After understanding why strength is important and understanding that becoming strong is desirable, there is a difficult next step: learning how to get strong. The actual process of getting strong is simple, but people want to believe it's complicated. This makes it easier to give up when they fail or gives them a reason to not do it. The process of strength training involves a few key aspects: exercise selection, technique, recovery, and linear progression.
These factors can be learned in great detail from either a strength coach or on one's own. If a coach is not hired, the trainee must figure it out on their own, and before anything else is done, the trainee should read Starting Strength: Basic Barbell Training. Reading the whole book is not necessary to get in the gym. Just reading the first chapter, each "learning the exercise" section, and the "learning the lifts" section of the programming chapter will be enough to start. This is roughly 50 pages. This will be enough to get the trainee in the gym for a few weeks. Do not read those 50 pages and then let the book collect dust. Starting Strength contains a wealth of knowledge and can answer almost any question a new trainee will have about strength training. Many of the details outlined in this article are from Starting Strength.
A trainee will need to find a suitable location to work out. To start, a home gym is not recommended if it is avoidable. A one month membership to a commercial gym will cost between $20 and $50 a month. A one year contract is not recommended for the same reason a home gym is not recommended; if the trainee decides to quit for any reason in the first month, they are in the hole an appreciable amount of money. Having a home gym or one year contract is appropriate after the trainee has some momentum in strength training.
The gym should be outfitted with three primary pieces of equipment: barbells, power/squat racks, and weights that fit on the barbells. The barbells should be straight; a bent barbell is a dangerous barbell. Additionally, a gym should allow the use of chalk or provide chalk. If a gym does not allow the use of chalk, find a new gym. It really is that big of a deal.
Exercise Selection and Frequency
Many people that go to the gym don't have a plan. They show up and play around, using this or that machine, until they feel a little tired and worked out. This is not an effective use of time for strength training and is a product of lack of planning. A trainee that has thought through the correct process will know what exercises they're going to do and how many times they're going to do it. A plan exists before the trainee even gets in their car to go to the gym. Exercise selection is based on three criteria.
Criteria 1) The exercise must use a large number of muscles and joints. Millions of years of evolution didn't account for the creation of machines with pulleys and cables to be able to isolate muscles, so the human body does not build muscles well this way. Strength is obtained by working many muscles. It is the normal way humans use their bodies. Working one muscle for one exercise and doing twenty exercises for "leg day" is also just not an efficient use of time compared to one exercise that works twenty muscles.
Criteria 2) The exercise must move over a long range of motion without trading off criteria 1. This will allow the most work to be done with the same amount of weight on the bar. A long range of motion also incorporates criteria 1: a one inch partial squat does not incorporate the same number of muscles that a below parallel squat does.
Criteria 3) The exercise must allow the trainee to lift the most weight without violating criteria 1 or 2. The higher weight will stress the muscles more than a lower weight, and appropriate stress is essential to becoming stronger.
The below parallel squat, the press (or overhead press), the bench press, and the deadlift fulfill these criteria effectively. They all use many muscles over a long range of motion with a large amount of weight. More specifically, the free weight, barbell version of these exercises should be used. A smith machine does not stress the body in the same way a free weight squat does. The trainee must use their body to control the bar to move it in a straight line, not a machine.
Choosing exercise and training frequency is more based on empirical evidence than theory, but is also definable. Three sets of five repetitions for each exercise with five minutes of rest in between works well for most trainees that are starting strength training. This will be done three days a week with at least one rest day in between each workout. An exception to the 3x5 set up is for deadlift which will be done for one set of five reps. The reasoning behind this is complex, but it basically can be reduced to the fact that the deadlift is extremely stressful to the central nervous system, and therefore requires less reps. This program is commonly referred to as the Starting Strength Linear Progression.
'Linear progression' means that each time a workout occurs, more weight will be on the bar than last time. For example, on Monday, a trainee may have squatted 3x5 at 185lb, pressed 3x5 at 85lb, and deadlifted 1x5 at 185lb. They would rest on Tuesday, and then lift on Wednesday with an increase in weight. This progression is shown in Figure 1.
A linear progression is the most basic of exercise programs and is always the place to start when beginning a strength training regime. The reasoning for this is the general adaptation model.
Selye's General Adaptation Syndrome
The general adaptation syndrome model describes the process by which an organism responds to any type of stress imposed on it. Assuming the stress is not too large, the process is defined by three stages: stress (alarm), recovery, adaptation. The first two must occur in appropriate proportion for the organism to adapt. A trainee may squat 3x5 at 185lb and assuming this is sufficient stress, the body will attempt to build the body stronger in anticipation of the stress reoccurring. Basically, the body goes "oh shit, that sucked. If that happens again, we need to be ready." During the recovery process, the body will rebuild the muscle bigger than it was prior to the stress event. If it builds back stronger, the body has adapted. If the same stress occurs, it will not be sufficient to cause adaptation, because the body already adapted to that stress. The body goes "this is the same crap we did last time. We are ready for this. No need to change." In order to cause the body to adapt, the stress must increase. That is why the linear progression is needed. This can be done with reps and sets, but for the novice, it is best to do it with increasing the weight on the bar. It is important to note that the stress-adaptation model is not a two step process; recovery is in the middle. Humans do not adapt from the stress; they adapt by recovering from the stress.
Rest and food encapsulate the majority of recovery. The trainee should eat and sleep enough after their workouts in order to recover from their workouts. In general, a trainee should sleep and eat more than what they usually do. For some, this may be seven hours of sleep and a hundred extra calories. For some, this may be ten hours of sleep and an extra three thousand calories. A trainee that is fat will not need to consume more calories. For everyone, increasing to a gram of protein for every pound of bodyweight works well to start.
Choosing the optimal process to get strong can be daunting task. Fitness magazines, conflicting facebook posts, and ridiculous New York Times articles can give one the impression that strength training is an absurdly complicated process, but it's not. It's simple, but hard. Using the squat, press, deadlift, and bench press with linear progression will achieve a great deal of strength in a relatively short amount of time. Choosing the correct gym is important and must facilitate these exercises, and recovery when not lifting is not to be ignored. A trainee that uses the basic linear progression and has a strength coach or at least has read Starting Strength will make a great deal of strength gains.