Among smart folks, there are different definitions and concepts surrounding strength training. The topic can quickly become very complicated and overwhelming.
Here, I aim to keep things as simple as possible and give you the basic principles that should guide your training through beginner and intermediate phases.
Regardless of what program you choose, it should adhere to these principles. If not, there is likely something missing.
What Is Strength
Strength is your ability to produce force in a movement pattern.
Movement patterns are basic actions/movements that you perform using the joints and muscles of the body.
I go over movement patterns in depth here.
Strength is not tied to a specific exercise or lift
This concept is one I have to address often. There is some sort of internet stigma that you have to do certain lifts to get strong.
For a large majority of the population, this is complete bullshit.
Strength is not defined by your deadlift, bench or squat PR.
That’s not to say that these aren’t strong signals of strength. They are.
However, these lifts are not required to get strong. And often times, there are better options.
You can learn to produce force (strength) using a variety of loaded and unloaded exercises/lifts.
Let’s take the squatting pattern for instance. It’s just the transfer of force into the ground using simultaneous hip, knee, and ankle flexion while maintaining control through the rest of your body.
Anything that challenges your ability to produce force in these series of movements will make you stronger in the squat pattern.
You could build strength using a front squat, split squat, single leg squat, Zercher squat, etc. The back squat is not a requirement.
This is true for ALL patterns.
Principle 1: Focus on the Essential Patterns
The essentials movement patterns are squatting, hinging (ex. deadlift), pushing (ex. bench), and pulling (ex. pull-up).
There is heavy agreement at the top of the fitness game that building strength in these patterns should be the primary focus of your training.
That’s not to say that there aren’t different circumstances where you this focus could or should change. However, for the vast majority of beginning and intermediate trainees, it is a safe assumption.
Training these patterns also ensures that the entire body is being addressed. Meaning, there is not a muscle in the body that will go untrained.
More importantly, these patterns are the foundation for the majority of movements you will perform in life.
Principle 2: Learn to Move Well
Good movement is a precursor to strength. To produce force in a given movement pattern, you must first be able to perform that pattern efficiently!
Again, take the squat pattern. If you can’t perform a bodyweight version of the squat with good control and posture, then what kind of foundation do you have to start producing great deals of force in that pattern?
Hint: It’s a pretty shit foundation.
Not only is movement a precursor to strength, it’s a heavy contributor to it as well.
Any improvements in your movement will make you more efficient. Efficient movement will better set you up to produce force with less fatigue.
Put simply, you can get stronger just by learning to move better.
Mastering movement in the essential patterns really boils down to proper exercise progression.
Good exercise progression centers around using simple, self-limiting exercises in the early stages of training and working your way up to more challenging exercises. This will ensure that you develop the proper movement foundation in each pattern. It will also greatly reduce the risks that come with weight training.
I discuss my progression process here.
Principle 3: Prioritize Recovery
Gains in strength come from your body adapting to the demands placed on it. Your ability to adapt is directly tied to your recovery.
Therefore, proper recovery is essential to continued strength gains.
Recovery hinges on 3 things
It’s a bit beyond the scope of this article to discuss these areas in depth. Hopefully, the effect they have on recovery is fairly self-explanatory.
To keep it simple, any issues with your nutrition, stress (mental, social and physical), or sleep will inhibit your ability to recover.
Moreover, any issues in one of these areas can spill over into the others. Poor nutrition habits can cause problems with sleep. Poor sleep can contribute to stress. You get the idea.
The big takeaway is optimization of nutrition, stress and sleep will be essential to your long-term strength goals.
Principle 4: Wave Volume and Intensity
As you are developing a strong movement foundation, you’ll also begin to add load.
In the beginning, this is fairly simple. It really doesn’t matter what set and rep schemes you use as you’ll progress regardless.
However, this is very short-lived time frame. Eventually, you’ll have to “periodize” your training.
Now, I’ll be the first to say that I think the concept of periodization has been blown out of proportion. Outside of advanced athletes, it’s a fairly simple process.
You need to cycle your training between periods of higher volume with lower intensity and lower volume with higher intensity.
Basically, you’ll be cycling between hypertrophy and strength focused training.
It’s a common misconception that hypertrophy and strength are two entirely different training goals.
The fact is, they are mutually dependent upon each other.
Hypertrophy is an increase in muscle size. An increase in muscle size allows the capacity for more strength to be developed.
As you pursue higher levels of strength, hypertrophy will provide the support you need for continued gains. At the same time, continued strength gains will allow you to handle greater loads in the higher rep ranges which support your hypertrophy gains.
Switching focus between these two qualities should become a continuous.
The easiest way to do this is to manipulate reps and sets on a daily or weekly basis.
Principle 5: Pursue Symmetry
When it comes to strength, symmetry matters. You don’t want to be exceptionally strong in one pattern and weak in another. Not only will this inhibit your progress in strength, it will also affect your durability.
It almost all cases, is not ideal to have strength discrepancies from the front(anterior) to back(posterior), right to left, or upper to lower body.
This is an often ignored principle, but if you think about it, it’s just good common sense.
When one part of the body is moving, other parts are supporting that movement. If those supporting parts can’t perform their function they become the bottleneck to continued strength gains.
For example, in a pushing pattern such as the bench press the prime movers are on the front (anterior) side of the chest, but the upper back (posterior) has to support that movement by staying stable and providing a platform to “push” from. If the upper back can’t do its job, it will be a limiting factor in your ability to get stronger.
It’s ideal to keep a good ratio between the essential patterns. Take a look at my article on strength standards for guidance.
Dan John also talks about concept of standards and symmetry here.
That said, there are some caveats to symmetry in strength.
- Rarely can you get too dominant on your back side (posterior)
- Rarely can you get too dominant on your lower body
- Rarely can you establish perfect symmetry from right to left
Principle 6: Incorporate Power Work
Honestly, this is debated topic. There are folks that believe power or speed work contributes to strength and those who believe it has minimal or no contribution. There are very smart people on both sides of the argument.
Power is the ability to produce force quickly. Or simply put strength plus speed.
The question is, does your ability to produce force quickly (speed) contribute to your ability to produce force maximally (strength).
I don’t have a particular stance here, but I do know that even if it doesn’t contribute to strength, it can’t hurt it. Moreover, becoming more powerful is ideal regardless!
So, I would error on the side of doing some simple power work.
Incorporating higher velocity lifts (speed squats, deads, etc), Olympic lifts, jumps and throws are all solid, simple ways to work on power.
- Strength is your ability to produce force in a movement pattern. It’s NOT tied to a specific lift.
- When building strength, focus on the essential patterns of squatting, hinging, pushing and pulling
- Learn to move well in the essential patterns. Using good exercise progression is the key.
- Prioritize your recovery. Make sure you manage your nutrition, sleep, and stress to compliment what you are doing in the gym
- Wave the volume and intensity in your training. Cycle between periods of higher intensity paired with lower volume (strength) and lower intensity paired with higher volume(hypertrophy).
- Pursue symmetry in the essential patterns. Ensuring that there is balance between the upper and lower body patterns will enhance durability and assist with strength gains.
- Incorporate power or speed work into your training.
If you are not an advanced athlete, strength training doesn’t need to be that complicated. Make sure whatever program you are doing incorporates these principles and you’ll be on your way to getting stronger while limiting the risk of problems.