Training for Maximum Strength

Maximum strength is the ability to recruit many muscle fibers for work in a very short amount of time. When we use our muscles, not all muscle fibers fire at once. For sub-maximal efforts, a corresponding amount of muscle fiber is required to do work. The effort can be measured as a percentage of a maximal effort, and for the sake of argument, we can say this percentage is the amount of muscle fiber recruited. The more muscle fiber that can be recruited, the stronger the muscle is. So to increase maximum strength, one must recruit more muscle fibers.

With resistance training, your goals dictate the way exercises are performed. For recruiting muscle fibers, one must reach complete muscle failure in fewer than 6 repetitions, this corresponds to about 80% - 90% of a one repetition maximal effort. This is the sweet spot for recruiting muscle fibers. With these intense sets, long breaks are required between efforts, as they are very psychologically and neurologically demanding. I recommend resting anywhere from three to six minutes between sets, depending on the intensity of the sets. The idea here is to prepare your body for another near maximal effort. I find that four to five repetitions is sufficient for each exercise, and I would not perform more than three or four exercises in a workout. The most important factor in this type of workout is failing before six repetitions, if you complete five repetitions without assistance, resistance must be increased.

The body recruits muscle fibers on a short term and long term basis. With each set, your body will actually recruit more muscle fibers than the previous, until your body just gets tired and cannot output the same effort. Once you feel your body getting weaker with this type of workout, you should stop the exercise. What happens during this type of workout is you increase your muscle recruitment to a certain point, then you get tired and can't recruit more. You may actually find that your 2nd or 3rd set is stronger than your previous sets. It is counter productive to do this type of training on a given exercise after you have peaked your muscle recruitment.

Long term muscle recruitment happens over the course of several days. After this type of workout, you will be able to recruit more muscle fibers the next time, meaning your maximum strength will increase, given sufficient rest.

I recommend compound exercises for this type of workout - bench press, military press, clean and jerk, and standing barbell rows are all great exercises that utilize many muscle groups at the same time. This is important because it trains your nervous system to recruit many muscle fibers from many muscle groups at the same time. Isolating muscles all the time does not train your nervous system the same way.

A typical maximum strength workout might go something like this:
* warm up
* bench press, 185X5, 185X4, 190x3, 185x2
* clean and jerk, 125x4, 135x4, 135x3, 125x2
* cool down

These workouts tend to take a fairly long time because of the long rest required between sets. As always, but especially with this type of workout, quality is much more important than quantity.

Next time I'll address maximum strength training for finger strength.