How to Gain Strength
Before we discuss the criteria for getting strong, let’s first acknowledge how intimidating and confusing it can be to walk into a gym or weight room for the first time. A person is presented with dumbbells, an infinite number of machines, cardio equipment, barbells – and they don’t know where to even begin. We’re here to help those people understand it’s just not that complicated.
We use three basic and simple criteria to help us decide which exercises will be the most effective at increasing our physical strength, in other words, our ability to produce force. Remember, we want the biggest return on our investment from our time in the gym, so we only want to choose exercises that will do such thing.
These are the 3 criteria:
- Use the most muscle mass
- Use the most weight
- Use the greatest effective range of motion
Criteria #1: Use the Most Muscle Mass
Exercises that use the most muscle mass make the most joints bend. For example, the biceps muscle makes the elbow joint bend. The hamstrings muscle makes the knee joint bend. Joints can also extend – or “straighten.” The tricep muscles makes the elbow joint extend and the quadriceps muscle makes the knee joint extend. During a squat, our hip, knee and ankle joints bend and then extend. Therefore, the squat requires the use of more muscle mass compared to a leg extension performed on the leg extension machine. This is why we squat on our first day in the gym, instead of only working our quadriceps muscle on the leg extension machine.
Criteria #2: Use the Most Weight
Exercises that can be loaded with the most weight possible will increase strength (force production) more than exercises loaded with lighter weights. Let’s go back to the squat for an example. The squat not only uses the most muscle mass, but it can also be incrementally loaded with heavier weights over time by placing a barbell on our back. But what about air squats? For a completely untrained individual, air squats would make them stronger, but only for a short period of time. Eventually, the squat would need to be loaded in order to cause a strength adaptation in this trainee. Let’s add a qualifier to this criteria: use the most weight possible, with absolutely perfect form. So to summarize, the squat is better than an air squat, which is still better than the leg extension machine, because it uses more muscle mass and can be loaded with heavier weight.
Criteria #3: Use the Most Effective Range of Motion
While it is important to use the most muscle mass with the most amount of weight, the range of motion matters. A squat that ends above parallel is not equal to a squat that is proper depth – with the crease of the hip just below the top of the knee cap (just below parallel). This can also be said for the “ass to grass” or “butt to ankles” squat. A squat that ends where the hamstrings smack off the calves (way deeper than just below parallel) is also not an effective range of motion. The greatest of effective range of motion is not synonymous with the GREATEST range of motion. In the squat, just below parallel is the proper range of motion because at this point in the movement, the muscles involved reach their full eccentric stretch and can contribute the most to the concentric portion of the movement – standing up. Going beyond (or stopping too short) of this depth uses less muscle mass, which violates criteria #1.
Let’s apply the three criteria for strength to help us make a decision regarding what to do in the gym. The infinite number of exercises and machines is pared down to four compound movements – the squat, overhead press, deadlift and bench press.