Basics of Strength – Part 1

Introduction to Strength

Strength; Defined in the dictionary as:


the quality or state of being strong; bodily or muscular power; vigor.

However true this statement may be, it is vitally important that both athletes and coaches understand what strength actually is, the different types of strength, when different types of strength are utilised and how to develop the required strength. Without delving too far into the physiological and biomechanical aspects of strength too much, such as, conditions for inducing hypertrophy, limb length, joint angles etc, this article will look at ways of training and correct identification of strength requirements in sport and also the training and development of these areas.

First, strength is the physical ability, in this case, of an athlete, to exert a force on an object. Kicking a ball, performing a maximal deadlift and performing a standing jump all have components of strength, albeit different forms of strength. Identifying which strength is primarily being used in a given movement, technique or exercise will enable the coach and athlete to make the training more specific to the goals and demands of the sport.

Knowing the different types of strength which may be required is the first stage. The different types of strength may also be able to be broken down even further. There are 3 major forms of strength; maximal strength, explosive strength and strength endurance.

At this point it is apt to highlight absolute and relative strength. Although not strictly speaking a type of strength in the way explosive strength or strength endurance are it is important that they are understood. Absolute strength is the maximum force an athlete can exert with their whole body or part of the body, irrespective of body size or muscle size. Relative strength is maximal force in relation to bodyweight or muscle size

This is the first part of a series of articles which aims to highlight the basics of strength and give a insight into the findings of research and how it relates to practical applications for coaches and athletes. This article focuses on maximal strength as this should be the starting point and the foundations on which other strength types are built upon.

Maximal Strength

Simply, The maximum amount of force that that can be generated in a single contraction. This is probably the most common conception everyone has on the strength. The main athletes requiring training specific for maximal strength would be competitive power lifters, however, this does not not mean that no other athletes should perform maximal strength training. Maximal strength can be thought of as the foundation from which other forms of strength can be developed.

For a very basic example, imagine a shot putter. They first need to build up the required strength to actually be able to move the shot. Not to throw the shot, irrespective of the speed of the movement, just to actually be able to move the shot. This will be maximal strength. As the athlete’s maximal strength increases then the shot becomes easier to move, eventually the maximal strength reaches a level where it can be thrown. Once the athlete has developed a solid strength base then other types of strength can be trained.

Looking at the strength base and building a stronger strength foundation from which to develop other forms of strength is important for almost every sport. Understanding the training methods which best maximise the results without using up a lot of the off season. For the majority of sports, especially sports with a prolonged competitive season such as football or rugby, the off season is a suitable time to focus on building strength as there is less conflict between the training schedule and competition requirements.

There are several studies which have been carried out which look at ways in maximal strength can be increase. A strength coach will be aware that there are several different training factors which need to be considered when focusing on specific strength training. these include, percentage of one rep max (1RM) used, reps per set, number of sets, rest time and even the speed that the repetitions are performed.

In regards to maximal strength training and maximal strength sports, the speed the techniques, such as deadlifts and squats, are performed in powerlifting have no time limit to reach maximum force production. Without looking at the way the body become and muscles becoming stronger in depth, it is important to understand that ways in which the body responds to training stresses and adapts to cope with the stresses of training. Using loads close to an athletes 1RM forces the body to adapt both neurologically and morphologically. Neurological adaptions refer to the the athlete’s learning of technique and also the athlete’s ability to contract the muscles and being able to recruit the maximum amount of muscle fibres during a repetition or movement. The morphological factors refer to hypertrophy (growth) of the muscles themselves. Larger muscles are able to produce greater forces therefore being able to lift more weight or the same weight easier. A study into both neurological changes and the morphological changes was carried out by Folland and Williams (1997). It investigated the both changes in the body when performing strength training.

Using lower 1RM percentages, certainly have benefits for athletes but when looking at training for maximal strength, a study by Moss et al (1997) highlights that using resistance closer to an athletes 1RM is able to increase maximal strength to a greater extent than lower percentages of 1RM. The study used a total of 30 subjects randomly assigned to one of three groups. the groups each performed the same exercise but using either a resistance equal to 90%, 35% or 15% of the subjects 1RM. The results showed that all three groups did significantly (<0.05) increase maximal strength (measured by 1RM) but by different amounts. Results of the 15% and the 35% 1RM groups improved by 6.6% and 10.1% respectively, however the 90% 1RM group improved by 15.2%. The length of the study was 9 weeks. and the training consisted of three to five sets, performed three times a week for 9 weeks. Each set consisted of two, seven and ten repetitions in 90%, 35% and 15%, respectively. The study focused on strength increases in elbow flexors, primarily the biceps.

The study by Moss et al (1997), shows that lower reps using a higher resistance increases strength greater than using a lower resistance with higher reps.

In regards to the amount of sets to perform, Schlumberger et al (2001) compared a single set against a 3 set protocol on maximal strength increases. 27 subjects were randomly assigned to either a group which performed a single set of exercise or performed 3 sets of exercise. Both training groups underwent a whole-body strengthening program, exercising 2 days a week for 6 weeks. Subjects were tested for their 1RM strength on the bilateral leg extension and the seated bench press machine. The results of the study showed both training groups made significant strength improvements in leg extension (multiple-set group, 15%; single-set group, 6%). However, in the seated bench press only the 3-set group showed a significant increase in maximal strength (10%).

In a study by Ben-Sira et al (1995) highlights that it is not just the amount of weight, or reps that can affect strength, but also how the reps are performed. The study compared conventional reps, eccentric contraction (when the muscle is lengthening under tension) only, concentric only (when the muscle contracts and shortens while generating force, supramaximal eccentric training (SMET) (similar to eccentric training training but using a weight between 100 – 130% of 1RM). Subjects trained on a knee extension Schnell machine twice weekly for 8 weeks, performing 3 sets of 10 reps with a starting load of 65% of 1-RM. The SMET group performed a the first half of the repetition in the same manner at the conventional group however the second half of the knee extension was performed with one leg only (effectively turning the load into 130% 1RM. The results of the study showed, that SMET and conventional repetitions significantly (p=<0.05) increased 1RM/bodyweight to greater levels than the other Concentric/eccentric only groups. The investigation did find that these groups did increase strength but to non-significant levels (p=>0.05).

To conclude, research has shown that maximum strength is best trained with multiple sets at higher resistance and lower repetitions, also the addition of advanced techniques like SMET are able to produce significant increases in the strength levels. Adding a maximum strength training period in a training year will enhance the ability to train and improve other types of strength and therefore increasing the performance of the athlete.


Ben-Sira. D., Ayalon. A., Tavi. M. (1995). The Effect of Different Types of Strength Training on Concentric Strength in Women. The Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. 9 (3).

Folland. J.P., Williams. A.G. (2007). The Adaptations to Strength Training: Morphological and Neurological Contributions to Increased Strength. Sports Medicine. 37 (2). pp 145-162.

Moss. B.M., Refsnes. P.E., Abildgaard. A., Nicolaysen. K., Jensen. J. (1997). Effects of maximal effort strength training with different loads on dynamic strength, cross-sectional area, load-power and load-velocity relationships. European Journal of Applied Physiology and Occupational Physiology. 75 (3). P193-199.

Schlumberger. A., Stec. J., Schmidtbleicher. D. (2001). Single-vs. Multiple-Set Strength Training in Women. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. 15 (3).