Written by: Tom Ward
Of all the reasons to set foot in a gym or pick up a dumbbell, increasing strength is undoubtedly the most beneficial. Sure, it’s nice to improve fitness. And yes, we’d rather have a six pack than not have one. But seeing your strength improve week after week is not only hugely satisfying, it also has massive functional implications too.
Getting strong will benefit you in everyday life, whether it’s building your back for manual labor, fortifying your legs for extra long hikes, or simply making you less prone to injury. And strength sessions pay off later in life, too, lowering your risk of mobility issues and even heart disease.
This isn’t about size. Let’s make that clear. Building strength is not necessarily about lifting the biggest weights possible until your legs resemble oak trunks and your arms Christmas hams. No, strength comes in all sizes. Thankfully, when it comes to getting strong, there are some basic rules you can follow, whatever your ability or experience. So let’s get building.
The Benefits Of Strength Training
“In fitness terms, strength refers to muscle strength and usually your ability to lift the weight. The stronger you are, the more you can lift,” says Keith McNiven, founder of London-based personal training company Right Path Fitness.
“People do strength training for lots of reasons; for aesthetics so that they look good and feel confident, or perhaps because they have a physical job that requires them to lift, carry and even defend and protect themselves,” says McNiven. “Strength training with weights not only develops muscle but strengthens tendons and connective tissues, and prevents age-related bone loss.”
“Strength training is important, period,” adds Luke Worthington, movement and performance coach at London’s Third Space. “It’s the ‘cup’ that every other aspect of physical fitness sits within.”
Worthington says that strength underpins speed, endurance, mobility, and flexibility. If you want to move well, you need muscles that are up to the job. Even cardio addicts can benefit, he says. “Endurance training requires strength; a 10k run is essentially 1000s of repetitions of hopping from one foot to the other. This requires absorption of force (strength) and propulsion through the air (strength).”
It pays, then, to stay strong.
The Science Of Strength
“Strength training focuses more on the weight you can lift doing certain exercises rather than building up specific muscles,” says McNiven. Take a minute to read that again, because that part is key.
“As you train, muscle fibers are torn and as your body repairs these damaged fibers they fuse to create muscle strands,” he continues. “Eventually, as you get more muscle strands and then get bigger in size, hypertrophy occurs (aka muscle gain).” This means they’re capable of exerting greater force, which in turn means you don’t risk a hernia lifting your suitcase onto the conveyor belt at check-in.
Breaking down your muscles is arguably the easy bit. You train hard and lift big, and the fibers recover stronger. “However, this requires consuming adequate protein,” adds Worthington. “Aim for 2g per kilo of bodyweight if you’re undertaking a regular and progressive strength programme.”
What’s A Typical Strength Workout?
Now you understand why you should build strength, let’s put it into practice. There is, of course, no single method for building strength, but there are certain moves you should incorporate into your training to provide a solid basis for most kinds of strength training.
“For overall strength, look at training all areas of the body,” says McNiven. “Keep reps low and rest periods high between different exercises so you can start again with the new exercise without being depleted from the last.” The first exercises to try are the traditional strength training moves like the following:
Front Squat With Barbell
Hold a barbell across your upper back with an overhand grip, hands shoulder-width apart – avoid resting it on your neck. Keeping your chest up and back straight, press up through the legs. Then slowly lower. As with all squats, be vigilant not to round your back.
Deadlift With Barbell
Stand up straight with your feet shoulder-width apart while holding a barbell at hip level. Keeping your shoulders back and your knees slightly bent, lower the bar by moving your butt back into a squat as far as you can. Keep the bar close to your body, and return to the starting position by driving the hips forward to stand up tall.