Muscular Strength and How to Get Stronger

Fitness girl lifting dumbbell in the morning

In the exercise world, we talk a lot about building strength, but what does that actually mean?

The word strength refers to a muscle's ability to generate force against physical objects. In the fitness world, this typically refers to how much weight you can lift for different strength training exercises

The American Council on Exercise has an excellent definition in their ACE Personal Trainer Manual:

"Muscular strength is the foundation of all physical activities."

Everything we do each day, from getting out of bed to taking a shower and then driving to work requires a certain amount of strength. You may need more to do things like moving boxes or opening a heavy door. Less strength for simple things like brushing your hair or drinking a glass of water.

Whatever you're doing, however, requires strength and it's one area of fitness that's very easy to improve.

Measuring Your Strength

How do we measure strength? That depends on what you're measuring. In the fitness world, measuring strength usually involves figuring out the highest amount of weight you can lift for one rep of one exercise, or what we call a One-Rep Max.

Rather than actually do the One-Rep Max test, which could lead to injury for those of us who aren't bodybuilders or used to lifting very heavy weights, we typically measure strength by calculating a percentage of that one-rep max.

What that means is that you choose a percentage of that one-rep max which translates to a certain number of repetitions. You then find a weight that you can lift for that specific number of reps, the last rep being almost impossible, but still doable with good form.

Percentages of One-Rep Max

You can use this chart to choose the reps you want to perform to estimate your one-rep max:

  • 100% of 1RM: 1 repetition
  • 85% of 1RM: 6 repetitions
  • 75% of 1RM: 10 repetitions
  • 65% of 1RM: 15 repetitions

Choosing Your Weight

It's impossible to know the exact amount of weight you need to complete a certain number of reps unless you're in a laboratory setting.

The best way to approach it is to guess. Not very scientific, but often the easiest method. You simply choose what seems like a reasonable weight for different exercises.

With this approach, it helps to know a few basics about muscle groups and weights. Some tips:

  • The larger the muscle group the heavier the weight - The chest, back and legs include some of the biggest and strongest muscles in the body, so you'll typically use more weight for these muscle groups.
  • Warming up - It's also important for your muscles to be warmed up before picking up a heavier weight. You can do this with cardio or you can do warm up versions of each exercise by choosing a lighter weight.
  • Every day is different - Some days are better than others and some days you just won't lift as much weight. That's no reflection on your strength, but can be due to anything - Being extra fatigued, not getting enough sleep, fighting off an illness or maybe you're tired from previous workouts.

As an example, if you're doing a chest press with dumbbells, you might choose about 12 to 25 pounds for women or upwards of 30 to 40 lbs for men to complete 10 reps with good form, the last rep being the absolute last one you can do.

If you can do more than 10 reps, you know you can increase the amount of weight you're using.

You may feel like calculating a percentage of your one-rep max isn't important if you're not trying to build big muscles.

However, even if you're not a bodybuilder, knowing how much weight to lift can make a huge difference in the results you get.

Most of us don't lift as heavy as we could, especially women because we worry about getting bulky.  Don't worry...we don't have the hormones necessary to build huge muscles.

Choosing the right weight means you'll get the absolute most out of your strength training program. Not only building strength but lean muscle tissue, all of which contributes to a fit, lean body.

How to Get Stronger

The key to getting stronger is, of course, to lift heavy weights.  Each time you lift heavy weights, you increase strength, muscle size and connective tissues such as ligaments and tendons.  In other words, every part of you gets stronger, not just your muscles.

If want to build strength, your goal should be about 2-6 sets of up to 6 reps of each exercise with about 2-5 minutes in between each set. That means you want to lift enough weight that you can ONLY do 6 reps and no more.

That's very heavy weight, so if you're new to exercise, you need to work up to that.

For the average exerciser, keeping your reps between 10 and 16 per set is a great way to build and maintain strength and muscle mass in a safe way.

Building Strength to Lift Heavier

If you're a beginner, start with a basic total body workout, working between 8 and 15 reps for each exercise and doing 1-2 sets. You might start with a moderate weight and, as you get used to strength training, start going heavy enough that the last rep feels very challenging.

Work on your form and building a strong foundation in all your muscle groups before going crazy heavy on the weights, which could cause injury and extreme soreness. Work on that for a few weeks and, as you get stronger, you can increase the weights you're using and decrease the reps.

View Article Sources
  • American Council on Exercise. ACE Personal Trainer Manual, 5th Edition. San Diego: American Council on Exercise, 2014. p. 334