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If You Want to Get Strong, You Need Stress

This is a blog for students and adults who want to ponder the benefits of exercise, fitness and strength training and their implications for life beyond the momentary endorphin rush or the pursuit of some physical aesthetic ideal. The views and opinions expressed in this blog are founded on several years of personal experience, observation, trial and error (lots of the latter) and study. This is the sixth of a biweekly series of blogs written by Mick Fuller.

If you want to get strong, you must make your muscles move heavy weight. There is no other way. Strength is simply the ability to produce force. Force production is the process of muscle fibers contracting in a coordinated way under control of the nervous system.

Application of that ability occurs when muscle fibers that are bundled up into whole muscles and muscle groups contract together and pull on the bones or other tissues they are attached to. The efficiency of nervous system signaling and the number and size of the fibers involved determine how strong the contraction is and how much force is applied.

Mark Rippetoe’s guide to starting strength and his introduction to each lift, along with how to perform each lift properly.

Getting strong is the process of making the muscle fibers thicker, which increases their contractile force, training the muscles and nerves to work well together and recruiting as many fibers as possible to participate in the contractile action.  

The only way to make these three processes occur is apply stress to muscles by making them work and force them into the Stress Recovery Adaptation (SRA) cycle* an explanation of the process of increasing strength derived from Dr. Hans Selye’s general adaptation syndrome.

There are many ways of causing stress but some ways are much better than others. The best method of producing stress in the skeletal muscular system to induce a strength adaptation is to make the muscles in the system contract as rigorously as possible in a systematic way.

When this process is repeated at appropriate intervals, adaptation progresses from a weaker to a stronger state. Generally, this progressive phenomenon is known as strength training.

Strength training can be applied in almost innumerable approaches or strategies, some of which are more effective than others. I should note that the field of strength training, within the broader context of exercise physiology, is in constant flux regarding which strategies are most effective in producing strength and improving performance.

There are, however, generally accepted concepts and methods common to most, if not all, approaches. The use of weight/resistance against the movement of the skeletal muscular system is the most significant of those concepts. Resistance creates stress, and stress produces strength.

At this point it is appropriate to ask, “What specifically should I do to get strong?” In this blog and in the strength training that occurs in the FC strength and conditioning classes and the FC Barbell Club, I advocate an approach described by author and strength training expert Mark Rippetoe in his book, “Starting Strength: Basic Barbell Training 3rd ed”.

In the book, the author develops three foundational principles that govern the process of strength development. The three principles are summarized in the following directive:  Use the greatest amount of muscle mass to move the most weight possible through the longest effective range of motion. Rippetoe applies these principles to the selection and refinement of a set of movement patterns that will produce the stress needed to stimulate muscle fiber growth and neuromuscular efficiency.

The movements which produce the greatest amount of stress are the low bar back squat (which I will refer to from this point on simply as the squat) the deadlift, the bench press and the overhead press. All four of these movements engage most of the body and involve several joints. Performing these lifts multiple times per week with appropriate amounts of weight will induce the SRA cycle and will lead to improvement in strength over time.

For untrained novices (which includes those who have previously only done “cardio” or used machines for their workouts) as well as for individuals with some exposure to barbell training, the four lifts, performed correctly, will produce enough stress to make the whole body significantly stronger in just a few weeks.

I have worked with many students in the last few years who have doubled (a few almost tripled) their strength in each of these lifts over the course of a few months. In future posts I will describe each of these movements in detail and discuss how they can help you as you become a more functional human.

*The SRA cycle was explained in some detail in the 1st blog post in this series.

To read the first blog of the series read: Functional Human blog, No. 1.

To read the latest blog of the series read: Functional Human Blog Post No. 5, When I Don’t Want to Train.

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