Being strong is one of the best things an individual can do for themselves. Strength is neither age nor gender specific, but it is relative. That teenage football player will almost certainly have more absolute strength than a grandmother of three, but both can be strong relative to the demands they place on their bodies. It also bears stating that strength and “big muscles” don’t have to go hand in hand. I don’t think anyone would argue that female Olympic gymnasts are very strong, but they don’t have large muscles. All it takes to be strong is having the proper mindset and plan.
Strength is the ability to exert maximal force in a coordinated effort. When a single muscle cell is activated it is either on, or off. It is either contracting with the maximum force it can generate, or it is not contracting at all. Small groups of muscle cells are called motor units, and these units are energized by a nerve. It is the job of the brain to determine how many motor units are required (and therefore how many nerves to fire) in order to complete a task. Picking up a pencil, for instance, will require a different number of motor units than picking up a five gallon bucket of paint. And the sequence in which these motor units are activated controls the smoothness, or what we like to call the coordination of the movement.
Let’s discuss what causes the initial strength gains experienced when an individual begins a strength training regimen. While very encouraging, I believe these strength increases can also be misleading. Generally speaking, going from a sedentary existence to one of activity is enough to make anyone stronger. “Waking up” muscles that have been inactive for a long period of time is typically very invigorating and encouraging for most people – enough so that many question why they had not become more active sooner. But why do we actually get “stronger”?
Most of that first, notable, increase in strength isn’t a result of stronger muscles at all; it’s the result of better communication between our nervous system and our muscles. The two main factors of this enhanced communication are: “motor unit recruitment” and “motor unit synchronization”. This is a fancy way of saying that we are able to activate more muscle (motor units) and we can get them to work better together. Let’s use our Golden Lion football team as an example. All of these guys are strong, right? But what would happen if we asked them to pick up a car? One couldn’t do it by himself (he’s one motor unit). If 20 of them surrounded the car (more motor unit recruitment) there would certainly be enough strength to do the job, but if they tried to lift it one at a time it still wouldn’t work. Only when all 20 exert effort at the same time (motor unit synchronization) would they be able to accomplish the job.
So, what can we take away from this? 1) if you have a good plan and are strength training frequently enough, you will begin to feel results within the first month after starting the program. 2) The increase in your strength during these first few weeks will lead to all of your daily activities becoming easier to perform. The misleading: Although your increases are valid, this isn’t the time to stop, or the time to tell yourself “I don’t need to do anything more than what I am doing now. The overload principle has been mentioned several times in this column previously. To truly make strides in your health and strength, take these initial gains and build on them.