Getting stronger is actually a much more complex process that people give it credit for. On the surface, I think the majority of exercise goers would make the assumption that getting stronger is about building bigger muscles (I know, not everyone thinks this). Though this isn’t necessarily incorrect, it doesn't represent the full story. Getting stronger is also a “skill” because getting stronger at one exercise doesn’t always mean you get stronger in another exercise. Why is that? Well, strength is driven by neurological components as well. The brain is the master and commander of the human body.
When you do a movement for the first time, it is typically quite inefficient at it. However, over time the body learns how to become more and more efficient, meaning it gets better at knowing how to use the right muscles at the right time in the right sequence. By doing such, the body actually expresses more force through skill, allowing you to lift more weight. So, to think strength is purely a structural outcome of having bigger muscles is only partially true. There is a skill to strength, which is why over time you become a more skilled lifter at certain exercises and for the most part, strength follows suit. Then the question becomes, how strong is strong enough?
How Strong Is Strong Enough?
Being “strong enough” is extremely contextual. The idea of being strong enough typically pertains to the relationship between maximal strength gains of a given exercise, say your one rep max in a squat and its transfer to another movement, say jumping. There may be a point in time where squatting more weight doesn’t lead to an increase in jump height.
At this point in time, focusing your energy and time on other types of training, like max power or max velocity might yield better results for your jumping. So at this point, the return on investment for getting stronger than other types of training could arguably be the point where you are “strong enough”. This is especially true for athletes who are not competitive powerlifters or olympic weightlifters.
However, it should be noted that this is very much goal specific and always depends on the athlete. If your goal is simply to get as strong as possible then obviously there is no “strong enough.” So how do we figure out how to train for strength?
General Strength Training
General strength training is a style of training that has no “specific” goal in the sense that the strength you build can only be expressed in specific ways. For example, if you only trained to be a high jumper and did high jumps, your ability to jump high is going to be pretty specific just high jumping.
On the other side of the coin, getting stronger, say in a squat doesn’t guarantee that you jump higher in the high jump, but it does build the strength of those muscles that perform the high jump. However, those leg muscles that you build your squat can also be used in say baseball, sprinting, basketball and a whole slew of other sports. In this case, general training is not specific to any sport because the training itself is useful for just about any sport as long as the skill of the sport is trained to use that general strength.
General strength is essentially the base of your pyramid. The larger the base, the taller the pyramid can become.
Auto-Regulation for Strength Gains
The concept of auto-regulation is pretty straightforward. Auto-regulation, often referred to as flexible periodization or agile periodization, is the concept that we change our plans based on how we feel at a given time. There is no way you can predict the future, so when you initially write your training program there is no way of knowing how you are going to actually feel that day. Auto-regulation gives you the ability to adjust your training day to day without worrying about screwing up your training cycle.
This is where a tool like rate of perceived exertion (RPE) can be used as a tool to adjust loading and training volumes without having to rewrite the program. Great lifters have been doing this forever, it's just a more objective way of listening to your body. If you are tired, sore or just a little run down there is no need to try and force the issue. Adjust your training loads as needed, allowing you to still stay within your training program, but don’t be stupid and force the issue when it isn’t needed. Sometimes, you just need some extra recovery time.
More times that not, avid gym goers don’t like to miss days. We get it, training is fun, it’s an outlet, it’s a form of therapy. However, there really are times where your workout should be understood as being not that important. What I mean by that is, some days you have little aches and pains that might seem minimal and something you can tough through. However, excessive toughing it out can lead to actual injuries and pains.
This is where understanding that one workout will not make you, but can break you is of utmost importance. One workout that pushes your knees or shoulders over the edge can set you back not just a day, but instead a couple of weeks. Be patient and realize strength training is all about the long game. Take your time and don’t do something in the moment that will set you back in the long run.
Using Accommodating Resistance
What is accommodating resistance? Accommodating resistance is the idea of adding resistance that fits the strength curve of a movement. The strength curve of a movement is the concept that muscles are stronger or weaker depending on the length they are within a movement. This is why the bottom position of the squat is the weakest and the top position is the strongest. In the case of a squat, the strength curve is an ascending strength curve, where you get stronger as you move closer to the finish of the movement.
Accommodating resistance is designed to add weight at the stronger points and reduce weight at the weaker points. Tools like bands and chains help accomplish this. As the weight is lifted, the bands become more stretched, or more chain links are picked up, increasing the mass or tension on the bar. This in turn forces the muscles to continue to produce more and more force as the weight is lifted. The difference in strength between the bottom position of a squat and the top can be quite a bit, so adding weight as the weight is lifted forces the muscles to continue to work at higher relative intensities compared to their potential max force producing capabilities.
When we lift lighter weights as fast as we can, part of the range of motion is responsible for decelerating the bar itself. For example, if we lift light weight, say 50% of our one rep max as fast as we possibly can, we actually have to decelerate the bar at the end range of motion. This is where using accommodating resistance has the potential to shorten the range of motion where deceleration occurs, because load is constantly being added to the bar as it is lifted.
The reason why deceleration is bad is because muscles are no longer producing force to move the bar, but instead producing force to actually stop the bar from moving. With the addition of accommodating resistance, force production through the full range of motion can be potentially trained in a much more effective way. The other option is to just throw the object you are lifting, or jump with it. Obviously this doesn’t really work well with the bench press, but if you have a medicine ball for throws or a trap bar for jumps, these options seem to work as a possible alternative.
Should I Use Full Range of Motion?
There is some debate out there as to whether or not you should train through a full range of motion. In my opinion, I think there are only select, very specific times where less than range of motion training should be emphasized – either injury or sport specific reasons. So when it comes to training full range of motion, there is a good amount of research to suggest that training through a full range might be most beneficial for hypertrophy gains and strength gains (across a full range of motion). These outcomes are also supported by isometric training studies.
While isometric training involves no movement, like a dynamic contraction, it does allow researchers to study outcomes of muscle activation at different muscle lengths. Studies suggest that both hypertrophy and strength gains through full ranges of motion are greatest with muscles at long muscle lengths (when it is fully stretched). This suggests that if we do not train a full range of motion where the muscle is fully stretched, then hypertrophy and full range of motion strength gains might be limited.
However, this does not mean shortened range of motion exercises don’t have specific benefits for specific reasons. Partial reps can be useful for breaking through sticking points when planned properly in a training program.