Have you ever wondered what strength is and how it works?
Does it mostly depend on our muscle mass? Well, it can’t be that because the biggest guys aren’t always the strongest. So, there must be something else to it.
The truth is, physical strength is quite the nuanced topic, and there is a lot that goes into it.
Today, we’ll go over everything there is to know about it.
WHAT IS PHYSICAL STRENGTH?
Before we dive deeper into the details, let’s first define what physical strength is.
According to most definitions on the internet, strength is “the quality or state of being physically strong.” Frankly, that definition isn’t of much use.
A better one (at least as it relates to strength sports and gym training, in general) is this:
Your overall ability to exert force against an object through a specific range of motion.
WHAT DOES STRENGTH DEPEND UPON?
For the most part, we have six things that impact our strength. Some we can influence (and improve), while others are outside of our control. Let’s see:
1. NEURAL EFFICIENCY
Neural efficiency (also known as neuromuscular adaptation) refers to our ability to use the muscle mass we have to exert force. Generally, neural efficiency consists of two components:
- Motor unit recruitment – the body’s ability to recruit more motor units, which leads to more forceful muscle contractions and allows us to exert more force.
- Rate coding – the rate at which the brain can send signals through the spinal cord, then into nerves, and then into our muscle fibers to force a contraction. The better our rate coding is, the more we can accumulate action potential, and the higher our motor unit recruitment will be.
Other, more nuanced factors also go under the neutral efficiency umbrella, and they are mostly dependent on our rate coding.
To demonstrate how powerful neuromuscular adaptations can be, here is a video of Naim Süleymanoğlu, who cleans and jerks 190 kilos and snatches 152.5 kilos at a bodyweight of 63 kilos.
The great thing is, with specific training, we can improve our neural efficiency and get stronger without gaining muscle mass.
When we tackle something new, we find it difficult. We exert a lot of effort, and we slowly get better at it. This applies to dancing, archery, rollerblading, and almost everything else you can think of, including weight training.
So, as you tackle weight training, you will initially find it entirely foreign. But, with enough practice, the movements will become more natural, and you will get better at them.
This is why, even after years of training, when you first tackle an unfamiliar movement, you won’t be able to lift as much weight. Then, as you practice it more and more, you will see large and linear jumps in performance.
3. MUSCLE MASS
Muscle mass is another important factor for strength gain. A larger muscle will typically have a higher strength potential. This is because when myofibrillar hypertrophy occurs, our muscles gain more contractile units (myosin and actin), which we can then use to exert more force.
But, as you can probably tell, being more muscular doesn’t necessarily mean that you’ll be stronger. If that were the case, then the biggest guys on the Olympia stage would also be the strongest. But, thousands of powerlifters, Olympic weightlifters, and strongmen from all over the world are far less muscular and a whole lot stronger.
Put simply, we first need to build muscle and then learn how to use its full capacity.
4. BIOMECHANICS AND ANATOMY
Biomechanics is quite the nuanced field, and we won’t be able to dive into it today. But, things like leverages and moment arms can play a massive role in our overall ability to get strong and move weights through a particular range of motion.
For example, tall people with long arms tend to have a weaker bench press because of the longer range of motion, but they tend to be built well for sumo deadlifting.
Shorter folks with shorter limbs tend to progress better on the bench press, but can find it challenging to get better on other movements.
If you’ve ever heard the saying, “He’s built to deadlift.” this is precisely what it relates to.
5. FATIGUE AND STRESS
Your ability to perform on any given day will be highly dependent on your status of recovery and daily stressors.
Sadly, apart from getting enough sleep and programming intelligently, there isn’t much else we can do to ensure that fatigue and stress don’t limit our strength performance.
This is the most straightforward of them all, but it can make a difference. The more excited we are, the more force we exert.
This is one reason why strength competitors often tend to do their best lifts in competition, rather than a gym setting.
BUT HOW CAN WE GET STRONGER?
As you’ve probably gathered by now, your ability to exert force will depend on numerous factors. The great news is, most of them are within our control.
So, here are the most important things you need to keep in mind when pursuing strength:
- Train the lifts you want to improve more often. Research suggests that anywhere from two to four times per week seems to be the sweet spot for strength gain.
Strength is heavily dependent on our neuromuscular efficiency. To improve it, we should practice frequently and use great technique.
The deadlift is an exception here as it causes more fatigue, and you should avoid doing it more than one to two times per week.
- Lift weights that are over 75 percent of your 1 RM. Ideally, you should do several sets of 3 to 5 repetitions on lifts you want to improve.
- Avoid taking any sets to failure – this only piles unnecessary fatigue, slows down recovery, and makes it more difficult to practice the lift more often throughout the week. As a rule of thumb, you should always leave at least one to two reps in the tank.
- Dial down cardio and (if your schedule allows) do it on separate days or at least three to six hours away from your weight training.
Research suggests that aerobic exercise can interfere with strength gains, especially if we do too much of it.