Demystifying Strength Training pt. 3 - the Three Principles to Getting Stronger

A recap of the series so far; last week I discussed the movement patterns you want to include, and even the types of lifts that jive with those patterns. If you missed it, it is worth revisiting. 

Demystifying Strength Training pt. 2

Today, I want to discuss qualities of strength training that will help you begin to determine the sets and reps to use. 

There are three key principles that go into getting stronger.

  1. Progressive Overload
  2. Tension
  3. Frequency/Volume/Intensity

Progressive Overload - In many circles, the concept of progressive overload is kind of the end all be all of strength training. The premise is basically this; as you continue to get stronger you need to continue to make an exercise harder. This is a very over simplified definition. To give more would require a whole other blog in itself.

At face value you can do several things to make an exercise harder. 

  • Increase weight
  • Increase sets and reps
  • Decrease rest
  • Etc.

There are so many different ways, these are just three of the more common. You don't have to do one over the other, but you do need to listen to your body. Maybe you're not quite ready to increase weight, but you could decrease rest. Or maybe you are ready to increase weight and sets and reps. The list goes on. The bottom line is that if you are not seeking to make an exercise more challenging in some shape or form then you won't get stronger. 

Tension - Flex your arm for me, admire the muscle... You're so vain you probably think that song is about you... Okay seriously, as you flex your muscle you may notice your bicep moves, but if you're really tensing hard you probably also feel your shoulder.

If you look closely you'll see why this picture is hilarious

If you look closely you'll see why this picture is hilarious

Try this, hold your hand at your side, and squeeze your fists. You probably notice the shoulder again. 

This is not a happy accident. Rather, it is the result of our whole body being connected. That is why, when training strength, you can't be loosey goosey. You won't move as much weight and you will probably get hurt.

With more tension, you have more potential to create force, and as a result get stronger immediately.

Here are three things to keep in mind with any exercise;

  • White knuckle your grip like you're in a haunted house
  • Squeeze your glutes like you're trying to hold in an urge to flatulate
  • Brace your abs like you're going to get punched 

With just these three things you will be stronger immediately. Not only that, but you should notice a rigid board like feeling throughout your body. This is good.

Frequency/Volume/Intensity - I don't think these three can be considered mutually exclusive. They all affect each other, sometimes positively sometimes negatively. Frequency is how often you perform a lift or movement. Intensity is the amount of weight you move, and volume is the amount of work you do. Believe it or not, in regards to volume, there are some calculations that need to take place. Basically V= Sets x reps x weight, or put another weight V=sets x reps x intensity.

Volume can and should be tracked in both a single session (this is where intensity matters the most) and in a weekly basis (this is where frequency matters the most). You can even go monthly, and while it's slightly anecdotal, I find a weekly basis is usually the most you need.

High frequency will help create more efficient movement patterns, high intensity will really hammer on the tension capabilities of the muscles, and high volume will stimulate muscle size The more efficient you are in your movements the more capability you have to get stronger, the more tension you create the stronger you can be, and the bigger your muscles are the more potential they have to get stronger.

It is important to consider all of these. Often times as intensity increases volume decreases. And vis versa. With frequency you may decrease volume during a single session, but it may increase through the course of training week.

I know this last principle can be a bit confusing, and that's why in the next part of this series I'm going to break it down further and actually discuss sets and reps.