One of the most important distinctions you need to keep in mind for your own training is that building and demonstrating strength are not the same thing.
They have significantly different methods and goals, and if you keep this distinction in mind you can make your own training more effective. It’s a simple method of asking yourself ‘what’s this exercise/set/rep for?’.
It’s not bad, it’s just unsustainable
Right off the bat, we’re going to put up a disclaimer: demonstrating strength isn’t bad. Trying hard isn’t bad.
The problem with demonstrating strength is that most of the time it’s just not a sustainable training model. On top of that, it’s not the most effective way of demonstrating better strength in the long-term.
Good training is designed to maximise your results at a testing event/session or competition or to produce the best strength/size results.
Demonstrating strength by pushing yourself to 100% effort too often doesn’t do much for any of these. The point is that, if you’re demonstrating strength too often, you’re not building it often enough and you’re going to get dinged up, worn down, or just miss out on the best results.
Your Training Bank Account
This is how training works: your performance is a bank account. Every session you put in that was well-structured is like depositing money – you’re amassing a collection of quality effort. The more you put in, the more you have at your disposal when the time comes.
Demonstrating strength – whether it’s 1RMs or just pushing yourself to the max too often – is like drawing out of that account.
As with any good bank account, the more often you deposit compared to withdrawing, the richer you will be. In training, the more consistent good effort you bank, the stronger you will be when it comes time to demonstrate strength.
The majority of your training shouldn’t be “Am I going to be able to make this?”!
The more time you’re dedicating to just effort, the less of your focus can be dedicated to how you’re moving. Good training is on the borderline of these two: you should be able to adjust technique or reinforce good habits while feeling like you’re fighting with the weight.
Too far on either side is a problem.
Muscular Damage and Intensity
The upper effort sets in training are a problem because they contribute to increased muscular and tendon damage.
This means that your 1 set of 5 to the absolute blood-spitting max is great, but the recovery demands are a concern. Can that one set build as much strength as the alternative; additional good sets with 85-95% as much effort?
Nothing you do today can out-work a week of well-structured training – and the psychological/structural demands of a true max set could be this significant.
Muscular damage peaks with near-failure and failed sets, while heavier sets lean on tendon deformation more. The blood supply and metabolism of these connective tissues is very slow compared to muscle – and you probably aren’t going to feel it until it’s too late.
Heavy sets are great, but maximal effort for no reason is not the best way to get strong – and it’s a much faster route to increased recovery needs. The best training walks the line between high intensity, good technique, and proper recovery so you can train again sooner/more often.
Demonstrating strength is great but it does task you more and it’s the difference between consistent, sustainable gains and increased injury risks.
Your performance is best when it comes from a predictable progression, rather than the peaks and troughs of overdoing it because you feel like you need to push huge weights all the time.
The development of strength in the long-term is the result of consistently progressing volume and increasing your technical efficiency with the movement. These are the types of specific adaptations that make up strength in the first place.
The proper focus of these is consistent and patient overload; there’s no way of rushing this process without increasing the risk of injury.
The majority of the work you’re doing should be building strength. That’s the point of training in the first place! Let’s take a look at what you should be doing instead, given that we’ve already established what you need to avoid…
Muscular Strength Gains
Muscular strength gains come from consistent progressions in the volume of your training. This is about the consistent increase in tonnage week-on-week over years. Strength is a patient process and it’s not possible to rush it – the only result of that will be pain.
There are 3 key variables and the point is to keep 1-2 stable while you adjust the other: reps, sets, and loading. The total work you do in a week is more important than any one set – and that’s not to say that you can’t put great work in there. It just makes more sense to stay just behind what you could do and get more high-quality work in with more near-maximal sets.
Near-maximal, but not maximal, is the way to build strength. It’s an essential part of maximising your results, since the ability to demonstrate strength is built on proper practice in the 85%+ range. Getting good here, especially with artificial difficulty from pauses and slow eccentrics, allow you to practice this heavy-lifting skill set.
Obviously, if you’re a powerlifter, this includes things like bracing effectively and properly tensioning different parts of the body. This is similar, though not the same, between near- and true-maximal work. Volume at intensity is important for best results, but that intensity doesn’t mean RPE10 all the god-damn time.
Equally, avoid junk volume; doing exercise for the sake of just getting volume in isn’t useful. Consider your own weaknesses, where you may need to introduce greater pro-recovery work, and what needs more work in the context of your programming. Everything should be deliberate, replaced, or removed!
Tendon preparation and connective conditioning
Strength isn’t just about muscular strength; it’s often leaning on the strength and elasticity of tendons. These connective tissues are – as mentioned above – slow to heal and develop.
Demonstrating strength tasks the tendons while building strength provides an effective strengthening stimulus. This is a fine line and the development of tendon strength, resilience, and health is one of the key factors in the training of high-performers.
Whether it’s powerlifting, weightlifting, or other sports, the tendons are going to be handling a lot of the load!
Conditioning the tendons is an even more patient process than developing muscular strength but is essential for proper sustainability. We can confirm that tendon damage and degradation is an easy way to waste months/years of your training.
Proper lower-intensity conditioning work and slowly developing plyometrics can really improve this process. The consistent and careful progression of exercise is usually the key factor for tendons.
Lower intensity work can be useful for this kind of development while over-loading consistently is likely to damage tendons beyond the functional, regenerative/growth capacities. This is a problem that doesn’t seem likely or obvious until it’s too late.
Demonstrating strength is a limited activity if you want to stay healthy, and proper tendon conditioning: there’s a hard limit to how much you can do before you’re just hurting yourself.