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Strength training tips and exercises

Designing a strength training programme is a complex process. As a strength coach I need to consider: what you're training for, what exercises will best suit you and the order they feature in your programme, how often you need to train, how much weight you need to lift, how many sets and reps you should perform, and how long your rest periods should be. Understanding all of these variables will help to create a near optimal programme. Personally I said near optimal because I believe no programme is perfect and I make amendments all the time. Here are the key points on what you need to know to help you create a solid strength training programme.

1. What are you strength training for?

If you play a sport, a "needs analysis" evaluates the requirements of the sport and you as an athlete. Understanding what movements are common, what injuries are common, and what strength levels are required for the sport can help build a specific programme. For example, a powerlifter requires maximal strength in three lifts: the deadlift, the back squat, and the bench press. Therefore these movement patterns should make up the bulk of the strength training programme. Before starting a strength programme, you should perform tests to assess your own ability to help you create a good starting point. Professionally speaking, performance tests (e.g. maximum strength) and a movement assessment can determine if you have any weak links that need addressing.

2. What strength training exercises should you perform?

I touched on this in the first point where exercises should be specific to your goals. If you want to get strong at the deadlift, then you should deadlift. However, for me exercise selection depends on your goals and any weaknesses you may have - which should have been highlighted from your performance/movement assessments. For example, the back squat is an excellent strength exercise if done correctly; initially however I tend to avoid them when I'm coaching in a group scenario. Too many back squats exhibit poor depth and a forward lean of the upper body and it makes the exercise look like a "good morning". I'd rather pick an exercise that can still create a strength adaptation but is simpler and safer for the athlete - such as a split squat. For me, technical form is vital - five good reps are better than 10 crappy ones.

3. In what order should you perform strength training exercises?

The key point with order of exercise is that you need to prioritise; if you want to get strong, do the strength exercises first when you're fresh. Another way of looking at exercise order is how much fatigue does the exercise cause? Power exercises such as jumps are less fatiguing on the muscular system so tend to be first in most programmes, followed by strength work, whilst dropping down the volume of cardiovascular training. Lifting weight is a form of HIIT (high intensity interval training) that provides many of the same benefits as cardio.

4. How often do you need to train?

Frequency of training can be split up depending on how much time you have and the goals you have for that training phase. Consistency is important for maintaining/developing strength levels; in power athletes, strength levels may only be maintained for up to two weeks. Therefore you're not going to get much out of strength training once a month. In a strength phase, athletes tend to train up to three times a week and I like to use a full body approach allowing at least 48 hours recovery between sessions.

5. How much weight should you lift?

The intensity of your training sessions should be based upon the results from your performance tests. When training for strength, I like working from a percentage of your one repetition maximum (RM; the amount you can lift for one rep). Progressive overload is important for strength development and training at 85% or above of your 1RM tends to elicit the greatest strength improvements. Progressive overload can be achieved by lifting heavier loads or performing more reps forcing the body to adapt, however you can't lift heavy every session because you will become fatigued over time increasing your risk of injury.

6. How many sets and reps should you perform?

The number of sets and reps you perform is known as the volume of your session, and once again will depend on your goals among other factors. In general, a low volume of six reps or less at a high intensity (>85%) are utilised for true strength sessions. There should be an inverse relationship between sets and reps, therefore the less reps you perform the more sets you should have. You may have seen various programmes such as 5×5, 6×4, 7×3 (sets × reps). Don't forget your warm-up sets though, you should gradually increase the weight each set until you’re ready for your working sets.

7. How much rest should you have between sets?

If your goal is increasing maximal strength, you should allow a near-full recovery between sets - this can be anywhere from 3-5+ minutes. The heavier the weight lifted, the longer the recovery required. If your rest is too short, you won't be able to hit the prescribed number of reps on the next set, therefore I would suggest timing your rest periods. During the rest periods, to be productive, try to work on any weaknesses you may have that won't affect your core lift. For example, if you are bench pressing for upper body strength, you can work on your lower body mobility during the rest periods. With such long rest periods, your programme should be built up over 3-5 exercises.

Strength training programme

These seven rules can be applied for any goal, whether it is gaining lean mass, losing fat mass, or gaining strength. Below is a general example of a three day programme for overall strength. For accomplished strength trainers, more advanced techniques may be utilised to break through plateaus such as bands, chains, or cluster sets.
Day one Day two Day three
Front squat Deadlift Front clean
Chin ups Dips DB bench press
SL hip thrust RFESS Prone row
Ab roll outs Pallof press Unilateral farmer's walk
You should note that this is just the basics of building a strength training programme, if you are training towards a specific point, you should periodise your training programme, including deload periods - to allow for optimal improvements. If you follow the above guidelines you will be well on your way to a solid strength programme, just try not to overcomplicate your programme and make sure it's safe. Of course, you'll also need to follow the right diet and consume the right strength and mass supplements to help you reach your goals.

Further reading

1. 8 Laws of Strength Training by Bret Contreras. 2. 20 almost laws of strength training by Bret Contreras. 3. Baechle TR, Earle RW, Wathen D. Resistance Training, Chapter 15, in Essentials of strength training and conditioning, 3rd ed., Champaign, Illinois, Human Kinetics, 2008. 4. Boyle MJ. Various Chapters, in Advances in Functional Training: Training Techniques for Coaches, Personal Trainers and Athletes, California, USA, On Target Publications, 2010.
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