Ask people what their fitness goals are and they'll typically tell you (that is, if they've given any thought to having a goal at all) that they want to lose weight, get in better condition, and "maybe gain a little muscle."
You hardly ever hear someone say, "I want to get stronger."
Try to explain to someone that you're training for strength and they'll often snicker at you. The fact is, strength has gotten a bad name, and just talking about it makes people conjure up images of thick-necked football players and roided-out bodybuilders. Despite the fact that weight training is mainstream and the single most popular fitness activity there is, it's still associated with old stereotypes. That rare, lone guy who deadlifts in the corner of the gym with four or more plates on each side still gets looked at as a "meathead." A lot of people are going to assume that he's dumb and boorish (maybe because he grunts), and if he gets mad at the weights before a set, they're going to think "roid rage." After all, training with that much weight is silly. What use is it to be that strong?
Well... It just so happens that strength is the bedrock for success in just about every fitness or athletic pursuit you can think of. Sports teams hire strength and conditioning coaches whose main purpose is to get the players stronger. Some coaches believe that, more than any other trainable element (such as flexibility, speed, endurance, etc.), strength is the single greatest predictor of performance. There's a saying that "when all else is equal, the stronger athlete wins."
It's ironic then that while most of us want to be built like our favorite pro athletes, we don't train anything like them. Most guys train with weights that they can get 8-12 reps with--not a bad strategy for muscle growth but it does little for major strength gains--and never even approach exercises like the deadlift or squat. These moves are staples in most athletes' routines and really allow you to pile the weight on.
And maybe that's the problem. To get stronger, you need to put more weight on the bar. It's intimidating, it can be dangerous, and I guess a lot of people would look at that as training your ego, nothing more. If you're out of control, immature, or just plain stupid, it certainly can be. But sets of 6 or fewer reps will work wonders on your physique and athletic ability like nothing else.
Heavy weights recruit the body's biggest and strongest muscle fibers, so it stands to reason that pure strength training will result in gains in muscle size. They also burn lots of calories because it takes a hell of an effort to lift something heavy. As your body recovers, you'll burn fat at an accelerated rate, even in the days following your workout. The stronger a muscle is, the greater its potential for speed and explosiveness. It's no wonder then that sprinters use all sorts of squat variations in their workouts. The stronger a muscle is, the greater its capacity for endurance, since the muscle doesn't need to work as hard to perform the activity.
Look at it this way. The basic purpose of lifting weights is to apply a greater stress to muscles than they're used to. They adapt to handle that stress by getting stronger. If you're not going to train with weights that force that adaptation, you're wasting your time, and defeating the entire purpose of weight training! Might as well just hop on the treadmill.
My friend and MF training adviser Jason Ferruggia has said in the past that you don't get "in shape" in the weight room. You go there to get jacked and strong. This isn't to say that weight training can't benefit the heart or improve your conditioning, but that's really what cardio and other activities are for. Performing several sets back to back or cutting your rest periods down has its place, but it often sacrifices strength and burns up muscle. Training heavy, following a clean diet, and performing cardio three times a week should deliver all the results you've been hoping for.
Read more about strength on Keith Scott's blog. He's an MF contributing writer and a top-notch trainer and physical therapist. Check back here in the coming weeks for more tips on getting stronger.