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Feb 2 / Jeremy

Weight Training for Strength

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Strength TrainingAs I’ve mentioned in previous posts I am a big fan of weight training for strength gains as opposed to just lifting to gain size.  If you’re not yet sure the difference between lifting for strength versus lifting for size then check out the Truth About Repetition Ranges and come right back.    Below I want to go into a bit more detail about what it means to train for strength and what I believe is the best way to actualize your potential for tremendous strength gains.

Bigger is not necessarily stronger

Many people believe that the stronger you are, the bigger your muscles.  As it turns out, this isn’t necessarily true.  Take the guy I told you about in our Strength Training and Protein post who admitted that I was stronger than him though his muscles were bigger than mine.  The fastest way to train for size is by achieving cumulative fatigue through high repetitions, multiples sets for each body part, and training to failure.  The objective is to tear their muscles down as much as possible leading to hypertrophy muscle growth.  For many people, this is the only way they train.  Their goal is to get their muscles to grow as large as possible.  Weight lifters who train this way year round will put on some serious size, but their muscles will look round and puffy.  Weight lifter who focus on strength gains will not see the same increase in muscle size as the year goes on, but they will have a more chiseled look and their muscles will feel dense and hard.

Strength is in the Contraction

The primary goal of strength training is to improve your muscles’ ability to contract hard.  What many people are surprised to learn is that a hard muscle contraction is the result of both muscular and neurological mechanisms in your body and to really improve strength gains you need to be working on both of those aspects of muscle contraction.  I first learned about this from Rusty Moore over at Fitness Black Book.  He refers to it as your mind-to-muscle link.  In order for your muscle to contract your mind has to send a neurological impulse, the stronger that impulse, the more muscle fibers are activated, and the stronger the contraction.  This mind-to-muscle link can actually be strengthened and improved with practice.  The more often your brain sends impulses to a certain muscle, the stronger that link becomes.  The more often your brain sends strong impulses to that muscle the easier those strong impulses come.  So, thinking of training for strength as being limited to training you muscles alone is a mistake.  You need to train your neurological impulses as well and develop that mind-to-muscle link.

How do I improve my neurological impulses?

Increasing strength by focusing on neurological impulses is actually easier than you might think.  Remember, the mind-to-muscle link is improved with practice.  If you feel you have a muscle that does not have a particularly strong mind-to-muscle link then simply flexing that muscle more often will help improve the neurological link.  You don’t even have to be in a gym to practice flexing a muscle.  Of course this will only take you so far.  At some point, you will have to get more practice having your brain send really strong impulses to your muscles.  This is done by lifting very heavy weights.  When training for strength you want to limit your reps so that each repetition is able to generate the strongest contraction possible.  You want your brain to send strong impulses to the muscle each rep and succeed in lifting the weight. This will send positive feedback to your brain and your mind-to-muscle link will get better at sending strong impulses to your muscles.

Avoid Failure

When training for strength and density you never want to push your muscles to the point of failure.  Why?  Well, training to failure actually damages the muscle and breaks down the muscle fibers.  Once your muscle fibers are damaged your brain will stop sending strong signals to that muscle.  Once you’ve lost this ability to make a strong contraction then you can do nothing more to improve strength until that muscle heals.

Lift Often

Since you are avoiding failure, strength training feels a lot different than training for size.  Since you are not breaking down your muscles as much, you are not going to get very sore and your muscle will not need as much time to recover.  To really maximize your strength gains you should take advantage of this and workout the same muscle groups more often.  If you are on a two-day split then you can easily workout four or five days a week.  It really is helpful to think of strength training as practice and the more you practice the better you will become at lifting heavy weights.  In short, lift heavy, avoid failure, lift often.  Good luck with your strength gains!

NOTE: If you are interested in following a program designed by experts to help you develop massive strength then we recommend that you check out our review of the Best Workout Programs for Building Muscle.


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  1. Raymond-ZenMyFitness / Feb 2 2011

    Excellent article its very informative I didn’t really know the difference between lifting strength and size.
    I much prefer strength training exercises that’s what excites me (like getting a PB on a dead lift) not looking into the mirror and posing.

  2. It is very interesting the way you break it down.
    It is crazy how often I see people lift to failure EVERY single workout. The only thing that brings is fatigue and nothing else. By taking the muscle to failure it will take much longer for the muscle to recover. Unfortunately most people go back too soon and so they don’t see results.

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