Everyone can benefit from getting stronger. Building strength can improve your body composition, increase your bone density and joint stability, help you move and perform better, make daily activities easier, and give you a sense of self-confidence.
When you first start strength training, it’s essential that you learn good form and practice quality movement. Good form means using the target muscles to perform a movement under control and through a full (pain free) range of motion. This will prevent injury, build competency (which is important for motivation), and form a foundation on which you can safely and effectively build as you become a more advanced exerciser. Not enough programs make good exercise form a priority, and too many people never learn the basic foundational movement patterns. Those foundational movements include the push, pull, squat, hinge, and lunge. Learning quality movement does takes time, patience, and persistence, but skipping this important step will significantly limit the benefits you can get from your training. Even many experienced lifters would benefit from taking a step back and really mastering quality movement.
An important mindset shift that will help you get the most out of your strength training is to think of strength as a skill and train for it like you would any other physical skill: with frequent, quality practice.
Strength exercises, like push ups or deadlifts, are similar to other physical skills such as juggling, doing a handstand, playing guitar, riding a bike, balancing on one foot, kicking a ball, whistling, etc. These movements (as well as every other movement that you ever perform) are initiated and controlled by the central nervous system.
How the Central Nervous System Controls Movement
Every time you move, electrical signals that start in your brain are sent through your nerves to your muscles. These signals tell the specific muscles exactly when and how hard to contract. For you to successfully perform a movement, the brain has to send those signals to the right muscles in the right sequence, coordinating them to work together to achieve the movement. At the same time, the brain also has to make adjustments in its outgoing signals based on feedback signals coming in from the muscles and other structures. It’s an incredibly precise and intricate process. It’s also a process that needs to be developed and improved over time.
When you start resistance training, improvements in that motor control process are mainly responsible for the increase in strength that you experience in the first 6-8 weeks (Gabriel et al., 2006). It’s after that initial stage that changes within the muscles themselves make a significant contribution to further strength improvements (Kraemer and Ratamess, 2004). That’s a very good reason to keep up your training for at least several months at a time. If you give up too soon, you won’t reach the stage where your muscles are actually getting bigger and stronger, and that’s probably the main reason you started resistance training in the first place.
Let’s think of the analogy of a “groove”, to describe how neural connections improve movement patterns (this analogy was popularized in a training methodology called “greasing the groove”. Think of the connection between the brain and the exercising muscles as a groove in a piece of wood. Every movement needs to be coordinated and controlled in a specific pattern, so each movement follows its own groove which is developed along a path that produces the movement in the most efficient way possible. If a movement is new, the groove hasn’t been developed yet and the movement isn’t efficient. The brain might initially activate the wrong muscles, activate the correct muscles but at the wrong levels of force, or activate muscles out of sync with each other. As the movement is practiced, the nervous system learns the most efficient pattern and starts to slowly carve out the groove. Stronger, more efficient, and better coordinated signals are sent to the muscles, and movement proficiency improves. With more practice the groove becomes deeper and the movement pattern becomes more ingrained. Once the movement pattern is deeply ingrained, exercise form becomes consistent and the target muscles can be worked in a way that promotes their growth and adaptation.
Why is This Important?
Ok, so the central nervous system is heavily involved in strength training. But why should this matter to you? After all, most people don’t train with the goal of improving the state of their nervous system, they want to improve their strength, muscle mass, body composition, etc. It’s important to remember that those things are closely related: you need quality movement to train effectively and get the results you want, and you develop quality movement when your nervous system gets better and more efficient at controlling your movement.
Remember that at its core, training is about progressive overload: gradually increasing the amount of stress on your body so it’s forced to adapt. If you haven’t read my article on progressive overload, check it out here. In the case of resistance exercise, you stress the muscles by contracting them against resistance and they adapt by getting stronger. But if those muscles aren’t stressed enough, they won’t adapt. How do you make sure the muscles you’re targeting get enough stress? You practice consistent, quality movement so that you put the right muscles under stress in each and every repetition you perform.
Building a Foundation of Strength by Practicing These Basic Movements:
If you want to get stronger, I recommend that you learn how to perform each of these basic bodyweight movements with good form:
- Push Up
- Horizontal Row (or Pull Up if you’re ready for it)
- Hip Hinge
Those movements form the foundation for many other exercises as well as movements you do on a regular basis. Learning to perform them correctly will improve your motor control, coordination, and balance, give your muscles the overload they need to grow, and set you up to perform more advanced exercises.
Whenever you are performing these (or any other) exercises, remember to take your time, focus on the muscles you are targeting, move slowly and deliberately, and complete each exercise by moving through a full range of motion.
Start Easy and Progress Gradually. Your body learns to how to do a push up in the same way you learn how to tie your shoes, by forming and strengthening neural connections. The difference is that your muscular strength is a limiting factor in successfully performing push ups, which is not generally the case with shoe-tying. There’s an effective fix for that: start with an easy version of the exercise. If you’re not strong enough to do standard push ups with good form yet, start with incline push ups. Get in a normal push up position but instead of putting your hands on the floor, put them on an elevated bench or step, which reduces the amount of your bodyweight that your pecs (chest), deltoids (shoulder), and triceps (back of your arm) have to move. Pick a height at which the movement is easy enough for you to perform the full range of motion under control (bringing your chest all the way down to touch the bench or step). Practice getting the movement pattern right, then gradually increase the difficulty by decreasing the height of the bench until you’re doing full push ups from the floor.
You’ve probably used this strategy before. Think about how you learned to ride a bike or swim: you used training wheels or floaties to make it easier until your body learned how to perform the full skill on its own. This is the same concept.
Stay Away from Muscle Failure. Muscle failure is the point at which, despite your best effort, your muscles are too fatigued to finish a repetition. Experienced lifters can usually get to that point without their form breaking down, but when first learning a movement most people tend to sacrifice form as fatigue sets in. Every repetition is a chance to reinforce a quality movement pattern. If you end up performing your last repetition or two with bad form because your muscles are getting close to failure, that’s two repetitions in which you haven’t reinforced the proper movement pattern. In fact, you’ve reinforced a bad pattern. Once you get better at performing the movement, you’ll be able to preserve your form even as your muscles become fatigued and be able to push closer to your muscular limits.
Think of the groove analogy again, and imagine a marble moving along the groove. If the groove is shallow (the movement pattern hasn’t been sufficiently ingrained), external factors such as muscle fatigue, distraction, instability, etc. can easily push the marble out of the groove. The movement now deviates from its efficient pattern to a less effective one, your muscles don’t get the overload they need, and you might even hurt yourself. If, however, the groove has been deeply developed, it becomes more difficult for the marble to be pushed out and the movement pattern can stay solid despite the development of fatigue.
Practice, Practice, Practice. You need to practice your main movements often to build good neural patterns. You should be performing your main exercises at least 1-2 times per week. Some programs recommend changing your exercises frequently, citing “muscle confusion” or some other nonsense fitness jargon. That’s a mistake, especially when you’re a beginner. Each movement requires a specific neural pattern, and it generally takes at least several weeks of consistent practice for the nervous system to fully develop that pattern. If you change your exercises all the time, you’ll never learn the proper pattern to perform any of them efficiently, and you won’t get the results you’re working hard for. You also won’t get the opportunity to utilize progressive overload if you don’t perform the same exercises regularly. I’m not suggesting that those foundational movements are the only exercises you should do, though. You can, and should, perform other exercises as well. You can change those other exercises more often if you want, but your main movements should stay consistent.
If you want to fast track your progress, try practicing 1-3 repetitions of an easy movement variation several times per day. Since you’ll be doing a high volume of repetitions this way, make sure you remember to stay far away from muscle failure and emphasize quality in each rep. I started doing this a few years ago when I was trying to get better at pull ups (before I even understood how important quality movement and practice are) and I was surprised at how much it improved my pull up ability. Now, when I’m writing, I take a quick break every once in a while and practice a few reps of the movements I’m currently working on. It only takes a couple of minutes at a time, and it allows you to provide your nervous system with very frequent, high quality practice so it can carve out that movement pattern quickly. Again, this is probably something you’ve done before. If you’ve ever learned to play an instrument, for example, you know that the more you practice the better you get.
You probably also know that some people are naturally gifted at certain skills, while others aren’t. It’s the same with strength training. Regardless, everyone can get better with practice, persistence, and patience. Don’t compare yourself to others, and don’t expect perfection or drastic changes. Just try to get a little better in each session, and you will make meaningful improvements.