Strength is one of our most important and defining human qualities. This may sound a bit like hyperbole, however, a consultation with the Merriam Webster dictionary reveals that the word strength defines much of what it means to be a successful human. There are 8 separate definitions, and while most do not pertain to pure physical strength, I find that looking at some the key words and phrases, it helps us conceptualize what it means to be strong in training.
Strength’s definition includes among other things:
- The capacity for exertion or endurance
- The power to resist force
- The power of resisting attack
- A degree of potency or effect of concentration
- Vigor of expression
- Force as measured in numbers.
I would argue that these points present a pretty comprehensive view of what strength truly means, its importance, and the benefits it can deliver through training. Most importantly for the novice lifter, it also provides a roadmap to the basic principles that make for a foundational strength program.
In terms of actual strength training for beginners, that means they must understand these principles, including stimulus and adaptation, progressive overload, periodization, the fundamental movement patterns, and the variables that can be adjusted (sets, reps etc.). A strong understanding of these primary concepts can help any novice or beginner master the fundamentals of strength!
The first concept that is vital to understand when beginning a strength training program is that results and gains do not come directly from whatever workout you do, nor are they instantaneous. The human body is designed to attempt to maintain itself at homeostasis, in other words, comfortable and not changing; in evolutionary terms think that it has survival mechanisms to avoid danger but prefers to live comfortably.
In order to create growth and change, we must upset that balance by introducing a stimulus. In the course of history that might have meant adapting to an environment or climate change or a new predator. Today in the gym, that could be bench press, push-ups, squats etc., anything that requires the body to leave homeostasis.
This also means the stimulus must be significate enough to challenge the body, so for 5 pushups might not do it, but a set of 20 or 30 could, and 4 sets of 25 almost certainly would for most people. When the body interprets the stimulus, it will trigger processes to adapt to this new stimulus so that it is prepared the next time it encounters it.
It takes a lot of energy for this process to occur, so once the body has survived the initial stimulus, it will enter a state of recovery. During this recovery phase, as it repairs any fatigue or damage incurred, it will also adapt to better deal with the same stimulus again, leading to what is often called super-compensation.
A simple example in training might be the first time we do back squats. Let’s say we do 4 sets of 8 reps at a challenging but pretty doable weight. The body hasn’t encountered this stimulus before, so it kicks into gear and we finish our workout, though because of the energy expended our last set certainly isn’t as good as our first.
Over the next 48-72 hours, we become incredibly sore as our body sends lactic acid and other recovery protocols to deal with this new stimulus. Once we have fully recovered 5 days later, we do the exact same workout, and surprisingly it is easier than the first time. We repeat this same workout and process for 8 weeks, and it continues to get easier until after the 8th week it barely feels like a workout and we aren’t sore at all.
This is the stimulus-adaptation process in action. We introduced a new stimulus, the body adapted and got stronger, and now it is easier to finish the goal. However, now that the body has adapted, we will not get any stronger until a new stimulus is introduced.
To summarize the principle, in order to get the best results from your training you must allow your body to recover in order to adapt and grow, and you must continually stress the body each subsequent workout with a new stimulus to continue to stimulate adaptation and growth over time.
The last point we made in relation to the stimulus-adaptation concept leads directly into our next pivotal concept, progressive overload. Simply put, we must continue to challenge our body over time in order to continue to develop strength and become stronger. What is important to note is that most novice lifters will do this exclusively with the load, or weight, however it does not have to be so linear and usually shouldn’t be.
Load or weight is simply one variable that can be adjusted over time, and would more appropriately be considered resistance. Resistance can take many forms, and while load and weight may be one factor, we can also increase resistance by varying tempo, using one leg for a movement or two, changing the implement used such as switching from barbells to kettlebells and so on. The possibilities are endless.
The most simple and easy variable to change is load, and over time we must continue to increase the load; however, it must be remembered that when we have plateaued with a certain weight or load, adding more may not be the answer or the right stimulus.
Periodization is one of the most complicated subjects when it comes to the scientific application of weightlifting, however, for beginners it does not need to be overly complicated and can be extremely useful with just a very basic application. Periodization refers to breaking down your long-term training into smaller periods or cycles, which helps you formulate a solid training plan and roadmap to success.
We’ll discuss only two very basic concepts for the beginner lifter, though there are numerous approaches. The first is classic linear periodization. Essentially, you do the same basic workout program and gradually increase your workload over time, with occasional “deload” weeks, or weeks designed to give the body additional time to recover. As an example, if we are periodizing your back squat, you might start at 200 lbs. and increase 5 lbs. each week for 3 weeks. The 4th week you might do the same workout but with 150 lbs. or lower sets and reps. In week 5 you would start the cycle over again, however this time starting at 205 lbs. This very basic model is linear periodization and the easiest initial way to plan long term for improvement.
The other model is block periodization; which means you spend one “block” or period exclusively focusing on one main item or attribute. An example might be a 4-week period focusing on high reps and low weight, the next 4 weeks focusing on high weight low reps, and then 4 weeks focusing on power. This can be an excellent way to address your weaknesses or introduce a different stimulus to your training aside from more load.
As stated, these two are just the tip of the iceberg, as you become more well-versed you’ll want to look closer into other programs such as the conjugate method, 5/3/1 and more. The program design section of Elite FTS is an excellent resource for a plethora of great programs related to getting strong.
Fundamental Movement Patterns
Strength is like any other skill or sport, and perfecting the fundamentals is crucial to success and often times it’s all that is needed to get truly strong. To that end, there are a million exercise variations that you may see, read about or become overwhelmed by when attempting to put a plan together. That being said, when we boil all of it down there are really 6 primary movements that must be trained, and everything else is extra. If you train each of these 6 movements in some fashion at least twice a week, you will increase your strength and become proficient in the fundamentals:
Squat – Defined as movement that originates at the knees or uses maximal knee flexion. Variations include back squats, front squats, goblet squats, split squats, Bulgarian split squats.
Hip Hinge – Defined as movement that primarily originates at the hips with minimal knee bend. Examples include Romanian deadlifts, sumo deadlifts, barbell glute bridges. Kettlebell swings are arguably the best starting point for mastering the hinge. Strong First is the authority on all things kettlebells, and this article on the hinge movement is a great primer on mastering this movement.
Horizontal Push – A push is essentially moving the weight or resistance away from you, in this case in a horizontal direction. Examples would be push-ups and bench press.
Horizontal Pull – The opposite of the push, a pull is bringing the weight or resistance towards you. In a horizontal pull, examples of good exercises might be bent over rows or inverted rows.
Vertical Push – Pushing the weight away from you and upwards, such as with barbell overhead press, push press and the jerk press.
Vertical Pull – Pulling yourself up closer to the object or pulling the weight closer to you down, examples being pull ups and Lat pull downs.
The final piece of the puzzle though certainly not the least important, is understanding the variables that go into a workout. The most important to understand will be load (how much weight), frequency (how often you train), intensity (how hard is each set, is it 100% of all you can do or your 1 rep max, 75%, 60% and so on), volume (the total amount of work you’ve completed each day) and tempo (how fast or slow you move the weight).
By varying these 5 and more importantly tracking them, you can maintain an efficient workout plan over time. The key principle to understand is that these variables should always equal out; in other words, if two of these variables are high, two others should be low to create balance, otherwise you’ll end up overtraining by doing too much or doing too little.
For example, if you create a plan that is high in intensity (such as 90% of your 1 rep max) and load (high amount of weight), your total volume and frequency probably should be lower. This may be a simple approach, but more often than not simplicity is best and especially for a beginner.
Mark Rippetoe of Starting Strength is an expert on defining and providing guidelines for the variables. An example would be his Texas Method article that gives some great points on good ranges to think about in terms of volume, frequency and so on.
Put It All Together: The KISS Principle
This may be a lot of information to take in, and make no mistake building strength over time can be a complicated process. However, one constant you’ll find when you talk to the strongest people on earth is that they consistently master and practice the fundamentals. The acronym that continues to come up is the KISS principle: Keep It Simple Simon (or sally, or stupid, depending on who you ask). The greatest mistake most beginners make is getting too complicated too early on, keep it simple, train hard, and get strong!!!
Carl Putman is a collegiate strength and conditioning coach on the Space Coast of Florida. He has worked in the performance industry for over 10 years training clients of all ages and abilities, ranging from 7 year old youth athletes to world champions. He earned a degree from Flagler College in 2008 and has been coaching and training since. He now resides with his wife and 4 kids on Florida’s space coast. For more information, you can reach Carl on Twitter or Instagram at @coachcarlp, or on Linkedin.
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