is perhaps the most evidence-based tool to reduce injury risk.

  • Longevity: Individuals who are stronger live longer! This has also been proven time and time again in peer reviewed research. The CDC recommends that all adults should perform moderate to high intensity strength training activities (that means something that is HARD for less than 15 reps!) at least 2x per week for health and longevity benefits.

Strength Training Guidelines:

Generally, to get most desired effects from strength training, this is achieved by exercises that are challenging for 15 repetitions or fewer, and repeated for 2 - 5 “sets.” Once proper technique is learned, we want to progress the movement with a heavy load. While this is a general guideline, more than 15 repetitions often increases the cardiovascular and respiratory demands of the exercise rather than the contractile demands. We usually want to work all of the major muscle groups of the body at least 1-2 times per week. We’ll have another post soon that will delve into strength training program design in more detail.

As you improve, you will need to progressively increase the weight that you are using in order to get a training effect. This is called progressive overload. After the body is challenged consistently, it will adapt to meet that challenge. To elicit further adaptation, you will need to challenge it in a new or more demanding way. That usually means lifting just a little bit more than you’ve done before. If you stay at the same amount, you won’t necessarily just maintain your current level. You may actually regress or atrophy because what was once challenging no longer is.

In all fairness, I will admit that at EVOLVE, we do occasionally program low weight, high repetition training. Again, this is not “bad,” it is just programmed for reasons that are not necessarily increasing a muscle’s contractile capacity.

  • To create an endurance/cardiovascular training effect without doing traditional “cardio” (running/biking/rowing)

  • To practice good technique, movement patterns and positions while under fatigue or stress (for example, doing a lot of bodyweight squats with good hip and knee alignment)

  • To reinforce muscle “activation,” or the ability of a muscle to fire throughout various exercises (an example is banded side steps to stimulate the hip abductors and rotators).

Muscle “Toning” Myths

A common sentiment that we hear from people new to strength training is, “I just want to get toned, so I’m going to lift lighter weights.” Somewhere along the line, popular media created this myth that muscles can “tone” with a lot of repetitions. However, this unfortunately is far from the truth.

To explain why, let’s review again: Muscles can contract, or relax. They can contract and relax quickly or forcefully. They can grow bigger (hypertrophy) through training, or smaller (atrophy) through disuse. “Toning” isn’t actually a real physiological process. In human physiology, the term “muscle tone” actually refers to the muscles level of contraction at rest. We see muscles with “high tone” in patients with neurological conditions, such as a stroke. Damage to the brain creates a constant contraction in a muscle. It’s debilitating and often painful — not fun. So we definitely don’t want “high tone” — we want muscles that can contract quickly, forcefully, and are of adequate size.

To get any of these effects (besides atrophy), we will need to lift something fairly heavy, less than 15 repetitions, for 2-5 sets, over time, to challenge the muscle.

What people seem to be referring to with muscle “tone” is how they look — they want washboard abs and lean muscles. They want to look good in a swimsuit. And they don’t want to look like a bulky bodybuilding. However, the appearance of muscle is influenced by: percentage body fat (lower % = more visible muscles), percentage lean body mass (more muscle = more visible muscle), and genetics (some people are long and lean, other people are shorter and broader, and some of us are in-between). To get “toned” - you need to optimize all of these factors. We can’t change our genetics, you should optimize your % body fat and lean mass. The best way to do that? You guessed it — strength training and nutrition.

Here’s the thing: Bodybuilders work incredibly hard to look bulky. Gaining “bulky” muscle, particularly for females, is not easy. It takes working extremely hard in the gym (for example, going to absolute muscle failure in a range of 8 - 12 repetitions, multiple times in a workout, multiple times in a week), followed by dedicated and restrictive nutritional practices.

In comparison, people who look “toned” generally have a few things in common:

  • They have a low percentage body fat

  • They eat healthy

  • They have other healthy habits, such as sleep and stress management

  • They train consistently

  • They lift heavy things

Interested in strength training but not sure where to start? Or, have you had mixed results or injuries in the past? We’re here to help. Check out our Performance Training Program, which was develop to blend strength training, nutrition, injury prevention, and more into a comprehensive system to help you do what you love, for life.

Brian Kinslow