What Is Strength Training?

Posted on 22 Feb 2015 20:20

Strength training is actually simpler than you thought. The majority of basic articles on strength training do not bother to define strength training at all. When it is defined, the word "strength" is used in the explanation. The most typical type of definition looks something like this: "Strength training is using resistance to build your physical (or muscular) strength."

Usually, however, explanations focus on the benefits of strength training: Strength training builds muscle, decreases injury risk, makes bones stronger, etc.

Sometimes, more complete definitions are attempted. This is when things get really fancy. One of my favorites is this explanation from an eMedicineHealth.com article:

"There is (1) Olympic lifting… (2) power lifting (a competition where athletes perform the squat, dead lift, and bench press), and (3) weight lifting (a sport where athletes lift heavy weights—typically fewer than six reps). When you lift weights at the gym to get stronger or bigger or more toned, you are performing resistance exercise….you will hear the term "strength training" associated with lifting weights….it's incorrect to refer to resistance exercise as strength training…strength training would more accurately be described as resistance exercise that builds strength…the term resistance exercise will refer to the general type of weight lifting that you do in the gym to get bigger, stronger, more toned, or to increase your muscular endurance." 1

This typifies the mess that is strength training. So many of the isolated statements made about it are correct (though not all), but the gist of it all, the central message about what strength training IS, is so far off the mark that you may as well just say strength training is resistance training is bodybuilding. But it is not.

First let's properly define some the the terms associated with the expression of muscular strength. These terms are a big part of the reason that strength training means so many different things to different people. Some of them are related to specific sports, and some to practices.

  • Resistance Training - Any kind of exercise performed using some kind of external resistance whether free weights, machines, or even body weight. Elastic bands are also a form of resistance, so using them can also be called resistance training.
  • Bodybuilding - Training for muscular hypertrophy. Bodybuilding is solely concerned with the development of muscle mass and strength gain is only a secondary concern as it relates to the ability to gain mass.
  • Weightlifting (one word) - When the term weightlifting is used as ONE word, it is, by convention, meant to refer to the sport of Olympic lifting, which contests two lifts, the Clean and Jerk and Snatch Lift.
  • Weight lifting (two words): A generic term meaning any weight lifting activity. It usually has the connotation of heavier lifting activities rather than lighter isolation exercises and therefore is associated with strength training. However, it lacks any specific definition when used in two separate words. Usually used for variety in conversations about any form of strength training or bodybuilding. Most of the time the term is shortened to only "lifting."

So What is Strength Training?

Strength training is any training undertaken to increase the absolute force production of the muscles, and absolute force production is what the word "strength" refers to. We usually talk about strength in terms of movements and movements is a more sophisticated sounding way of saying lifts. So, rather than individual muscles, when we say "muscular strength" we mean the large muscle groups being used in a coordinated fashion. Absolute, or maximum strength is usually measured in each lift by your one rep maximum (1RM), which is the most weight you can lift for one rep. The simplest way to put it? Strength training is training to be able to lift heavy things. Also see relative strength.

You may read that there are different kinds of strength. While it is true that a person can have many "strengths" there is, technically, only one definition of physical strength. Physical strength is a part of other performance characteristics, such as power production, but this does not mean that power is a form of strength, only that strength is an aspect of power.

Olympic Lifting Versus Strength Training

There is no "versus" except that which is created by the egos and insecurities of those who prefer one way of training over the other. Technically speaking, the Olympic lifts are power lifts. That is, they are primarily an expression of muscular power versus muscular strength. And as stated above, pure muscular strength is absolute force production.

So are Olympic lifters strong? Absolutely. Pound for pound, Olympic lifters are among the strongest individuals on the planet. However, the expression of their strength is a fine balance between force production and acceleration rather than the utmost of muscular force. There is a huge debate, in many circles, about which camp is stronger, those who train the fast lifts or those who train the slow lifts. Such debates are a waste of time. Both camps are strong, they just express their strength differently. Here at Ground Up Strength we are interested in developing strength as defined by absolute force production rather than power and most of the information here is to that end. How you, as an individual, chooses to train and express your own muscular strength is solely a personal choice, based on your own values and goals. Anybody who tries to tell you that a certain style of training is superior is showing his or her own insecurities.

What Can Strength Training Do For You?

What do you want strength training to do for you? Getting very strong is hard work. If you expect to be able to stay in it for a significant time period, you must have clearly defined expectations and goals. Vague, generic, and universal goals will not sustain you in your training. In fact, it is these vague and universal goals that most strength training sites use to "sell" this type of training to a wide audience. In order for us to answer the question posed here, we would also be attempting to sell strength training to you. A list of proposed benefits can be found at many places on the internet. Increasing bone strength, improving coordination and balance, helping with the pain of some types of arthritis, improving posture, and many other general benefits come from strength training. However, these same benefits could be had from many activities than use muscular resistance, i.e. force you to use your muscles. And some proposed benefits, such as improved posture and increased flexibility, assume that you are you are learning and maintaining proper technique and using a full range of motion in your training.

So, only if you believe resistance training is the same thing as strength training, would you list these benefits as part of your primary motivation to do strength training. And most people do consider these to be the same. However, when it comes to these benefits, the activity that you will stick to and enjoy for the long haul is more likely to help you. If you wish to derive general health benefits and you do not enjoy picking up barbells and other free weights, then choose something you do enjoy and do it often! You can throw in some strength training to the mix, in a way that appeals to you, and get all of the same benefits you would get if you were a dedicated strength trainee.

If, however, you wish to become very strong and have the ability to lift heavy weights, while still enjoying these side benefits, you will need to be very clear and concise in your goals.

How is this Different From Powerlifting?

Powerlifters do not train for strength, per se. They train to lift as much as possible on the three competitive lifts: deadlift, squat, and bench press. So, in other words, a powerlifter may not care about how strong he is, he only cares about his numbers, in terms of pounds of weight on the barbell, on those lifts.

A general strength trainee has no need to dedicate his training to only three particular lifts, and a strength trainee does care about being strong. The difference is subtle. In order to become your strongest, you must become strong at particular lifts. Over time, what lifts you focus on may change, but to become strong you NEED that focus. This strength carries over into everyday life, whether it's picking up heavy objects, enjoying other athletic activities, or just feeling in better control of your body. However, as stated, one can enjoy these benefits without developing maximum strength. That is, you can lift weights and do other resistance training as part of an overall "fitness" plan, and get many of the same benefits.

So, there is one additional motivation that a maximum strength trainee has, and he or she has this whether the wish is to compete or just to achieve strength goals: They find intrinsic value and satisfaction in the ability to move the heaviest resistance possible, as expressed in the individual lifts.

Is Strength Training the Key to Fat Loss?

This is the most often listed strength training benefit. since fat loss is a much larger market than strength training or bodybuilding. Is it true? Absolutely not. Strength training is not the key to fat loss. The truth, which most strength training sites would never actually admit to, is that you can gain the ability to lift very heavy weights without ever looking like the image of an ideal bodybuilder. How one's body weight affects performance is skill specific. To put that in simple terms, while your excess fat may affect your ability to perform pullups, it may not affect your ability to perform deadlifts to the same extent.

Strength training can and should be a very important supportive element in any fat loss plan. Resistance training, especially strength training, helps to preserve lean muscle mass while losing fat, making the resultant weight reduction much more healthy and sustainable. However, diet must be the key element and working off a bad diet with weights…will simply not work. By bad diet, I simply mean a diet that does not coincide well (not perfectly) with your caloric and macronutrient needs, not to mention with you performance needs.

To read more about many aspects of this subject see the following articles or forum threads:

Misconceptions Abound: Strength, Fatloss, Skills, and Progression

Diet Alone, Exercise Alone, Or Both For Fatloss?

The Almighty EWAG and Some Big Old Belly Fat: How Strength Training Justifies Being Overweight

Physical Activity Plays an Important Role in Body Weight Regulation

Evidence for Resistance Training as an Obesity Treatment

The Two Pounds Per Month Rule and How to Burn Fat Faster

Is Strength Training an Important Type of Exercise for Older Adults Past Fifty?

This is one of those times where the marketing of strength training coincides with an actual benefit. The answer is a resounding YES. There is probably no type of exercise that is more effective for controlling the aging process than strength training.

So many of the problems associated with aging are directly related to loss of muscle mass. This normal, but not quite inevitable, drop in muscle mass as we age is called sarcopenia, which comes from the Greek words sarx for "flesh" and penia for "loss." Bone loss, glucose intolerance, slowing metabolic rate, and weakness can all be traced, in whole or in part, to sarcopenia. Strength training helps to maintain muscle mass and build more. What's more, it starts to do this immediately, not a year down the road after you've performed thousands of repetitions. It also helps to maintain coordination and motor control. What's more, it can be mentally stimulating and psychologically relaxing.

1. "Resistance Training Benefits, Types, Techniques and Programs on EMedicineHealth.com." Web. 12 Nov. 2011. <http://www.emedicinehealth.com/strength_training/article_em.htm>.

This page created 22 Feb 2015 20:20
Last updated 26 Jul 2016 22:34

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