Written by Paul Breheny
In my last blog I spoke about why the most important physical attribute for most people is muscular strength. In this article I’ll cover the basics on the crucially important difference between ’training’ and ‘exercising’, and the most effective method to improve muscular strength. In other words – how to start taking action towards achieving your fitness objective.
When a person first decides to go to a gym and get stronger it can be confusing which course of action is the best to take to achieve their fitness objective. You have so many pieces of equipment to choose from, barbells, dumbbells, rubber bands and machines, not to mention the many conflicting pieces of advice on what to do, that it’s not surprising most people end up wasting their time, and energy, getting nowhere.
The first thing you must do to navigate this quagmire of a situation is learn the difference between training and exercise, and then actually train! Most people do not distinguish between the two, and it’s an important distinction.
Exercise can be defined as;
“physical activity done for its own sake, for the way it makes you feel at the time, hot, sweaty, and convinced you have burnt off a good number of calories”.
It is characterised by having very little planning, no thought on what ‘exercises’ are to be performed, what weight or rep and set scheme to apply, or even the time needed between sessions for improvement to occur and exhaustion or detraining to be avoided (as already seen in my first blog, not planning like this usually leads to failure).
In contrast, training is better thought of, and defined as;
“a process, with a clear start point and a long term objective to be reached. It consists of well planned, carefully thought out workouts constructed from various exercises, which result in a continuous physical change which gets you closer to your goal”.
Basically “Exercising” does not apply what are known as the “principles of training” and as a result is likely to be a course of action that will fail to bring about your desired fitness objective. “Training”, however, does apply the principles of training, and so is likely to lead to actions that will produce results, and a realisation of your fitness objective, if the correct training modality is used.
There are many different training modalities but only resistance training, which is defined as “any exercise that causes the muscles to contract against an external resistance” will be appropriate to develop increased levels of strength.
If you remember back to our definition of strength;
“strength is a muscle’s ability to produce a force against an external object”.
… and you apply the principle of specificity which states;
“training must be matched to the characteristics of the physical attribute or activity, to improve fitness, or sports performance”.
It becomes clear why only resistance training is the correct course of action to take to produce more strength; it simply can not be any other way. Only asking a muscle to produce more force against a progressively heaver weight, will produce a muscle capable of actually producing more force. This is the principle of specificity.
On a side note, its worth quickly mentioning what the principles of training are, and that is; simply a set of rules that fall under the headings of specificity, overload, progression and reversibility, that are used to organise training into a logical and rational series of events that will lead to a ‘stress – recovery – adaptation cycle’. This is all important to be aware of, but is a big subject for a future blog. For now let’s just consider the type of training that should be used to develop muscular strength.
At PB Strength and Fitness Mentoring we passionately believe that training needs to be measurable, or quantifiable, in some objective way if it is to be a useful method. In other words, we need to choose a method where we can plan a series of linked sessions which lead us towards our goal of getting stronger in a way that we can log our progress and compare against old records.
Barbell weight lifting, a type of resistance training, is this method, and is also the most effective way to get stronger. Not just because it satisfies our definitions of training, and specificity, but because it offers a way to load the body whilst balancing on the feet, and moving the joints through there largest effective range of motion (ROM) with progressively and objectively measurable increases in weights.
The problem that pops up is that people have become stronger without using barbells. Almost everybody knows somebody who has become strong and put on a decent amount of muscle using dumbbells or even just bodyweight. So why the recommendation of barbells?
The answer isn’t that you can’t improve your strength any other way. You can, and it would silly to suggest otherwise. But every other way has limitations that simply don’t exist with a barbell. Barbells allow for:
- Infinitely scalable weight: meaning the load can be fine tuned up or down by as little or as much as needed.
- Maximum weight to be lifted: as strength is force production against external weight, it makes sense to use the tool that allows for maximum weight to be lifted in a safe and effective way.
- Only a small number of exercises to be used: the squat, standing press, deadlift, bench press and olympic lifts are the only movements and skills needed in order to effectively stimulate the entire body, muscles, bone, tendon, ligament, heart, lungs, the whole lot, thus saving time and streamlining training.
- Movements that have clearly defined and reproducible ROMs: means we can be objective in what we measure and reasonably sure improvements are being made.
No other strength tool or type of resistance training has these four advantages, making barbell training exquisitely tailorable to the individual, and suitable for almost everybody at any level. Even if it is possible to get stronger using other methods, the choice for a serious trainee who has to get stronger, between using something that can work and something that always works better, is no choice at all, it’s going to be barbell strength training, every time!
To conclude, lets consider where we now are in our four step process, and realise we now know:
- Define your objective – to increase our muscular strength
- Take action – to not just exercise, but to train with a barbell based strength programme, to satisfy the principle of specificity
In the next article we will explore step three – how to assess the results you are producing. Until then keep on training!