What Is Strength Training: The Complete Beginners Guide
See what I did there? But in all honesty, strength really does matter. It’s the foundation for the vast majority of all workout programs that we prescribe to people, beginner to advanced alike, irrespective of what goals they’re working towards. It’s that important.
However, with the bazillion articles available to you on Dr. Google, if you’re a beginner to strength training, it’s easy to get lost, dazed, and confused.
It can be extremely overwhelming.If you’re a beginner to strength training, it’s easy to get lost, dazed, and confused.Click To Tweet
This often leads to people giving up before they’ve even started, or even worse, choosing the wrong methods and the wrong program that leads to injury, pain, and falling even further behind with their desired goals.
It’s my intention in this series of articles on strength training for beginners to help cut through the noise and provide an honest, easy-to-follow plan for you to get started on your strength training journey.
And I promise you, once you get started training the right way, there’ll be no looking back, and you may fall in love with it just as much as we do.
Start the wrong way, and it may put you off for life.
Now, that would be a crying shame.
But when we talk about strength training, what makes Strength Matters different? Why should you listen to us?
Well, when we talk about strength, we talk about it in terms of:
- Strength for health
- Strength for longevity
- Strength for everyday life
Health comes first. It’s the foundation from which we build.
“Health first” is our mantra.
If it’s not going to make you healthy or make you better when you’re 80 years old, then we’re going to question it. In terms of your health, too much strength training is just as bad as too little strength training. We need balance in the force (Star Wars fans).
So if you’re all about getting ripped, jacked, swole, or just want 6-week six pack abs routines, I’m afraid you’re in the wrong place. This article isn’t for you.
This article is for people who want to be able to function and perform optimally in life.
Our approach to strength and health is not about quick 5-minute HIIT strength blasts or 10-minute booty workouts. You can find them on Instagram or YouTube. They’re a dime a dozen.
This is for people who value their health and well-being and put function over aesthetics.
This is for people who value education and knowledge.
The fitness industry is full of vain individuals. Just look on Instagram, and you’ll see what I mean. It can bring out the worst in people, and it’s nothing we want to be a part of.
You won’t find any of that here at Strength Matters. EVER. I promise.
Looking good naked and being strong comes as a nice side effect of being healthy and performing well.
If you’re the type of person who wants to train strength for health and wants to do it the right way, welcome. You’re in the right place.
What Is Strength Training?
In a nutshell, strength training is a type of physical exercise that uses resistance in the form of your own body weight or that of external weights to help build overall strength and size of skeletal muscles (muscles attached to a tendon or bone or muscles you can see).
It can be done anywhere. In your home, in the park, or in a gym. The tools and methods of choice tend to be bodyweight, dumbbells, kettlebells, and barbells.
There are certain sports where strength training is central to success. Bodybuilding, weightlifting, strongman, and powerlifting are great examples of this. You also have a number of team sports that use strength training as part of their training regimen to help with sporting success. American football, rugby, and professional wrestling are good examples here. The list could go on.
In more recent years, we’ve seen a significant number of people take up weight training for recreational purposes. They see it as a fun option for improving health. The perfect example of this is the explosion of CrossFit onto the fitness scene.
Even though weight training has been around for centuries, it’s only now that we are beginning to understand its true health benefits. It’s only now becoming a normal everyday activity in the eyes of the general public. And it’s only now that people are truly beginning to understand the need to train strength in order to improve overall basic health.
What Is Strength?
Strength has different meanings for different people. Strength Matters in so many ways. (See what I’ve done there again?) Mental, physical, and emotional. The list could go on, but for the purpose of this blog, we’re talking primarily about physical strength.
Strength is the ability to produce force against an external resistance.
During strength training, we are using our body to produce force against an external resistance.
Think back to your old physics days in school:
Force = mass x acceleration.
Your body is an object of mass, and to move it requires considerable force. The faster we have to move the body, the more force is required. In terms of strength training, the heavier an object is, the more force is required to move it.
And in order for us to produce force, we need to recruit the help of our nervous system.Strength is the ability to produce force against an external resistance.Click To Tweet
The nervous system is the part of a human (or animal) that coordinates its actions by transmitting signals to and from different parts of its body. The nervous system detects environmental changes that impact the body, then works in tandem with the endocrine system to respond to such events.
In order for humans to produce force, our nervous system innervates a muscle or group of muscles that causes a contraction.
Strength is the ability to recruit a large proportion of muscle fibers and produce as much tension throughout the body as possible.
Strength = tension.
Muscle strength and muscle size are two very different things. Strength training essentially targets the neuromuscular system, while muscle building aims to build larger muscles through modifying muscle cell physiology.
In a strong body, the nervous system is able to innervate a large percentage of muscle fibers during a given contraction. In a weak body, even though the muscle itself may appear to be the same size, the nervous system is less able to innervate as many muscle fibers, and therefore, less force is produced.
Think Light Bulb
One of the best analogies in fitness to highlight this point is the light bulb analogy.
Imagine there are two light bulbs, one that shines bright, the other barely flickers. The light bulb represents the nervous system and the muscles. On each circuit, the battery is the nervous system, the wires are the nerves, and the light bulb is the muscle.
The dim light is because the wires (nerves) are made of a low conductivity metal, and the battery (nervous system) is weak and not fully charged. This is indicative of a person who doesn’t know how to use their nervous system and can only innervate a small percentage of their muscle fibers.
On the other hand, the bright bulb has a fully charged battery and the wires are highly conductive. This person knows exactly how to tap into their nervous system and innervate a very high percentage of muscle fibers.
There is a significant difference between big muscles and strength. Having big muscles does not automatically mean somebody is strong. It just means they have big muscles.
Strength is all about trying to tap into your nervous system’s full potential.
As a good friend of ours once said:
“Strength is not built. It’s granted by your nervous system.” ~ Paul McIlroy
How Do Muscles Work?
There are three types of muscles in the body: smooth, cardiac, and skeletal. In this article, we’re predominantly talking about skeletal muscles that we can control voluntarily and of which there are over 600 in the body.
But if you’d like to learn more about the three different types of muscles, I highly recommend watching the following video:
Skeletal muscles move our bodies. To do so, they contract, which then generates movement.
For example, when you bend your arm, your bicep contracts and your tricep does the opposite (elongates) in order to let your elbow bend. Every muscle in your body works alongside the other.
Skeletal muscles are made up of many smaller muscle cells, more commonly known as muscle fibers.
They can be categorized into two types: slow-twitch (Type I) and fast-twitch (Type II).
Type I muscle fibers are more efficient over long periods of time. They are mainly used for postural maintenance (such has holding the head upright), or endurance exercises (like marathon running).
Type II muscle fibers use anaerobic respiration and are better for short bursts of speed than Type I fibers, although they fatigue more quickly.
Every person has a different percentage of fast twitch and slow twitch fibers, which is why some people tend to be naturally better at running distances than sprinting, or better at longer sets than short ones.
For a more in-depth analysis of muscle fibers, we highly recommend watching this video:
What’s This Hypertrophy Thing I Keep Hearing About?
Great question. I’m glad you asked.
We are born with a specific amount of muscle. By strength training, we don’t actually increase the number of muscle fibers, or muscles, we simply increase the size of them, increasing their overall mass.
This is called hypertrophy.
There are three different types of hypertrophy.
Sarcoplasmic hypertrophy focuses on increasing the amount of sarcoplasm, the non-contractile fluid found in your muscle. Focusing on this type of hypertrophy helps build overall size. Think bodybuilders.
Myofibril hypertrophy focuses on strengthening the myofibril, the contractile part of the muscle. This is strength training. Here you are strengthening the actual muscle fiber, so it helps you build dense, strong muscles. Think powerlifters.
Transient hypertrophy is the temporary increase in muscle size that happens during and immediately after weight training. You probably know it as “the pump.” Think people who are on a fitness photo shoot getting ready to look swole.
When you hear the term hypertrophy, people are mostly referring to sarcoplasmic hypertrophy. As an everyday athlete, you now understand that there are three different types.
So when it comes to strength training, we want to focus on myofibril hypertrophy so that we build those super strong dense muscles that fire up your nervous system and make that light bulb shine bright as hell.
It’s not that we don’t care about big muscles, but again, there is a big difference between big muscles and strong muscles.
What Are the Benefits of Strength Training?
Let’s move away from aesthetics and looking good naked (but we get it, that’s important for us, too, sometimes). Strength training really is medicine. Here are several scientifically backed reasons why strength training is so important (irrespective of age, fitness, and sporting prowess) and why you need to be doing it sooner, rather than later.
1. It helps fight the war against aging.
Aging is a natural process we all go through. It sucks, but we have to deal with it. As we age, a lack of strength can impact our overall quality of life. Some of the normal health issues that accompany aging are:
- Muscle weakness
- Skeletal weakness
- Lower energy
- Changes in physical appearance
- Diminished brain function
There have been multiple research studies over the years that have proven that strength training with either weights or bodyweight specifically helps in these areas.
2. It helps reduce the incidence or severity of an injury.
Injuries in life are inevitable. Not just in sports. The cumulative effect of the constant grind of day-to-day life and the pounding we put our bodies through in sports and training takes its toll.
However, a well-organized and properly administered strength training program develops muscles, ligaments, and tendons that are more resilient to all the stresses and impact forces you put on your body.
When you think of these structures as “shock absorbers” and joint stabilizers, the need for continued strengthening becomes clear. The combination of muscle and connective tissue strength and pliability is crucial in dissipating forces that are so prevalent in both daily life and sports.
Additionally, stronger muscles and connective tissue tend to mend better and at a faster rate when injuries are incurred, which are sometimes inevitable.
The bottom line: if for no other reason, injury deterrence makes strength training a requisite for anybody at any age.
3. It promotes healthy, efficient body composition.
This refers to the relative amount of lean tissue (i.e., muscle, connective tissue, and bone) versus fat tissue in our bodies.
Fat loss is important, and collectively, most industrialized societies are likely to be over-fat. The United States, Mexico, and the U.K. are the top three obese nations in the world with 31%, 24%, and 23% of the population older than 15 having a body-mass index greater than 30.
Being over-fat isn’t just an aesthetic problem, however. Excess body fat can negatively affect nearly every facet of your life, including:
- decreased mobility
- poorer emotional health and self-esteem
- increased risk of organ failure
- poorer circulatory health
- increased risk of heart disease
- increased risk of stress fractures
- increased risk of strokes
- increased risk of cancers
- decreased sexual and reproductive health
Furthermore, carrying a lower body fat is advantageous for many athletes because extra fat weight adds drag and additional resistance that must be overcome.
The bottom line is that excess body fat makes health, everyday life, and athletic performance worse. Unfortunately, most people are not aware of this issue and are unlikely to identify with health messages on the subject of weight.
Strength training helps with fat loss.
Muscle is a very active tissue. For every pound of new muscle, we burn around 30-40 calories a day more for tissue maintenance while the body is at rest. Approximately three pounds of new muscle can raise your resting metabolic rate by about seven percent.
The benefits of this are clear. The body becomes an efficient, calorie-burning machine that plays a paramount role in keeping body fat in check, even when you’re resting!
4. It helps manage chronic pain.
Chronic pain is often defined as any pain lasting more than 12 weeks.
According to reports by the Institute of Medicine, chronic pain affects close to 116 million people in the United States. That means that approximately half of all-American adults are living with chronic pain.
Numerous health studies have proven that strength training can help treat several types of chronic pain, including lower back, osteoarthritis, and fibromyalgia pain.
5. It enhances mental health.
Mental health can include people’s emotional, psychological, and social well-being. It affects how we think, feel, and act. It’s such an important aspect in life that we include mental resilience in our ten components of complete athleticism.
Scientific studies have found that strength training results in significant improvements in cognitive abilities, and when you follow an exercise regimen involving both strength training and aerobic activity, studies have shown that older adults experience greater cognitive improvements than if they did aerobic activity alone.
Self-esteem: Positive changes of strength training on self-esteem have been reported in numerous studies.
Depression: A number of studies have examined the effects of strength training on depression levels as well as on symptoms of depression. Although the results have been mixed, some have concluded that there is sufficient evidence to support strength training as an effective intervention for helping to reduce the symptoms of depression in adults with depression.
Anxiety: Randomized controlled trials that have investigated the effects of strength training on anxiety have found an overall small, but a statistically significant, reduction in symptoms of anxiety, with moderate intensity training (50-60% of 1RM) showing the strongest positive effect.
Who Should Do It?
Everyone! Yes, that’s right anyone, at any age and irrespective of ability, as long as what they are doing is appropriate for them, their age, and their level of expertise.
The idea of incorporating strength training into daily exercise can seem intimidating to many people. There are so many misconceptions about what strength training is exactly.
Some of the statements out there are outright false, but others just don’t capture what strength training is all about. All of these misconceptions can, unfortunately, keep people from realizing how beneficial strength training can be. And, yes, as you may have gathered by reading this article, it is beneficial for everyone.
You’re never too old, or too young, to start strength training. You just need to know why you need to do it and how to get started the right way, and you need to understand the basic scientific principles. There’s more to being strong than big muscles. Strength Training is an art and a science. In our next blog, Strength Training: How Beginners Can Get Started The Right Way, we’ll help you uncover that mystery as we show you exactly how to get started, the right way.
Every Journey Begins With a Single Step
In every great movie, the hero embarks on a path that promises adventure, challenges, and finally, achievement. Often, the hero finds a guide that takes the hero under their wing and pushes him or her to the limit. Just think, where would Luke be without Yoda? We are the stars of our own movies. And we all need that guide.
When it comes to fitness, a coach can be your guide to movie hero-type success, and your secret weapon. There are so many benefits to having a personal coach. I would go so far as to say that coaching is a prerequisite for achievement. Period.
Applying the Strength Matters System to achieve a pain-free athletic lifestyle won’t be easy but it’s guaranteed to work if you follow it. And we’re here to guide you every step of the way.
Are you ready to take that first step?
Life’s better as an everyday athlete. ~ James Breese