Developing Corps Strength – An Appeal to the Service Academies for the Prioritization of Strength

by Gregory Hess | February 02, 2022

Acknowledging strength as the most important physiological adaptation for human existence and performance is an initial step towards a service member’s physical readiness improvement [1]. This, however, generates the obvious question of “How does one train for strength?” As is usually the case with seemingly complex and fashionable topics, the simplest approach is the best.

To understand the why and how of strength development, one must first understand the basic process that occurs when lifting weights. The activity of lifting weights serves as a stressor to the human body. If this stressor is sufficient to cause a disruption in the homeostasis of the system, the body will respond by rebuilding damaged structures with an enhanced capacity adapted to that specific stressor. With adequate sleep, nutrition, and the reasonable progression of subsequent stressors, the body recovers between exposures to individual workouts and can manage additionally applied stress. This is an ongoing adaptive process that is cumulative. Simply stated, adding a little bit of stress via an appropriately applied increase in weight during lifting is the cornerstone of developing strength. One must repeatedly apply this Stress/Recovery/Adaptation Cycle (SRA) in a planned manner to reap the most efficient and effective cumulative progression of strength [2].  

The specific stress applied during the SRA Cycle is optimized when it engages as much of the system as possible through normal human movement patterns. No other single piece of gym or exercise equipment is as versatile as the basic barbell, due to its capability of providing incrementally increasing stress to foundational human movement patterns [3].

Depending on the lifter’s ability to apply stress, recover from the stress, and adapt to newly increasing stress, the workout-to-workout progressions of load on the barbell will vary. Initially the novice, an individual who can recover from the applied stress within two to three days, can add ten to twenty pounds each workout. This aggressive progression will quickly begin to slow, but the trainee can continue to add a reasonable (about five pounds) load to the barbell each session for several months, depending on the exercise. This scenario works only when the recovery components of sleep and nutrition are prioritized.

This novice period of training is best executed when other unnecessary, strenuous activities such as conditioning and endurance-based tasks are minimized, so as to not compete for precious recovery resources [2]. The most efficient application of this phenomenon continues to make general strength progress training with loaded normal human movements, while practicing the display of the skills of one’s sport or occupation as strength accumulates. The Army Combat Fitness Test (ACFT) is a military-relevant example of potential misapplication of this training versus practice concept. A soldier would be best served by training to increase general full-body strength with barbells, and then applying the accumulating force production capacity to individual ACFT events in planned practice proximal to the test date. 

The appropriate movements performed during a comprehensive barbell training program are those that meet the following criteria: 1) they use the most muscle mass possible, 2) they use the longest effective range of motion for the movement pattern, 3) they allow for the heaviest weights to be lifted while satisfying 1 and 2, and 4) they therefore produce the largest increase in systemic strength [3]. For a thorough and efficient approach, these exercises are the low bar squat, the overhead press, the conventional deadlift, and the bench press. These main lifts are the basis for developing and progressing general full-body strength [3].

An attempt to add variety and novelty to a strength program is a misguided attempt to either replicate a display of athleticism in the weight room, or a misunderstanding of the four criteria listed previously. The weight room is where one applies stress via incrementally increasing loads to produce an adaptation for greater force production, not where athletic and occupational skills are practiced and displayed.

When programming the lifts, it is important to acknowledge that a muscle must ultimately grow in cross-sectional area to increase strength. This growth is a cumulative adaptation to the increasingly heavy loads on the bar [2]. Any attempt to implement submaximal volume work – as seen in bodybuilding circles and hypertrophy-geared templates – misses this important concept. These approaches to resistance training are less efficient for the novice who can add weight to the bar each workout.

Similarly, applying traditional periodization approaches and focusing on derivatives of strength, like muscular endurance or muscular power, also artificially dampens absolute strength improvement. There is really no point in focusing on a mesocycle of muscular endurance when an absolute strength increase will improve this submaximal performance component, and power production will only increase as much as an increase in force production (strength) will permit. Leave the application of periodization to those who need complexity and variability, not the workout-to-workout progressing novice and the weekly-progressing intermediate trainee.

A proper starting rep-and-set configuration are 3 sets of 5 repetitions with an intensity that is difficult while correct technique is maintained. These sets of 5 serve as a general middle ground between maximal singles and submaximal endurance work [3]. Begin each workout with the squat since it has tremendous systemic effects [3]. Follow the squat with the press or bench press, alternating the lift each workout. Finish the workout with the deadlift, performing one heavy work set of 5 repetitions. Upon successful completion of the workout, add a reasonable load to each exercise – 5-20 lbs depending on the individual and the exercise – for the next workout. Be diligent regarding the appropriate load to add, by monitoring workout-to-workout progress and adherence to technique [3].

There is no need to invoke complexity, when simplicity works just fine.” This quotation by powerlifter Mike Tuchscherer sums up the situation for nearly all service members needing to engage in a variety of MOSs and who are required to participate in fitness testing. There is no reason to artificially reduce potential strength gains by adding needless variety, or conducting endless bouts of bodyweight calisthenics, practicing submaximal test components, and experimenting with trendy modalities. Stick to the basics of barbell training and only change what must change in the program:the load on the bar. Each pound added to the lifts means more force production capacity acquired, which can then be applied to relevant real-world operations and mandatory fitness testing. If still in doubt, see what happens to ACFT scores with a diligent approach to barbell training. The proof is in the force production.  

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