• Introduction
  • The basics of muscular strength training
  • Choice of exercises
  • Order of exercises
  • Types of muscle actions
  • Training load
  • Training volume
  • Rest Periods 
  • Movement velocity
  • Training frequency
  • Summary
  • Final thoughts
  • Sources
  • Assistance exercises: movements that support the function of the prime movers, and mainly focus on one muscle group at a time (e.g. leg extension).
  • Bilateral exercises: movement executed evenly and simultaneously by both limbs.
  • Compound exercise: a movement utilizing more than one muscle group at a time.
  • Concentric muscle action: muscle shortens and generates movement.
  • Eccentric muscle action: when external force on a muscle is greater than the force it can produce, resulting in muscle lengthening.
  • Electromyography activity: greater motor unit recruitment.
  • Isokinetic muscle action: the muscle contraction remains constant while muscle length changes.
  • Isometric muscle action: when a muscle is activated with no change in muscle length.
  • Isolated exercise: a movement utilizing one limb at a time.
  • Length-tension relationship: relationship between muscle length and force production. 
  • Post-activation potentiation: a short-term performance improvement due to improved neural activation following a high-intensity stimulus.
  • Prime mover: the major muscle groups responsible for movement.
  • Unilateral exercise: an exercise where movement is performed on one side of the body.

Introduction

Muscular strength, also known as maximal strength, refers to the highest amount of force a muscle or muscle group can exert under given circumstances. Muscular strength training refers to exercises that are specifically aimed at increasing the muscle’s force production capacity. Strength not only improves performance, but also offers significant benefits for overall health regardless. These include; reduced risk of coronary artery disease, increased bone density, prevention of non-insulin dependent diabetes, and improved dynamic balance. Muscular strength training has also been linked to better mental health, healthy body composition, and reduced risk of certain types of cancers (e.g. colon).

Progression in resistance training refers to moving forward or advancing towards a specific goal in a given time frame. Maintenance resistance training describes exercises that are designed to keep the individual at a specific level of fitness. Although people tend to improve rapidly when starting a resistance training program, the same rate of progression is not guaranteed over long periods of time. However, the proper use of training variables help prevent training plateaus and ensure long-term progression in physical performance.

This post explains the basics of strength training as well as the general recommendations for optimal sequencing. These guidelines are based on the extensive research by The American College of Sports Medicine

The basics of muscular strength training

The ability to produce force is integral for all forms of human movement. The amount of force produced is dependent on several factors, including, the activation of motor units (motor neurons and all the muscle fibers it innervates), rate coding (the frequency at which motor neurons discharge action potentials), muscle cross sectional area (CSA), muscle length, pennation angle (muscle fiber angle in relation to the line of action the muscle), joint angle, and contraction velocity. 

Resistance training offers several acute and long-term adaptations that result in greater capacity to produce force. For example, enhanced neuromuscular function (greater rate coding and motor unit recruitment) offers increased muscular strength relatively quickly, while changes in muscle architecture, such as increased cross-sectional area (CSA), are considered long-term adaptations to strength training. The degree of strength improvement depends on the individual’s training status, genetic predisposition, as well as how various training variables are utilized in a training program. These variables include; exercise selection, exercise order, type of muscle action, load, volume, movement velocity, rest periods between sets, and training frequency. 

Progression in strength training revolves around the concepts of progressive overload, training specificity, and variation – all of which can be incorporated and manipulated in a program in various ways. Progressive overload refers to a gradual increase in training stimulus as the individual grows stronger. Training specificity describes how all training adaptations are specific to the stimulus applied. Although some physical attributes have a  positive transfer effect to performance in some tasks, the most effective strength training programs are designed for a specific goal and purpose. Variation, also known as periodization, offers a systematic approach to resistance training. Altering one or more training variables (load and volume being the most common) over time allows the training program to remain consistently challenging. This is especially important because the body adapts to the stress it is exposed to relatively quickly. 

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Muscular Strength Training


Weight at 60-100% of maximumEmphasis on multi-joint exercisesSequence exercises according to complexity(large muscle groups/complex exercises/intense exercises first)8-12 repetitions1-3 sets2-4min rest between sets for multi-joint exercises1-2min rest between sets for single-joint exercisesSlow-to-moderate movement velocity2-6 workouts per week depending on fitness level and goals

Choice of exercises

Exercises should be chosen according to specific biomechanical properties that need improvement. Due to the vast variety of exercises used to target specific muscle groups (as well as specific joint angles), the number of exercise combinations are nearly endless.

Exercises can be divided into primary exercises and assistance exercises. Primary exercises target the major muscle groups (prime movers) responsible for movement (e.g. quadriceps femoris for leg extension, etc.). Assistance exercises support the function of the prime movers and often focus on one muscle group at a time (e.g. leg extension). Exercises can also be categorized into structural and body part specific movements. Structural exercises often incorporate multiple joints and muscle groups simultaneously. Some of these movements incorporate the entire body (e.g. powerlifting techniques) while others target specific joints and muscle groups (e.g. bench press, lat pulldown, etc.). Body part specific exercises consist of single-joint movements that isolate specific muscle groups (e.g. bicep curl, leg extension, etc.). Body part specific movements  are often used in rehabilitation and reducing muscle imbalances.

Both multiple-joint and single-joint exercises are effective in increasing strength of targeted muscles. These results are also consistent across various training modalities (e.g. free weights, machines, etc.). Multiple-joint exercises require a coordinated effort of several joints and muscle groups, allowing for more resistance to be used. Because multiple-joint exercises require a complex neural response, they are considered optimal for strength and power development. On the other hand, single-joint exercises are beginner friendly, and can be used to 1) target specific muscle groups when compound exercises do not offer a sufficient training stimulus, or 2) train certain muscle groups according to personal goals (weaknesses, muscle imbalances, injury history, etc.). Finally, both single and mulitple joint exercises can be varied with grip placements, body postures, and stances.

Exercises can also be varied by performing them unilaterally (on one side of the body), or bilaterally (simultaneously on both sides of the body). Interestingly, studies have shown that unilateral exercises (e.g. Bulgarian split squat, single leg jump, etc.) also improve performance in bilateral movements (back squat, deadlift, countermovement jump, etc.) and vice versa. Both unilateral and bilateral exercises can also be performed on an uneven surface (BOSU balls, soft mats, wobble boards, balance boards, etc.) for added challenge. This has shown increased activation in lower torso musculature and stabilizing muscles compared to movements performed on a stable surface. Conversely, this also results in lower agonist force production, resulting in a lower overall load that can be lifted.

Finally, exercises can be performed using weight machines or free weights. Weight machines help stabilize the body while limiting movements to target specific muscles. They are considered safe, beginner-friendly, and allow for some exercises that may be difficult to performed using free weights (e.g. knee extension). Free weights require a coordinated inter- and intramuscular effort, and can be varied to mimic sports-specific movement patterns. This also results in a higher neural activation when compared to weight machine exercises of the same intensity. According to studies, free-weight training leads to greater strength improvements in free-weight exercises, whereas machine exercises lead to greater improvements in machine exercises. In short, both machines and free weights are effective for increasing strength. Together, the aforementioned variations offer a wide selection of exercises and progression strategies. How these exercises should be incorporated depends on the individual’s goals, fitness level, as well as their familiarity with specific movements.

As a general recommendation, strength training should include both unilateral and bilateral exercises with an emphasis on multi-joint movements. It is recommended that both free-weight and machine exercises are included for novice and intermediate individuals, whereas advanced individuals might benefit from greater emphasis on free-weight movements. Machine exercises can be used to compliment the rest of the program. Resistance training should otherwise follow the general sequencing guidelines of strength training (see: order of exercises).

Order of exercises

The order of exercises plays an important role in a strength training routine, especially when working out with heavier resistance. Multiple joint exercises produce a significant stabilization of the body and involve muscles that may not be activated by single-joint movements. Furthermore, studies have shown that performance in these compound exercises decline when performed later (after exercises stressing the same muscle groups) as opposed to earlier in the training session. Since multiple-joint exercises require more muscle mass and energy for optimal technique and execution, they should be performed early in a workout to maximize their benefits. 

However, not all muscles receive a sufficient training stimulus from compound exercises alone. This is due to the fact that the muscles remain at a relatively constant length during each repetition. Single-joint exercises can be used to target specific muscles and achieve optimal length-tension relationship (relationship between muscle length and force production) and a greater electromyography activity (greater motor unit recruitment). This type of sequencing allows structural exercises to be performed with little fatigue. Thus, allowing for a greater training stimulus for larger muscle groups. Targeting large muscle groups has been proven to induce greater neural, metabolic, endocrine, and circulatory responses of a training session. For all levels of resistance training, it is recommended that workouts are sequenced according to the following principles;

  • Target large muscle groups before small muscle groups.
  • Perform multi-joint exercises before single-joint exercises.
  • Perform intense exercises first, especially when targeting specific muscle groups within a single workout.
  • Perform power-specific exercises (e.g. Olympic lifts and other explosive movements) before basic strength and single-joint assistance exercises.
  • Utilize various workout splits (e.g. whole body split, push/pull/legs split, upper/lower split, 4-day split, 5-day split, etc.).
  • Target weak points or training priorities before other exercises.

Some exercises can also be used to improve the training stimulus in subsequent movements later on. For example, performing high-velocity power exercises before multiple-joint exercises have been shown to improve strength performance later in the workout. This short-term improvement in performance is due to improved neural activation following a high-intensity stimulus. This phenomenon, known as post-activation potentiation, is often used as a part of power training where movement velocity is of high priority. However, performing high-intensity and high-velocity exercises consecutively may also reduce force and power. It is therefore recommended that explosive movements are performed early in the workout, and sequenced according to complexity.

Types of muscle actions

The majority of strength training programs consist of dynamic exercises that include both concentric (muscle shortening) and eccentric (muscle lengthening) muscle actions. The greatest amount of tension is produced in eccentric actions (up to 30% of equivalent concentric movement), whilst requiring the least amount of motor unit (motor neuron and all the muscle fibers it innervates) activation for specific loads. This makes them metabolically less demanding, resulting in increased hypertrophic adaptation and reduced delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS) in comparison to concentric muscle actions. According to studies, dynamic movements that include both concentric and eccentric actions have shown the greatest improvements in overall strength, whereas isokinetic training (actions in which the velocity of motion is constant) has shown greater improvements in muscle action-specific movements. Isometric muscle actions (no change in muscle length) play a supporting role in stabilizing joints, maintaining posture, grip strength, etc. 

In practice, manipulating different types of muscle actions has little impact on strength progression since most resistance training programs consist of both concentric and eccentric movements. However, isometric exercises (supramaximal isometric training, functional isometrics, etc.) may offer additional benefits for strength training, such as strengthening “sticking point” (weakest range of motion) of a specific movement, as well as treating lower back pain by recruiting spinal-stabilization musculature responsible for maintaining posture. 

As a general recommendation, novice, intermediate, and advanced individuals should include concentric, eccentric, and isometric exercises in their resistance training routine. 

Training load

The acute exercise-induced metabolic, neural, hormonal, and cardiovascular responses can be significantly altered by manipulating the training load. This makes resistance one of the most significant variables for developing muscular strength, hypertrophy, and local muscle endurance. The optimal training load depends on the individual’s goals and current level of fitness.

Well-designed resistance training programs usually follow one of the following loading schemes: 1) increasing the load based on a percentage of the individual’s one-repetition maximum (1 RM), 2) increasing the load based on a targeted number of repetitions, or 3) increasing the load within a targeted repetition zone (e.g. 8–12 RM). The percentage of 1RM represents the maximum number of repetitions for a given load. This is typically categorized as low (<30% 1RM, >20 repetitions), moderate (30–70% 1RM, 11–20 repetitions) and high (>70% 1RM, <11 repetitions) ranges. According to studies, strength can be improved with moderately high volume training that utilizes relatively low training loads (45-50% of 1RM, 15-25 repetitions) among untrained and moderately trained individuals. However, studies also indicate that further strength development and neural adaptation require a higher training load especially among highly trained individuals. 

The general recommendation for developing muscular strength among novice and intermediate individuals is utilizing training loads of 60-70% of 1 RM with ~8-12 repetitions. Advanced individuals should increase training load to 80-100% 1 RM. Training load can also be increased by ~2-10% (more for larger muscle groups) when the individual can perform one or two additional repetitions in two consecutive training sessions. However, studies indicate that individuals tend to select loads that are lower than ones recommended for increasing strength (~38-58% of 1RM). Training intensity should therefore be higher than the individual’s threshold (based on targeted number of repetitions) to ensure continuous progression, especially among advanced individuals. 

Training volume

Training volume describes the sum of repetitions performed during a workout multiplied by the resistance (kg/lbs) used. This makes it a good representation of the amount of stress the muscles are under during the workout. This is supported by the fact that training volume has been proven to significantly impact the hypertrophic, metabolic, and hormonal response to a resistance training bout, in addition to the subsequent physical adaptations. Furthermore, when other acute training variables remain the same, and only volume is increased, the increased time-under-tension has proven to offer a stronger anabolic stimulus for muscle growth. 

There are several ways how training volume can be manipulated; 1) varying the number of exercises in a workout session, 2) varying the amount of repetitions in a set, or 3) varying the number of sets performed for each exercise. Several meta-analyses have shown multiple-set programs (lasting between 17-40 weeks) to produce greater strength gains among untrained and trained individuals than single-set programs. To date, no study has shown single-set programs to produce greater improvements in strength than multi-set programs. However, this appears to be more pronounced among moderately trained individuals, whereas novice individuals seem to benefit from both single-set and multiple-set programs. The aforementioned studies concluded that 3-4 sets per exercise produces the greatest training stimulus during short and moderate-term training periods. 

A moderate increase in training volume is recommended for long-term progression, along with sufficient increase in training load. For novices, the general recommendation for training volume is 1-3 sets per exercise. When progressing to intermediate and advanced stages of resistance training, a systematic manipulation of both training load and volume is recommended, as well as ensuring an increasing training stimulus over time. Moderate increase in volume and intensity are also recommended due to risk of overtraining or injury.

Rest Periods 

The rest between exercises and sets can significantly alter the metabolic, hormonal, and cardiovascular responses to an exercise bout, in addition to the performance of subsequent sets and overall training adaptations. The impact of recovery on muscular strength has been proven in several studies, whereas its effects on hypertrophy are less known.

Several studies have found that the amount of repetitions performed in a set may be compromised due to incomplete recovery of shorter rest periods (30-2mins). Longer rest periods (3-5mins) seem to have less adverse effects on strength performance from set-to-set. Longitudinal studies have also shown greater strength gains using long rest periods (2-5mins) when compared to short rest periods (30-40s).

The recommended rest duration for increasing absolute strength and power is at least 2-3mins for multi-joint structural exercises (power cleans, cleans, deadlifts, etc.). This allows each exercise to be performed with sufficient quality and with as high of a peak velocity as possible when near-maximal loads are used. Thus, providing optimal neurological responses to training. Finally, recovery duration also depends on the complexity of each exercise (the more complex, the more recovery). For single-joint and assistance exercises, a shorter rest period of 1-2 minutes may suffice. 

Movement velocity

Repetition velocity has a significant impact on metabolic, neural, and hypertrophic responses to muscular strength training. Contraction velocity is also inversely related to the relative load in maximal muscle contractions. Repetition velocity can be roughly divided into fast (<1s concentric contraction: 1s eccentric contraction), moderate (1:2), slow (5:5), and super slow (10:5-10:10) executions. However, this also depends on the type of movement.

Slow movement velocities can be divided into two categories; intentional and unintentional. Intentionally slow contractions refer to movements where submaximal loads are lifted in a slow and controlled manner. Thus, increasing time-under-tension. Unintentionally slow muscle actions refer to movements where the intensity or fatigue affects movement velocity. Intentionally slow muscle actions have a lower neural activation, and thus, have a lower energy expenditure. However, they also produce far less concentric force, and peak power in comparison to self-selected velocity with matching intensity. Additionally, intentionally slow movement velocities often result in fewer repetitions performed in a set. This is based on a continuum where the highest number of repetitions can be performed with high velocities, whereas the number of repetitions decrease proportionally as the velocity decreases. This is considered to be a result of  reduced motor unit activity, because slow velocities may not provide a sufficient training stimulus for increasing strength in trained individuals. If intentional slow repetitions are chosen, it is recommended that load is reduced by ~30% to ensure the same number of repetitions as with moderate velocity exercises.

Moderate and fast velocities have shown greater improvements in performance in several training variables (volume, work and power output, number of repetitions) when compared to slow movement velocities. Therefore, lifting the load as fast as possible seems to produce the greatest muscular strength gains. 

The recommended velocity for resistance training is slow for novices, moderate for intermediates, and fast for advanced individuals. However, the movement velocity should always correspond to the intensity of the exercise, while maintaining the intent of maximizing the concentric muscle action.

Training frequency

Training frequency describes the number of training sessions performed, or the number of a muscle group is trained in a given time frame (e.g. a week). The optimal training frequency depends on volume, intensity, exercise, selection, fitness level, ability to recover, as well as the muscle groups used in training. 

According to studies, a training frequency of three times per week yields greater strength gains among novice and untrained individuals in comparison to training once or twice per week. However, training each muscle group once or twice per week may be sufficient in maintaining strength levels among individuals already participating in muscular strength training. It appears that progression from novice to intermediate training does not depend on changing the training frequency of specific muscle groups, but rather on altering other training variables (e.g. exercise selection, volume, intensity). However, increased training frequency allows for more specialized training (greater exercise selection and higher volume per muscle group). 

For further development into advanced muscular strength training, a training frequency of 3-4 may be optimal depending on the training split (e.g. 3 per week for whole body split, 4 per week for upper/lower split or  as long as muscle groups are trained at least twice per week). The optimal frequency for athletes and highly advanced individuals varies greatly. High-frequency training (4-6 times per week) allows for greater volume and specialization according to personal goals. A well-structured program allows for better performance in each training session due to scheduled recovery, food intake, and nutrition supplementation. Some studies have also shown double split routines (two training sessions per day for different muscle groups) to produce greater increases in muscle cross-sectional area than training once per say. 

For novice individuals, the recommended training frequency is 2-3 times per week utilizing the entire body. For intermediate individuals, the training frequency can be increased to 3-4 times per week (three times if using a total-body workout, four times if using a split routine that trains each major muscle group twice). For advanced lifters, the recommended training frequency is 4-6 times per week. However, there is also a high degree of variability when it comes to more specialized training. 

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Summary

Variable

Recommendation


Exercise selection

Novice and intermediate:
Both unilateral and bilateral exercises with an emphasis on multi-joint movements. Both free-weight and machine exercises are recommended.

Advanced:
Emphasis on free-weight movements.


Exercise order

According to complexity:
1. Large muscle groups before small muscle group exercises.
2. Multi-joint exercises before single-joint exercises.
3. High-intensity exercises before lower-intensity exercises, or a rotation of upper/lower body exercises, or a rotation of agonist–antagonist movements.


Load

Novice and intermediate:
60-70% of 1RM.

Advanced:
80-100% 1RM.

A 2–10% increase in load (lower percent for small muscle mass exercises, higher percent increase for large muscle mass exercises) can be applied when the same workload can be repeated one or two times over the targeted number of repetitions on two consecutive training sessions.


Volume

Novice and intermediate:
8-12 repetitions, 1-3 sets.

Advanced:
8-12 repetitions, 1-3 sets. Also include training loads of 80–100% of 1RM to maximize muscular strength.


Recovery

Structural and multi-joint exercises:
At least 2-3mins

Single-joint and assistance exercises:
1-2 mins. 


Repetition velocity

Novice:
Slow to moderate.

Intermediate:
Moderate.

Advanced:
A variety of unintentionally slow to fast movement velocities. The velocity should correspond to the intensity of sports-specific movements and the intent of personal goals.


Frequency

Novice:
2-3 times per week. Full body split.

Intermediate:
3-4 per week. Full-body or upper/lower split.

Advanced:
4–6 power per week. Full-body or upper/lower split.


Muscular strength training relies on progressive overload, training specificity, and variability.

Final thoughts

Resistance training is not only a key component in athletic development, but also a significant factor for overall health. In fact, both muscular strength and hypertrophy offer tremendous benefits for injury prevention, longevity, and healthy aging, not to mention the mental health benefits offered by consistent physical activity.

Muscular strength training can be varied in several ways – by altering the load, volume, rest, exercise choice and order, muscle action, movement velocity, and training frequency. These training variables determine both the training stimulus of a specific workout, as well as the the long-term adaptations of a resistance training program.

To ensure effective and safe progression, training must follow the basic principles of strength training; progressive overload, training specificity, and variability. These guidelines offer a well-rounded challenge while making sure that the training stimulus increases as the individual gets stronger.

Did you learn anything new about muscular strength training? Let us know in the comments.

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