Why Be Strong? And How to Get Yourself There.
Strength is like medicine. Prescribed appropriately (in the right ways and the right amounts), it helps keep our bodies young and powerful—fortifying our muscles, joints, and connective tissues into hardware that’s not only more durable, but more capable than they would be without strength training.
Physical strength is what separates the doers from the dreamers. Forging a strong body capable of meeting all of an adventurous life’s demands requires action. One can’t simply “think” themselves into being stronger—it takes actual work, like anything worth having.
Why Be Strong?
A better question would be "why not be strong?" Here's my case for strength training:
Strength is the foundation for a healthy, active, and adventure-filled life. Beyond that, having a base of strength will set you up to excel at any other fitness goal you’ll ever want to achieve. With a strong foundation, you’re more equipped to move from one activity to the next safely and with less of a learning curve.
➡ Let’s say you decide that you want to walk a mile in high heels to support an organization like WEAVE (the “primary provider of crisis intervention of crisis intervention services for survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault in Sacramento County”). After all is said-and-done, you’ll be a hell of a lot better off if you had conditioned your body to prepare for the walk than if you hadn’t.
Strength training is what will allow you to tackle such an endeavor with ease and grace.
➡ Beyond that, it also happens to be the most effective type of training when it comes to both putting on muscle and shedding unwanted body fat. By virtue of the fact that it does build lean tissue (like muscle), it sets you up to become a calorie-burning machine, even at rest. That's a pretty good ROI if you ask me!
➡ The increased bone density that comes along with resistance training doesn't hurt, either--especially for women who are more susceptible to osteoporosis. The strength training you do now can help to prevent such ailments later in life...also a pretty good ROI. Longevity for the win!
I’ve been guilty of focusing too much on the philosophical/“why” aspect of training in my blogs, so I’ll leave it there for now and shift into a more practical/“how” focus. Everything that follows will be practical information for you to apply to your training.
🤔 The average gym-goer designs their workouts based upon which body part(s) they want to train that day. Usually it’s some iteration of chest, abs, arms, and glutes. And for some, this works. I mean, everything works for a little while.
But nobody reading this is a bodybuilder (and if you are, you’re on the wrong site). For the purpose of improving overall strength, I find it more helpful to think in terms of “movement patterns” versus body parts (at least for the sake of structuring your training).
Almost every exercise worth doing (whether it’s for strength, power, endurance, etc.) can be categorized in one of the following ways:
Push. Pull. Squat. Hinge. Carry. Crawl.
💪 Pushing exercises are exactly what they sound like. Bench press, shoulder press, push-ups, etc.
💪 Same with pulling exercises…pull-ups, rows, pulldowns, etc.
💪 Squatting is also exactly what it sounds like, but can also include single-leg variations of the squat movement like step-ups and lunges.
💪 Hingeing might sound a bit strange, but it refers to the motion performed at the hip joints during movements like deadlifts and kettlebell swings.
💪 Carrying is basically carrying weight around in one or both hands. Simple, but not easy.
💪 Crawling refers to locomotive movements that are performed on all-fours (basically, also exactly what it sounds like).
A well-rounded fitness program will contain most, if not all, of these elements.
Phases of Movement
For the purposes of this post, we’re going to look at 3 different “phases” of muscular contraction. Keeping the principle of specificity in mind (discussed in the last post), we should note that gains in strength are specific to the phase being emphasized during exercise. More on that later.
First, let’s get acquainted with the different phases. Then we can look at what they’re useful for.
💪 Isometric phase: this is what happens when a muscle (or group of muscles) contract and produce force without actually moving anywhere. Think of a wall sit or a plank (versus a squat or a sit-up). No movement is happening, but a lot of force is being produced through the muscle.
💪 Concentric phase: this is what happens when a muscle (or group of muscles) contract and produce force and cause a movement to happen. It’s what most of us think of as “strength.” Think of the “push” phase of a push-up, or standing up out of a squat. This is typically the hardest part of the movement, and usually the most emphasized part of an exercise (most people pay attention when they’re picking something up off of the ground, but give no thought to setting it back down).
💪 Eccentric phase: this is what happens when a muscle (or group of muscles) contract and produce force while being stretched. Think of the “lowering” phase of a bench press or deadlift. This is typically the easiest part of the movement, though it’s also typically what makes us the most sore.
Isometrics are a tragically under-utilized method of teaching a muscle how to fire properly without asking it to do too much. They’re amazing for building a mind-body connection to the muscles we want to be using. I’d consider isometrics to be a big part of the foundation of safe strength training that accounts for longevity as well as intensity.
Concentric contractions are what allow us to move through the world. The stronger our ability to produce force through movement, the easier we move through the world (like a milder version of walking around on solid ground after getting off of the treadmill). This never really seems like a big deal, until you’re injured and can’t move anymore. THEN we start appreciating what it was like to move with freedom and ease. There are certain exercises (like pushing or pulling a sled) that are heavily biased toward the concentric end of the spectrum, which just means that we can do a lot of it (read: burn lots of calories and get stronger) without getting too sore to sit on the toilet the next few days.
Eccentric contractions really shine when it comes to being able to reduce and re-direct forces that we don’t necessarily want our body to be exposed to. If you’ve ever tripped and fallen on your face (or broken your wrists while trying to catch yourself in a ninja-like push-up move), you know what I mean. By purposefully exposing your body to eccentric forces through training, you’ll be better equipped to handle them when they come at you in the real world.
As I mentioned earlier, strength gains of each kind are specific to the type of contraction being trained. More focus on isometrics = more isometric strength is built, and so on. What we practice, we get better at (usually).
All this means for your training is that you should train each type with the same care and attention paid to the others. Balance is your friend.
➡ Strength can be built in a number of different rep ranges. The heavier the weight, the less reps we’ll be able to do with it. If we’re using too much weight, we’re testing our strength more than building it.
➡ Likewise, if we’re using too little weight (to the point where we’re able to get several reps and start to feel the “burn” in our muscles), we’re building muscular endurance more than maximal strength. Nothing wrong with that, but it doesn’t make sense to think we’re training for X when we’re really training for Y.
➡ We’ll get stronger if we’re doing 3 reps per set. We’ll get stronger if we’re doing 10 reps per set. But the 5 rep range is thought to be the “sweet spot” for beginners looking to build their strength. Sometimes it might be 4, sometimes it might be 6; but generally speaking, it’s hard to go wrong by structuring our strength training in this rep range.
➡ There’s nothing magical about the number 5 (our bodies don’t even understand numbers as much as they understand adapting to the forces that they’re being exposed to), but our minds need to be able to understand and conceptualize, so it can be a useful reference.
🛎 Just know that higher reps with less weight will tend to skew toward building more muscular endurance than maximal strength; while lower reps with heavier weight will skew toward building more maximal strength.
🛎 It’s also worth nothing that muscle/lean tissue can be built throughout the gambit of these rep ranges. Whether we’re doing 5 reps or 15 reps, we’re providing a stimulus for the muscles to grow.
🛎 Provided we’re eating more calories than we’re burning by living and exercising, we’ll likely increase the size of our muscles. Don’t be scurred, though, because it takes an extreme amount of effort and dedication to get your body to look like anything approaching a professional bodybuilder like Arnold Schwarzenegger (more than any recreational exerciser is willing to endure). And that isn’t even considering the genetic propensity for building muscle that some of us have over others.
Long story short: don’t worry too much about lifting weights making you look bulky; even if that’s your goal, it’s pretty hard to do and it doesn’t happen by accident. The worst that’ll happen is you’ll start burning more calories at rest because you now have a bit more muscle mass that “costs” more fuel (calories) to maintain. Being able to eat more without getting fat isn’t a bad deal, if ya ask me.
Progressive overload is another one of the principles that I structure all of my client’s training around.
Nothing works forever. In order for us to continue to make progress and experience the results of our labor, we need to keep pushing the envelope.
🐮 Nowhere has the principle of progressive overload been so simply stated than in the story of Milo and the calf (who eventually becomes the bull).
➡ Every day, Milo lifts a calf.
➡ Every day, the calf gets heavier.
➡ Every day, Milo gets stronger.
🤰🏻 Another (more modern and realistic example) is what happens when a pregnant mother continues to do pull-ups throughout her pregnancy. As the baby grows, mama has to lift more weight than she did a week ago.
What would happen if the calf/baby never got bigger? The same thing that happens when we never progress our training—plateaus and stagnation. Unfortunately, I see it all the time.
I’m not saying that the only way to progress is to lift more weight every time we work out, but how can we progress if we don’t know what we’ve done?
📓 Whether it’s a physical notebook that you actually write in or just a note on your phone, I recommend keeping track of your training with some sort of training log/journal. Being able to see where you’ve been will help you figure out where to go next—whether it’s shooting for more reps, more sets, more weight, or any other method of progression.
If you're looking for ways to progress your training, look no further than this article on methods of progression written by Dr. Mike Zourdous, a professor and researcher at Florida Atlantic University.
🛑 Alright, friend--that's about enough reading for now. If you're ready to stop dreaming about the body and the life that you want, then it's time to start doing. A strong body is your best bet at living the best life possible. Go forth and make it so!