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Optimising strength training

Strength training has been around for centuries with references to strength training being made in Chinese texts as early as 3600BC (Sheehan, 2022), and soldiers in the Chou dynasty are believed to have been subjected to strength tests as early as 1122-249BC (Stojiljković et al., 2013). These legends and myths grab our attention in modern society, with the legend Milo of Croxton playing a very important role in modern day strength training. It states that he trained by carrying a calf up a hill every day from its birth, until it was a fully grown ox! Roughly six hundred and eighty kilo’s. (Tikkanen, 2021). The theory is that Milo was able to achieve this superhuman feat of strength by slowly adapting to the load placed upon him, in the modern world of strength training this method is referred to as progressive overload (Painter et al., 2012). By slowly stimulating adaptation, Milo was able to accommodate the load placed upon him with this superhuman like muscular structure he had created, progressing his abilities over time as the weight of the calf increased. Scientific research has come a long way from carrying a calf up a hill every day. So what are the most effective training strategies to use to elicit the best strength adaptations? The fundamental principles of strength training and movement have always remained the same, continually, and progressively increase the stimulus or weight applied to the body to elicit a positive increase in strength. This fundamental principle of progressive overload is still relevant in the most recent scientific papers. The way it is applied to optimise your strength training has changed slightly though!


The Macro, Meso, and Micro cycle

Looking at your whole year or macrocycle, traditionally this used to follow the seasons, such as summer, spring, autumn, and winter (Bompa, 2015). More recently periodization has become more focused towards peaking at the correct time for competition or event, especially within athletic communities. Your training should be phased or blocked into priorities with a clear objective or outcome! (Duchateau et al., 2021). The macrocycle is broken up into smaller phases of training called mesocycles normally representing a few months of training. Mesocycles are normally broken into either four-, six-, or twelve-week blocks, with research indicating that six-week blocks are the most effective period for strength cycles. (Duchateau et al., 2021; Kittilsen et al., 2021; Peterson et al., 2004). These normally reflect a general preparation phase or proprietary phase, getting the body re balanced and preparing it for the training that is about to come. A build phase, where you would build upon the qualities or strengths you want to improve, a peaking stage where you will polish up on all the previous training mesocycles, and present yourself in the peak, most athletic and fittest state possible, ready to take on the task at hand, with the final stage being the competitive phase, utilising everything you have worked towards all year (Mujika & Padilla, 2003; Shepley et al., 1992; Travis et al., 2020; Wilson & Wilson, 2008). These cycles can be repeated or adapted depending on what you are training for, but this is the basic principle of the year. The mesocycle can be further broken down into micro cycles, these normally represent a few days or weeks of training, predominantly broken down into seven-day blocks, repeated a few times to make up a mesocycle (Bompa, 2015). The micro cycle is where you can start manipulating the individual qualities that you want to improve, specifically in this case, we are writing about eliciting a strength increase. (American College of Sports Medicine, 2009) announced their position on strength training and found that an undulating progressive overload system was best at eliciting the greatest strength improvements. This means you should increase and decrease your loads over several weeks (mesocycle) creating a wave like effect if you graphed your weights and repetition schemes. The weight would ultimately follow an upward linear progression (increasing) over the duration of the mesocycle (Kittilsen et al., 2021; Peterson et al., 2004).


Movements and Fundamentals of Training

Looking closer into the micro cycle, the exercises performed and your ability to perform these movements perfectly will have the most significant impact on the success of the programme! (American College of Sports Medicine, 2009; Peterson et al., 2004) You must start with mastering the fundamentals! Increasing strength is a process and this process requires time and for the trainee to be efficient in the fundamental compound movement patterns of squat, hinge, push, pull and carry (Walker, 2016). These movements are the basis to all efficient and successful programmes, if you can’t perform these movement patterns efficiently and effectively you won’t be able to elicit the muscular response required to generate an efficient strength increase. Compound movements require multiple joints to move under load which is much superior to their single joint isolation exercises (Holm et al., 2008). When choosing the exercises in your programme there are many considerations to take on board, can you efficiently perform this movement without load? If not, master the movement pattern before you consider adding load. Is the movement appropriate for the response you are trying to stimulate? Do you need a horizontal or vertical movement pattern? Movement patterns can be adapted in various ways, How you load the weight on the body, the direction of force, and the equipment used. The equipment you are using can dictate the type of muscular response you are going to get from the movement (Dicus et al., 2018). By changing a push movement from horizontal to vertical, you can change the dynamics of the movement and the muscular stimulus, add in using dumbbells instead of a barbell or bands instead of weights and you’ve added a different stimulus again! But why use multiple joint compound movements to increase strength? Compound movements increase your neurological coordination, the recruitment of type IIx muscle fibres, increase overall motor unit recruitment, and over time increases the threshold of the motor units, greater than single joint isolation exercises to name a few (Duchateau et al., 2006).


How to Load these Movements.

Loading these movements effectively is equally as important as the movements for increasing strength! (Thompson et al., 2020) performed a systematic review, the data demonstrated that the most efficient way to achieve maximal strength improvement is to lift at a percentage above eighty-five percent of your one repetition maximum. Strength increases can be achieved with loads at above seventy percent of one repetition maximum (Peterson et al., 2004), but the rate of strength development will be at a much more subtle than using percentages above eighty-five percent of one repetition maximum. This does depend on training history, if you are relatively in experienced, with less than two years strength training experience, it has been demonstrated that you can significantly improve strength with loads as low as sixty percent of one repetition maximum! (Thompson et al., 2020). As a trainee, you need to be honest about your level of training experience, if you have been regularly strength training for more than two years, then working with weights above eighty-five percent are going to give you the best increases in strength. But if you are new, start at sixty percent as this will have similar if not the same strength response. Taking the two previous principles of compound movements, with a percentage load suitable to your lifting experience, lets presume you are experienced, so eighty-five percent. We now need to build this into the micro cycle elements, which would typically be representative of your training week.


Repetitions, Sets, and Weekly Structure.

Don’t try to manipulate too many variables, achieving maximal strength improvements, especially in more experienced athletes requires the focus to be directed towards specific movements or muscle structures! It would be very difficult to elicit major strength increases on all major movements or muscular structures at the same time (Holm et al., 2008). Focusing training into improving specific properties allows you to manipulate the training schedule, the load, total volume, and intensity throughout the whole week (Bird et al., 2005). A recent analysis Thompson et al., 2020 has highlighted that working with percentages above eighty-five percent suggests it produces the best outcome for increasing strength properties, but how do you organise this into your week? Using this eighty-five percent loading scheme, a trainee should aim to train the desired movement or muscular structure for two sessions per week. In these two sessions you will want to achieve eight sets in total, representing four sets per session plus warm up sets. In all these eight sets, you will want to achieve between one and five repetitions per set, whilst maintaining the intensity (weight) (Thompson et al., 2020).


Conclusion

As we can see, training has come a long way from carrying a calf up a hill every day, but the principles haven’t changed a lot. Plan your macrocycle (year), break it down into priorities (mesocycle) ideally in six-week phases, and break this down into the individual days and weeks (micro cycle). Focus on improving one element at a time, using appropriate loads of above sixty percent for beginners and eighty-five percent of one repletion maximum for more experienced strength trained individuals. Your week should consist of two training sessions for the movement or muscular complex you are trying to improve. Achieving eight sets per week (four sets per session), at the appropriate intensity for between one and five repetitions per set. Master the fundamentals and don’t showboat! Legend states that Milo died from ripping a tree in half with his own bare hands, when the wedge fell out from the tree it sprung it back together and trapped one of his arms in the tree, and on that evening, he was attached by wolves! We don’t want that to happen do we!



Reference

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Interesting article on strength training. It makes sense and gives an insight into how and why coaches plan your training cycle towards peaks. Here is the difference between a newbie and an experienced athlete in how to program strength training. I wonder if gender and/or age would affect the percentage of strength growth (or gains) as well. Look forward to reading your next article 😀


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