In the next series of “Being Basic w/Britt” the topic of strength training will be discussed. Just like nutrition, the amount of information on strength training is overwhelming. A Google search of the term yields over 1 million results. This isn’t even considering the results that come from “workout” or “exercise”. In true fashion, the fitness/health industry has illuminated the subject as overwhelming and complicated making one ask the question “where do I even begin?”.
The purpose of this post is not to get into the nitty gritty details of strength training, but rather provide the reader with a framework of the subject. A framework to sort through the overwhelm and answer the questions:
What is strength training and why should it be a focus for any exercise routine, regardless of goal?
What are the elements to an effective, efficient, and appropriate strength training program?
What are some practical, basic tips one can use when adopting or creating a strength training program?
So without further adieu lets get basic!
Why Every Goal Needs Strength Training as a Component
Whether one is in the pursuit of losing weight, improving their overall health, or setting forth to run a 5k, implementing strength training into their exercise routine should be a non-negotiable. There are numerous benefits as to why one should strength train. Here are just a few:
*Increase in lean muscle mass
*Improves blood sugar levels and other metabolic markers
*Increase bone density
*Enhanced quality of life
*Reduce risk for injury through improved balance and coordination
*Reduced risk for cancer and other diseases
*Improves mood and energy
*Can help alleviate symptoms of depression, anxiety, and insomnia
*Develop a sense of confidence and agency
Going back to the myriad of goals any person may have, implementing regular sessions of strength training can help build the foundation for that goal. Want to lose weight? Well, lifting weights is going to help the metabolism more than just being a cardio bunny. Want to run a 5k? Strength training is going to help build those muscles so your runs can be done with more ease while warding off injury more so than if you just ran. The point is, the carry over is not only evident in a variety of goals, but strength also gives the person “more bang for their buck”. Yea, remember how I talked about this in the Nutrition 101 article? The same concept applies. One can get the same (if not more) of a benefit of implementing this type of training into their routine compared to just doing cardio or just dieting. As an advocate of strength for a number of reasons, this is perhaps one of the strongest reasons. Time is valuable; strength understands that.
Elements of an Effective, Efficient, and Appropriate Strength Training Program
Contrary to popular belief, there is a “method to the madness” when it comes to program design. These methods illustrate whether the program is effective, efficient, and/or appropriate. Although there have been entire books written on this premise, the point of this article is to remain basic, giving you, the reader, a sound understanding on how to critically identify the validity of a program.
Effective programs should answer “yes” to the following questions: do they implement the principles of training and can they be carried out by the person adopting them? Truth be told, any program can “work” given the right person/situation just like the best program can “fail” if not completed appropriately. Assuming “user error” is not a variable, effective programs apply at least 3 of the principles of training: Specificity, Overload, and Progression.
Specificity answers the question “is the program training your intended goal or outcome”. So when we talk of this from a strength training perspective, it seems quite obvious the program should make one stronger; however, this is not always the case. Programs with super high reps and/or lightweight aren’t going to challenge the body in a way where true strength adaptations can be made. Generally speaking, the assigned rep range for the main compound movements should be somewhere in the 4-12 reps. Lower reps are better utilized for absolute strength while more than 12 is in the hypertrophy/endurance range. Again, the intention of the article is to keep things “basic” so the point to drive home is any effective program will be designed so strength, not endurance, can be built.
Overload refers to the principle one must challenge or overload the neuromuscular system in order to get stronger. Seems like a pretty straight forward and basic concept, yet another highly misunderstood and underutilized aspect of training. Let’s say one adopts a program and in said program it says “Squats 3 x 5”. At first glance it seems like this is acceptable, but it is missing a critical component: a way to measure overload. This is where the use of an RPE scale or percentages may come into place. Having a way to quantify “overload” gives the trainee a degree to which they can quantify the intensity of training. Intensity that should be challenging enough to make strength adaptations (i.e. breaking the muscle down so that the body can rebuild it overtime) while also being safe and progressive.
Which brings us to the last principle of training: progression. Progression refers to the “long game”. Does the training program progress the trainee throughout a number of weeks, months, cycles. It makes sense, a program should consistently and gradually challenge the trainee. Someone who is getting stronger should not be at the same level on Day 1 as Day 60. Progression ties in pretty closely with overload in that throughout the program one should be gradually challenging themselves in some progressive manner. This does not necessarily have to be weight used, it could be reps, sets, time under tension, or many other variables. Basically, a training program should progress either week to week or cycle to cycle.
Putting It All Together
If you have made it this far your head may be spinning by now. With all the information that goes into program design it is easy to get wrapped up in the details. Here are some key elements to consider when analyzing (or creating) a training program:
First, lay the foundation. Who is this program for and what can realistically be carried out over the course of several weeks? Whether it is a 2 day/week split or 5 day, make sure it is appropriate for the person and goal at hand.
After the number of training days have been determined (and the time each session can be), choose the type of split to adopt. Is it a 3 day total body routine or a 5 day body part split? There are several options to choose from, but I tend to be biased towards:
3 Day Total Body
4 Day Push Pull or Upper/Lower Body
5 Day Compound Movement Focused (Generally 2 Lower/3 Upper Focused)
Now we can look at each training session. Most effective programs will start with a compound movement in the beginning of each session. Not only is this when the body is in it’s best state to perform these movements, but the overall focus of the session can be built around this movement (or movements). What are compound movements? Essentially any variation of a squat, press, hinge, pull, or push. This doesn’t necessarily have to be a barbell movement; again, one must consider the person at hand who will be executing the program, but the movement should work as many major muscle groups as possible.
The compound movements can be assigned throughout the week and now we can analyze how they progress week to week. Mentioned earlier, progression can happen in a variety of ways. Progressing by increasing the number of reps is a common strategy, especially when we are talking for beginners, but I tend to prefer increasing through intensity or weight used. Again, this could be by increasing RPE, RIR, or the percentage of one’s max in said lift. Whatever it is used, it should change week to week. For example:
Week 1- Squat 3 x 5 @ RPE 7
Week 2- Squat 3 x 5 @ RPE 8
Week 3- Squat 3 x 5 @ RPE 8.5
This means the trainee would increase the weight, even slightly, week by week to the correlated RPE number.
Finally, the sessions should conclude with “assistance” or accessory work. These would be exercises that are more unilateral or single joint movements. Going back to our squat day, perhaps leg extensions, split squats, and hamstring curls are included. Again, the options are endless when it comes to choosing which exercises, but generally anywhere from 4-6 assistance exercises will do most people fairly well. Due to the fact these exercises are generally not as taxing as compound movements utilizing rep ranges of 8-15 can be appropriate along with a higher RPE. “Near failure” on these movements isn’t unheard of.
Going back to the overall picture of a training program we can think of the layout in blocks. Blocks reflecting the intended goal or training outcome of the cycle. Alternating between hypertrophy or accumulation and intensity or strength blocks is commonly used as cycling between these training goals keeps the trainee challenged, yet accounts for some of the unwanted demands of training may sometimes give (i.e. burnout, diminishing returns, etc.). Therefore, blocks should be categorized and written to reflect these goals appropriately.
The rise of the Internet has made gathering training programs seamless, yet overwhelming. Complicate that by having an eye to critically critique them can make most quit before they even start. Using the basic principles I have laid out in this article should help. The training programs on my site takes all of this info (and more) into account ensuring users don’t have to “think” they just “do”. Working with qualified professionals takes the experience even further by cutting down the noise and time wasted by creating a program specific for the trainee’s needs and goals.