Strength Training Rules for Success

You need to follow scientific strength training rules if you want to build strength and muscle mass efficiently.  The following rules are condensed from the Evidence-based Resistance Training Recommendations of Fisher et al [1].

Strength Training Rules #1

Progressive Resistance

Muscular strength is simply defined as the ability to exert force.  The body increases muscle mass when increased mass is required to produce greater amounts of force. Strength and muscle grow only if you subject your muscles to ever-increasing demands for force production. 

This means you must design your training so that you can gradually increase the force you can exert, which means gradually increasing the amount of resistance you can handle for specified time periods.

This fact leads many people to focus only on increasing the number of repetitions they can perform, or the total amount of weight they can lift in an exercise, at the expense of proper exercise form.  This is counterproductive.  You can't achieve true progression of resistance without standardizing exercise form.  You have to implement the other strength training rules below in order to ensure that you are making genuine progress.

Strength Training Rules #2

Exercise Form

If you want to ensure that you are actually progressing in strength, you need to standardize your exercise form.  Here's why:

Let's say you can do 10 full range pull ups with your bodyweight, and each repetition is performed as follows:

  1. You start every repetition from a dead stop with arms fully extended and shoulders fully open, and take 2 seconds to pull your chest to the bar. 
  2. You hold yourself in the top position for 1 second.
  3. You lower yourself in 3 seconds until you are in a complete dead stop again.

You decide to add ten pounds around your waist at your next training session. You perform 4 repetitions.  You might think it goes without saying that you have progressed.  However, upon analysis, in this session you performed the pull ups as follows:

  1. On the third and fourth repetitions, you only extend your arms and open your shoulders three-quarters of the way at the bottom.
  2. You hold yourself in the top position for 1 second only on the first 4 repetitions.
  3. You swing your legs to add momentum to your upward pulling.

On this second session, you have increased the resistance, but you have changed your pull up performance in a way that makes each repetition much easier.  Therefore, it is unclear whether you have actually progressed or imposed greater demands on your upper back, biceps and forearms.


Proper form is one of the most important strength training rules.  It involves performing a full range of motion, easing into and out of the stretched positions, and incorporating brief pauses in the stretched or contracted positions where the exercise is most difficult.

In strength training, you are not using your muscles to do something to the resistance (whether bodyweight or external weights), your are using the resistance to do something to your muscles – namely, stimulate them to grow stronger and larger.  Therefore, you must make progression of resistance or difficulty subordinate to maintenance of consistent form.

Performance of any exercise can involve up to three different types of muscle activity:

  1. Lifting the resistance, which involves muscle contraction, also known as concentric motion.
  2. Lowering the resistance, which involves muscle lengthening, also known an eccentric motion.
  3. Contracting against a resistance without any change in muscle length or joint motion, also known as an isometric contraction.

Here are some form standards:

  1. Choose a resistance or difficulty level at which you can perform the concentric phase of the movement in no more than 3 seconds.  If the resistance level is so high that you can't perform the concentric phase in about 3 seconds or less, reduce the resistance.
  2. Begin each repetition by gradually applying force to smoothly initiate movement.  Do not jerk or yank. 
  3. In the first half of the set of repetitions, move slower than what you know to be possible. Generally, the concentric and eccentric phases of these repetitions should each take 2-3 seconds.
  4. Ease into and out of turn-arounds. Changing directions rapidly with jerking or bouncing greatly reduces the difficulty of the exercise and increases the risk of injury.
  5. Perform each exercise through the full range of motion.
  6. In the second half of the set, you can attempt to move as fast as possible, but because of fatigue produced by the first half of the set, you will not be able to move quickly.
  7. Remember this: In training your goal is to make your body work hard in order to stimulate adaptation. Thus, you should make the exercises as difficult as possible by maintaining strict form.  Relaxing form to achieve more time under load, more repetitions or more resistance will reduce stimulation and thus hinder true progress. If you thoroughly stimulate the muscles and the progression of time under load or resistance will take care of itself. 


Strength Training Rules #3

Effort

Effort (sometimes called intensity) refers to the level of effort you put into training, which can range from 0 (no training) to 100 (full effort).

Contrary to common belief, you do not have to use high load, low repetition dynamic training, or short duration (<30 second) isometric training to increase strength. It has been proven that load plays little to no role in strength development provided that training involves exerting maximum efforts.

Muscle hypertrophy is fundamentally driven by motor unit activation. Motor unit activation follows the size principle of muscle physiology.

"The size principle states that when the central nervous system recruits motor units for a specific activity, it begins with the smaller, easily excited motor units and progresses to the larger, more difficult to excite motor units. An increase in force production is a result of the orderly activation of a greater number of motor units (recruitment) and an increase in their frequency of activation (rate coding). Most of the peer-reviewed evidence strongly suggests that there are no functionally meaningful violations of the size principle"[2].

If you train with a moderate or low load up to a point near momentary muscular fatigue (not able to move the resistance), as you exert muscular tension against the resistance over a period of time or set of repetitions, motor units are sequentially recruited starting with low threshold (low force) units and proceeding through high threshold units as fatigue builds. When you reach momentary muscular failure, you have recruited all motor units. 

Data demonstrates that performing resistance training with either low or high loads (high or low time under load, respectively) provides a similar and sufficient stimulus for both strength and hypertrophy [3, 4].  In other words, you don't have to use high loads (or high difficulty low-leverage static holds) that would enforce very limited time under load (<30 seconds time under load) in order to develop either dynamic or isometric strength.

A 2017 study demonstrated that the level of effort, not the level of exercise resistance (as a percent of maximum voluntary contraction), determines the results you get from training.  Subjects who exerted high effort increased their strength by about 20% in 6 weeks, while those exerted low effort increased their strength by only about 2% in the same time period. 

While it is necessary to use a high level of effort to produce optimal results from training, excess effort is a negative factor in training.  On the one hand, you must reach a minimum level of effort or intensity to recruit sufficient motor units and stimulate adaptation.  On the other hand, if you exert maximum effort and expect to surpass previous performances every session, you may become psychologically averse to training.  Further, the higher the intensity of the training stimulus, the more time you need to recover from that training stimulus.

To illustrate, consider the way the body responds to sunlight exposure as a stimulus for tanning.  If the sun exposure is too intense (e.g. noon on a Arizona summer day) the skin will burn and it will need many days, maybe a week or more, to recover from the burn and acquire a tan. A more frequent (e.g. daily) and longer exposure to a somewhat milder stimulus (e.g. 9-9:30 AM) will produce a tan more quickly.

Consequently, one must regulate intensity wisely to sustain progress.  Some people – perhaps most – will find that training brutally hard (beyond positive failure) is less productive in the long term than training hard enough (just to failure or just short of failure).

You can regulate training effort (intensity) with mindfulness of body responses.

In his book The Way to Live the famed early 20th Century wrestler and strongman George Hackenschmidt made some interesting recommendations along these lines. He wrote:

“If for any kind of work the breath through the nose ceases to be sufficient, one ought to either discontinue the work or restrict the movement until breathing has again become normal.”

This is a way of regulating intensity through mindfulness of breathing difficulty, as done by runners. The idea is to work hard, but not so hard that you are uncomfortably gasping for breath. Of course this does not apply to conditioning training such as sprint intervals.

Hackenschmidt also advised:

“Never on any account continue the exercises until exhaustion sets in and always relax your muscles afterwards.”

Some people think that in this statement Hackenschmidt was expression opposition to training any movement to momentary muscular exhaustion.  I don't think so.  Here he is saying that one's training sessions should not be so hard and long that you feel systemically exhausted by them.

Again, work hard, even very hard, but don't drive yourself into the ground.  Focus on progression of resistance or difficulty of exercise.  Remember, your goal is to get progressively stronger, not to have the hardest possible training sessions.  You must train hard enough to stimulate changes, but not so hard that you prevent changes. 

Always focus on long-term progression of resistance in perfect form.  Regulate intensity to achieve progression. If you aren't progressing, your level of effort may be either too low or too high.  Find out which it is and fix it.

Strength Training Rules #4

Volume

Volume refers to the amount of exercise you perform. Volume and intensity of effort are always inversely related.  The more force you exert, the less time you can sustain it. You can run hard and fast, or you can run for a long time, but you can't run hard and fast for a long time. This is a simple physiological fact. 

This means that if you train with a high level of effort, you literally can not tolerate a high volume of exercise. Since a high level of intensity is physiologically required for stimulation of gains in strength and muscle mass, a training routine specifically designed for these purposes must be a low volume routine.

Most resistance trainers calculate volume by the number of sets and repetitions performed. There is a big problem with this.

Suppose in one training session I perform 10 pull ups, each taking 6 seconds to perform.  In another training session, I perform 4 sets of 5 repetitions, each taking 3 seconds to perform. 

If you account by sets and repetitions, in the second session I performed 20 repetitions, twice the volume of work as in the first session.  However, if you account by the actual amount of time spent doing repetitions, the volume of these two sessions is identical:

Session 1: 10 pull ups x 6 seconds each = 60 seconds of actual time under load

Session 2: 4 sets x 5 pull ups x 3 seconds each = 60 seconds of actual time under load

It is the amount of actual time under load that imposes demands on the body's resources.  The greater the time under load, the greater the demands on your body.   

Many people say that single-set training "doesn't provide enough volume" for some results.  This is simply wrong.  As illustrated by my example above, a single set can provide as much actual volume of exercise – measured in time under load – as multiple sets.

While some meta-analysis studies have suggested that multiple-set routines are more productive than single-set routines, the validity of the conclusions of these meta-analysis studies have been questioned due to the high variability in quality and execution of the experimental studies included in the meta-analyses [5, 6].

Advocates of single set training have maintained that the scientific evidence doesn’t support the use of multiple sets for either strength or hypertrophy.  They point out that the vast majority of studies report little or no difference in strength or hypertrophy outcomes between single set and multiple set routines.

However, the scientific evidence they cite may be misleading because it lumps together disparate training populations.  For example, some studies comparing single and multiple set routines involved only women or elders.  Women in general are very low responders to resistance training for hypertrophy; regardless of set volume, women do not typically respond to resistance training with vigorous muscle hypertrophy.  Elders are also relatively low responders.  Consequently, short-term studies of women and elders may not detect a difference in hypertrophy outcomes due to there being few moderate or high responders in those populations.

If a study includes equal numbers of both men and women, effects of the protocol (single or multiple sets) on hypertrophy in men will be washed out by the expected relatively low rate of hypertrophy response in women.  On the other hand, if another study population consists of for example college football players, it is reasonable to expect these individuals are more likely to have a stronger hypertrophy response to resistance training in general, and, if there exist differences in outcomes between different training volumes, they might more likely be discovered among this population.

While training studies of heterogeneous populations have these limitations and have not conclusively determined whether multiple sets of resistance training produce greater improvements in muscle strength and size than single sets,  Burd et al showed that a bout of training with 3 sets (per muscle group, not per exercise) produces greater increases in amplitude and duration of increase in muscle protein synthesis than a bout consisting of only one set per muscle group [7].  This suggests that, for any given muscle group, 3 sets of exercise is more anabolic than 1 set and may over time lead to greater muscle hypertrophy. 

Mitchell et al found that although resistance exercise load does not determine hypertrophy gains in young men, volume does appear to influence gains [8].  They tested training with 3 sets with either 30% or 80% of 1RM, or 1 set with 80% of 1RM.  They found that the subjects who trained with 3 sets (regardless of high or low load) showed more than double the average hypertrophy of the subjects who trained with only 1 set.

On the other hand, Kumar et al found no difference in muscle protein synthesis activity following either 3 or 6 sets of resistance exercise [9].  This indicates that there is likely no benefit to doing more than 3 sets of resistance exercise for any one muscle group.

Note that while there may be benefit to doing multiple sets, up to 3 per session for any one muscle group, this does not mean you need to do multiple sets of multiple exercises. Rather, you should do a TOTAL of 3 sets per muscle group.  The total of 3 sets could be distributed over one, two, or three exercises.  For example, for the upper back, you could do:

  • Three sets of one exercise, such as pull ups
  • Two sets of one exercise (e.g. pull ups) and one set of another exercise (e.g. rows)
  • One set each of three different exercises, e.g. pull ups, rows, and front lever

Also consider that although we divide upper body exercises into pushing and pulling types, the fact is that so-called "pushing" exercises involve "pulling" muscles and vice versa.  For example, pull ups are often stated to be an exercise for the back and biceps.  In fact, pull ups also train the pectorals, shoulders and triceps.  Dips are said to be an exercise for the chest, shoulders and triceps. but in fact they also require strong contractions from the latissimus dorsi and biceps.  Thus if you do one set of pull ups and one set of dips, you have effectively done two sets for all of the upper body muscles.

Excess volume is a negative factor in that it takes time and energy to perform greater volumes of exercise, which reduces the amount of time and energy you have available for other life activities. It is only rational to limit the amount of exercise you do to the least amount that will provide the desired results. 

Most of all, I recommend trusting your direct experience in training.  Training is not about forcing your body to respond by pushing it as hard as possible, whether that pushing is in extreme efforts (i.e. high intensity techniques) or in added time under load (more volume, more sets).  Training is about coaxing your body to respond by giving it just the right combination of intensity and volume, and it is wise to use the minimum doses of both effort and volume necessary to achieve the desired results, because both your energy and your time are limited commodities. 

Remember, in the end, the only thing that matters is progression of resistance or difficulty.  Since as I have stated volume is a negative factor that consumes your time and energy, add volume to your training only if you find no other way to achieve progress.  Many times, you don't need more volume of exercise, you need more rest and recovery, through reduced volume or frequency (rule 5) or better recovery practices (rule 6).

Strength Training Rules #5

Frequency

Frequency refers to how often you train.  As with volume, frequency is inversely related to effort.  The more effort you put into training, the less frequently you can tolerate the effort.

Resistance training research generally indicates that muscle protein synthesis is elevated for about 36 hours after a resistance training session [10].  This suggests that for most trainees, local muscle recovery is generally completed within 48 hours. Thus, the optimal training frequency for most people is no more frequently than once every 48 hours.  Assuming each session trains the whole body, this permits a training schedule of thrice weekly on alternating days.  Some people may do better training only twice weekly. 

I tend to agree with Arthur Jones that it is best to train the whole body in every strength training session. Doing so enables one to train with both maximum frequency and maximum rest time. In reality, it is impossible to train only one part of your body at a time, as your whole body is involved systemically in any training session.  Further, especially with gymnastic strength training, it is practically impossible to isolate any muscle group.  You might believe that you are only training part of your body in a split routine, but in fact every time you train you impose stress on your whole body.

At least one study has provided evidence that whole body training thrice weekly may produce greater gains in muscle mass than split routines that train each muscle group only twice weekly [11].  A 2016 meta-analysis suggests that training each muscle group at least twice weekly may produce greater increases in muscle mass than training each muscle group only once weekly [12]. 

Full body routines allow you to train the whole body with maximum tolerable frequency while also allowing you maximum rest days.  If you use a full body routine three times weekly, you load every body part thrice weekly while allowing yourself 4 days to rest from strength training. If you try to split the body in two, say upper and lower, you will be forced to strength train 6 days in a week to train both upper and lower body 3 times. Since every training session imposes systemic stress, you will be much more likely to overtrain.

Ideally your strength training should be hard enough to require 48-72 hours of rest before you can repeat the effort, but not so hard that you require more than 72 hours of recovery between sessions.  Typically you can achieve this by training each exercise very close to momentary muscular failure without including any so-called intensity-enhancing techniques. This translates to strength training two to three times per week for the average person.

Strength Training Rules #6

Recovery

Strength training makes demands on your recovery ability.  While your potential recovery ability is most likely genetically determined, several factors determine whether you realize your full potential for recovery from intense exercise.  To realize your full recovery capacity you can do the following:

  1. Spend as much time as possible grounded.
  2. Get adequate sleep, generally about 8 hours each night
  3. Consume adequate fruits, vegetables, and animal protein.
  4. Take cold showers daily.
  5. Practice deep breathing to alkalize the blood.
  6. Do gentle movement to enhance circulation (e.g. yoga, easy walking) on rest days.
  7. Practice quiet meditation or other stress reduction methods.
  8. Spend time in the forest for some nature therapy.
  9. Take periodic breaks from high intensity training.

To succeed in strength training, you need to incorporate periods of reduced effort into your schedule to allow the body to recover from the intense efforts. On page 181 of Building the Gymnastic Body, Christopher Sommer explains:

"By constantly attempting to improve from workout to workout; more weight, more reps, more volume, more speed, etc. over and extended period of time, the athlete will eventually, usually within an eight week time frame, come up against their [sic] current physical limitation.  Continued attempt to try to force the body to blast thru these very real physical limitations are fruitless as the body's schedule of regeneration and adaptation is set and cannot be exceeded.

"All that will be accomplished by continually struggling to exceed these biological limitations are a plethora of over-training issues, among these being: joint pain, muscle strains, lack of energy, decrease in coordination, lack of explosiveness, connective tissue issues and mental fatigue. In addition, continuing to push in the fact of these over-training issues will often result in a short-term injury, which could easily have been resolved through reduced training or rest, becoming a chronic or permanent physical impairment."

The mind has limitless desires, but the body has natural limits.  Improvements in your body are accomplished by biochemical reactions that take definite amounts of time.  It is impossible to increase the rate at which your body can build muscle, bone, or connective tissue.  You can provide the stimulus for change, but you have to allow the body to change at its own rate.  As the European proverb goes, you can't push the river.

I have found that I generally need to have one recovery or 'deload' week for every three weeks of hard training. In these weeks I adjust my training effort to about 50% of what I was capable of in the week preceding the deload week.  For example, if I was doing 6 dips with 20 pounds of added resistance in the week before deload, in the deload week I will perform only 3 repetitions in a single set of dips, with or without the added resistance.

NOTES

1. Fisher J, Steele J, Bruce-Low S, Smith D.  Evidence-based resistance training recommendations.  Medicina Sportiva 2011;15(3):147-162.

2.  Jungblut S. The correct interpretation of the size principle and its practical application to resistance training. Medicina Sportiva 2009;13(4):203-209.

3. Morton RW, Oikawa SY, Wavell CG, et al. Neither load nor systemic hormones determine resistance training-mediated hypertrophy or strength gains in resistance-trained young men.  J Appl Physiol 2016;121:129-138.

4. Fisher J, Steele J, Smith D.  High- and Low-Load Resistance Training: Interpretation and Practical Application of Current Research Findings.  Sports Medicine 2016 Aug 01

5. Fisher J. Beware the Meta-Analysis: Is Multiple Set Training Really Better than Single Set Training for Muscle Hypertrophy? J Ex Physiol (online) 2012 Dec;15(6):23-30.

6. Genil P, Arruda A, Souza D, et al. Is there any practical application of meta-analytical results in strength training? Front Physiol 2017;8:1.

7. Burd, Nicholas A et al. “Resistance Exercise Volume Affects Myofibrillar Protein Synthesis and Anabolic Signalling Molecule Phosphorylation in Young Men.” The Journal of Physiology 588.Pt 16 (2010): 3119–3130. PMC. Web. 2 June 2017.

8. Mitchell, Cameron J. et al. “Resistance Exercise Load Does Not Determine Training-Mediated Hypertrophic Gains in Young Men.” Journal of Applied Physiology 113.1 (2012): 71–77. PMC. Web. 2 June 2017.

9. Kumar, Vinod et al. “Age-Related Differences in the Dose–response Relationship of Muscle Protein Synthesis to Resistance Exercise in Young and Old Men.” The Journal of Physiology 587.Pt 1 (2009): 211–217. PMC. Web. 2 June 2017.

10. MacDougall JD, Gibala MJ, Tanopolski MA, et al. The Time Course for Elevated Muscle Protein Synthesis Following Heavy Resistance Exercise.  Can J Appl Physiol 1995;20:480-86.

11. Schoenfeld BJ, Ratamess NA, Peterson MD, Contreras B, Tiryaki-Sonmez G. Influence of Resistance Training Frequency on Muscular Adaptations in Well-Trained Men. J Strength Cond Res. 2015 Jul;29(7):1821-9. doi: 10.1519/JSC.0000000000000970. PubMed PMID: 25932981.

12. Schoenfeld BJ, Ogborn D, Krieger JW. Effects of Resistance Training Frequency on Measures of Muscle Hypertrophy: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis. Sports Med. 2016 Nov;46(11):1689-1697. Review. PubMed PMID: 27102172.