What is Strength?

In follow up to the blog I recently wrote which you can access here, on how to produce strength using a single leg squat as an example exercise, I manipulated combinations of height and resistance in order to facilitate a greater range of motion under control.

The speed at which you can facilitate an increased range of motion has led me to question what is strength? Is it a physiological adaptation or is it a neuro-muscualr capacity to allow movement?

Strength is defined as “The capacity of an object or substance to withstand great force or pressure”. So what is it that enables us to be able to achieve this?  

If it was a physiological adaptation then why do we persevere with reps, sets, weights, periodised training programmes when a physical response can be achieved within an hour! We have all seen people bursting out of their vests in the gym, who strictly adhere to their regime and have the muscular mass to show for it. But how strong are they? Could a a person with significantly less muscular mass lift those weights or would they have to prescribe to the same training schedule.

If we consider strength can be facilitated neurally, then surely that changes how you should be training? Allowing the body to experience different ranges of motion, different resistances, different speeds will challenge the central nervous systems (CNS) resolve to allow the movements being generated. The body monitors movement changes via proprioceptors in the muscles and joints. Should these receptors register a movement that is out of the CNS comfort zone, then a stretch reflex will send a signal to the muscles to stop then eccentric contraction and thus will prevent the movement continuing. Therefore, being able to train the body to accept the movement ranges will enable greater eccentric muscle contractions and an increase is strength output capacity will a consequence. By a rule of thumb, a tight muscle is a weak muscle, so being able to access greater eccentric muscles ranges by reprogramming the CNS will enable an increase in muscle fiber recruitment, greater skeletal range of motion, and a more effective and efficient performance outcome.

I personally think strength is a combination of the two. I believe any physical performance should be based on a competent movement foundation. The ability to get in and out of as many multi-dimesional movements as possible will stimulate the CNS in allowing those movements and being confident in them. The next stage is to break down the movements that are incompetent by the CNS and made restrictive. By manipulating the ranges of motion, resistances and speeds you will stimulate the proprioceptors in the muscles and joints to experience these enhanced movements under controlled distress. Assuming the loaded movements have been performed effectively, with no new compensation patterns created, when you strip back the exercise, by decreasing the range or weight for example, then the foundation movement becomes easier and the stretch reflex in the brain isn’t initiated that prevents the movement occurring, instead the CNS is able to accept that the movement will do them no harm.

This then enables you to tap into the residual strength that lies dormant in the muscle as its restricted through a shorter range of motion. So the question is, should we develop an increased strength of the muscle during its shorter range? Or should we be focusing on allowing the body to recruit the residual strength in the muscles, then making those muscle fibers stronger?

I certainly believe the latter is where performance training should be focusing on. If there is a initial strength return by simply training the muscles to eccentrically contract through greater ranges of motion, then fastest way to produce a strength gain is to improve the mobility of the athlete. Once an effective movement competency is achieved, then the training principles of overload, progression and adaptation will ensure that their is always a constant neural stimulation, and therefore the CNS will be able to react to any sudden changes in stress placed upon the body during skill acquisition.

In summary, I believe that their can be greater strength gains by stimulating the CNS to accept ranges of motion under different factors, be them speed, range and resistance, or combinations of the three. Once movement competency is achieved, then traditional strength training practices of sets, reps and periodisation will ensure continued adaptation and progression by providing an overload stimulus. This however, should not be at the expense of the movement sequences required by the athlete, of the movement patterns required should be the cornerstone of an effective development programme.


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