Strength training for life

HARARE - First of all, let's face it, putting everything else aside, life is easier when you’re strong.  Carrying groceries?

Five bags per hand and get it done with one trip. Children to carry? No problem, one in each arm and the third on your back. Car breaks down (in Zimbabwe that is a regular occurrence)? Push start it with ease.

Truck full of cement bags? No forklift in sight, don't worry, manhandle them yourself. Oh, and least I forget that you look and feel great too when you lift strong to live strong.

When it comes to actually training strength there is often a misunderstanding between Hypertrophy (increasing muscle size) and strength training.

They complement one another in the overall process of physical development but they have different manipulations that you as the lifter need to take care of.

Knowledge is definitely power so let's take a look at the Strength Training Variables that are non negotiable in guiding your programming.

There are a number of different variables that you can manipulate in the weight room and they should include:

Minimum effective load (% of 1 Rep Max) - You have to perform foundation tests to determine your 1RM or 3RM scores and then general rule of thumb is to lift weights that are around 80-90% of your 1RM score for a rep range of around 5.

Repetition range (reps per set) - this may vary from person to person but ideally exercising for low reps emphasizes muscular strength and neurological improvements. That is, your body gets physically stronger, and learns to activate your muscle fibres more efficiently to let you lift more. Each repetition is so close to the body's maximal strength that it reacts by improving that maximal strength for next time. This is simply adaptation to an applied stress.

Rest periods (recovery length between sets) - when you are operating at near maximal levels you need to recover fully. If you are looking for injuries and no gains then cut your recovery periods and suffer the consequences. Aim for anywhere between 2 and 5 minutes or until you feel fully recovered.

Time under tension (repetition length) - the most commonly advised rate is 2-3 seconds on the lowering (eccentric) phase and 1-2 seconds on the lifting/pushing (concentric) phase. This ensures there is a level of movement control for muscle fibre recruitment and safety.

Total volume (weight x reps x sets) - this is key to understanding how much stress you are applying on your body. Once your weight increases and your percentage of effort increases so your reps and sets should decrease to illicit the best possible opportunity for your body to adapt and make strength gains without sacrificing lifting efficiency or increasing your chance of injury.

An appropriately designed strength training program can illicit the following benefits:

Enhanced strength of the skeletal and soft tissue structures (bones, muscle and connective tissues which are ligaments and tendons). A direct result of this is certainly increased strength and decreased risk of injury.

Increased muscle mass. Muscle tissue is partly responsible for the number of calories burned at rest (the basal metabolic rate, or BMR). As muscle mass increases, BMR increases, making it easier to maintain a healthy body weight.

Your quality of life may be enhanced - As your overall strength increases, the performance of daily living activities will become less difficult.

Within the training world and gyms and sports teams there are Training Principles that have been proven and tested through decades of experiments, scientific research and hard earned sweat. The most common training principle for strength development is the Progressive Overload Principle whereby the aim is to make marginal gains over time by increasing the weight you move by incremental percentages. Small gains to make big gains over time. Essentially you are forcing your body to deal with increased stress in order to adapt and respond by enhancing your ability to generate greater amounts of strength.

It is important to highlight that everyone is different. We each possess our very own genetic blue print and as such we can respond differently. My point is this, understand what you are trying to achieve by researching what has been done already and then manipulate the variables to find out what works most effectively for you.

*Ex-Zimbabwe rugby international Grant Mitchell is High Performance Director at Innovate High Performance Centre in Harare and a top strength and conditioning coach. Twitter: @InnovateHPC, website:

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