Strength. Every man, at some level, wants to be strong. The relationship between strength and masculinity is a highly intertwined one. To be a man is to be strong and to be strong is to be a man. Few men will tell you they don’t want to be physically stronger than they currently are. Being strong is not only relegated to just the male ego either — women can benefit just as much as men by becoming stronger.
Strength, for both genders, has a lot of benefits. If you do a sport like Muay Thai, a proper strength training routine CAN help improve your striking power and give you more raw power in the clinch. Strength Training is also a very important part of your Muay Thai Strength and Conditioning training and can help build up muscular endurance and explosive power, if done right.
Note the emphasis here on becoming STRONGER — not acquiring absurdly large muscles bodybuilder style.
To gain strength, you must lift weights. But herein is where the public gets the wrong idea about what weight lifting brings to the table.
Talk about lifting weights and the immediate images that come to mind are of narcissistic spray-tanned guys in bikinis flexing, of endless hours in the gym lifting weights, and avoiding tasty food.
These perceptions are completely wrong, however. Strength Training is not the same as Bodybuilding. You don’t have to spend 6 days a week in the gym and micromanage everything you eat to gain muscle and build real functional strength. The better alternative to bodybuilding is Strength Training. And unlike bodybuilding, strength training can help in OTHER areas outside of the mirror — like increase your athletic ability.
Let me repeat this: strength training is NOT the same as bodybuilding.
While both involve resistance training with weights, the end goal is not the same; Strength Training’s aim is to increase strength while Bodybuilding’s aim is to increase muscle mass for aesthetic reasons.
While both of these activities will ultimate make you stronger, strength training can, in conjunction with another sport, be utilized to increase your combat/athletic performance while bodybuilding will not enhance your sport-specific athletic performance and likely hinder it.
What is shocking to many people is that you don’t need to put in countless hours at the gym to achieve a great physique that not only looks good but is functionally strong too. 3 or 4 hours a week, broken into 2 or 3 times a week is all you need.
Interested yet? If the answer is no, then you’re crazy. But seriously, read on and find out WHY you absolutely should make strength training a part a habit.
So Why Strength Train?
Besides the obvious benefits of being stronger during your day to day activities, looking way better naked, and reversing scaropenia (age-related muscle loss), there are some real benefits to taking up strength training:
Become Stronger: Strength Training will, over time, increase your strength threshold. This is caused by adaptions to your Central Nervous System (CNS) and the increase in muscle fibers.
Build More Muscle: Lifting weights will stimulate new muscle growth. This is highly dependent on your diet as well as you must maintain a calorie surplus with adequate protein so your body has enough nutrients to build new muscle fiber.
Makes Your Healthier: If having a healthier bodies tickles your wheels, then Strength Training brings a lot to the table. It’s been proven to build a stronger heart, reduce blood pressure, increase bone density, reduce muscle loss, help control blood sugar levels, reduces cholesterol, and enhance balance and coordination.
Increase Sport-Specific Performance: Strength Training can lead to increased performance in sports. Although not all sports require pure strength (that is, increase maximum strength output won’t necessarily make a difference depending on the nature of the sport, with specialized training after the foundational strength is built through strength training, other aspects of strength can be improved such as Explosive Strength (quick explosive movements) and Strength Endurance (maintaining the peak strength of a continuous movement for longer durations).
Maintain Higher Muscle-Fat Ratio for Sports with Weight Classes: Strength Training, while on a calorie deficit to lose weight, keeps lean muscle on you while you drop fat. This means you can keep a higher muscle to fat ratio for those sports with competitive weight classes.
Can Give the Prequisite Strength Needed to Improve Striking Power in Combat Sports: Strength Training can help you build the foundation strength (maximal force production) that can be trained for more explosive power. Please read my article Will Strength Training Improve Your Muay Thai
How Strength Training Affects Muscles
There are a few common misunderstandings about strength training. The average person pictures a bodybuilder type with an absurd amount of unnatural muscle.
Building huge muscles (like bodybuilding magazine huge) takes a lot of time, effort, dedication, diet, phenomenal genetics and often a chemistry lab worth of supplements and drugs.
The average person couldn’t build some monstrous physique even if he or she wanted to. This is actually a common fear that woman have: lifting weights will make them too muscely. This is not at all true – those images of muscle-bound women floating around on the web are women who are professional bodybuilders who eat extreme amounts of food and take a number of drugs to achieve that look. Lifting weights as a woman will only IMPROVE your physique in every way, but it won’t turn you into a muscle-bound woman!
Before we get into the nitty and gritty of how to strength train, we first need to talk about what strength training does to muscles. You know, a bit of that boring science stuff that you want to skip but really shouldn’t.
We can go into a long and tortuous description of what muscles are and how they work. But I’ll spare you the pain and just give the skinny.
Muscles are comprised of a lot of small muscle cells (termed muscle fibres). These fibres are the size of a strand of hair, stretchy and cylindrical in shape. The human body has 640 skeletal muscles that define your every movement, from walking, stretching, jumping, to playing video games.
There are a number of different muscle fibre types. These are important because they define what sort of training your body best responds to (some react best to endurance type training and others more explosive training). The two muscle fibre types of interest to us are:
Slow Twitch Muscle Fiber(Type I): used for aerobic type exercise where oxygen is converted into muscle fuel over a long period of time. These muscle fibers are used for long endurance type work (long distance running activities for example).
Fast Twitch Muscle Fiber (Type IIA): used for anaerobic type movements combined with some aerobic activity. These muscle fibers activate quickly but also fatigue quickly too. These would be activated for movements that require explosive power and speed but also some endurance as well (say longer sprints).
Super Fast Twitch Muscle Fibers (Type IIX): used for short explosive movements. These would be used for something like weight lifting, short sprints, or other activities that require explosive power for a short period of time.
We are all born a certain number of muscle fibers. When you strength train, you are actually not building new muscle fibers but increasing the size of the existing ones.We are all born a certain number of muscle fibers. When you strength train, you are actually not building new muscle fibers but increasing the size of the existing ones. Increasing the size of muscle fibers results in more muscle mass. We call this process Hypertrophy.
Types of Muscle Training
There are three different types of Hypertrophy. Yes, this is where the different types of ‘’muscle workouts’’ come into play.
Transient Hypertrophy: Known as the muscle ‘pump.’ This is the temporary increase in muscle size that occurs immediately after a weight training session. This size increase is simply fluid accumulating inside the muscle (in the space between muscle cells, to be exact).
Myofibril Hypertrophy: strengthening the myofibril part of the muscle fiber (building STRENGTH). This is the part of the muscle fibre that contracts. Building up the myofibril helps build stronger, denser muscle.
Sarcoplasmic Hypertrophy: increasing the fluid inside of the muscle (building muscle SIZE). Thirty percent of your muscle size is related to how much sarcoplasm your muscle contains. Focusing on sarcoplasmic hypertrophy will increase the overall size of your muscles.
When we train for strength, we focus on the Myofibril Hypertrophy type of training. This results in stronger, denser muscles. This means we get stronger.
Bodybuilders focus on the Sarcoplasmic Hypertrophy training, which produces bigger muscles.
You will not that bigger muscles don’t necessarily mean you are STRONGER.
How Muscle is Built
Two things happen when you apply resistance training to muscles:
- Muscle Fibers Torn then Rebuilt: When you lift weights, you are basically tearing your muscle fibers. The body rebuilds the muscle fibers, making them bigger.
- Increased Glycogen Stores: Increasing the stimulus (weight lifted – be it heaver weight or more weight lifted over a period (higher reps) ) results in increased glycogen stores. More glycogen stores to fuel muscle means larger muscles.
This is basically how muscles becomes stronger and bigger. Of course, there is a lot more detail to the process than we have presented. But in practical terms, it really just comes down to this: continually apply increasing resistance (weight) to muscular movements over time and your body will become stronger as your body adapts to meet that increased stimulus.
Muscle is not actually built when you lift weights, but in the time outside of the gym. You tear your muscle fibers and your body will re-build those muscle fibers, making them bigger. This results in increased strength.
However, in order to repair muscle fibers and build them bigger, your body needs both adequate NUTRTION and adequate REST. Failure to have enough of either of these will result in NO additional strength and no additional muscle size.
Nutrition and Muscles
This is a complex issue, but there are two key points here for building bigger muscle fibers:
1. HAVE A CALORIRE SURPLUS: To build muscle, you are going to have enough calories present in your body. This means you are going to have to be in a positive caloric state. If you don’t have ‘’extra” calories available, your body cannot build back bigger muscle fibers.
2. HAVE ENOUGH PROTIEN: Muscle fibers are constructed from protein. If you don’t have enough protein available, you can’t build back bigger muscle fibers.
How to Strength Train
So the question now is “How do you strength train?”
It’s really pretty simple at the end of the day. You lift weights. You increase the weight every week by a small amount. You eat enough calories and protein to sustain muscle grown. You get enough sleep.
If you were expecting some magical, complex process, well, sorry to disappoint. But that’s about it. Yes, there are a number of complex, specializes, high technical methods that various magazines, eBooks, and infomercials will sell you on, but it’s all bullshit at the end of the day.
But let’s break down the process into a few concrete steps for you to follow.
1. Pick a (proper) Strength Training Routine
There are a huge number of strength training programs to choose from. The choice here is entirely up to you. Various programs come and go depending on what’s currently in vogue in the fitness world, but there are a number perennially popular programs that an entire generation of weight lifters, power lifters, and athletes have grown up on.
Whatever routine you do, every single decent strength building routine will emphasize the following points:
- Increase Weight to Your Lifts Every Week
There’s a lot of bullshit online and in magazines about how to get stronger and put on muscle. Practically every time I read a fitness magazine there is some article about some exotic type of complex training program that will shock your body into producing amazing muscle and strength gains.
This is all bullshit. The most effective and simplest way to get stronger is to…increase the weight every week.
Yes, that’s the big secret. By adding weight every week, you force your body to respond to the increased weight by building MORE muscle (or in technical terms, increasing the size of your muscle fibers).
So forget about everything else. Try increasing the weight every week. By doing so, you will become stronger. And when you get stronger, you will build more muscle.
A proper weight lifting routine will have you adding weight to your workout every single week.
- Use Free Weights
When I first started lifting, I started off trying to master those fitness machines — you know, the ones with Chuck Norris prancing around on TV while wearing a muscle shirt. The message was pretty clear: if you use a machine like Chuck, you’ll look like Chuck too.
Well, this didn’t happen for me. I spent a few years in and out of the gym fumbling around with weight machines. But did I see any results? Not at all. Eventually I wizened up to the the potential of free weights. You know, those scary looking bars where you have to attach your own weights to the end, not flick some shiny button or pull some plug to increase the weight.
Once I started using free weights, I quickly realized that doing the same movements with a free weight was a lot damn harder than using the machine equivalent. You know why? Because free weights require you to use stabilizing muscles to balance the weight while performing the movements; and the range of motion is often greater.
In short, you work a lot more freaking muscles using free weights than you do machines. So just use them.
- Use Barbells
It doesn’t matter what the latest fitness rag/mag tells you about the newest super-secret, muscle building dumbell workout; no one ever got really strong OR big just using dumbbells. No, real strength is build with barbells. Dumbbells are great for supplemental exercises, but for strength inducing, mass stimulating workouts that yield RESULTS , there is nothing that beats free weight barbells.
To really stress your body out and induce the type of stimulus needed build muscle and ramp up your strength, you need to lift heavy weights; were are not talking about weight that you can do 10 or 20 reps, but the type of weight that will have you in tears after one or two reps.
You can’t squat with dumbbells; You can’t dead lift dumbbells. You need Barbells to do these lifts.
- Lift Compound Weight Exercises
Forget about isolation exercises. Dumbbell curls and chest flies will only get you so far. To put on strength quickly, you’ll need to lift compound exercises. These are movements that work multiple muscles at the same time and allow for increased weight loading every week to stimulate muscle fiber growth. Because compound exercises work out multiple muscle groups at the same time, you’ll build yourself a more balanced physique.
No matter what routine you choose, at least 3 or 4 of the following core compound lifts should part of it (the ”big four mains ones bolded):
If 3 or 4 of these core lifts are NOT a big part of whatever routine you are doing, then forget about building real strength. It’s not going to happen.
There are a number of different choices, depending on your experience level with weight training. A good beginning ones is the Starting Strength Program by Mark Rippletoe. This one has been used for years by many beginning lifters.
Here are some basic strength building routines that are highly popular and used by thousands of weight lifters, power lifters, and athletes around the world:
- Starting Strength
- The 5×5 Routine
- The RPT Routine
2. Ensure Adequate Nutrition (i.e. EAT ENOUGH DAMN FOOD)
We’ve already written a number of articles about losing weight, which requires a caloric deficit to be maintained. But if the goal is to build strength, you’ve gotta eat like a horse. If you don’t eat enough, your strength grains will eventually peak. You can gain strength, initially, by increasing your body’s Central Nervous System (CNS) efficiency without adding size to your muscle fibers. This readily happens when you first start lifting and you will see huge strength gains at first without putting on extra muscle. But there is an upper limit to how much strength you can trick out of your body without putting on more muscle.
But it’s not just about how much you eat but also about what you eat too.
Keep in mind that no matter if you are trying to gain (muscle) weight or lose (fat) weight, you still need to ensure an adequate protein intake. If you are trying to increase strength and/or muscle mass, you must have at least 1 gram of protein per lb of bodyweight. So if you weight 175 lbs, you should have about 175 grams of protein a day.
If you are trying to lose weight, and the goal is to keep your muscle while shedding fat, you should have 1.5 grams of protein per lb of bodyweight. See our how to lose weight article here that talks about losing weight while keeping muscle. You should also know how to but together a meal plan by counting calories and figuring out your macros.
- if you are on a caloric deficit, it’s unlikely you will GAIN STRENGTH AND MUSCLE MASS. So to increase your strength, you need to be eating at LEAST at maintenance level of calories.
- The exception to the above point being if you are completely new to weight lifting, it’s possible to put on lean muscle mass/size and gain strength while also losing fat. While there are specialized diets that emphasis meal timing and macro nutrient cycling that may allow you to put on small amounts of lean muscle while losing fat (or keeping fat levels the same), these are challenging to do and not relevant for beginners to lifting.
3. Be Consistent
You are not going to see results by lifting weights a couple times one week, then getting lazy the next week and skipping your training sessions. You’ve got to be consistent, week in, week out. If you can’t commit, then don’t even waste your time with Strength Training; put your time to better use like playing video games or watching TV.
4. Get (Enough) Rest
You build muscle not in the gym, but out of it. If you don’t get enough rest, you won’t see huge improvements. That means the time spent OUTSIDE of the gym is JUST as important as the time spent in it.
I often see guys hitting the gym 4 to 6 times a week — even multiple times a day! Unless you are a professional powerlifter or bodybuilder using drugs, there is simply NO reason for you to train so much. Lifting without adequate rest will NOT give your body the time to repair and build new muscle fiber.
You might find that training twice or three times a week allows you steadily increase the amount of weight you lift from week to week over training 4 or 5 times a week! Why? Because you are giving your body MORE time to recover and build muscle.
You also need adequate sleep – 8 hours a day at least. This is when your body really starts to repair your muscles. Fail to sleep, fail to get strong.
Putting It All Together
Strength Training offers a lot of benefits to both the average person wanting to simply improve their strength and add a bit of muscle definition to competitive athletes looking to increase sport-prowess.
If you train a couple times a week in a sport (say Muay Thai) it’s fairly easy to add a strength building routine like Ripple Toe’s Starting Strength to you schedule. Your body, especially if you are new to weight lifting, will readily responds to the stress of a low rep, compound heavy weight lifting routine.
However, if you are already a competitive athlete or you are training like an athlete (training 4-6 times a day, doing roadwork 3-5 times a week), adding the standard 3-4x a week strength building routine to your already cardio-heavy lifestyle can have a negative effect on your sports training and your strength-building gains.
If you train Muay Thai (or some other fighting sport) and want to add a Strength Training routine to your training, it is possible to based on my own experience doing both simultaneously and seeing good results, both in both adding lean muscle and increasing your raw strength while also doing a shit-ton of Muay Thai training (cardio), but you need to make some drastic modifications to the strength training routine to make things work. Be sure to check out my Strength Training article specific to Muay Thai: Strength Training for Muay Thai.
Strength Training while doing Muay Thai will bring to the table the following:
- increased overall strength
- lean muscle gain
- improved body physique
- stronger bone density
- various health benefits
- potential to increase explosive striking power (knockout strikes)
- stronger in the clinch
Even if you don’t train Muay Thai, I highly recommend you take up strength training. You’ll see improvements in both your strength and your physical appearance as a result.
I also recommend you look at the other side of the equation: Conditioning. Strength Training is important because it brings all the benefits discussed, but it also plays a key part in your conditioning (i.e. fitness) as well because Strength Training can increase your muscles’ endurance properties and it can lead, with explosive power training once your max strength is increased with general strength training, to more explosive power when strike or clinch. I suggest you read our Conditioning for Muay Thai series which explains how to do this.