the joy of strength training


November 10th, 2007 at 12:14 am

Types of strength

If you are after all-round strength, it’s important to understand the different types of strength – or even that there are different types of strength. It will help you to pin down what kind of training you need to do to reach your goals. It will also help you to cut through the crap when it comes to other people’s opinions! I hear people rubbishing certain exercises all the time; usually it turns out that the exercise in question isn’t rubbish, it’s just designed to train something that the person isn’t interested in achieving.

And while we’re on the subject of cutting through the crap, if you are a woman, take note: none of the strength training approaches below will result in you getting too big and bulky. In fact, you’ll get stronger, fitter and leaner. And it’s quite likely that you will be able to out-lift a lot of men to boot!

Maximal strength

As the name suggests, this is the heaviest you can possibly lift in a given exercise. Your maximal strength is determined by your 1 rep max (1RM), the most you can lift for 1 repetition. Maximal strength can be trained in the rep range of 1 – 5, using anywhere between 80% – 100% of your 1 rep max. It’s not a good idea actually to train to your 1 rep max too frequently. It’s something you can test every few months or years if you want to.

Here is a video clip of Annie from Crossfit going for a new 1 rep max on the clean.

In theory, you can use any lifts for maximal strength training, because you will be training for max strength in that lift. However, the more muscles involved in the lift and the bigger those muscle groups, the stronger you will get all over. I tend to use the power lifts – squat, deadlift and bench/chest press – for maximal strength training.

Olympic lifts – snatch and clean & jerk (or clean & press) – are also good for max strength training as they involve the whole body. But do note that unless you have good training in olympic weight lifting it is better to use the dumbbell versions of olympic lifts when going heavy, as they are technically much easier and you still get the strength benefits.

Maximal strength training has a beneficial effect not just on the muscles but on the central nervous system (CNS). This is important in any kind of strength training. It is the CNS that recruits motor units in the muscle fibres in order to perform a lift. The more you train the CNS, the better it gets at recruiting motor units – which means more muscle fibres are activated and you get stronger.

Explosive strength

Explosive strength is the ability to exert a lot of force in a short space of time, usually in order to propel yourself somewhere. A long jump or a 100m sprint requires explosive strength. It’s all about turning raw strength into speed.

As you might imagine, explosive strength is significant in many sports and activities. Pylometric training is often used to develop explosive strength. This type of training usually involves launching yourself into the air using either lower or upper body. Lower body pylometrics would include box jumps or tuck jumps. Upper body pylometrics would include clap press-ups or power overs.

clap press-up

Explosive strength is great fun to train. It’s very useful for sports and will increase your overall athleticism.

Strength endurance

Strength or muscular endurance is the ability to repeatedly generate force over a long period of time. Lactic acid builds up in the muscles, like it does when running for instance, and training for endurance both delays the lactic threshold and trains you to push through it.

Strength endurance is very functional. There are not many moments when we would be required to lift our maximum but there seem to be plenty of times in life where strength endurance is required – loading boxes into a van, for example.

Press-ups are a popular exercise to test strength endurance, doing as many as you can in one go. However, any strength exercise will train endurance if performed for a high number of reps, say 15 or more, at 50% or less of 1 rep max.

A lot of women are advised to weight train using 15 reps or more. They are told that this will prevent them from getting bulky or too big. This is bad advice because it means that women who only train this way are totally missing out on maximal strength training, which is so beneficial to the body. We already know that training for strength at 1-5 reps doesn’t make women big and bulky. Training endless repetitions will extend your lactic threshold but won’t make you stronger or allow you to develop the muscle that will help you burn fat and look lean and athletic.

Classes like Body Pump favour high reps of low weights. This mainly has a conditioning effect but doesn’t build significant muscle unless you are an absolute beginner – when lifting any weight at all will have an effect. I am not denigrating Body Pump; I used to do it and enjoyed it very much. But it is not particularly effective for strength training once you’ve got past the absolute beginner stage.


Bodybuilding has really entered the mainstream in recent years. If you join a gym the programme you will be given will generally be a bodybuilding programme. Resistance machines that you see in gyms have come from the bodybuilding world, although other strength trainees do use them for specific purposes.

Although the primary focus is on aesthetics, bodybuilding is a type of strength training. But bodybuilders are interested in muscle growth – hypertrophy – and therefore train to those ends. Bodybuilding exercises usually include the big compound exercises such as squat, deadlift and bench press, along with other exercises that work a particular muscle or muscle group. Bodybuilders rarely use olympic lifts.

Many bodybuilders use the rule of thumb that hypertrophy is best achieved by working in the rep rage of 8 – 12 reps, and 60-80% of 1 rep max. However, there are other methods around, such as 20-rep work, rest-pause training and super slow rep work like HIT.

Functional strength

In a way, functional strength is the opposite of bodybuilding, although I wouldn’t want to labour that too much. All types of strength are functional up to a point, but the type of training used has a different aim.

Functional strength has a use or purpose beyond the training itself, whether for sport, fighting or life in general. It is characterised by all-round strength, not just one type, and generally goes hand-in-hand with good fitness and conditioning. Functional strength training therefore includes all the types of strength training identified above: maximal, explosive and endurance.

Proponents of functional strength often incorporate objects from life, such as tyres, sledgehammers and sandbags, to highlight the functionality of the training. Trainees are encouraged to use whatever is around them or build up their own gym at home. Using one’s own bodyweight as resistance is a key part of functional strength training – what could be more convenient or useful?

Functional strength training is often used to train fighters, soldiers and law enforcement officers. Popular functional strength proponents include Ross Enamait, Gym Jones, Crossfit.


Conditioning isn’t a type of strength training, but strength training has a significant conditioning effect, so it’s worth talking about here. In the minds of many people, strength training and aerobic conditioning are two separate things, to be trained on separate days or in separate sessions. But often, they can be one and the same thing. Any kind of strength training will raise your heart rate. A set of heavy deadlifts will leave you panting and sweating! If you cut down your rest times so that your heart rate remains elevated, your strength training session will also be an aerobic conditioning session.

Circuit training is one good way to achieve this. Rather than doing three work sets for one exercise then moving onto the next exercise and doing three sets of that, you would train first one exercise, then the other, then back to the first and so on until you had completed three rounds. You can do this with as many exercises as you like. The point is to structure the circuit so that when you move from one exercise to the next you are working different muscles. For example, you could go from leg press to tricep dip. This gives the first muscle group a chance to rest a bit. So you can cut down recovery time between sets and exercises and keep your heartrate elevated, getting that conditioning benefit.

Putting it all together

You can train different types of strength – say, maximal strength and explosive strength – in the same session. It is worth bearing in mind, though, that whichever type comes second will probably suffer somewhat in performance.

You can also devote one session to one type of strength. For example, have a maximal strength day, followed by a day or two of recovery, then an explosive strength day. It’s up to you how you train, depending on what you are trying to achieve. I believe that whatever your goals, it is worth doing at least one heavy session a week. I think it gives you an excellent strength base from which to pursue all kinds of other strength and athletic activities.

It’s also very exciting to realise that you don’t have to be a professional strength athlete to lift a good deal more than your own bodyweight. I’m aiming for a double-bodyweight deadlift next!


Classification of types of strength and the rep ranges and percentages quoted come from Ross Enamait’s book Infinite Intensity.

Stumble it! Share Subscribe to this blog


RSS feed for comments on this post | TrackBack URI