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Definition of strength and strength training
Unfortunately, we encounter ambiguity in the term “strength” in the Slovak language. We use the same word to describe a characteristic (Lojza is strong) and at the same time it is a technical term for a physical quantity that causes acceleration and is measured in Newtons. So for the purposes of this article, we’ll call the former a physical force and the latter a physical force.
Physical force is the ability to exert physical force against external resistance. A person is only as strong as the physical force they can exert through their musculoskeletal system, which of course can vary depending on the muscle group that is generating the force (someone has stronger legs, someone has a stronger back).
Thus, strength training is that which leads to an improvement in the ability to produce (physical) strength over the long term. However, such a description in itself is probably not very useful. In other words, in order to get stronger, you have to overcome resistance so many times that you stimulate muscles to grow and improve the efficiency of force production.
As a simple example, consider a situation where an exerciser can do a maximum of 10 push-ups in a single set. This means that a push-up strength training session for him may have the following scheme: 4 sets of 8 push-ups and the last set to exhaustion.
The actual level of load that qualifies an exercise as strength training is related to the individual’s current strength. Someone who can barely climb stairs would be fine with a few sets of eight squats with no additional load, while for an experienced weightlifter the same intensity would be meaningless (it would be a warm-up and warm-down at most).
Progressive overload and hypertrophy (conditions of gaining muscle mass)
Unfortunately, just because one strength trains (as described above) does not in itself mean that strengthening and muscle mass gain will occur. Strength training is the first of the three prerequisites for getting stronger. In addition to training, proper diet and quality rest are also necessary.
Training alone will exhaust and “damage” muscles – that sounds like a strong word, but in reality some damage is desirable, just not injuries such as pulled or torn muscle fibers, of course. This damage will then regenerate with sufficient nutrition and rest, and the muscle will be stronger and better prepared for the exertion it has undergone through this process.
The first and most important rule of strength training, progressive overload, follows logically from this principle. Progressive overload means that the load overcome in training must increase over time in order for the muscles to continue to receive sufficient stimulus for growth. This means that it is desirable to increase one of these variables by a small amount each week (at worst, every other week).
Hypertrophy is, simply put, the body’s attempt to better prepare itself for an exercise that has been pushed to its limits. However, if the body doesn’t get enough material (protein and calories in general) to rebuild the muscles, nor enough hard sleep and rest or recovery time, even the best efforts will be almost useless.
You can read about the exact amounts and types of foods needed to reach your goals in the diet article. As for rest, beginners just need to know that the ideal is to sleep at least 7 (better 8) hours every day and not train extremely hard every day, but instead have at least one or two days every week without strength training to give your muscles a chance to rest.
Can you exercise and not gain weight?
For many people, the main goal is not to get stronger and put on muscle, but rather to lose fat and slim down the waistline. However, strength training is great for this purpose as well, for several reasons:
- When losing weight, strength and muscle mass are lost. It’s natural and it always happens, but with strength training we can ensure that the ratio of fat burned and strength lost will play in our favor. If we only want to lose a few pounds, we don’t have to worry so much about losing muscle mass, but those who need to lose dozens of pounds have to be very careful about atrophy and even loss of bone density, and basically the only way to prevent these phenomena is strength training and getting enough protein.
- Every kilogram of muscle mass significantly increases daily caloric expenditure even on days when we don’t exercise. This is unfortunately a fact that many people don’t know. If you like to eat well but don’t want to end up overweight, there is no better and healthier solution than to strengthen your muscles and increase the amount of calories needed to easily maintain your own weight. This way, a muscular person can incorporate their favorite fast food or sugary desserts into their diet without having to worry about getting stiff quickly.
- Muscle mass shapes the body into a more natural and attractive appearance. Muscle mass has a much higher density than fat, so gaining 5 kg of muscle mass does not increase body volume nearly as much as 5 kg of fat. However, even more important from an aesthetic point of view is the fact that muscle gives the body a more natural, firmer and younger appearance. Therefore, no lady needs to worry about gaining a few kilograms of muscle, because achieving an unnatural, “bloated” muscular physique is basically only possible by taking steroids.
Do I have to go to the gym to get stronger?
Not at all. The gym has its advantages over calisthenics, but it’s certainly nothing insurmountable. It’s still just a matter of finding exercises that are challenging enough, but that we can technically perform correctly, for example, for at least five reps in one set.
This actually simply sums up the main advantage of the gym, namely that we can add just one extra pound to the barbell each week. Without equipment, the exercises can also be graded, but the jumps in difficulty from easier to harder exercises are greater in some cases. For example, I personally am able to do 30 heavier (e.g. triceps) pushups in one set, but I can’t do an honest one-arm pushup with a full range of motion.
If we have at least a trapeze bar, barbells, resistance bands, and a weight belt or vest, then the gym really only has one distinct advantage, and that is the ability to do squats and deadlifts (and variations of those exercises) with a large barbell. Unfortunately, these exercises can’t be equivalently substituted without the added load, but on the other hand, if you don’t want to put on a lot of muscle mass or have really respectable strength performances, then these exercises aren’t strictly necessary.
So it’s just a matter of adhering to the principle of progressive overload, and then the lack of equipment is only a minor drawback, not a major hindrance.
The health benefits of long-term strength training
For a large proportion of people who just want to start exercising or have started recently, the strongest motivation is to improve their appearance. Whether the goal is arms like shovels, broad shoulders and bull traps, or a lean and sculpted chiseled bun (the so-called 6-pack), it’s simply about aesthetics first and foremost. It’s true that muscles are nice to look at, but personally I think a pleasing appearance is the least important, almost a side effect.
What is unfortunately much less talked about are the positive effects of strength training on a person’s health and mental state. Unfortunately, the gym has a bad reputation and every other ignorant person claims that it “breaks their back” or “wears out their joints”. The opposite is true. Backs get damaged by those who don’t exercise them and then move the locker without knowing the proper deadlift technique from the ground. Joints are ruined by those who live 40 years overweight and move little.
I will try to describe at least briefly all the health benefits of weight training:
- Muscles literally hold our body together. Strong back, abdominal and stabilizing muscles ensure proper posture and prevent problems with back pain, wear and tear of the discs due to improper curvature of the spine and many common civilization diseases of today.
- A little known fact is that long-term regular strength training strengthens bones or increases their density, which in practice means a significantly lower probability of osteoporosis and movement problems in old age. The same applies to joints, unless you push your performance to the maximum level or make gross technical errors during exercises with your own weight.
- Physical strength lends itself to all sports in which strength and explosiveness play a role (which is almost all of them, with exceptions like sport shooting or snooker). It’s not that strong muscles are slow, the opposite is true! Muscular activity causes acceleration. What slows a person down is weight, so the ideal marathon runner or tennis player will not have 120 kg in muscle, but will have as much strength as possible (especially in the legs) at their modest weight of 70 kg.
- Although in today’s world non-athletes don’t need strength very often, it is still sometimes useful to be able to carry a heavy bag of groceries, a bag of cement or a keg of beer without damage, which is perfectly fine for a person who exercises regularly.
- Exercise has been shown to improve mood and is recommended as a way to prevent and combat depression, anxiety, etc. It also improves the quality of sleep, which again translates into a better mood.
- A trained person has more energy (when not exhausted by an extremely hard workout), so they can usually get more done during the day than a non-athlete.
- Strength training promotes healthy, natural hormone levels, which has a positive effect on vitality and libido.
I hope it’s clear enough from the description that strength training is healthy for absolutely everyone, and that it doesn’t necessarily equate to lifting 100-pound dumbbells. Absolutely everyone can benefit from strength training, and it’s never too late to start.
All of the negatives that are mentioned when discussing strength training are either myths, or only apply to elite strength athletes, or are a result of the use of supporting chemicals (steroids, growth hormone, insulin, etc.). Those who train cleanly and technically correctly can reap all the positives!