The following is an excerpt from Chapter 5: Strength Science, in our P360 FCC Coach’s Certification Manual. We will be hosting our first FCC weekend, open to the public for the first time in five years, November 3rd – November 5th.
“Just lift heavy and you’ll get stronger”. The age old advice that’s always been prescribed as a fix all in the realm of strength training. I’ve said it. If you’re a coach, you’ve said it. And while you absolutely wouldn’t be wrong in saying it, I’d like you to reflect on what your reaction would be if your athlete asked you to explain why they have become stronger, or tougher yet, why they haven’t. Could you answer it? Could you tell them all the characteristics that have increased their strength? Could you pinpoint areas in your control you can work on to get them there?
Heavy training is certainly strong training, but it would be a mistake to think that “add more weight” is the only prescription that’s required.
Today, we are going to dip our toes in the deep end, and we’ll show you what goes in behind the curtain into our athlete development at Performance360, address our definition of strength training, the factors at play in getting you stronger, and where you might be able to see some opportunities in your own knowledge of training or coaching strength.
What we have learned about strength and developing it is that it occurs by two forms of adaptation.
Functional and Structural. Functional, referring mainly to the efficiency of our muscle contractions (brain to muscle talking). Structural, referring mainly to the physical components of the muscle (size, diameter, type, etc.) I’ll explain the forms of adaptation, as well as review our five individual characteristics that influence the strength outcome of each adaptation.
1. Functional Muscular Action
Strength is ultimately a product of muscular action initiated and executed by the electrical processes in the CNS, the complex central computing of the brain and spinal column which processes information and sends out commands to the rest of the body. It is almost exclusively responsible for building strength, and for new athletes, it is how they are able to build strength very quickly without the addition of much lean body mass.
This primarily involves motor learning and neuromuscular efficiency.
- Motor Learning – The programming of the CNS to be able to carry out specific movement tasks to the muscles. Example would be a beginner learning the basic squat pattern.
An athlete that jumps the phase of motor learning and attempts to go straight into training NME will never reach their potential. To me, it remains the single biggest mistake in fitness to this day.
- Neuromuscular Efficiency (NME) – The skill at which the athlete can efficiently and intensively recruit muscle fibers to produce the movement pattern accurately and powerfully. A muscle will produce more strength if the large number of its fibers contract at once, which depends on how efficiently our nerves send impulses to our muscle fibers. Example would be someone who has learned the squat pattern, and is now getting progressively stronger in it.
Think of motor learning as the first step that allows you to do a movement (beginners), and neuromuscular efficiency as the step that allows you to do it well (intermediate to advanced gains).
This is why establishing proper movement pattern is so critical during the motor learning phase. Every time we move, especially in beginners, our CNS is mapping and creating memory to these patterns, and if we establish bad movement it becomes nearly impossible to undo without quite literally starting over. Moving under load is a reflex pattern created by our body, and it is very difficult to un-train and retrain reflex patterning as your body will always want to default to what it first learned.
I am going to make the assumption that you are familiar with NME on at least a base level. When you lift heavy, for example a day of 5×5 deadlifts @ 75%, your CNS is the main force at play. Under the stress of heavy load, your CNS is forced to recruit more motor units and establish patterns of those units to efficiently complete the movement via the motor cortex. Motor units are what work together to coordinate the contraction of a muscle, dictated by the motor cortex. As mentioned, this process is known as neuromuscular efficiency, and is essentially your brain getting better at communicating to your muscles to create contraction, which creates strength.
This situation is analogous to a General directing orders to soldiers. Your CNS is the General and the motor units are the soldiers taking orders. We get stronger as a result of better communication between General and soldiers.
That is essentially the basis of functional strength training.
2. Structural Muscular Hypertrophy
It is impossible to train for structure without also training for function. Structural training will inevitably improve the athlete’s functional training no matter where they are along the curve. However, productive function cannot occur on any level without sound structure.
Building muscle has a horrible reputation. It’s either fear-based in the form of, “I don’t want to get bulky” or looked down upon as a “bro” activity. However, the benefits of Structural Muscular Hypertrophy are real.
- Builds Strength – We already learned how important building high rep endurance through basic movement pattern is for beginners. But more muscle in the advanced lifts gets advanced athletes stronger, which is why it is not possible to train structure without also training function. Not only that, but the further you progress along the curve, the more important hypertrophy work becomes in order to continue progressing. At the onset of a program, around one to two years, most of your strength gains occur at the neuromuscular level. That is, our body and brain working together more efficiently to perform heavier movement. However, once you’re past a certain point your body is no longer going to adapt like it once did and so focusing on strength from a structural level, that is, building the muscle and soft tissue, becomes more beneficial.
Think about it in the same manner as the previous General to soldier analogy. At first, the soldiers you have are being trained on what to do (motor learning). Then, they get really good at their task (neuromuscular efficiency). However, at some point they’re as good as they’re going to be and you simply need more soldiers for more demanding tasks (hypertrophy work). This is the process of adding muscle as you progress along the curve.
- Assistance Lifts in Disguise – It is only common sense that if your quads are restricting you in the deadlift off the floor, you need to train them. This is just weakest link theory and what structural raining is mostly about. GHD hamstring curl is meant to develop a larger hamstring complex. However, this has the added benefit of helping your deadlift and squat, as well as helping provide balance to your musculature which in turn aids in preventing injury. Extending the triceps in an isolated fashion (skullcrushers, kickbacks, pushdowns, etc) will benefit your bench and press lockout. DB rows help build the back and strengthen the deadlift. Even if you were to not be interested in the aesthetic benefit of hypertrophy work, the functional benefit goes a long way to developing your strength.
- Improved Anaerobic Endurance – Building muscle is going to allow you to sustain more power for longer. The more muscle we have, the more phosphocreatine potential we have for immediate power use in the Phosphagen System. This is where we use burst power, and our body stores creatine in the sarcomere of the muscle. Creatine is largely responsible for repeat, high-power muscle contraction so by adding more functional muscle to our frame, we’re able to improve our creatine storage capacity and our strength/power endurance output.
- Soft Tissue Health & Symmetry – Isolation work and submaximal work in the range of 40 – 60% can improve the health and function of our joints, tendons and ligaments. This goes a long way in keeping us healthy as we continue to age and incorporate the rigors of training into our daily lifestyle.
- Increased Caloric Expenditure – There is no such thing as trading fat for muscle. One does not turn into the other. But over time, a focus on building your strength will have a favorable effect on both your ability to build muscle and burn fat. Muscle is the most calorically active tissue in the human body and the more of it you have, the more calories you will burn at rest (Basal Metabolic Rate).
A 135 pound woman comprised of 25% body fat will have a slower burning metabolism than a 135 pound woman with 18% body fat.
As you can see, building your structural integrity at all phases of your development carries great benefit to an athlete’s training evolution.
One’s production of strength and adaptation to both structural and functional training is dependent upon but not limited to the following:
- Genetic Trainability
- Neuromuscular Efficiency Development
- Biomechanical Efficiency Development
- State of Fatigue
- Personal Speed Strength Continuum
Genetic factors that determine one’s potential for hypertrophy, leverage characteristics of one’s joints, distribution of fast and slow twitch muscle fibers, acid buffering, and metabolic efficiency, for example. This is your metabolic make-up that your parents gave you, and to a certain degree, there is nothing you can do to alter your genetic ceiling.
Dmitry Klokov, Usain Bolt, Mattie Rogers, and every single high level CrossFit Games athlete. All fine example of extremely high trainability.
If we know that an athlete is going to have poor leverage in the deadlift, then why would we encourage them to try and specialize in it? A very long spine is a trainability limiter out of their control, so why not put them under something better like a Bulgarian Split Squat?
Skill capacity is another area. There are athletes who are more genetically wired for power, and there are athletes that are more genetically wired to endure. Take a former football linebacker and a college distance runner and put them on the same program, and you’re going to get two drastically different outcomes. Both will progress, but at much different rates, benefits, and outcomes.
Put those who are hardwired to endure in a structure where they can train and express it, and you’re usually talking about marathon champions. Put those who are hardwired to produce power in a strength format, and you’re usually looking at fitness competition winners.
Which do you genetically favor?
Neuromuscular Efficiency (NME) Development
As reviewed, NME is dumbed down as our brain to muscle communication. A muscle will produce more strength if the large number of its fibers contract at once, which depends on how efficiently our nerves send impulses to our muscle fibers.
NME is an extremely important factor in how your body will respond to certain strength training protocols. Some athletes have very high NME, and some have very low. The easiest way to make that determination is to find out how you operate at 85% of your 1R max. A high NME will only be able to perform a very low number of reps (2-4), whereas someone with a low NME will be able to perform a very high number of reps (4+).
Think of it like this. Let’s take a back squat PR of 385#. There will be two different types of folks who perform this lift. There will be those who can squat 385# once, yet might be able to squat 325# only three times (a high NME). Then, there will be those who can squat 385# once, yet can squat 325# ten times (low NME).
The reason that NME and the amount of reps you can perform at 85% is inversely related (ie, a high number of reps at 85% equates to low NME) is because your NME is so dialed, neuromuscuarly efficient AF, if you will, that your 1R is disproportionately higher than the rest of your strength measurements because your reach at top end NME is excellent.
Once you determine whether you are high or low NME, you may get some insight into why certain training protocol favors you or does not. For most low NME folks (a higher 85% output), you may respond better to a program that includes more work at higher rep ranges. For high NME folks, you may respond best to a program that includes more work at lower rep ranges. Both categories need a mix of both, but favoring where your body most responds might be a key to unlocking your next level of strength.
Training the Advanced Athlete
It is also important to note that our neuromuscular efficiency must be trained differently depending on where we are along the spectrum. Beginner to intermediate athletes can see huge strength increases at 50-80% for as long as a few years.
However, as an athlete becomes more developed, strength ranges should increase to 80 – 95% in order to continue to see the neuromuscular efficiency develop.
Biomechanical Efficiency (BME) Development
BME refers to joint and muscle interaction and its improvement in the training process. An example of this would be a shoulder that cannot properly articulate at the start of training, and sees its function and mobility improve, allowing the athlete to go from dumbbells to barbell presses overhead. A new athlete who comes into fitness after sitting behind a desk for five years post college is going to protract forward at the scapulae and likely be locked in the thoracic. Put them through twelve weeks of structured training, and that scapular function is going to improve which has no choice but to also improve strength.
That’s a BME strength win, folks. Nothing else. Not progressive overload, not NME.
Other glaring examples of this could be an advanced athlete who has never focused on ankle mobility and sees their squat depth improve as a result of it. It could be improved thoracic mobility which leads to a bigger clean, or noticing your athlete’s long femurs and putting them into a low bar position on the squat. All ways you have increased their biomechanical efficiency, not their strength.
Although genetic factors can be improved through training, one’s training ceiling is largely dictated by genetics and the unfortunate reality is there is only so much one can do about certain limitations. However, both neuromuscular and biomechanical efficiency can be greatly influenced and improved by training. This sums up why two athletes of two different genetic trainabilities could follow the same program and both get very strong (neuromuscular and biomechanical efficiency goes up), but one athlete may get substantially stronger and also much bigger (different levels of trainability).
State of Fatigue
There are two unique types of fatigue: Central and Peripheral. Both fatigues will affect an athlete’s output.
- Central – Associated with fatigue in the Central Nervous System. This is fatigue from too much strength training at too high of a frequency without recovery. This is when our body is in a weakened, tired state. Symptoms include decreased motivation and impaired transmission between brain and muscle This fatigue is more chronic.
- Peripheral – Associated with fatigue in the Musculoskeletal System (muscles) and is most closely associated to Local Muscle Endurance. This fatigue is more acute, and occurs from decreased blood flow to working muscles. At higher reps of muscle contraction, blood flow becomes restricted due to compression of blood cells by contracting muscles, and oxygen to the working muscles becomes cut off. The working muscles quite literally choke off your airway.
Too much training in a state of peripheral fatigue can lead to central fatigue and then you’re talking about very real stressors at play possibly reversing your training. Both forms of fatigue must be managed, and an understanding of recovery and how that impacts your strength progress is important.
Newer athletes can get away with more frequent training since load won’t beat up their CNS, however, athletes with a higher training age will be best served by reduced training frequency if the intensity rarely comes down. Strength work can take up to 48 hours to properly recovery, intense aerobic work sometimes even 72 hours. Train accordingly.
Speed Strength Continuum
There are four characteristics of athletic strength training that exist in a continuum.
Maximum Strength <–> Strength Speed <–> Speed Strength <–> Maximum Speed
What it sounds like. A heavy barbell lift that is relatively low speed and heavy, like a powerlift.
Still training heavy, but in a load that is moved quickly like an Olympic lift. Greatest velocities are attained under conditions of low loading.
Explosive movement at low load, like a box jump, broad jump, sled sprint.
For example, sprint training.
The reason that this is explained in continuum format and not hierarchical is because they all help one another. Exercises with the heaviest load tend to increase the strength potential of the muscles, whereas fast exercises with light weights improve speed and explosive strength.
The one rep max is the industry golden child, but why? It’s simply a task specific to a goal (setting a PR, training for a lifting competition), not final judge and jury. In fact, many athletes are so focused in absolute strength proficiency that the rest of their strength skills go backwards (poor relative strength, very poor speed strength).
Those who apply strength training focus only at near maximal percentages of barbell lifts (maximum strength) may see huge progress by breaking from that and focusing on reduced load, higher velocity strength like DB Jerks, speed deadlifts, and weighted box jumps (strength speed, speed strength).
We tend to cherry pick along the continuum and settle into a focus. Those who train at all points of the continuum will get the best well-rounded strength results.
I touched on this in “Is Specificity Still King”, and provided examples who have seen huge gains in absolute strength through means other than isolation of training absolute strength.
Here is a summary of all that today entailed:
Forms of Strength Adaptation.
- Motor Learning
- Functional Hypertrophy
Factors that influence the results of the above.
- Genetic Trainability
- Neuromuscular Efficiency Development
- Biomechanical Efficiency Development
- State of Fatigue
- Personal Speed Strength Continuum
Strength is “complicatedly uncomplicated”. At the end of the day, progressively overload yourself across a sustained period of time and you’ll get stronger. However, hopefully today you learned that absolute load on the barbell is just one of the many factors that’s contributing to that progress.
For more information on the November FCC Coach’s Weekend, please visit here.
Siff, Mel Cunningham. “Strength and the Muscular System.” Supertraining. Denver: Supertraining Institute, 2003.
Fitzgerald, James. Program Design: Exercise Physiology. http://www.OPEXfit.com
Cressey, Eric. “Understanding the Absolute Speed Strength Continuum”. http://www.EricCressey.com. 2010.