Updated: Jun 9, 2021
Strength is a widely used word among coaches and athletes. Many athletes condition themselves to become stronger, either to prepare them for the best possible performance in a competition or to improve their general fitness. Although the importance of strength training is well known, many people are still confused about the exact definition of strength. Strength is much more than how big your muscles are or how much you can lift. There are different types of strength with each type affecting movement differently. Each type is also developed differently, thus requiring different training programs. For example, different strength training methods can be used during an athlete preparing for a competition, or an athlete in his/her rehabilitation. Also, explosive movements such as sprinting, jumping, and Olympic lifts require a different type of strength training than simply lifting a heavy load which is performed with no time limit.
To truly understand strength training, one needs to truly have an understanding of the anatomy and physiology of the human body (what muscles are made up of and how they adapt and improve to generate more strength), and biomechanics (how the muscles mechanically work to generate strength). By taking this scientific approach, coaches and athletes can better prepare an appropriate strength training program.
So what exactly is strength?
Strength is one of the basic components of fitness. The body can produce muscular action and force through the generation of electrical stimulation by the nervous system, by either a single muscle or group of muscles. As explained in the book Supertraining, there are three different types of strength including maximal strength, training maximum, or absolute strength.
• Maximal strength: This is the muscle’s ability to produce maximal contraction voluntarily against an external load. This occurs when the athlete is fully motivated such as during competition, and therefore, maximal strength is often referred to as competition strength. This is easily measured by weightlifters and powerlifters during their 1RM in competition. For other sports such as team sports, this is harder to measure as there are several variables to consider.
• Training Maximum: During training, athletes are often less motivated, and their maximum is often less than that achieved during competition. This is measured by the 1RM achieved during training. Competitions bring with them a sense of excitement and motivation, which raises the heart rate significantly, helping the athlete put more effort into it. Trained athletes can recruit more muscle fibers during each lift, whilst beginners may still be learning new techniques. Therefore, the gap between absolute strength, competition maximum, and training maximum will be much lower for trained athletes. The difference is seen more evidently in untrained people.
• Absolute strength: This is the muscle’s ability to generate force involuntarily. This is seen clearly in a lab environment where muscles are electrically stimulated. In real life, it is more rarely seen in desperate situations such as when something heavy falls suddenly on you, which generates a powerful stretch reflex. This type of strength is very difficult to measure. Going to the absolute maximum requires the body to go to extreme limits. The body has safety mechanisms that prevent the body from reaching true mechanical failure as this can often lead to injury.
Understanding the different types of strength helps coaches and athletes in preparing more effective training programs based on the intensities these athletes can produce. Intensity is usually based on the percentage of the maximum output. Training maximum can vary daily depending on several factors such as nutrition plans, sleep, and lifestyle. Competition maximum is often more stable. Planning a training program based on maximum intensities is more relevant to elite athletes as beginners should focus mainly on technique.
Even though competitions involve fewer sets and reps to reach maximum, they are still more exhausting for the athletes than high-intensity workouts, due to the higher psychological demands. Athletes may take more time to recover from emotional and nervous stress than their physical fatigue. Therefore, attempting competition maximum is not ideal to perform regularly during training as it will lead to inconsistencies and can also hinder adaptations as the nervous system is maximally stressed. Bulgarian powerlifting and weightlifting coaches are famous for training close to maximum loads every day. However, this load is usually based on the training maximum and not the competition maximum. Whilst training maximum stresses the muscles to adapt, unlike the competition maximum, it does not put excessive nervous stress. Therefore, when writing a training program, it should be planned around the training maximum and not the competition maximum.
Strength is also dependent on many factors. The muscle can express different forces at different joint angles and movement speeds. Using multiple muscle groups will also help lift heavier weights. Therefore, it is very hard to measure strength, without first describing the context in which it is generated. For example, due to the larger size of the legs when compared to the shoulders, an athlete will normally squat with more weight than he can press the bar upwards. Often, relative strength is used to compare the strength levels of different individuals with different body masses. Relative strength is how strong someone is compared to their size. It is viewed in different conditions, for example during a 1RM squat or Snatch.
Finally, as we shall see in later blogs, the muscles also have different maxima during different phases such as isometric, concentric, and eccentric movements. We shall also see how there are also different types of strength such as explosive strength, speed-strength, and acceleration-strength.
Thanks for reading, and as always stay fit!
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