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Basics of Strength Training

The basics of strength training are sometimes hard to find. The nature of something with so many methods and ways is far from simplistic. This is why a lot of guys down at your local gym are following some programme their mate the bodybuilder prescribed them instead of following the advice of a professional trainer.

As a rule of thumb I recommend following the advice of either a qualified and experienced trainer or someone that has produced the results you are looking to achieve. Don't be roped into following BroScience.

This article aims at outlining some of the basics of strength training as a guideline to training for various purposes.

Keep it Basic

Strength training can become very complicated. I mean even our approach requires time to learn and understand. However the exercises you use shouldn’t add to your confusion. There are only so many movement patterns your body is capable of. Some movements that people are doing at many local gyms are downright dangerous and inefficient. Just because your body is capable of moving within a certain plane does not mean that you have to do it. Some movements are just a waste of time.

So what do I consider a waste of time? Mostly machine weights that target a fixed range of motion. This includes exercises such as chest press, leg extensions, preacher curl machines etc. Never would your body move this way outside of the setting of that specific machine. So what is it really good for? Not a lot. Machines that have fixed movement will allow you to move a weight through an exact plane of motion multiple times. Lifting a free weight is not like this. Every repetition is the same with machines, whereas each repetition is unique in free weight movements. Fixed planes of motion create overuse injuries and no real functional ability.

Other waste of time exercises are generally isolation exercises except where they may be specifically required. A rugby player doing a bicep curl is useless. It is not needed and just taking up energy that could be used elsewhere. Dumbell flys have specific applications for a gymnast but a sprinter has no use for them. There are hundreds of isolation exercises to choose from. Just because they are there does not mean you have to use them.

Functional strength and conditioning and the development of solid foundations is most efficiently achieved through basic, compound movements and body weight strength training. Stick to squats, deadlifts, cleans, overhead press, pull-ups, kettle bell swings, push-press, lunges, pull-ups, and most importantly, as with most of what we do at Unleashed Training, explosive bodyweight movements.

Core Principles and Methodologies

The basics of strength training can be best explained by a few core principles and methodologies that outline things like intensity, frequency, volume, periodisation etc.


Intensity is a tough one. Some research points towards high intensity strength training, where people should train to absolute muscular failure to produce a result. Other research says to train with higher volume but lower intensity, stopping long before muscular failure. They are both right and they are both wrong, simply because the research is applied in a limited context without consideration for use in the field.

The human body has a finite adaptable capability. Training constantly at a high intensity or a high volume will eventually lead to a plateau. There is only so much the muscular and nervous systems can adapt to. Forcing it to do more will not produce greater results. What this has led to is periodisation, which works well in phases. This means that an individual might train harder and harder until they peak. Then they will drop right off and let the body restore itself and build back up to previous intensity levels. Each time this happens the person theoretically should get stronger.

We have termed this sawtooth pattern of strength training progressive intensity.  Simply progressive intensity means beginning with low percentages of max lifts and increasing intensity gradually until you reach a brief period of training to muscular failure, then dropping off again to previous low intensity levels and repeating the process.


Frequency is essential to understand and get right. Frequency of training is a major determining factor in producing results in strength training. Strength can be considered a skill as much as it is a physiological domain of fitness. In order to effectively exert force in any plane of motion you must first develop the neuromuscular pathways to efficiently perform the movement. This requires frequent training or “practice” in order to grease the groove so to speak. An athlete should strength train at least every second day to make use of this neuromuscular pattern.


Volume is the amount of training you do within a given session or training cycle. An easy one to understand is sets and reps. The more sets and reps you do the higher the volume. Another factor in the equation is intensity. Adding a higher load to a given set and rep structure also increases the volume. This is why when using progressive intensity the sets generally decrease.

So the recommendation is low to moderate volume. If you’re in the gym for an hour or more then you’re doing too much due to the blunted neuro-endocrine response.


Velocity of training is simply the speed at which a weight is lifted. This needs to be carefully balanced with the actual weight. Training for power should always be a part of strength training. Some need to focus on it more than others but everyone requiring increased strength (which is everyone) also requires increased power to a certain degree.

Training extremely slow and steady is promoted a lot in gyms now days. It seems this is the flavour of the month. Slow burn repetitions are effective at developing strength at that specific speed. But not much happens at that speed. Most athletic pursuits are performed at high speeds, as are many daily activities. It has even been shown that elderly people benefit more from power and strength training combined than they do from strength training alone.

Velocity is important in developing strength and power that is functional and useful in a real capacity. Velocity is an important concept and is a fundamental in the basics of strength training. There are three primary speeds of movement incorporated into strength training for various outcomes…

Controlled Movement: Controlled movement means that the movement is set at a pace dependent on the intended goal of the training. This is generally the movement speed used in maximum strength training where the lifter is only capable of lifting the weight at that speed.

Explosive Movement: Explosive movement is as it sounds, explosive. This is power. Power translates into force x velocity. Most athletic training requires significant use of explosive movement in the development of muscular functional capacity.

Isometric Contractions: Isometric contractions are contractions at a fixed joint angle. This means basically a held contraction or a static hold. Isometric contractions are only used in very specific circumstances. A good use for isometrics is for developing maximum strength for a given movement. The athlete will lift a weight they are yet unable to fully complete a single repetition with. They will then hold the weight in the position that the weight gets stuck in. So for example someone might have a max bench press of 100kg, they stack 110kg on the bar and, with the help of a spotter, attempt to lift the weight through a full repetition. However they cannot complete a full rep so they get stuck at about half way. At this point they attempt to hold the weight in that position for several seconds. This helps develop increased strength at that specific joint angle and will help the lifter to handle more weight in future.

Progressive Overload

The basics of strength training must include progressive overload. Without an explanation this article wouldn’t be worth reading. Progressive overload is confusing to many people. Why it is confusing I will never understand.

Let me explain it this way…

You decide that you want to get a suntan. So you set up a schedule to sunbathe every day for 15 minutes on your back and 15 minutes on your front. You keep this up every day for the rest of the week. After a week you’re happy that you have turned a nice shade of brown. So you decide to keep it up for the rest of the summer. Every day you stick to your schedule of 15 minutes each side.

Now after summer what colour is your skin? It’s the same shade of brown that it was after the first week. Why? Because you exposed it to the exact same stimulus every day. In the beginning your skin is not used to this stimulus so it gets brown to adapt to the sun. After it has adapted to the level that protects it from that level of sun exposure there is no need to get any darker.

By going out in the sun every day for 30 minutes you are not telling it you want it to get darker, you are just telling it that it needs to be adapted to that level of sun exposure. It doesn’t know that you want it to get darker. The skin adapts to the intensity and acute volume of sun exposure. It doesn’t adapt to total accumulated sun exposure. If this were the case then I would be black as the ace of spades because I live in sunny Australia. This doesn’t happen because I don’t keep increasing my time spent doing things in the sun.

Every body system works in the same way. Whatever stress you place on a particular system your body will adapt to. Once it has met those demands it stops adapting. See where I’m going with this? Strength training requires gradually increasing the demand you place on the nervous and muscular systems in order to keep adapting. This is progressive overload. To provide a basic example lets say you squat 200kg for 5 x 5 one week, the next week you should either increase the number of sets, reps or the load lifted. This forces the body to make a slight adaptation to the small extra demand placed on it. This is how strength is developed.


Specificity is the term used to describe how specific a strength training programme is to the end goal. For instance specificity for a sprinter would be obviously sprinting, heavy strength work, power training etc. A sprinter would not be applying specificity if he/she went for a 20km run every day. If specificity wasn’t required then anyone who exercises would be equally good at all physical endeavours.

The basics of strength training come down to phases of training. There are various types of phases, but the ones I am referring to is going from foundational or relatively general to highly specific. An athlete first must develop foundational strength and power. This means training all major patterns of movement. After a base level of strength is developed it is time to get more specific. The training will then aim to train specific movements needed for the chosen activity. This is where isolation and cable exercises come into play in a limited capacity.

Specificity means training movements as closely related as possible to the task at hand. It also refers to the metabolic stimulus placed on the body during training. A shot putter is applying specificity with heavy strength and power training with extended rest periods between efforts. However a tri-athlete is applying specificity with continuous , moderate intensity running, swimming, cycling and strength work related to their expected demands.

Keep Track of Progress

It is virtually impossible for a person to make improvements if they don’t know where they have come from, how much improvement has been made (if any), what is working and what is not etc. Keeping track is an important function in the basics of strength training. Here are two ways to keep track of your results…

First of all begin by recording workouts. Every time you do a strength workout record the weight, sets, reps and any other relevant information.

Periodic testing should be incorporated into all strength training programmes. This simply means testing an athlete’s strength at regular intervals of between 4-12 weeks.

Balanced Strength Capacity

Strength is something that cannot be chosen based on likes and dislikes. What I mean is that it is detrimental to health and performance if certain muscle groups are stronger than others. If someone bench presses more than they deadlift then there is a definite problem with their deadlift. The deadlift involves a great number of large muscles, whereas the bench press uses relatively few.

The human body is designed to function as a unit. Each movement you perform is like a complete chain reaction of muscle contractions. One weak link and that movement falls apart, even though you have the strength in certain areas, there are other areas that don’t.

Form and Technique

Strength training requires good form and technique to be effective. Without good form you are inviting injury and compromising the potential for gains in a given movement pattern.

All major lifts and bodyweight exercises should be executed with perfect form. This requires hiring a coach or spending a lot of time lifting smaller weights until you increase your control over them. Exercises should be performed near flawlessly, this is why this item is in the article.

To begin with learn how to perform all the basic movements such as squats, deadlifts, power-cleans, bench press, overhead  press. And various body weight exercises.

By taking the time to learn all major exercises you will develop a solid skill base that can be utilised later for efficiently lifting more weight or progressing to a more difficult version of an exercise and hence increasing output.


Well that concludes the basics of strength training. Most people have likely heard and read significant amounts of information regarding strength training and what works and what doesn’t. This article aims at providing a guide to strength training in an abbreviated format. All of this information will help develop quality strength training programmes and provide an understanding for certain principles and concepts and why they are used.

This is just one version of the basics of strength training. It is likely that I will come up with other similar articles that explain things from a different angle. In the mean time read through this one and get a basic idea of many aspects of strength training that should be included for maximum results.

Learn and practice the basics of strength training and learn them well. It is the basis of strength training that will set you up for long term athletic success and an increased capacity to reduce body fat.

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