What is Strength Training?

Strength training is one of the best ways of training your body in the gym.

On a purely anecdotal basis, strength training helps not only in making you physically stronger, but in developing confidence, self-esteem, more discipline, better habits, increases focus, allows you to attain goals and make progress, all whilst building solid muscle alongside it. Yes gaining strength and improving muscle size are highly compatible.

In a broader sense, strength training is often used as an over-arching term for any type of weight-based training performed in the gym. It’s often used interchangeably with the likes of weight training, lifting weights, resistance training and weightlifting of the Olympic variety. 

Whilst these training styles are all linked and largely the same to the observer and everyday person, even for the majority of gym-goers themselves, this doesn’t fully cover what strength training is. Strength training can be much more specific than this.

A better term for the over-arching nature of gym weights training would be resistance training. In this sense ‘resistance’ can be anything from dumbbells, barbells and kettlebells to bodyweight, bands and weights machines.

What is strength training?

Strength training is a type of resistance training with the main goal of getting physically stronger.

How do you know if you’re getting stronger?

While a bodybuilder’s currency is all about the look and size of a body part, the strength trainer is chiefly concerned about the numbers being lifted, carried, pushed, pulled and moved by your body.

Strength training often brings additional benefits as a by-product, such as increased muscle size, athletic performance, muscular endurance and fitness, tendon and ligament strength and increased bone density. You can read a number of peer-reviewed articles, here and here.

But the primary goal of strength training is to get stronger by lifting heavier weights over time and this is measured in pounds and kilograms.

Definition: What does strength training mean?

Strength training is a type of training where resistance is used to stimulate muscular contraction to get physically stronger. Building stronger muscles is developed through the gradual increase of weighted resistance over time to progressively overload a target muscle or muscle groups and increase force capability.  

What does strength training look like?

Generally speaking, strength training has a number of characteristics that makes it distinct from other forms of resistance training, these are:

  • Heavier loads – strength trainers often work up to 75-100% of 1 rep maxes during an exercise. Pitching your muscles against enough resistance, triggers greater numbers of motor units and muscle fibres within the muscle
  • Lower reps – usually work in the range of 1-6 reps per set. Heavier resistance which is close or at your maximum output means you’ll be able to produce fewer reps
  • Longer rest – as trainers working closer to the limits of their strength, more rest is required between sets. This can range between 2-6 minutes. 

These are a good rule of thumb but you can find success of getting stronger with other methods and techniques.

The ultimate test of one’s strength per exercise is known as the 1 Rep Maximum (1RM). As I’m sure you already know, this is the maximum weight a person can lift for one repetition of any given exercise. This is your strength limit.

The main lifts a person usually looks at when strength training are the ‘Big 5’: deadlifts, squats, bench press, barbell row, overhead press. Structure your strength training programme around these and you won’t go far wrong.

ben hardman squat strength training heavy load
One of the Big 5: I’ve always loved strength training and training heavy!

Strength training is ultimately about increasing this 1RM. Doing so proves you have become stronger. This isn’t to say a strength trainer goes for a 1RM each training session, far from it, this would be too exerting on the body.

Weight trainers improve their strength over time by following a training plan or specific programme. This can be a loose plan or highly structured and programmed to the last rep and set. Some trainers don’t like testing their 1RMs, but can still show they have become stronger by tracking their performance and the numbers lifted.

For example, a person in full health deadlifts 150kg for 3 reps. Six weeks later they manage to deadlift 150kg for 6 reps. The person has gained strength.

You can practice strength training at any time of the day. While many like lifting weights after work, I’m a strong proponent of weight lifting in the morning.

Strength training is different to muscle building

For many this might be splitting hairs, but there is a distinction between training primarily for strength and primarily for muscle. Both are mutually beneficially but when the specific goal is to build muscle and not get stronger, things are flipped around.

Instead of focussing on progressively increasing the weight lifted over time, the trainer will be performing resistance training in a certain rep range to stimulate maximal muscle growth. Here a balance is struck between the load (usually 60-80% of 1RM) and the number of reps per set (usually 6-12). The rest between sets is also reduced to 1-3 minutes to exert muscle fibres more fully. This is training for muscle hypertrophy.

There can be, and certainly is, some crossover between building muscle and increasing strength. Specifically aiming for muscular hypertrophy usually increases strength over time, and training for strength usually builds muscle over time, just not to the same extent in both examples as if it were the primary goal, which is what it come down to.

man about to deadlift weight strength

How does a muscle get stronger?

When you train to get stronger, your goal is to increase the force output of a muscle.

Muscles, as are humans in general, are highly adaptable. Put your muscles in a certain scenario it isn’t used to, such as a stressful caused by strength training and lifting weights, and your body will respond by making those muscles stronger and bigger.

The same principles that will stimulate hypertrophy and make your muscles bigger, will also make them stronger. These include the mechanical aspect of muscular tension – both the load and time under load – that cause minute cellular damage. Another is the metabolic aspect of your muscles needing more energy from glucose when being exerted by strenuous activity (this is when you feel the burn from the lactate build up which is actually an important signal that the muscle needs glucose).

The physiology of how your muscles get stronger is incredibly complicated, so much so that it’s not fully understood, but the basic principles are understood. Getting stronger comes down to muscular activation and a central nervous system (CNS) response of coordinated motor unit activity and more recruitment within the muscle.

Two main process are involved in gaining strength:

  1. Muscular hypertrophy as a response to the stress of training
  2. Adaptations with the CNS that enhance nerve-muscle interaction

What is best for strength training?

To get stronger you need to lift progressively heavier weights over time. By inching your weights up incrementally on, for example, a weekly basis, you’ll be progressively overloading the maximum output of your muscle, causing a stimulus response in your body.

It’s this response to an external stimulus by your body that makes your stronger.

However, you don’t just get stronger by magic. Alongside your regular strength training schedule, you need to put your body, and therefore your muscles, in the best possible resting environment to get stronger. Rest and recovery are absolutely vital. And this takes work and dedication.

Greater success comes down to how you approach the other key ingredients to getting stronger which are:

  • Diet, nutrition and caloric intake
  • Sleep
  • Hydration

By this point you should have a much better idea of what strength training is. Not only will it help your muscles and muscle groups to get physical stronger but it will bring with it a whole load of other benefits to your body and mindset.