• What is Muscle Strength?

    by coach Mike Sulewski

    According to the definition: Muscle Strength is the ability to overcome external resistances, or to resist at the expense of muscle fatigue.

    Most of the bodybuilders know the basic theory concerning the relevance between muscle mass and muscle strength. In line with it, the bigger so called cross section of particular muscle, the bigger the its strength. In a nutshell, large, thick muscles = huge strength.

    Let’s consider a situation, where two friends (both the same age) have been training together in the gym for, approximately 3 years.
    One of them is strong and bench presses 150kg. The second one, on the other hand bench presses 170kg, so theoretically, he’s the stronger one. Till this moment, everything is nice, clear and understandable, though a difference between the effects of their workouts and our firm theory has occurred.
    As I’ve mentioned, they both have been training for the same period of time with similar regularity. To make things more precise, I’ll add that they’re almost the same height and skeletal structure.

    So how do we explain the fact that, the one who’s heavier and more muscular, has lower PB?

    How is it possible, that the ‘less muscular’ one with, smaller cross sections is at the same time stronger in bench press?

    They decided to put themselves to test one more time. Again, in the bench press, but on slightly different terms.

    Now they want so see who’s going to make more reps with the 130kg weight.

    The results of this test, will surely confuse them even more.

    Well, the heavier and more muscular one did 10reps, while the one we’ve considered better in this lift, managed to do ‘only’ 9 reps.

    So, generally speaking, who’s the stronger one? How to measure it, when the results seem to go against themselves and the theory itself?

    It appears that, the ‘strength thing’ is much more complicated than we’ve expected.
    We may understand and explain after a few moments of deliberation the first inconsistency (which was shaking the idea of mass->strength dependence).
    We come to a conclusion that the ‘suspect’ may be the type of training, which presumably wasn’t identical in both cases.
    Indeed, when we remind of attending a gym, it immediately occurs to us, that powerlifters or weightlifters train a little bit different way, in terms of weights, number of sets, reps and breaks between them.

    Summing up, we’ve drawn the first conclusion. Simple, but already a scientific one. To achieve best possible result we need specialistic strength training, not necessarily coinciding with typical bodybuilding approach.

    All right then, but how to explain the second discrepancy, which was the difference between RM and the number of reps with 130kg weight. Again, how to explain the fact that the stronger one turned up to be the weaker one the seemingly easier test?

    So, who’s stronger then? The one who has bigger 1RM, or the one achieving more reps with average weight?

    You cannot strictly defy strength.
    Taking into consideration possibilities and specific character of displaying muscle strength, science uses many definitions. Among the most frequent ones, connected to both bodybuilding training and widely considered strength training, we may distinguish such concepts:

    a) General strength, meaning the ability to overcome resistance by activating elementary muscle groups

    b) Special strength, meaning the ability to overcome resistance only in some movements, and only particular muscle groups

    c) Maximal strength – the biggest force, muscle can produce in one rep, no matter the speed (the lifter with 170kg RM can say, he’s got higher maximal strength)

    d) FORCE/POWER – the ability to unleash maximal strength in shortest possible time. In terms of physics, it would be the product of strength and speed.

    e) Absolute strength – maximal level of strength possible to achieve by lifter in any exercise

    f) Relative strength – quotient of absolute strength and body mass (here the “170kg” guy wins again, because he’s lighter in addition, so he may say he’s relative strength is bigger).

    g) Muscle endurance – those abilities, which are relation between strength capacity, and overall endurance. The ability to perform the biggest possible effort, in the longest possible time.
    (here the stronger guy had to reconcile with the failure against the one with lower PB, but better endurance)

    To be precise, I’ll add that we distinguish local strength endurance, as the ability to generate biggest possible strength in longest possible time by chosen muscles or muscle groups.

    Sometimes, we hear of global muscle endurance, as the ability to generate biggest possible strength in longest possible time by all muscles group (or as many as we can).

    In this part, I’ll take up the subject of building general muscle strength.
    It’s the most basic, universal and yet, comprehensive “type” of strength.
    Training of any sport discipline, where muscles are engaged, has some elements of working on increasing general muscle strength.

    So, no matter if you’re a bodybuilder, boxer, runner, or you climb, an element of increasing general strength, should obligatory appear in your yearly macrocycle.

    The choice of exercises

    In training program aimed at developing “general strength”, one should include complex exercises, putting to work several muscle groups simultaneously.

    They improve movement coordination, make cardiovascular system more efficient and engage few smaller assistant muscles.

    The number of sets

    Depending on the level of experience, I recommend 3-8 sets of each exercise.

    The range of reps

    To make training comprehensive, which is such that doesn’t lead to disproportions between muscle endurance and maximal strength (remember the guy bench pressing 170kg but not handling so well with 40kg less on the barbell?), I recommend to apply a wide range of reps e.g 3-8.

    In sets with smaller number of reps, the pressure will be put on the development of maximal strength, while sets with bigger number of reps will take care about our muscle endurance (as inseparable constituents of general strength).

    The choice of weights

    It is strictly connected with the planned number of reps in one set. Depending on the experience, strength reserves should allow you to perform 1-3 reps.

    To provide you with example, beginners should choose the weight to be able to perform 4-6 reps, if they are supposed to perform a 3-rep set.

    Of course these reserves may decrease to only 1 rep in the last set of particular exercise, no matter the experience. Otherwise, we won’t be talking about making any progress (according to Weider’s rule of gradual overloading the muscles).

    A suggestion of a program for beginners (practice- 0, or below 12 months)

    On this level, I recommend circular training which means performing 1 set of every intended exercise during one full circle.

    Training cycle directed at “General muscle strength” in this case should last 4 weeks.
    The maximal number of trainings during one week is 3, of course still remembering that between particular trainings, we should include one day-off for regeneration. Don’t train 2 days in a row!
    During every session, we train the whole body.
    In weeks number I and II, we perform 2 circles with 8 reps in every exercise. In weeks III and IV, we increase the number of circles to 3 with 8 reps in every exercise. Breaks between successive exercises 60-120 seconds. Breaks between complete circles 120-180 seconds.

    Together with gaining experience (around 4-6th month of practice), you may actually attempt to apply progression by increasing the weights in circles, while decreasing the number of reps.

    An example:
    Circle I – 8 reps in every exercise
    Circle II – 6 proper movements
    Circle III – 4 proper movements

    Recommended set of exercises
    1. The Lumberjack Squat
    2. The Corner Barbell one arm Push Press
    3. Chin Ups (if you don’t manage to perform it correctly yourself, ask partner for help or try to perform the positive phase of the exercise helping yourself with little bounce)
    4. Dips (the same rule as in chin ups)
    5. The Two-Handed Dumbbell Swing
    6. Russian Twist

    A suggestion of a program for pre-intermediate (practice min. 12 months of systematic, consequent training)

    On this level you may choose between circular trainings and traditional method of performing all sets of certain exercise, one after another.

    The cycle lasts 4-6 weeks.

    We train optimally 2, maximally 3 times a week, remembering to put the day-off between training days, for regeneration. Again, don’t train 2 days in a row!
    During every session, we train the whole body

    We perform 3-4 sets of every exercise with the weight progression
    3 Sets – perform in sequence 8.6 and 3 reps
    4 Sets – 8,6,5 and 3 reps
    Choose the weight to make the reserve maximum 2 reps

    Rests between the sets – 120 sec (no matter the applied method (sets/circular) and between particular circles (if the method is circular obviously) 120-180 sec.

    Recommended set of exercises:
    1. The Lumberjack Squat
    2. High Pull
    3. The Corner Barbell one arm Push Press
    4. Chin Ups
    5. Dips
    6. The Two-Handed Dumbbell Swing
    7. DB Russian Twist (arms stretched)

    A suggestion of training for advanced bodybuilders (practice min. 24 months of systematic, consequent training)

    In this case we resign from circular training and perform all the sets of each exercise one after another.

    The cycle lasts 4-6 weeks.
    We train the whole body 2 times a week (e.g : Monday – Thursday, or Tuesday – Saturday etc.)

    During trainings we perform 3 sets with 8 reps, interchangeably with 8 sets and 3 reps of each exercise.

    We choose weights to have maximally 1 rep of reserve in the last set of certain exercise.

    Breaks between sets.
    When there are 8 reps – 120 seconds
    When there are 3 reps – 180 seconds
    Between exercises – 180 seconds

    Recommended set of exercises:
    1. The Lumberjack Squat
    2. High Pull
    3. The Corner Barbell one arm Push Press
    4. Chin Ups
    5. Dips
    6. The Two-Handed Dumbbell Swing
    7. Russian Twist (arms stretched) and don’t put down the dumbbell in final stage of the movement.

    The performance of the exercises

    High Pull

    Russian Twist



    Barbell standing press

    Lumberjack squat