What is Muscular Strength and How Can You Build More?
Did you know that the amount of lean muscle mass you have may be one of the more important factors in human longevity? In general, studies show that the more lean mass you have, the more likely you are to be able to avoid injury and live a longer life. (Abramowitz et al. 2018) When you build lean muscle mass, you also gain strength, which is also an important part of improving your body composition.
Let’s take a look at exactly what defines muscular strength, how to measure your current strength, as well as how you can improve it.
What is muscular strength?
The definition of muscular strength is the ability of a muscle to exert force against some form of resistance. Stated more simply, it is the ability of a muscle to push, pull, or otherwise apply resistance against an object or opposing force.
Why is muscular strength important?
Muscular strength is an important component of fitness and general wellness. Strength influences your ability to move your body and perform important day-to-day activities. Having sufficient strength can also help your body remain more stable and resistant against injury.
How to measure muscular strength
There are many methods available to measure muscular strength. Most day-to-day methods that you will find most useful involve simple calculations with:
Amount of weight
Repetitions of activity (lifting, pushing, etc.)
Sets of repetitions
In essence, you are measuring how much weight you can move or hold over a certain period of time, and for how many repetitions. Repetitions, also colloquially referred to as “reps,” are the number of movements you’ve performed, such as a dumbbell curl. Here are a few common rep ranges many workouts might use:
12-24 reps: This will involve much lower weight and higher reps. The purpose for this sort of rep range is often for warmups with light weight, or building muscular endurance with slightly heavier weight.
8-12 reps: This is one of the most commonly used rep ranges. It provides a nice balance between weight and repetitions that can be less taxing than much heavier weight and low reps.
5-8 reps: This low rep range is frequently used with heavy weights that often cannot be sustained for longer reps. This sort of rep range is commonly seen with basic compound lifts such as deadlifts and squats as the weights are much heavier than a typical isolation movement like a dumbbell curl.
3-5 reps: On the lower end of this spectrum you’ll find some of the heaviest weights. For average weightlifting needs, this range may not be necessary. It is more frequently used with extremely heavy weights and building substantial strength, such as training for powerlifting.
1 rep max
In addition to the repetition ranges above, one useful tool for measuring and benchmarking your level of strength at a given time is referred to as the “1 rep max.” This represents the maximum amount of weight you can move for a single repetition. Due to the heavier than normal weights that might be involved, it’s important to warm up first with one or two sets of moderate to high reps (~8-20) with a low weight that is easily moved.
Once you’re warmed up, choose a heavy weight that you are confident you can lift at least once, and perform a single repetition with whatever pull or press movement you are testing. After completing the repetition, pay particular attention to how you feel. Do you think you have one more rep left in you? If you’re feeling confident, try another repetition! At first, there can be a bit of trial and error involved. Don’t worry, the main thing that matters is figuring out a ballpark estimate of the maximum weight you can push or pull for a given exercise.
Once you’ve figured out your “1 rep max,” you can use this with simple math to begin planning the weight amounts, reps, and sets for your workouts. For example, for most workouts, you’ll want to stick to a weight range of between 70-90% of your 1 rep max. This ensures you’re using enough weight to promote muscle growth, but not too much weight that you fatigue too early or injure yourself. If you found that the maximum amount of weight you could lift for a dumbbell curl is 30lbs, 70% of that is 21lbs. So, you might want to try a set of 8-12 reps with ~20lb dumbbells and see how that feels. Did you feel too exhausted to add another set of 8-12 reps? If so, try either removing a few reps, or stepping down to the next lightest dumb bell.
Sets are the number of groupings of repetitions. For example, many weight lifting routines may include sets of 8-12 repetitions. Some workouts may involve performing 2-4+ of these sets, usually with a short rest period of 30-90 seconds of rest in between.
Some other measurement methods can become highly technical and involve expensive, advanced equipment. These types of advanced methods are often only needed for professional athletes and others operating at the extreme end of the strength spectrum.
Once you’ve figured out your 1 rep max, you can now use this with simple math to begin planning the weight amounts, reps, and sets for your workouts. For example, for most workouts you’ll want to stick to a weight range of between 70-90% of your 1 rep max. This ensures you’re using enough weight to promote muscle growth, but not too much weight that you fatigue too early or injure yourself.
If you found that the maximum amount of weight you could lift for a dumbbell curl is 30lbs, 70% of that is 21lbs. So, you might want to try a set of 8-12 reps with ~20lb dumbbells and see how that feels. Did you feel too exhausted to add another set of 8-12 reps? If so, try either removing a few reps, or stepping down to the next lightest dumb bell.
How to improve muscular strength
Whew! It’s easy to get lost in the number of reps, sets, amount of weight, but don't get overwhelmed. The most important thing to keep in mind is the amount of weight you “moved” this week versus the last week. That total weekly volume of weight should increase over time.
Adjust weight, reps, and sets however you need to in order to get through your workouts while still being able to feel recovered and rested by the next workout in a few days. Then keep an eye towards ensuring you add a little bit of extra weight to the total moved each week. This will ensure your muscles do not adapt to the volume too soon and continue growing in strength.
One such popular method of increasing weight over time is what’s known as “periodization” or progressive overload. These terms simply mean that the amount of weight you are subjecting your muscles to is slowly increased over time. There are many different strength-building programs built around progressive overload, but it can be simplified to a few basic principles:
A strength training routine set over a period of time.
Loading phase: Weights that start at 60-70% of your 1 rep max and are slowly increased to ~90-95% over this period.
Deloading phase: A deload or rest period that returns back to a lower ~60-70% level of weight.
These sorts of programs typically last from 3-6 weeks during the loading phase, and 1-2 weeks for the deloading phase. This ensures that the stress on your muscles is increased safely over a period of time. It also helps prevent your muscles from adapting to the weight too quickly, causing strength gains to plateau.
The final week of the loading phase is when you will reach the highest weights and most stress. You might end this week with attempting to perform at 95-105%. Naturally, this week will be extremely exhausting and may require extended rest periods during and after your workouts.
With the deloading phase of approximately 1-2 weeks, you’ll want to return back to your 60-70% of 1 rep max range for each of your lifts. This will help give your muscles a bit of a break to recover and build back stronger.
Repeating the process
After completing the deloading phase, it’s time to start the process over! The next time around, try starting with a slightly higher percentage of weight then you did previously. If you started at 70% the first time around, this time try 75%. The important principle here is you are continually adding a bit of weight over time to each movement. This keeps your muscles growing in strength to adapt to the increased workload, ultimately making you stronger.
Which activities best develop muscular strength?
When people hear the term muscular strength, they usually think of weight lifting (strength training) first. There are other types of exercise activities that can also help you build strength. Some of these include:
Isolation weight training (weight training with individual body parts, such as dumbbell curls)
Bodyweight training (sometimes known as calisthenics)
Gymnastics (can help build exceptional strength, including with often overlooked muscles)
Plyometrics (can help build explosive power)
In general, it’s often a good idea for many people to stick to exercises that focus on compound movements or engaging entire muscle groups. Examples of these types of exercises include:
Various gymnastic ring exercises
By focusing on these sorts of compound exercises, you’re often going to be working multiple muscle groups and getting more work done in less time. In contrast, some bodybuilding routines might include significant isolation weight lifting; working individual muscles. This takes extra time, and in extreme cases, can lead to muscle imbalances or deficiencies in surrounding muscles and connective tissue. To keep things simple, focus on compound movements like some of those mentioned above to save yourself time and effort.
To review, having a good degree of muscular strength is an important component of a healthy lifestyle. Determining your current strength levels can easily be achieved with simple tests of differing weight levels. Once you’ve determined a starting place, you can easily develop a strength training program to begin increasing your strength over a period of several weeks to approximately 1-2 months at a time.
The important thing to keep in mind is to add a little bit of weight each week throughout your training program. Lastly, don’t forget to include at least 1-2 weeks of lighter weights so that you can rest, recover, and allow your body to rebuild your muscle stronger than before.
SEDERA DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. The information contained herein is for informational and/or educational purposes only and is not intended or implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition or treatment.