You’ve decided that you want to get strong. That’s great. Increasing strength will help you avoid looking like you’re drowning in your sweater, sure, but your health will improve, too. A study in Current Sports Medicine Reports shows that strength training may improve your cardiovascular health, lower your blood pressure, and ease back pain. You’ll also lose body fat, gain muscle, think sharper, and be more confident.
But before you load up the weights and start clanging and banging, you’ve got some reading to do. Getting strong is a marathon, not a sprint (but don’t worry, you won’t actually have to run). To gain strength steadily and safely, you need to have a plan along with the tools and know-how to execute it. In other words: you need to strengthen your mind as you strengthen your body. Here are the steps you need to take to increase your strength:
Physiologically speaking, gaining strength is quite simple: You apply external stress to your body (in the form of a dumbbell, a kettlebell, or a set of bands), and it responds by recovering and adapting to that stress. Essentially, you’re telling your body, “Hey, body, I need you to lift this weight, so get with the program.” Because your body is an incredible machine, it will respond with, “Sure thing, boss, now I’m ready for more.”
The next time you train, you’ll apply slightly more stress. This can be in the form of more weight or more reps (we’ll get to that later).
Strength positively impacts your body in many ways, and a lot of them have nothing to do with the squat rack. For one, stronger muscles can better stabilize the joints they surround, so you’ll be able to move more easily and efficiently.
Most of the movements you’ll perform to build strength are loaded versions of movement patterns you engage in daily. Remove the barbell from your traps, and the back squat is the same motion you use to get on and off the toilet. Opening a car door is a similar motion to a standing cable row. Is this to say that you need a big one-rep max back squat or to bang out reps of cable rows to use the toilet and open your car door — no.
However, adults are known to lose between three and eight percent of their muscle mass every decade. (1) Getting stronger in the gym will ensure that you retain more muscle as you age.
Strength doesn’t start with your muscles but with your nervous system. The nervous system comprises the central nervous system (CNS) and the peripheral nervous system (PNS). The CNS consists of the brain and spinal cord working in tandem while the PNS is made up of nerves that stem from your spinal cord and extend throughout your body. Both of these systems control all five of your senses, along with your ability to move and balance (as well as temperature control, sleep, and other vital functions).
When you squat (or perform any lift for that matter), the movement starts in your brain. The cerebral cortex fires off a signal that travels down your spinal cord and contracts the muscles necessary to perform the movement. That’s your nervous system working. When you lift, you’re teaching your nervous system to contract the right muscles in the right order at the right time to complete a specific task.
On your first day of performing a new movement, the muscles and nervous system will have to get better acquainted. Over time, the nervous system will respond by granting you quicker and more powerful muscle contractions. And those swifter contractions allow you to lift more weight. As your nervous system gets used to the movement, you’ll also become more coordinated. That movement-specific coordination, which is achieved by your motor cortex figuring out the best way to fire the muscles, will let you perform the movement more efficiently.
Your nervous system responds to strength training before your muscles, according to science. A study in the Journal of Neuroscience saw two macaque monkeys lift weights and monitored the effects of weight training on their nerves. The monkeys performed one-arm pulls with a single arm. After three months, the researchers concluded that “strength training is associated with neural adaptions.” It was the monkey’s nerves and their muscle-brain connection that was strengthened before their muscles.
But this doesn’t mean your muscles aren’t working. After all, they’re still under load. Hypertrophy is a generally slower process compared to neural adaptions, as well, which is why it’s easier to point to the nervous system as the first system to adapt. Also, in the study above, scientists focused solely on the monkey’s neural response. So, while the results are still interesting and noteworthy, you shouldn’t discount the effects of strength training on your muscles. Though, hypertrophy from strength training is more a side effect as opposed to a direct response.
Another study performed on actual humans shows that lifting with both heavy and light weights (80% and 30% of one’s one-rep max in this case) resulted in more muscle mass. However, it was the heavy training group that significantly increased their one-rep max. The study authors suggest strength gains may be due at least in part to neural adaptions, not just muscular ones.
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