Strength Training: What It Is – And What It Is Not

by Mark Rippetoe | January 11, 2023

lifter at the bottom of a squat

I recently became interested in whether is the biggest strength training website on the internet, so I Googled “strength training websites” as a place to start. It became immediately apparent that 1.) is the biggest actual strength training website on the internet (in terms of the amount of strength training content, not bodybuilding, conditioning, body composition, etc.), 2.) T-Nation may be close, but probably not, and 3.) “strength training” – on the internet – means any activity more strenuous than playing cards.

If we want to know about strength training websites, we need a definition of terms. I like my definition, from Practical Programming for Strength Training, 3rd edition:

Strength training is a program that increases the athlete's ability to produce muscular force against an external resistance. It properly follows a logical progression, starting from the athlete's current strength level and moving in the direction of increased strength.

This is a fairly straightforward, easily understood definition that recognizes an obvious concept: strength is the ability to produce force, and for strength to increase, the production of force must increase. To increase strength, we have to determine what our strength is now, and then figure out a way to measurably increase it – that process is strength training.

So, strength training is a process that over time increases the ability to produce force. And if the program doesn't increase force production, it cannot be strength training. This gets back to the old “words have meanings” thing. If you come to the gym, learn to do basic barbell exercises, and then continue to do them with incremental increases in load, you are increasing your ability to produce the force necessary to lift continually heavier weights, since lifting heavier weights is what you're actually doing. You are therefore strength training.

The most effective way to do this is detailed in Starting Strength: Basic Barbell Training and its companion text Practical Programming for Strength Training. Professionals can disagree on the details, but if the program is not producing increased force production capacity over time, it cannot be defined as “strength training.” For example, swimming is not strength training, even if the owner of the pool really wants it to be.

The Novice Effect

And we have to understand the Novice Effect on strength. “Physical Fitness” the general term for an amalgamation of stretching, conditioning exercises, and bodyweight exercises like situps – the things the government wants you to do while playing around in the Fitness Center – has nothing whatsoever to do with actual strength training. It fails to intentionally increase strength, while still increasing strength accidentally through the Novice Effect, detailed in these books.

The Novice Effect is what happens when a previously untrained person starts to lift weights or do anything else that's physically difficult: they improve quickly, since no improvement has previously taken place, and the initial stages of adaptation to stress are rapid, since the mechanisms of that adaptation have been untapped. As long as each workout constitutes an adaptive stimulus, adaptation can and will occur. Adaptations accumulate, and strength training intentionally manipulates this phenomenon. Over time, this process gets more difficult the more strength you accumulate, since the closer you approach your physical potential, more effort is required to force an improvement – the commonly observed phenomenon of Diminishing Returns. When that happens, the process gets more complicated, but it can continue as long as you make it continue.

The Novice Effect is the primary reason why so many approaches to exercise are considered “strength training” by those unfamiliar with the process. If a previously sedentary person starts hauling hay, he'll get stronger. Hauling hay is not a strength program, but it's harder than sitting on his ass, so it constitutes an adaptive stress until he adapts to the weight of the bales (which will take just a couple of weeks). Unless the hay bales become incrementally heavier over time, the initial adaptation is sufficient, and no further strength is developed, because strength is developed in direct response to, and in proportion to, the stress. If the hay bales are no longer a stress, more force production cannot be developed and accumulated unless increased amounts of force production are required. If the bales weigh the same, the force required is the same, and you've already developed that strength.

But the guy did get stronger, right? Sure, but he didn't keep getting stronger over time, incrementally and predictably, the way an actual strength program forces the adaptation. And if he hauled hay occasionally, and swept the barn occasionally, and moved hay into the loft occasionally, and cleaned stalls occasionally, and chased the barn cats occasionally, and shod the horses occasionally, and fed cubes in the pasture occasionally, and painted the barn occasionally, and replaced the salt blocks occasionally, he would be stronger than he was while sitting on his ass. He's doing an agricultural version of CrossFit, and the Novice Effect may fool his mother, but he's not doing “strength training.”

The Process

Strength training is where force production increases in a regular intentionally programmed fashion – every workout at first, and then more slowly the stronger you get. This means quantification: you have to know how much force you produced last time, so you can correctly decide how much more to produce today. This is what the plates on the bar are for. And any workout spent doing anything but lifting a little more weight is a workout spent not getting stronger. And if getting stronger is your goal, you are wasting time. The younger you are when you start, the more effective the program will be, but it still works the same basic way for everyone who starts it. Done correctly, an incremental increase every workout to the basic barbell exercises will result in uninterrupted strength increases for 6-8 months – for literally every untrained person, no matter their age, sex, or fitness level. After the easy novice progress, the program gets a little more complicated, but progress accumulates for many years on a correctly designed program.

There are many fitness programs that claim to be “strength training” programs. CrossFit is a good example. The random selection of exercises and loads is the polar opposite of strength training. Strength training improves the performance of CrossFit, but CrossFit is not strength training. Most people that are interested enough to examine this have already come to this conclusion. But some fitness activities have escaped sufficient scrutiny. Kettlebell training is not strength training, since it involves the repetition of sub-maximal efforts for a period of time or a number of reps, with no regularly programmed increase in the weight of the implement. Strength training benefits kettlebell training, but kettlebell training is not strength training.

More obvious are the popular fitness activities like yoga, Pilates, Zumba, “functional training,” battle ropes, “spin” classes, boxing, Indian clubs, calisthenics, pushups and situps, playing on the machines at the commercial fitness club, and anything that does not involve incremental increases in the production of force against a resistance – which is most effectively provided by a barbell exercise moved over a full range of motion. These activities may make you hot, sweaty, and tired, but they cannot make you stronger for any length of time. Strength training benefits all of these, but none of them are strength training.

The pattern is rather obvious: strength is the basis for physical expression and interaction with your physical environment, and increased strength benefits all physical endeavors. This is why strength training is so damned important: it improves quite literally everything else you do physically. The only question is, how much stronger do you need to be? That depends on what you're doing. If marathon is your activity, you don't need to stop running and get your deadlift up to 495 – but it would be good to be able to deadlift 1.5 times your bodyweight for a set of 5, because the toughness that accumulates with strength keeps you from getting hurt. If tennis is your activity, a strong squat and deadlift directly benefit your movement on the court, because deceleration and acceleration are dependent on force production, as is hitting the ball accurately and repetitively for 6 sets. And if you're a 55-year-old guy whose sports are long in the past, you need to be as strong as you can get, because life often requires strength from old people.

(If football is your activity, you may be wondering why your coaches have you dancing around in the floor with 15-pound dumbbells on unstable surfaces, since you already know how stupid this is, and why a big squat, press, and deadlift would benefit you on the field. You may even be wondering about all the ACL injuries, and why all this “functional training” hasn't prevented them. You've read that football players used to lift weights, and you're wondering if maybe this just might still be a good idea.)

But often underappreciated is the fact that the process of getting stronger through a correctly-designed program benefits far more than just the physical existence. Learning that your current limits can be expanded is a function of deliberately expanding them – exactly the thing that takes place under the bar. And the implementation of this process tends to soak into all your habits, producing a tendency to challenge the limits and barriers encountered outside the gym. Once you realize that the process of accumulating incremental increases applies to everything you do, doors open.

The process of making yourself stronger is perhaps the most productive investment in yourself you can undertake. You are handing yourself a tool that can be used in every aspect of your life. The physical, mental, and “spiritual” are never closer together than under a PR set of very heavy squats.

And if you find a bigger strength training website on the internet, let me know.

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