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Strength Training

Strength training is a source of confusion in the mainstream fitness industry. For an understanding of how muscular hypertrophy is achieved check out our article on muscular hypertrophy (muscle gain). There is is a difference between the sole objective of gaining strength and that of gaining muscle mass.

Strength training comes in many forms. If you are to train for muscular endurance it is far different than training for absolute strength. Then there is another dimension; take a step back from there and work out what outcome you are striving for. You might be a rock climber for instance. So what sort of strength does a rock climber need? What if you are a rugby player? The outcomes must be formed around the true purpose for the training. So this needs to be the first step, finding out what aspect of strength is required for you to attain your intended outcome.

First of all lets step back even further; why should you strength train?

Everyone needs strength, despite what you may have been told. Every undertaking, including daily tasks for normal living require some degree of strength. Of course, you can get by without significant amounts of strength but what would be the point in just getting by? It makes sense that everyone wants tasks they perform regularly to be easier. This is attained through strength development.

Lets look at the purposes for which you may want to develop strength and break it down with a few very basic guidelines for best practice.

Relative Strength

Relative strength is the ratio of strength to bodyweight. So if a 200lb person can bench press 200lb but a 150lb person can bench press 200lbs also then the 150lb person is more efficient. They both have identical levels of absolute strength but the smaller guy can lift a larger percentage of his/her bodyweight. This means that the smaller person has more relative strength. It would be pointless functionally speaking for the 150lb person to pack on another 50lbs only to still bench press 200lbs. In terms of relative strength the goal is to get as much strength as possible for every bit of extra bodyweight.

Who wants relative strength? Everyone. It makes a person more efficient and able to move their body through space much more easily. It also allows for people to lift heavy external objects without the need for large increases in size. So when high levels of relative strength are developed the person possessing it has less of their own bodyweight to carry in relation to their level of strength.

Relative strength should be the sole focus of most athletes, emergency services personnel, military and anyone else requiring function from their strength development efforts.

So how do you train for relative strength? Here are a few guidelines…

Watch what you eat. Control portion sizes and eat as if you are either trying to lose weight or maintain it. This ensures you are not overfeeding the muscles. However, be warned that inadequate nutrition will result in poor recovery and less strength development. So it’s a fine line and one that needs to be carefully planned.

Train low repetitions. Avoid the slow moving 8-12 repetition range. Training for relative strength is designed to stimulate neuromuscular responses without significant muscle fibre damage that would normally result in an increase in size. Further to that, explosive power is a must. For strength to be useful and functional one must also develop muscular power, or in other words the generation of a high level of force performed as rapidly as possible.

Burn plenty of energy and train other aspects. By burning a lot of calories per day you decrease the likelihood of ending up too heavy. If relative strength is your primary strength training goal then I would recommend combining it with sprint and power training.

Learn to move and control your own body. This is a major focus of Unleashed Training. Everything we do utilises your own body. Sprinting, plyometrics and progressive calisthenics movements will achieve this.

Absolute Strength

In some instances bodyweight becomes less of an issue but strength is still a major goal. In these cases a person might be aiming for absolute strength. Absolute strength is simply the maximum amount of strength produced by a muscle or muscle group regardless of the size of that muscle.

Some instances where absolute strength would be the primary goal include strongman competitions, power lifting, some physically demanding jobs and anything else where moving external objects is the primary concern as opposed to moving your own body through space.

So how do you train for absolute strength? Here are a few guidelines…

Pretty much eat as many calories as you like. You want to gain muscle size because generally bigger muscles become stronger muscles.

Still focus on relative strength to a certain degree. Milk as much strength out of the muscle mass you have as possible.

Make strength your primary focus. For the development of maximum absolute strength you will need to focus all your energy on strength training, as opposed to performing lengthy intervals and metabolic conditioning.

Strength Endurance

In some instances you will require strength that is applied over a prolonged period of time. This may occur in activities such as cycling, rock climbing, jobs requiring repetitive exertion etc.

Strength endurance is developed by conditioning all the fibres within a muscle to endure a certain amount of effort without fatigue. This can be achieved in part by increasing absolute strength. You also need to focus on specific strength endurance tasks that closely mimic the actions and durations required. By doing both you are ensuring that a muscle is capable of performing at a certain level over a certain time period.

Also, strength endurance is often required by people who are moving their body through space. Having said that, you will need to maintain a relatively low bodyweight as you do for relative strength development.

So how do you train for strength endurance? Here are a few guidelines…

First develop a solid strength base. Without an absolute strength base you will not be able to perform at and sustain the levels you are aiming for.

Once there is a solid base of strength to work with you must condition the working muscles to be able to metabolise energy at a rate fast enough to continue for prolonged periods. An example of how you can do this is through high-rep strength training.

Practice the task. In other words, if you're a cyclist then you should be cycling. You can develop muscular endurance for cycling by training at a high percentage of your max under high resistance, such as using a high gear.

Use your brain. You must develop a certain level of sustained mental focus when you are developing strength endurance. This is done by pushing through pain barriers and continuing to perform. Because strength endurance takes more time per set, it requires more focus and discipline to actually keep going. There is always a temptation to stop when it burns.

Muscle Hypertrophy

There are times when an athlete may need increases in muscle size in order to increase absolute strength.

Increasing muscle size is achieved by stressing the individual muscle fibres until they are damaged by Z-line tears and then have to repair themselves. This is the muscle soreness you may be familiar with.

So how do you train for muscle hypertrophy? Here are a few guidelines…

Eat a lot, and don't neglect protein. Strength training burns a lot of energy. As a result the energy normally used for recovery is partially used up in a strength training workout. In order to gain muscle mass significantly you need to eat sufficient calories, with a large number of them coming from protein.

Train within range. In order to grow a muscle must be stressed for a period of around 120 seconds per week. This is most efficiently utilised when a high intensity/training to failure model is used. Following this the muscles need to be given the opportunity to grow and recover.

Avoid unnecessary activity. This includes activities that burn excess energy and take away from muscle gain efforts. If you're focusing on gaining muscle then that should be the only focus.


As we have discovered, there are a number of reasons for undertaking strength training. You must have a definite purpose in mind because without it you could be chasing the wrong thing. Strength training is performed in order to make the things you do in life easier. This includes sports, general daily tasks and work.

Looking at the above purposes and strength types it is important to do a bit of analysis and decide what suits your purposes.

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YOUR COACH – Chris Lyons

Chris Lyons is an experienced strength and conditioning coach, having trained athletes of all ages and levels since 2002. Chris specialises in coaching athletes for speed and power specific to fast-moving sports such as rugby league, rugby union, soccer, Aussie rules football etc. Since 2002 Chris has conducted close to 15,000 hours of training and coaching directly with athletes and members of the general population. From this experience comes Sprint Ninja, based on tried and tested training methods combined with up to date research. Chris continues to challenge himself not only as a coach, but also as an athlete, competing in sprinting events, strongman and Olympic-style weightlifting.

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