It’s a popular pursuit and one that’s been heavily studied, but is getting stronger just the same as getting bigger? Certainly not! Exercise physiology research has proven over and over again that building strength requires a different approach to simply building bigger muscles1. So if your primary pursuit is strength gain, you are not going to be best served by the typical bodybuilding routine. Savvy personal trainers and gym junkies know that building size generally requires reps in the range of 8-12, while building strength requires reps in the range of 3-81. Building strength as opposed to muscle mass is typically the pursuit of competitive athletes such as Olympians, martial artists, footballers, rugby, boxers and even endurance athletes. This is because such athletes know that increased strength invariably equates to better performance. More specifically, if an athlete can make their muscle stronger, without changing its mass – then straight away the athlete has gained a significant power/weight advantage, which invariably translates to improved performance.
Strength Development Programs
But what are some of the key proven methods for increasing strength? There are a plethora of training theories and programs that are designed to increase strength, but many have not been subject to the rigours of scientific analysis. There are so many variable elements when it comes to strength training programs, such as number of reps, number of sets, rest intervals between exercises and sets, total training load and intensity, plus exercise selection and technique1. This makes for an infinite number of possibilities when designing training programs. However, for the sake of time and space, this article will focus on two of the major general variables within strength training programs, namely training load and volume and their modulation according to different types of periodisation training programs.
One of the major ways of varying load and volume is in the form of periodisation of strength training programs. Major studies in the early part of the 21st century showed unequivocally that a periodised strength training program versus a static or unperiodised approach is superior in terms of strength gains2.
Your classical long term periodisation program typically begins with high volume-low intensity training and progresses towards low-volume high-intensity training. The most common form of periodisation is called linear periodisation. A typical linear periodisation program is made up of different training phases that focus on different volumes and intensities, which last approximately 4-6 weeks. For example, you might have 4-6 weeks of training that is spent predominantly training within a particular zone, such as 8-10 reps or 1-3 reps per set. Also, within each training phase, there might be a specific training goal such as hypertrophy, strength, strength/power and power.
Particularly in the case of competitive athletes, the goal of most linear periodisation programs is to peak or maximize strength/power after the last training phase, which is typically a power phase. These peaks are designed to coincide with a major competition or event.
The basic linear periodisation approach is logical as long as the athlete recovers and responds appropriately to the training stimulus. However, if an athlete overtrains or does not respond appropriately to the workout program, the pre-calculated training loads become inaccurate. The variability of the human element has traditionally represented a complex problem when it comes to optimizing most training programs. For this reason further research has been carried in an attempt to account for the variability in human response to differing training loads and intensities.
In more recent years, there has been intense research on how best to optimize periodisation regimes so as to maximize strength development. One of the major outcomes to emerge from this research is the development of nonlinear periodisation programs. In nonlinear periodisation programs, instead of making gradual adjustments over long periods, more rapid fluctuations occur3. Working within a nonlinear periodisation model, an athlete may train hypertrophy, strength, and power all in the same week4. This system may be more effective for several reasons: overtraining may be avoided, boredom may be relieved, and adjustments to an intense travel schedule can be made to accommodate an individual’s physiological and psychological readiness for a particular workout5.
Flexible Nonlinear Periodization
More recently, a promising new variation on nonlinear training programs has been reported. Labelled flexible nonlinear periodisation, the training system follows many of the same concepts, goals, and strategies of traditional strength periodization and nonlinear periodization. However, the distinguishing feature of a flexible nonlinear program is that the athlete’s physiological or mental readiness to exercise is determined immediately before the workout5. For example, a coach may ask an athlete the number of hours he or she slept the night before, what type of food he or she consumed, how much energy he or she currently has, or how he or she feels using a psychological assessment. Athletes can also undergo maximal strength or power testing immediately prior to each workout to determine their current performance level on that day. To determine the readiness of an athlete to perform in a specific training zone, a test such as a maximal vertical jump, standing long jump or medicine ball throw, can be performed immediately prior to a training session. Another way is to simply monitor the beginning sets of the first few exercises in a training session to help determine the physical readiness of an athlete to perform a specific training session.
Examples of Pre Workout Testing
For example, if a standing long jump is performed immediately prior to a training session and the athlete cannot achieve at least 90% of their previous maximal standing long jump, the athlete may be fatigued. Similarly fatigue is indicated if an individual could previously perform 12 reps of an exercise with a specific resistance and at the start of a training session can only perform nine reps with this resistance. The fatigue or other physiological factor, such as delayed onset muscle soreness, could be due to previous resistance training sessions or other types of training (interval training, sports skill training) being performed as part of the total training program. Psychological stress due to work or any other factor could also prevent performing up to previously demonstrated abilities. No matter what the reason in this example if a moderate-intensity moderate-volume (i.e. 4 sets of 10-12 repetitions) training zone was scheduled to be performed the training zone would be changed to a different zone (i.e. 3 sets of 12-15 repetitions)6.
Customising Flexible Nonlinear Periodisation Programs
When it comes to flexible nonlinear training programs, athletes who are well-rested, properly nourished, and performing well on pre-workout testing may be given a low repetition maximum, or high power output, workout. Alternately, athletes who are not well-rested, poorly nourished, and performing inadequately on pre-workout maximal testing might be given a workout that utilizes lighter weights and that is less intense than previously planned. Initial studies comparing nonlinear versus flexible non linear have shown some promising results7-10, suggesting that flexible nonlinear periodization is set to become a popular approach to maximum strength gains.
1. Baechle, TR, Earle, RW, and National Strength and Conditioning Association (U.S.). Essentials of Strength Training and Conditioning. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics, 2000.
2. Fleck, SJ and Kraemer, WJ. Designing Resistance Training Programs. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics, 2004.
3. Kraemer WJ, Fleck SJ. Optimizing Strength Training Designing Nonlinear Periodization Workouts. Human Kinetics Publishing, 2007; Champaign, Illinois.
4. Stone, MH, O’Bryant, H, and Garhammer, J. A hypothetical model for strength training. J Sports Med Phys Fitness. 1981;21:342–351.
5. McNamara JM, Stearne DJ. Flexible nonlinear periodization in a beginner college weight training class. J Strength Cond Res. 2010;24(1):17-22.
6. Fleck SJ. Non-linear periodization for general fitness & athletes. Journal of Human Kinetics Special Issue. 2011;29A:41-45.
7. Miranda F, et al. Effects of linear vs. daily undulatory periodized resistance training on maximal and submaximal strength gains. J Strength Cond Res. 2011;25(7):1824-30.
8. Simão R, et al. Comparison between nonlinear and linear periodized resistance training: hypertrophic and strength effects. J Strength Cond Res. 2012;26(5):1389-95.
9. Prestes J, et al. Comparison between linear and daily undulating periodized resistance training to increase strength. J Strength Cond Res. 2009;23(9):2437-42.
10. Rhea MR, et al. A comparison of linear and daily undulating periodized programs with equated volume and intensity for strength. J Strength Cond Res. 2002;16(2):250-5.