Ok, having wrapped up hypertrophy training in Categories of Weight Training Part 6, I want to forget ahead and talk about maximal strength training. Shockingly, after the endless verbiage I expended on hypertrophy training, maximal strength training is actually in many ways simpler.
Now depending on what kind of things you read, maximal strength training goes under a variety of different names including maximum effort (ME) work, maximum weights methods, maximum strength training or even neural training. While there are probably minor differences in the definitions of all of these terms, for all practical purposes they refer to the same basic concept.
I should expand on the term “neural training”, however. That comes from the idea that this type of training is thought to generate primarily neurological adaptations that increase strength output. But for that statement to make sense, I need to look at two of the primary factors that determine how much strength/force can be developed.
Factors Determining Strength Output: Part 1
There are a number of factors that determine how much strength can be developed by a given individual and many of these things are distinctly out of our control. One of these is limb length which can’t really be changed (there is always talk of some country attempting to break and/or reset bones to change this but I have no clue if it’s actually been done.
Another is where the muscle actually attaches to the bone (via the tendon). This affects how much torque (the Physics of Weight Training is a series I’ve been contemplating writing for years) a muscle can generate around a joint but is genetically determined and unalterable (though some of which some countries are claimed to have experimented with).
It’s worth mentioning that while an individual’s bone length/attachments can’t be changed, often lifters can change their lifting technique to either take advantage of favorable mechanics or try to decrease the negative effects of unfavorable mechanics.
So someone with a very long torso who find a conventional or Clean Style Deadlift to be too hard on their low back (due to the long lever arm of the torso) may switch to a sumo deadlift to overcome this. Individuals with very long femurs (upper leg) often find the squatting works better with a wider stance and more turn-out of their toes to make hitting depth easier. But beyond that that is little that can realistically be done to change those two aspects of force generation (short of major surgery).
Since individual mechanics can’t be changed, researchers have typically focused on two primary factors in terms of what determines muscular force, which are simplistically separated into muscular and neural factors. I say simplistic because you can’t ever separate out muscular activity from nervous system activity. In this case, it’s simply an easier way of looking things. Very (very) simply:
Force Output = Muscular Factors * Neural Factors
Now there are a bunch of different muscular factors that are involved here ranging from fiber type (and Myosin Heavy Chain) to pennation angle (which may actually change with significant changes in muscle size). But arguably the primary factor in how much force a muscle can generate is cross sectional area (CSA or sometimes XSA). Without detailing that, it’s easiest to just think in terms of muscle size where a bigger muscle can, potentially at least, generate more force.
However, the word potential in the above paragraph is a key one. It’s not unheard of to find people with smaller visible muscularity moving greater loads in the weight room than folks who are bigger and people often get confused and frustrated by this. “I’m bigger than him, why is he stronger than I am?” is the thought process.
Part of this is the biomechanics issue I mentioned above. Someone with good levers and attachments may generate more force despite smaller muscle size than someone with poorer mechanics or attachment points.
As well, as I discussed in Categories of Weight Training: Part 2, this can be further confused by the possibility of sarcoplasmic vs. myofibrillar growth. If someone is visibly bigger as a function of increased glycogen, water, etc. they may look bigger but have no greater potential for force production.
Factors Determining Strength Output: Part 2
There is also the issue of technique and lifting efficiency (essentially being “better” at performing the movement) although that really falls under the neural factors category I’m going to discuss next. Because after muscle size per se, the other major determinant of skeletal muscle force output is usually grouped under the heading of neural factors.
Now the whole spectrum of neural factors includes not only things like lifting technique and efficiency but underlying neural factors such as inter- and intra-muscular coordination, rate coding (how fast signals are sent down the nerves to turn on the muscles), antagonist disinhibition and others I’m probably forgetting. There seems to have been a lot of research into this topic of late and I can’t claim to be completely up to date on it; I also see little point in detailing each one individually.
But, for a variety of reasons, maximal strength training methods are thought to have their primary effect on these factors of force production. That is to say, the primary training effect of maximal strength training methods are on the neural factors of force production; hence the term “neural training”.
One adaptation that is often talked about but probably isn’t a big part of neural training is actually muscle fiber recruitment. Because while it is often claimed that people can only recruit something like 30% of their available muscle fibers, this is actually incorrect. Any number of studies have shown that humans can maximally or near-maximally activate their muscles.
But that doesn’t discount the other neural adaptations that clearly take place in response to this type of training.
Before moving on I want to make an important point: please realize that a strict separation between neural and muscular factors in terms of training or adaptations is very artificial in the same way that thinking in terms of strict separation between metabolic, hypertrophy, and maximal strength weight training exists. All of training is on a continuum and there is overlap as you move from one to the other.
Even very low rep training can cause muscular hypertrophy if enough sets are done and higher rep work taken to complete failure can generate neural fatigue (and likely some neural adaptations). At most you see somewhat preferential involvement of one vs. the other (e.g. low reps are more neural dominant and higher reps are more muscularly dominant) which is where the terminology tends to come from in terms of the distinction between “metabolic”, “hypertrophy” and “neural training”. Ok, moving on.
What Is Maximal Strength?
It’s probably worth defining the term maximal strength before moving onto the next section of the discussion. Now, in the most reductive physiological terms, the maximal strength of a muscle fiber (or even whole muscle) is what I represented above: it’s the combination of the muscle’s size (cross sectional area) and the various neural factors that I talked about above.
In the laboratory, a researcher can electrically stimulate a muscle fiber (to get maximal force production) and this is used to determine things like the maximal potential force output of a given muscle fiber or muscle. However, clearly this isn’t terribly practical in any real sense although there is a method called the Interpolated Twitch Technique (ITT and holy shit there is actually NOT a Wikipedia article on this) where researchers will add an electrical stimulation to a muscle that is being contracted voluntarily to see if there is any additional force produced. This lets them test a bunch of different things such as central vs. muscular fatigue and others.
Also in the lab, researchers will sometimes measure what is called Maximal Voluntary Isometric Contraction (MVIC); the subject will be put into some lifting position (pulling or pushing against a force transducer) and then be asked to generate maximal force under isometric conditions (this is where the muscle doesn’t shorten or lengthen) with maximal force production being measured. Again, this is great for the lab, and avoids things like changing biomechanics during a dynamic movement but we can question how relevant it is to anything in the real world since almost no sporting movements are isometric in nature.
For that reason, in terms of real-world application maximal strength is most typically defined (i.e. in the weight room) as the 1 repetition maximum (1RM) which is the highest weight that can be lifted once and only once (it’s generally accepted that technique will not be perfect during a true maximum lift). Some, and this is really an Olympic/Powerlifting idea, distinguish between a training maximum and a competition maximum with the first being the heaviest weight lifted in training and the second in competition. Competition maxes are usually, but not always, higher than training maxes but I’m not getting into that issue here.
I should mention that due to the difficulty, and potential danger, of establishing a true 1RM, in sports that aren’t powerlifting or Olympic lifting (the two sports where not only is the training itself the sport but where the competition goal is explicitly to lift the most weight possible one time) many coaches will look at 3RM or 5RM to determine strength levels and progress (i.e. if your 5RM is going up, it can be safely assumed that your 1RM is going up without the need to specifically test 1RM).
I’d close out this section by mentioning a final assumption regarding maximal strength production and that is that there is no time limit to produce that force. If if takes you 0.5 seconds to hit maximum, it takes 0.5 seconds, if it takes you 5 seconds, it takes you 5 seconds. This is primarily just to make a segue into the next section.
Why Perform Maximal Strength Training?
As the name suggests, the goal of maximal strength training is obviously to increase maximal strength, predominantly through the neural adaptations I talked about above; it’s also generally suggested that this occurs without significant increases in muscle mass or bodyweight. I suppose a question worth addressing here is why this might be useful in the first place? That is, why bother using maximal strength methods when you can just use hypertrophy methods to get jacked and look good naked?
Clearly the answer to that depends on the goals of the individual. First let me talk about sports performance and athletes.
For athletes who have to deal with weight classes restrictions (non-super heavy weight Olympic and powerlifters, wrestlers, etc), obviously the idea of increasing strength/performance without gaining muscle or weight is an attractive one. The idea of relative strength (i.e. strength relative to bodyweight) is important here since most sports involve projecting bodyweight against or across gravity. If an athlete gains a bunch of weight in the process of getting stronger, their relative strength may actually decrease (depending on the amount of weight gained relative to the strength increase) causing a decrease in performance.
As well, there is a general idea, mind you, that maximal strength is a determinant, to at least one degree or another of sporting performance. Mind you the role that maximal strength plays depends heavily on the sport in question. Elsewhere on the site I have written about the The Sports Continuum and the idea that sports fall along a continuum from pure strength/power to pure endurance sports with what I call mixed sports (most team sports along with sports requiring some mix of strength/power and endurance) in the middle. I’ve reproduced the basic idea below.
As a generality to be sure, the further toward the pure strength/power sports, the greater a determinant that maximum strength tends to play in overall performance (with Olympic and powerlifting being, once again, the two sports where 1RM is the actual competition metric). But now this brings up the time issue I mentioned above and the fact that the grand majority of sporting movements happen too quickly (in the realm of 0.1-0.2 seconds, that’s about the time it takes to blink) for maximal strength to be exerted. At most only a small percentage of true maximal strength expression will be achieved in those time frames.
Rather, something called Rate of Force Development (RFD, how quickly you can generate high forces) and power production (where power is work divided by time) tends to be more relevant to sporting performance. That is to say, if you only have 0.2 seconds to apply force in a sporting movement, the amount of force you can produce given 0.5-1 seconds is irrelevant).
Movement speed of the sporting movement is of course relevant here. Looking at the throws for example, shotputters have more time to apply force to the shotput (which is also heavier than the other throwing implements) than a javelin thrower and you will tend to see differences in the role of maximal strength training between those athletes.
At the same time, there’s no doubt that some degree of maximal strength is necessary as a “base” for power production, clearly you can’t generate high forces quickly if you’re not able to generate high forces slowly in the first place; you might be fast as hell but if you still can’t generate high forces it won’t matter. Thus maximal strength methods still tend to play at least some role (especially earlier in the sporting career for most athletes) for strength/power athletes. It’s simply that once a certain level of strength is achieved, continuing to push up numbers tends to have little to no impact on performance.
This seems to be even more true now that sporting technique has become much more refined; it was more common to see beastly strength levels among strength/power athletes in the past compared to now; athletes were compensating for poor technique/equipment with raw strength.
A Quick Tangent About Powerlifting and Olympic Lifting
Powerlifting, from which a lot of maximal strength training methods derive, is one of the very few sports that this is NOT the case since a lift can be ground on (in premise anyhow) as long as you need to (it’s not unheard of for maximal lifts to take seconds to complete). But in that way it is really unlike the grand majority of sports out there which are predicated on high speed movements and the ability to generate force rapidly (called rate of force development).
And while there is no doubt that powerlifting training has contributed enormously to weight training methodology, it’s not uncommon for coaches and athletes in other sports to get a bit obsessed with chasing numbers on slow, maximal strength style lifts (seeking the kinds of numbers seen in powerlifters) only to find out that, beyond a certain point, this fails to improve performance.
Even for Olympic lifters (a sport relying more on explosive power than slow strength per se), chasing numbers in things like squats and pulls often fails to improve performance. Simply because the determinants of actual competition performance have to do with power production (along with the endless technical aspects of the sport).
Many Olympic lifters have pushed their squats and pull numbers into the stratosphere only to find that it had little to no impact on their actual competition lifts. This is even moreso the case for the snatch (more of a speed/technical lift) than the clean and jerk (which arguably relies more on strength).
Back to the Discussion
As you move further down the sports continuum to mixed sports (sports that have both a strength/power and endurance component; think team sports, MMA, wrestling and others), the relevance of massive maximal strength levels starts to become more questionable. Certainly some is necessary but, in recent years, many coaches have gotten away from chasing massive numbers for the sake of chasing massive numbers. Rather, an adequate amount of strength (e.g. 1.5XBodyweight bench, 2XBodyweight squat or deadlift) are sought and then the focus is put on other, more relevant, determinants of sports performance such as power, conditioning, etc.
Even there is depends on the sport in question. European football/soccer requires far less strength/power than American football and rugby is somewhere in-between (the constant nature of the sport makes endurance far more relevant to competition than in American football). It may also depend on the position within that sport. For example, an American football lineman may want/need much higher levels of strength than a linebacker for example but he also needs to be a moving wall and may be pushing against an opposing player for extended periods of time.
And I’m just not going to touch endurance sports in this series; that topic would require another full article to address in any worthwhile fashion.
Other Goals: Physique, General Health, Etc.
I should comment on the role of maximal strength methods for physique related stuff. While maximal strength methods often don’t seem to play a direct role in aesthetics, I have argued previously (in Periodization for Bodybuilders Part 1) that short periods of maximal strength training may be useful for bodybuilders. By increasing the various neural adaptations that govern force production, increasing maximal strength lets bodybuilders use heavier weights in higher repetition ranges, potentially stimulating more growth.
I’ll also get ahead of myself and comment that the high end of maximal strength training methods (5-6 reps) is usually considered the low end of the hypertrophy zone in the first place so it’s possible to get the best of both worlds with systems that use a mix of low and higher repetition ranges.
In that vein, some feel that maximal strength training methods can alter visual appearance and increase muscular density (this gets back to the idea of myofibrillar vs. sarcoplasmic growth that I discussed earlier) and at least one author (Fred Hatfield if I recall correctly) suggested that women use low rep training to increase muscle tonus (not to be confused with the idea of “toning”) to improve appearance without increasing muscle size.
I’ll only say that I would see true maximal strength training methods as being a fairly infrequent training method for predominantly physique oriented folks. A few weeks of true maximal strength training every 8-12 weeks or whatever is probably more than sufficient under most conditions (I’m well aware that many bodybuilders will enter powerlifting competitions for fun and do quite well and that’s another way to integrate maximal strength methods into a yearly cycle).
For general health folks, I’m not even sure if I’d ever use true maximal strength training (sets of 5-8 are more than sufficient) unless it was in a heavily coached situation. Low rep training is potentially dangerous if form is not locked in and, in my experience, general health folks often just don’t have the mental focus to do heavy triples without killing themselves. Better to stick with higher repetition ranges.
And, of course, for the typical gym rat with no interest in competing, the use of maximal strength training methods really has two primarily goals:
- Achieving the minimum macho poundage (MMP) for their gym in a given lift (i.e. 225 or 315 for bench)
- Impressing their male friends (which is really part of #1) and hoping it impresses women (it generally doesn’t)
And if that’s not what most of what goes on in the weight room is about for men, I don’t know what is.
And with that, since I added a bunch of stuff with the rewrite, I’ll stop there for today. Next time I’ll look at loading parameters for maximal strength training methods.
- Categories of Weight Training: Part 10
- Categories of Weight Training: Part 11
- Categories of Weight Training: Part 12
- What is the Optimal Rest Interval Between Sets?
- Categories of Weight Training: Part 8