MAXIMAL STRENGTH TRAINING | CONOR
Training for maximal strength is a rare goal that is usually only reserved for powerlifters and strongmen/women competitors. It is an extremely physical style of training that forces the athlete to push themselves past their own mental and physical boundaries. Strength training athletes benefit from physical, psychological, hormonal and metabolic changes in their bodies as a result of their style of training…and you can too!
Before we explore the benefits of strength training which may be applicable to you, one must first understand what a general strength training programme entails.
What does a strength training programme look like?
A traditional programme for maximal strength will usually revolves around three key principles;
1) Volume - Strength athletes typically complete 4-8 sets of 1-5 repetitions, moving very heavy weights on each lift.
2) Rest time - An important component of strength training (…which I like the best) is the long rest periods – typically between 2-4 minutes per set. This is simply to ensure that the muscles have enough recovery time to prepare for the next set.
3) Exercise selection - Strength training usually consists of working the large, compound movements such as squats, deadlifts and cleans, with little focus on the smaller isolation exercises.
Physical benefits of strength training
Apart from the obvious benefit of being stronger overall, there are many specific adaptations that will benefit you and your body across a diverse range of sports and activities of daily life. For all the runners reading this article (…if you’ve managed to make it this far), studies have shown that simply doing 4 sets of 4 half squats at maximal load, three times a week over an 8 week period can lead to significantly greater power development, better running economy and longer time to exhaustion.1
A similar study which focussed on skiers found that the subjects could increase their time to exhaustion by 20% and increase their overall rate of force production. This was accomplished by performing 3 sets of 6 reps, three times a week for eight weeks using a weight equivalent to 85% of their maximum2.
For those people that only work with lighter weights and might think that training at near maximal might not be beneficial or could even be detrimental, a study investigating training at 90% of maximum found this not to be true. In a comparison of training at 15%, 30% or 90% of maximum, it was found that those that trained at 90% increased their power across the whole range of percentages, from 15% through to 90%. Those that trained at 15% of maximum only increased power at 15%, 25% and 50% of their maximum3.
Psychological benefits of strength training
Physical benefits aside, I believe the biggest benefit of strength training relates to psychology. Once you have mentally prepared yourself to attack a large, heavy load - the immediate feeling of accomplishment after the lift is immense.
To paraphrase a famous strength Athlete Jim Wendler:
[After strength training] ‘…You’ll be able to take on any physical activity you want. You’ll be different once you’ve spent time straining to get a personal record in the squat or pushed a Prowler for 40 minutes. Dealing with the idiots at work, or your boss will no longer be an issue. It’s hard to bring down a person after they’ve had three weeks of personal records in the gym. Who cares about all that meaningless stuff? When your training and your life are moving forward, you certainly won’t.’4
Where to go now?
No matter how you’ve trained up to now, if you are now interested in the world of strength training, there are a few important points note:
1) It is imperative that you are lifting with the CORRECT technique.
The weights you are lifting will be heavier than you are used to - so any postural or structurally weak or imbalanced areas will be exaggerated. Professional instruction on the main lifts will be of great benefit.
2) Warm up properly.
Due to the increased weight, the body and mind need to be fully prepared for whatever movement you will be completing.
3) Use a spotter.
Unless you know your limits, I would always recommend using a spotter. It is a lot safer to have someone near you in case you are unable to complete the lift.
4) Follow a programme suitable to your experience and needs.
In other words, avoid starting by lifting the heaviest weights you can - it’s likely you’ll cause an injury. Rather, start with a weight which is heavier than what you are currently lifting, but with fewer reps. Gradually increase the weight and decrease the repetitions until you are completing 4-8 sets of 1-5 repetitions.
5. Ask for advice.
Never be afraid to ask for advice. Strength training is a great training tool when completed correctly - so don’t hold back if you’ve got questions!
Staple Strength Training Exercises
1. Feet slightly wider than shoulder width apart and turned out
2. Inhale and hold your breath until half way back up the movement
3. Start by pushing bum backwards like you’re going to sit down
4. Keep your chest up and back straight (it’s ok to lean forward a little…)
5. Your eyes should look forwards (not up or down)
6. Descend until thighs are parallel to the floor
7. Push up from the bottom, ensuring your knees don’t roll in towards each other
2. Bench Press
1. Shoulders should be flat on the bench and feet flat on the floor
2. Chest should be held high with minimal arch through the lower back
3. Lower the bar down to touch your chest at the bottom of your sternum
4. Push the bar upwards without allowing your chest to ‘cave in’ when your arms are straight up
5. Elbows should be at around 45 degrees to your body
1. *Very important to have had proper instruction before attempting this lift*
2. Stand with shins next to the bar about shoulder width apart
3. Bend down and grab the bar with both palms on top of the bar facing backwards and with the elbows outside of the knees
4. With a straight spine, drop your bum, push your feet into the floor and engage the muscles through the legs, back and arms
5. Simultaneously push with your legs, and pull with the upper body
6. Finish at the top, standing tall with shoulders back, back straight and hips pushed forward
7. (Can adopt a mixed grip if you find the weight is slipping out of your grip)
1. Approach the bar and place hands just outside shoulder width
2. Remove the bar from the squat rack and hold it just above your collarbone
3. Standing tall, brace your abdominal unit to stabilise your core muscles and push the bar directly above your head.
4. DO NOT lock out your elbows at the top of the movement
How to programme the exercises:
The above four exercises typify those found in a maximal strength training programme as they are all compound movements which target the chest, back, shoulders and legs. To elicit the most benefit, each of these exercises should ideally be worked on separate days - but if that doesn’t work with your schedule then it’s ok to combine them. I would advise combining an upper body movement (Bench Press or Shoulder Press) with a lower body movement (Squat or Deadlift) if needed. Exercises to complete in conjunction with the above are really up to each individual person. There are thousands of exercises to include in your programme, but each person has different needs.
Have a go and see where maximal strength training takes you!
- Storen, O., Helgerud, J., Stoa, E.M. and Hoff, J., 2008. Maximal strength training improves running economy in distance runners. Medicine and science in sports and exercise, 40(6), p.1087.
- Hoff, J., Gran, A., Helgerod, J. (2002) Maximal strength training improves aerobic endurance performance. Scandinavian Journal of Medicine and Science in Sports. 12(5)pp. 288-295
- Moss, B.M., Refsnes, P.E., Abildgaard, A., Nicolaysen, K. and Jensen, J., 1997. Effects of maximal effort strength training with different loads on dynamic strength, cross-sectional area, load-power and load-velocity relationships. European journal of applied physiology and occupational physiology, 75(3), pp.193-199.
- Wendler, Jim. 5/3/1. Print.
- Husby, V.S., Helgerud, J., Bjørgen, S., Husby, O.S., Benum, P. and Hoff, J., 2009. Early maximal strength training is an efficient treatment for patients operated with total hip arthroplasty. Archives of physical medicine and rehabilitation, 90(10), pp.1658-1667.