If your aim is achieving maximum strength, your training will be somewhat different from that typical for bodybuilders.
First you need to understand how strength is achieved.
CNS versus muscle size
There is no muscle movement without a signal from the brain. CNS (central nervous system) sends a signal through peripheral nervous system (the nerves) which in turn activates the muscle fibers.
The signal, however, isn’t as simple as “contract the biceps”. No. The signal is actually a very complex message: which fibers to activate in the main muscle, which fibers to activate in supporting muscles (synergists) and which antagonist muscle fibers to inhibit.
Antagonist muscles normally develop counter-contraction thus effectively limiting the resulting force.
Another important part of the message that CNS sends to the muscles is in which order to launch various muscle fibers and for how long.
All in all this is a very complex task which takes quite some time for CNS to learn.
The neural adaptation is clearly visible on EMG (electromyogram) graphs recording electrical activity within the muscle.
And how does the CNS learn it? We should rather ask how do we teach CNS to force the muscles to perform an exercise most effectively. The answer is: by simply repeating it correctly with proper weight.
In a famous trial from 1979 (Neural Factors vs. Hypertrophy in Time Course of Muscle Strength Gain,' Am. J. Phys. Med. Rehabil., vol. 58, pp. 115-130, 1979) the subjects trained the biceps of one arm only. Results were astonishing: the trained hand got stronger by 35% but the UNTRAINED hand got also stronger by 20%!
This is a clear proof that CNS can simply pick patterns and learn specific movements. Significant part of strength increase is thus caused by improved CNS signaling and only part by muscle growth.
Sets and repetitions
For a beginner it is proper to start with more repetitions in every set. When you start your power training, you have to learn the proper body posture and proper movements. Your joints need to get used gradually to high weights and the synergists must get stronger so that you will be able to perform the exercise properly.
Many trainees don’t have enough patience and they just jump into heavy training. This will very often cause various injuries. They can come immediately but this is not a rule: you can suddenly experience knee, shoulder or back problems months or even years after you start training.
Even experienced athlete should always start a new exercise with lower weights and higher reps. It is the first learning phase of CNS that should never be skipped.
The second phase is heavy training with low repetitions: between 1 and 6.
Until relatively recently, the prevalent opinion in the scientific and athletic communities was that lower reps (1 to 5) promote strength and average number of reps (6 to 12) promote muscle growth.
Now it seems that both low number and average number of repetitions causes the same muscle hypertrophy. (http://www.fisioterapeutasplugadas.com.br/EJAP_AGO_2002.pdf )
Strength with and without lean muscle growth
In certain sports it is actually desirable to increase strength while avoiding weight gains (even lean muscle mass).
In sports like rock-climbing or biking where it’s an advantage to be lighter.
Sports like boxing or weightlifting divide athletes in categories according to body weight so again, there may be a desirable weight ceiling.
In such case the best way to control the weight is by diet. Your training is basically the same but the caloric intake is smaller than in gaining diet.
Training for specific exercises
Due to the nature of CNS learning curve it is necessary to actually perform the very exercise in which you wish to excel.
In this, training for power is different from bodybuilding. In bodybuilding it is preferable to change the exercises from time to time to train the muscle from every possible angle.
But if your aim is to achieve, say, 500 lbs bench-press, you need to invest most of your efforts in bench-pressing. Other exercises will surely help but you really need to teach your brain to coordinate all the muscle fibers in a way most fit for lifting maximum weight on the bench.
Although this may seem obvious to some it actually isn’t. This fact is based on the research concerning the role of the central nervous system in weight lifting.
In 1976, a group of Swedish scientists led by A. Thorstensson made a trial with 8 young males: for two months they trained squatting with barbell.
The results after 2 months: strength increase in barbell squat: over 70%; strength increase in leg extensions: 0%.
So despite training mostly quadriceps for a significant period of time the strength increase was not observed in a different exercise involving the same muscle (it must be noted that no increase of muscle mass occurred so the athletes’ diet was probably a modest one – with proper diet and muscle growth their performance in leg extensions would probably improve but not as significantly as it did for the trained exercise).
Basic methods of strength training
There are three classical methods of strength training, originally described by Soviet sports scientists:
- Maximal effort method. Using maximum resistance (above 90% 1RM and often up to 100% 1RM). Best method for creating strength but it just can’t be done for more than few weeks. It can easily cause overtraining.
- Dynamic effort. Using sub-maximal resistance and maximal speed. This method plays an important role in sports like Olympic weightlifting but less so in powerlifting.
- Repetition method. Using sub-maximal resistance (anywhere between 30% 1RM and 90% 1RM) and multiple reps. It is less effective than maximal effort method but it also puts much less strain on the CNS.
Various researchers showed over and over again that best results can be achieved by training with weights as close to personal maximum as possible. After all, the aim in most sports is one single repetition with maximum weight.
Most mortals cannot endure such training method for long. There are several possible ways how to avoid lifting heavy weights all the time and I will describe them in the Part 2 of this series on STRENGTH.