• Understanding Strength

The importance of strength training as part of any training program is clear, but it is not always clear what we mean by strength. When we talk about strength, we are actually referring to our body's ability to produce force, but the topic runs deeper than that. There is no one type of strength; instead, force output exists on a series of spectrums, with different types of strength requiring different training styles to develop them. When we are designing a training program, we have to understand not only the degree of strength required but, how quickly we need to apply force, how long we need to sustain force output, as well as the environment in which that force should be produced and the degree of coordination required to perform movements safely and efficiently.

Strength x Speed

This spectrum is all about speed of force application. When producing force, tension builds within muscle over time, meaning that maximum force can only be produced in slower movements that allow maximum tension to be developed. Therefore, in fast-paced, dynamic movements, maximum strength becomes less important than the rate at which tension can be developed. Athletes who can produce a greater percentage of maximum force in the timeframe a given movement allows excelling. Maximum strength may still be important in this case as if the maximum amount of force an athlete can produce does not meet the needs of a given action. However, once absolute force needs are met, a greater emphasis should be placed on meeting the action's speed requirements.

Strength x Endurance

As the length of time over which force needs to be applied increases, we see a drop in our capacity to produce a high degree of tension. In the same way, as a marathon runner is going to put out less force per stride than someone running a 10k, who will, in turn, put out less force than a 100m sprinter, the amount of force we produce for a single max effort lift in a gym environment is going to be greater than the force produced in each lift of a 10 rep set. For this reason, the requirement for the development of maximum strength for an endurance athlete is lower than that of someone competing in a more explosive sport. There are still benefits to developing strength, increasing movement efficiency, and reducing injury risk. By developing maximum strength, we develop a strength reserve, reducing the degree of effort required by each contraction, making it easier to sustain force under conditions of fatigue. This being said, in the case of endurance-focused athletes, developing strength around a higher rep range may be more beneficial to overall performance.

Strength x Function

The more complicated a movement, the less absolute force will be produced by each muscle involved in the action. The emphasis instead shifts to coordinating all movements to create a unified force. Let's look at this in terms of the muscles of the legs. If we want to produce maximum force with our quads, we will take an isolation exercise such as a machine leg extension. If we perform a split squat (a static lunge), the degree of force produced by our quad will be reduced as we focus instead on coordinating the glutes, quadriceps, and hamstrings to produce the largest possible resultant force. As we add in further elements to challenge stability in multiple planes of motion, such as by stepping into the lunge or resisting a rotational force against a band, the degree of force produced by each of these muscles drops further still. This is reflected in sports that tie together a series of complex multi-directional movement patterns like basketball, compared to sports requiring a more simple movement pattern such as cycling. The needs of these sports should be considered when designing your training plan; the primary focus is ensuring the body can produce the required levels of force before then increasing the degree of coordination involved in the exercise program.

Considerations for training

The primary consideration for any strength training plan is specificity. The way your body will react to a training stimulus is reflective of the challenges placed on it. Training intensity (percentage of maximum effort) and training volumes (the overall number of reps performed) should match your goals' needs. If you are looking to increase the absolute amount of force you can produce on a specific movement for a single rep, the best way to develop this is by spending the majority of your training plan working on this movement at near maximum intensity, i.e., keep the rep range low, and perform this movement more frequently throughout the week. Meanwhile, as you move further to the right of the aforementioned spectrums, where absolute force output becomes less important, less time needs to be spent developing maximum strength with greater emphasis on speed, endurance, or function. In these cases, your strength training intensity should still look to exceed the needs of your discipline. However, so long as this is sustained, greater emphasis can be placed on performing movements at the required speed, sustaining force for longer periods, or introducing challenges to coordination and proprioception.

Posted in Training on Dec 10, 2020