Strength and strength training – What, how and for who.

Many people (including some experienced athletes) tend to equate strength training with bodybuilding…thinking that both are one and the same.  They get stuck in the “3 sets of 10” rut and never get out.  But there is more than one type of strength, each having its own pros and cons, and each being more or less suitable for different activities.  As such there is more than one way of training for strength.  Here is a quick run down of the major forms of strength… 

General Strength.

I only have a very fuzzy definition for this.  I see it as the general, overall strength needed to go through your everyday life comfortably and being able to resist injury.  This means the strength needed to: 

  • Do the shopping.
  • Play with the kids.
  • Do a “usual” job.
  • Do your hobbies.
  • Avoid chronic and acute injuries such as a “bad back” or a “funny shoulder/knee/elbow” etc.

If you have good general strength, you should be able to go through your average day without having to resort to getting help from other people or from labour saving machines (eg lifts, escalators etc).  We should all have good general strength, with the possible exception of those with injuries…and these people will usually be working towards improving/regaining their general strength. 

Unbalanced musculature – the “caveman” look.

I think another aspect of good general strength should be good balanced strength.  For a lot of average people, this means that the back half of your body should be strong, so you don’t end up hunched forward, or slouching down.  This is a very common thing seen in people who spend a lot of their lives sitting in sofas or at computers etc.  This is also seen in many people who strength train for aesthetic reasons.  Most people only see the front half of their body, so only think about these muscles.  This can also lead to a forward hunched, “caveman” look.  Many sports people also have un-balanced strength.  Classic examples include tennis players who favour either their right or left side, and have very strong forehand swings, but a weak backhand.  In all these cases, general strength training can be used to even out their body and bring their weak spots up to par.  For the average person, improvement in general strength can be done by simply going through the day and always avoiding the easy option, or training in a gym with full body workouts, using 2-3 sets of 8-12 repetitions.  The goal should be to gradually increasing the resistance, not the sets/reps.  The guidelines for un-balanced athletes would depend entirely on their specific imbalance. 

Maximum strength.

This is the ability of a muscle to generate the maximum amount of force possible for a single, all-out effort.  Examples include weightlifters.  This kind of strength is for those who do heavy, hard work.

But interestingly, maximum strength training has a lot to do with neurological (nerve) training.  It tends to bring about only minimal size increases in the muscle, so you are not going to get bulked up like this.  Instead, it trains your nervous system to work your existing muscles in a much more efficient way.  So your muscle works at 100% effort, instead of only 80% (I just made up these particular percentages, so don’t quote them, but you get the idea).  This is a fairly advanced form of training, so don’t bother with it if you are a beginner. 

Maximum strength – The priority is for a single, all-out effort, whatever it takes.

To improve your maximum strength, you should be using: 

  • 85-100% of your maximum weight.
  • 1-5 reps.
  • 3-6 sets.
  • 3-5 minutes rest between sets.
  • Steady, controlled speed.

In other words, your priority is to move the heaviest weight possible, and everything else (reps, rest periods etc) is adjusted to accommodate it. 

Strength endurance

This is the ability for a muscle to work at relatively low intensities for a prolonged period of time with minimal/no rest.  For example, a marathon runner.  This kind of strength is for those who do long lasting, endurance based work.

Strength endurance training improves the long term efficiency of the muscle by improving its ability to process more oxygen/nutrients and flush away waste products.  This type of strength does not need a large sized muscle, so brings about minimal/no size increase. 

Strength endurance – The priority is to keep on going, whatever it takes.

To improve your strength endurance, you should be using: 

  • 30-40% of your maximum weight.
  • 15+ reps (depending on your sport, it could be a lot more than 15 reps)
  • 2-4 sets
  • Minimal rest (often 30 seconds or less).
  • Steady, controlled speed.

In other words, you priority is to maintain/increase the duration of the exercise, and everything else (intensity, speed etc) is adjusted to accommodate it. 


This is the ability for a muscle to move in an explosive, fast manner.  Examples of power include long/high jumpers, javelin/discus throwers etc.  The maths equation for power is: 

Power = (force x distance) / time 

Using the above equation, we can improve our power by increasing our maximum strength and/or improving our speed (distance does not change much, unless we learn how to grow our limbs longer).  We improve our maximum strength during our maximum strength training sessions.  So power training should be all about improving our application of that strength at speed

Power – The priority is for a fast, explosive move, whatever it takes.

To improve your power output, you should be using: 

  • 75-85% of your maximum weight.
  • 3-5 reps.
  • 3-5 sets.
  • 2-5 minutes rest between sets.
  • Fast, explosive speed.

In other words, your priority is to maintain the explosive, high speed of the move.  Everything else (reps, weight, rests etc) are adjusted to accommodate it. 

Power endurance.

This is the ability for a muscle to work at high power for a prolonged period of time.  For example, a 400m or 800m runner, a boxer, a rower etc.  This is a fairly advanced form of strength training, where you take the power you already have, and apply it for longer periods and/or with less rest

Remember, the difference between power endurance and strength endurance is the speed at which it is done.  To improve power endurance, you must keep the speed up.  If you cannot, then cut the set/workout short and start it again when you can keep the speed up. 

Power endurance – The priority is for fast, explosive moves, again and again and again, whatever it takes.

To improve your power endurance, you should be using: 

  • 30% of your maximum weight.
  • 10, 20 or more reps (depending on your sport, it could be much more).
  • 3-5 sets.
  • 2-3 minutes rest between sets (or less as you get more advanced).
  • Fast, explosive speed (cut the set/workout short if you cannot maintain the fast, explosive speed).

In other words, your priority is to maintain the explosive, high speed of the move, and gradually increase the duration or decrease the rest periods over time.  Everything else (sets, intensity etc) are adjusted to accommodate it. 

In summary…

The above is a run down of the main types of strength we have and train for.  If you are an average person, all you really need to care about is the first, General Strength type.  This kind of training will help you get through your day, and resist chronic and acute injuries.  But if you do any kind of sport or physical hobby, it is almost certain that it can be improved with the appropriate strength training.  But make sure you train in the correct way.  Or at best, you risk wasting your time, at worst,  making your performance suffer.  If you have any questions, or if you want to know how to incorporate these aspects into your own training properly, contact me today by clicking here.  And don’t forget, you can subscribe to this blog by email or RSS using the button things at the top right of this page, you you can email, print or share this article using the button things below.