The Fundamentals of Strength Training

Is Isaac Newton the first strength training scientist?

About 350 years reportedly Sir Isaac Newton sat in his garden and was thinking about the universe, when suddenly an apple fell onto his head. In this moment he had an epiphany which told him there must be such thing called gravity, a force that acts on the apple that causes the acceleration.

It is debateable whether the instance with the apple really happened, it’s not debateable that Newton derived laws of motion, as I painfully remember from my physics classes during my school years.

The second law of motion that Newton derived states, that acceleration is produced when a force acts on to a mass and equally the greater the mass, the greater the amount of force needed. Which leads to the known formula that force is the product of mass and acceleration or mass multiplied by acceleration equals force.

How does Newton’s second law of motion impact your strength training?

If force is the product of mass and acceleration, we need to pay attention to both variables in training. Since the mass is constant in a given set, let’s say a full back squat with 140 kg, the acceleration applied onto the mass by the athlete can vary depending on the effort.

Therefore the acceleration and the effort in the concentric phase is an important variable in strength training and should be performed with the highest intend to move the mass as fast as possible, which will result in a higher force output.

Why all this physics, I am interested in strength training!

Now we know that force is the product of mass and acceleration, the heavier an object is the more force we need to produce to move that object for the same distance as a comparatively lighter object. This leads to the next formula that is important to understand, which states that force multiplied by distance is work. It sounds more complicated than it is, it basically tells us that the distance the mass or weight is moved influences the work being done by the athlete. As a practical application using the previous example of the back squat with 140 kg and we imagine two athletes performing a back squat with 140 kg and hypothetically applying the same acceleration to the bar, but athlete one descents 50 cm and athlete two descents 60 cm, athlete two does more work as he moves the same weight with the same velocity over a larger distance.

What is strength?

So what is all that talk about force and mass, when we are interested in strength training? Let’s put it all together and come full circle, any definition of strength involves the statement ‘to resist force’ or ‘to exert force’, therefore force and understanding force is integral to understanding strength and strength training. I will use a simple definition for strength as ‘the ability to exert force in order to overcome resistance.’

What is strength training?

If strength is the ability to exert force to overcome resistance, strength training simply trains the ability to exert force to overcome resistance.

It is important to understand that strength training trains the ability to exert force, which can be done in various ways by using various modes, such as free weights (barbells, dumbbells, kettlebells, etc.), strength training machines, strength training bands or resistance bands, bodyweight and many more modes. So strength training and lifting weights is often used interchangeably, but they aren’t synonyms, lifting weights is just one out of many forms of strength training.

How strength training works?

2500 years ago there was an incredible wrestler that was known for his incredible levels of strength and power. His name was Milo of Croton, an ancient Olympian who won six Olympic titles.

As a young kid Milo of Croton decided he wanted to become the world’s strongest man and chose a simple, but effective strategy how to achieve the goal he has set out for himself. He started lifting a small calf onto his shoulders and carried it around. Every single day he lifted the calf and carried it around and as the months and years passed that calf grew and got heavier and heavier until the day that the once young calf was a full-grown bull. Over the month and years Milo of Croton lifted consecutively a heavier and heavier load and was able to lift a full-grown bull at some point.

What can we learn from Milo of Croton?

Strength training lesson #1: Mastery

Why did Milo of Croton not lift a bull from day one? Simple answer, because he couldn’t! He lifted a small calf, because he knew he could master it. Mastery of technique and mastery of external load (with proper technique) are key.

What does that mean for the strength training? Start with a weight (or resistance) you can master and gradually increase load over time.

Strength training lesson #2: Progression

The story of Milo of Croton encapsulates the fundamental principle of strength training. In order to get stronger your training needs to be progressive and you need to gradually increase the loads over time, which brings us to the second lesson.

Strength training lesson #3: Optimal dose or stimulus

Did Milo of Croton lift the calf until he fell to the ground due to exhaustion? No! He lifted the calf and came back the next day to repeat his training.

What does that mean for the strength training? Adaptation occurs when we train with a load or external resistance that stimulates adaptation. If strength training (or any training) is properly planned out over weeks and month, the athlete rarely trains to exhaustion! An optimal dose (of strength training) will lead to an optimal response (strength gains or size gains).

Strength training lesson #4: Consistency

Milo of Croton lifted the calf every single day until it was a full-grown bull.

What does that mean for the strength training? You do not need to train every single day, but you need to be consistent (over the week, month and years).

Strength training lesson #5: Specificity

In my opinion one of the most over-used words and misconceptions in strength training and training in general.

Why did Milo of Crotona lift a calf and not run a few miles each day or jumped up and down? Because he started with the goal of becoming stronger and then chose the right mode and method that would he help him to become stronger.

What does that mean for the strength training? If you want to become stronger, chose the right modes and method that will help you become stronger. If you want to become bigger, chose the right modes and method that will help you become bigger. There is no one size fits all in strength training.

Conclusion

To understand strength training, we need to open our old physics book and understand that strength is the ability to exert force in order to overcome resistance. Force and force output is influenced by two variables mass and acceleration, therefore the load we lift is important, but also how much acceleration we can apply to the lifted load.

An optimal strength training is centred on a few basic principles

1.    Mastery

2.    Progression

3.    Optimal dose

4.    Consistency

5.    Specificity

Jim Rohn said it best ‘Success is nothing more than a few simple disciplines, practiced every day.’ and if Jim Rohn would have done strength training, I am convinced he would have said ‘Success in strength training is nothing more than a few principles practiced every single strength training.’

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