Last Saturday (9th July 2016) Eddie Hall set a new world record for the deadlift. He deadlifted a staggering 500kg. This was incredibly impressive and hugely inspiring. In recent days numerous people have talked to me about this feat and their feelings while watching him lift that weight. Many of these people were not meatheads like me, who would obviously be impressed by this feat. Many were people who have a passing interest in lifting weights or athletes with other passions such as running. This got me thinking about the importance of strength and the positive effects resistance training can have for people of all walks of life.
What is strength?
Strength is the ability to overcome resistance by muscular effort.
Strength can come in many forms
In my opinion strength can come in many forms. The two main categories of strength are absolute strength and relative strength. If you are talking about the maximum amount of weight you can lift on a given exercise, you would be referring to absolute strength. This could be a 3 repetition maximum on a bench press or deadlift. If you are talking about the maximum number or repetitions you can preform with a given weight, you are referring to relative strength. This could be a repetition maximum on a chin up or empty barbell bicep curl.
The decision to work on improving absolute strength, relative strength or a combination of the two qualities will be determined by your previous training history, movement capabilities, equipment, time constrains and your goal.
For example if you have a solid training base and your goal is to improve strength with the aim of competing in your first powerlifting meet. Training to increase maximal strength would be most appropriate for you. Conversely if you have a busy travel schedule in work and rarely have access to a gym with weights it may be more appropriate to work on improving your relative strength. You could set yourself the goal of increasing the maximum number of push ups you can preform by 5 repetitions in the next 3 weeks.
To me the exact measurement or modality of strength training isn’t the most important thing. The most important idea is that strength training is a form of self mastery and requires consistent effort and application. For example; one can always get better- whether it by improving technique, learning a new movement, increasing work capacity, body composition or strength levels. There’s always another challenge waiting for you.
Why is strength important?
Improvements in strength will increase your ability to produce force. This in turn can have number additional benefits for people of various ability levels and goals.
Obviously if your goal is to be able to lift more weight and hit a personal best on a big lift such as a bench press or deadlift, a well structured strength training program will help you achieve this. In addition to this; improvements in strength can have surprising benefits.
Getting stronger to look better
If your goal is to improve your body composition; improving your strength levels through resistance training could help you achieve your goal faster. Obviously your daily energy expenditure and nutritional intake will greatly influence your progress. That being said, if you can increase your strength levels you will be able to do a greater volume of work in a given time. For example:
MAX push ups = 20 reps
Max push ups = 40 reps
If both of these people were an identical body weight and were preforming the following identical workout:
30 seconds max reps : 30 seconds rest X5
2 minutes rest following each set
Person 2 would be able to do a greater number of burpees than person 1 as a result of greater strength level. In turn this would mean person 2 burns a greater number of calories than person 1. Assuming nutritional intakes were the same; person 1 would create a greater calorie deficit for that day than person 2. Ultimately this will lead to faster improvements in body composition for person 2 than person 1.
Getting stronger to improve cardiovascular endurance
Aside from the obvious benefits of resistance training for improving muscular strength, muscular size and body composition it can also be beneficial for improving endurance based exercise.
Now let me preface this by saying the resistance training for endurance athletes should focus on increasing their muscular strength and correcting any muscle imbalances that they may have from their chosen mode of exercise. There are numerous studies that support the conclusion that strength training in conjunction with a well planned endurance training program can improve running performance through improved running economy (2,3,4). The underlying theory for this is if you can improve your strength level, you will increase the amount of force you produce with each stride. The greater the force produced with each stride, the less strides you will need to take to complete a given distance. This is referred to as improved running economy.
A study (1) of seventeen well trained runners were randomly assigned into either an intervention or a control group. The intervention group preformed heavy resistance training as a supplement to their normal endurance training. The control group continued their normal training for the same 8 week period. The intervention group made significant improvements in strength (33.2%), power (26.0%), running economy (5.0%), and time to exhaustion (21.3%). The control group exhibited no changes from pre to post training measures. This study concluded that maximal strength training for an 8 week period significantly improved running economy and increased time to exhaustion among well trained long distance runners, without change in maximal oxygen uptake or body weight.
Getting stronger to improve mental health
As I referred to in my last blog, a primary reason why I choose to lift weights at least three times per week all year round is because it makes me feel good. Research states that even though exercise itself might act as a stressor, it has been demonstrated that it reduces the harmful effects of other stressors (5).
“Training gives us an outlet for suppressed energies created by stress and thus tones the spirit just as exercise conditions the body”
Resistance training can improve your ability to think. You might be having a very stressful day and you feel like you cannot think straight or concentrate. Then you go to the gym and complete a great session and by the time you have showered you feel mentally sharp again. This is what I would refer to as doing a session to “clear my head”. The overwhelming evidence present in the literature today suggests that exercise ensures successful cognitive functioning (5). This is an example of resistance training improving cognitive function in the short term.
Lifting weights can also help to improve and maintain brain function as you age. Research also supports resistance training as an effective treatment for reducing incidence of dementia or cognitive deterioration in the long term (5,6). Anecdotally speaking, if you look at some of the most successful older musicians who are writing songs, selling out arenas and preforming for 2-3 hours straight, many of them work out 4-5 times per week. Guys like Bruce Springsteen and Mick Jagger, who are well into their 60s an 70s, are still operating at the highest level and are very disciplined with their physical training routines.
Following a resistance training program can have beneficial affects on how you feel and it can improve your mood in both the short and long term. Personally, I love that feeling when I have finished a great session and I am feeling super positive. Many people cite that an improvement in their mood is a primary reason why they choose to exercise regularly. Research shows that strength training is associated with improvements in over-all self-esteem (6). In addition to this strength training has been shown to reduce symptoms of anxiety and depression (6).
There are numerous different methods and modalities to train strength. There are numerous different reasons why people choose to engage in strength training and these reasons may change over time. No matter what your type of exercise you enjoy or why you enjoy it ……………………..being strong isn’t wrong!
1.) Storen, O. Helgerad, J. Stoa, EM. Hoff, J. (2008) Maximal strength training improves running economy in distance runners. Medicine & Science in Sports and Exercise. 40 (6), 1809-1904.
2.) Paacolainen, L. Hakkinen, K. Hamalainen, I. Nummela, A. Rusko, H. (1999) Explosive strength training improves 5km running time by improving running economy and muscle power. Journal of Applied Physiology. 86 (5), 1527-1533.
3.) Guglielmo, L,G,A. Greco, C.C. Dendai, B,S. (2009) Effects of strength training on running economy. International Journal of Sports Medicine. 30, 27-32.
4.) Piacentini, M,F. Ioannon, G,D. Comotto, S. Spedicato, A. Vernillo, G. La Torre, A. (2013) Concurrent strength and endurance training effects on running economy in master endurance runners. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. 27 (8), 2295-2203.
5.) Deslandes, A. Moras, H., Ferreira, C. Veiga, H. Silvereira, H. Mouta, R. Pompeu, F,A,M,S. Coutinho, E,S,F. Laks, J. (2009) Exercise and mental health: many reasons to move. Neuropsychobiology. 59, 191-198.
6.) O’Connór, P,J. Herring, M,P. Carvalho, A. (2009) Mental health benefits of strength training in adults. American Journal of lifestyle medicine. 4(5), 377-396.