Programming for strength 1: How do we get stronger (or bigger or faster!)

There are many fundamental principles that we need to improve in any sport/activity. These can be related to both acquiring the set of physical skills to perform it effectively and safely, the mental attributes to deal with stress, fatigue and stay motivated. In order to progress we need to test, evaluate and program our training on order to improve these elements to get the best possible results.

When we think about any sport, one of the guiding principles in training for that sport is that we actually perform our training in an environment and with the effort and intensity that we might find in competition. This is called specificity.

Specificity of training is interesting for strength sports as quite often many programs call for non-specific training! For example, in powerlifting we need to train specifically at high loads as this is what competition demands. However, strength is associated with other factors such as technique and muscle size, both of which are hard to develop just at close to maximal weight. On the other hand, if we spend too much time focussing on lower weights then we lose the specificity of performing near maximal which offers different demands on the body’s systems.

Whatever your goal, whether it is to get a bigger total on a powerlifting competition, faster on a rugby pitch or fitter for an endurance event, programming must be specific enough to be centred around competition but also allow for identification of weak components that can benefit from supplementary training, what might be considered non-specific training.

In order to improve any facet of ‘fitness’ we need to force the body to adapt. This principle is known as the general adaptation syndrome (GAS). This adaptation is caused by providing a stimulus or stress, allowing an appropriate time for recovery and this leads to adaptation.

When we think about stress for strength training, we need this stress to be adequate enough to cause the body to ‘need to recover’, but not so much stress that the body cannot recover appropriately to adapt. Stress for strength training would obviously be the load we are lifting and this would cause metabolic effects in terms of breaking down of muscle, programming of motor patterns and placing demand on the nervous system. If we consider maximal strength (close to 1rep max) and where to train in this zone consistently, then when we consider stress; this is mostly placed on the nervous system.

As we increase our repetitions the stress shifts from the nervous system to different energy systems that cause different stresses and have different recovery demands and adaptations. When we think about bodybuilding for example, the energy systems involved lead to the increase in lactic acid in the muscle, the amount of load placed on the muscle in each repetition is lower than a 1RM but the overall amount of work performed is going to lead to more muscle breakdown and force with proper recovery, an adaptation which is muscle growth. This is why training at purely heavier loads will develop nervous system and movement efficiency, but training with moderate loads and higher repetitions leads to muscle growth.

It is important to note that this is more of a continuum rather than a distinct cut off between rep ranges and that many strength programs will have cross over with muscle growth. For example, on the continuum, the classic 5×5 powerlifting program is actually going to develop a good bit of strength and some muscle growth. However, we need to consider that if this was the only way we trained, then we miss out on the specificity of training at close to 1RM for our nervous system and movement pattern ‘programming’. So for a powerlifting meet, we would still need to consider doing an appropriate amount of specific work at the right intensity.

Getting an appropriate amount of recovery is something that can be a fine balancing act to achieve. Too much recovery and we risk losing any adaptations we have gotten. This is known rather unscientifically as the ‘use it or lose it’ principle! However, too little recovery will impair performance in following sessions and in some cases can lead to not only stagnation in progress, but also a reduction in performance. If adequate recovery is not provided, in the long term this can lead to overtraining. The principles of overtraining and overreaching and the similarities and differences between them we will discuss in good time, but for now we will highlight that all components of recovery need to be considered if you want to optimise your progress. These include the right nutrition, supplementation, good quality sleep and enough rest, both between training sessions and being able to acknowledge when the body may need time out of the gym.

Once we have decided on the type of stress that best suits our goal, we have carried out the training protocol, recovered sufficiently and allowed the body to adapt, then we then need to increase the amount of stress placed on the body and this relates to the volume of work that we perform in each session. The volume of work related to the tonnage that we perform across each set, exercise and across the session and the volume we train at is essential to determine how much recovery we need and the frequency in which we can train. These are all key concepts we will discuss in more depth in the rest of this series.

On a final note there is a fourth component we’d like to add in to the mix at this point, and this is the concept of ‘individualisation’. As we have touched on previously, although there are distinct rep ranges and loads that will cause a certain response, there is also likely to be a slight variation in this response according to the individual. This can impact recovery, risk of injury and rate of progression, and is guided by a number of different factors including genetics, lifestyle, stress (the emotional kind), lack of sleep, nutrition habits and the use of recovery methods. It is for this reason that some ‘cookie cutter’ programs can get good results for some people and they do consider components like the load (intensity), the volume, frequency and even rest that you will need; However, they cannot know your own individual needs and adjust and adapt a training program accordingly. Whatever a person’s performance goals, using a reputable coach to design a training program that involves evaluation, feedback and adjustments is still the most efficient way to get them there.

Team TTC