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How to Build Muscle Strength: a Complete Guide

Curated by Claudia Shannon / Research Scientist / ishonest

Strength is an integral part of health.

Its required for many tasks throughout the day, such as getting out of bed, carrying groceries, or pushing a broken-down car off the road. Its defined as the ability to produce maximal force against a specific and usually external resistance (1).

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Knowing how to build strength can be helpful no matter if youre an older adult whos worried about safely getting up from a chair or if youre younger and looking to perform a heavier bench press.

A recent study showed that greater strength is linked to decreases in all mortality causes. Another study found a link between strength training and improved physical function in individuals experiencing chronic pain (2, 3).

People perform resistance training for a variety of reasons. Some are interested in being the strongest they can be or avoiding injury, others are interested in sculpting a better physique with larger muscles, and some wish to perform better at certain sports.

No matter your goals, you may be unsure of the best way to increase your strength. Its important to know that it takes long-term consistency to achieve results and that you must manipulate certain variables to challenge your body to lift heavier loads.

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This can involve:

  • increasing the weight
  • varying the number of repetitions per set
  • adjusting the number of days you lift
  • changing how long you rest between sets
  • adjusting how many sets you perform

Below are some ways to improve strength that address the topics.

How long does it take to build strength?

When it comes to building strength, long-term consistency is key.

A recent review found that it typically takes between 615 weeks before you start seeing any appreciable strength gains (4).

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Nevertheless, you may still experience strength gains within the first couple of weeks of training, linked to your brain adapting to training. In fact, these immediate strength gains are typically seen in untrained individuals more so than in trained individuals (5).

Its worth noting that building muscle differs from building strength. With muscle building, the goal is to increase muscle size also known as inducing muscle hypertrophy. This is not necessarily the goal when building strength (5).

Comparatively, appreciable muscle hypertrophy tends to take at least 812 weeks, though this is highly dependent on nutrition, intensity, frequency, and other factors like age and sex (6).

Building appreciable strength typically takes at least 615 weeks while building appreciable muscle typically takes at least 812 weeks.

Goals for weight training

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Weight training comes with a wealth of benefits. In addition to improved overall health, some goals for weight training include increased strength, muscle building, endurance, and power.

Strength

A primary goal of strength training is to get your body to adapt to lifting heavier loads. To assess if your strength has increased, you can perform a test.

For example, you can test if your 1 rep max (1RM) lift of a specific exercise, such as the bench press or squat, improves over time. In other words, you can identify if you can perform one repetition of an exercise with increasing loads as you progress.

Studies have shown that increasing strength requires lifting with loads at greater than or equal to 60% of your 1RM load. Loads of at least 80% of your 1RM load may produce better strength gains if you have previous training experience (7, 8).

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Current recommendations for increasing strength through resistance training are to complete 18 repetitions until muscle failure which is when youre unable to perform another repetition. Research suggests performing 36 of these sets per exercise (1, 9).

One study found that rest periods of 3 minutes are optimal for inducing strength changes. Yet, resting for 13 minutes between sets may be more beneficial from a time-saving standpoint (10).

Keep in mind that strength training will vary with the individual. Its reliant on previous training history, injuries, age, motivation, and more (9).

Thus, its best to adjust training parameters to your ability, time allotment, and motivation level. For example, if youre over 45 years of age, you may benefit from lower loads, such as 60% of your 1-RM load (9).

Hypertrophy
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As mentioned, the goal of hypertrophy training is to increase muscle size.

Maximal lifting may not need to be part of this program.

For example, one study found that hypertrophy can occur with loads as low as 30% of the 1 RM. Still, greater gains in muscle size were seen with loads of 60% or greater. The important factor remained to train with a high intensity until muscular failure (8).

A 2016 study observed that muscle mass increased when a participant performed 3 sets of 812 repetitions to muscular failure (11).

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If your goal is growing muscle, you should rest between sets for 13 minutes just like when working to increase strength. Interestingly, some studies postulate that longer rest between sets promotes increases in muscle endurance (10, 12).

Muscular endurance

Muscular endurance involves the ability to move a submaximal load while resisting muscle fatigue.

Training to improve muscle endurance typically involves using loads that are 40 60% of your 1 RM. This improves the muscles physiologic efficiency, enabling it to perform repeated contractions without getting fatigued (1).

Functionally, this allows you to push your body for longer, such as when jogging or swimming.

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Training for muscular endurance typically involves performing 23 sets of 15 or more repetitions. Generally, the rest intervals are shorter, sitting around 30 60 seconds (1).

Power

Muscle power is the ability to produce force and speed to move yourself or an object for example, in activities like sprinting, discus-throwing, slam-ball exercises, and jumping.

The ideal loads for training vary depending on the exercise.

For example, power movements like the squat or explosive lifts like the power clean respond best to loads of 3070% of your 1RM. Meanwhile, explosive activities like jumping respond better to lighter loads around 30% of your 1RM (13).

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Repetitions for power training are meant to work on strength and speed and you should avoid training to muscle failure (14).

This type of training typically leans toward 13 sets of 410 reps. The rest periods are longer, lasting 3 or more minutes, allowing you to fully recover before performing again.

It can be paired with heavy resistance sets in whats called contrast training. This can help develop strength and pre-fatigue the muscles. Combining a heavier resistance set with a much lighter speed-based movement enhances performance (15).

Optimal strength training involves using a load of 80% or greater of your 1 RM, performing 18 repetitions for 36 sets, and resting 13 minutes between sets.

6 ways to build strength

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Building strength is a multifaceted task. Here are some things to keep in mind.

  • Warm up. When preparing to lift heavier weights, its important to warm up your body before performing. This can include lighter aerobic activity, lighter weight sets, and dynamic warm-up exercise like arms circles, leg kicks, and windmills.
  • Focus on form. Keep good form when lifting to muscular failure. If you can no longer maintain good form, youve reached the failure point for that set.
  • Prioritize progressive overload. Increase the volume of your repetitions to improve strength. This can be done by keeping the weight heavy, around >80% 1RM, and increasing the number of sets to 35.
  • Try compound exercises. If youre pressed for time, utilize compound exercises that involve multiple joints, such as the squat and bench press. They may offer more bang for your buck than single-joint isolation exercises like bicep curls or knee extensions.
  • Stay consistent. Keep consistent with strength training by performing strength workouts three times per week. This can be total-body training, or if preferred, you can alternate between upper- and lower-body training.
  • Seek the help of others. Consider teaming up with a friend for motivation and to keep each other accountable. You can also seek out the guidance of a professional, like a personal trainer, to follow a tailored exercise program and advice.

Warm up your body before lifting, maintain good form, gradually increase the volume of training, prioritize compound movements, stay consistent, and seek the help of others to improve your performance.

How to eat to support your strength goals

If youre looking to enhance your strength and muscle mass, youll likely benefit from increasing your protein intake.

The current understanding is that getting up to 0.73 grams of protein per pound (1.6 grams per kg) of body weight each day can support muscle and strength growth. Any more than this will be excreted through your urine and provides no further benefits (16).

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For example, a 155-pound (70-kg) person can benefit from up to 112 grams of protein per day. This can come from lean meat, poultry, and fish, as well as legumes, dairy, and grains. You can also use protein supplements, which are often soy, pea, or whey protein-based.

To optimize your bodys uptake, it my be best vary the protein sources you eat. This will add variety to your diet and ensure you get all the different amino acids also known as the building blocks of protein (17).

The above recommendation does require an adequate exercise stimulus to be worth the increased intake. In other words, eating this much protein without also working out at a sufficient intensity is unlikely to stimulate muscle growth further.

Those exercising less intensely may not need more than 0.36 grams per pound (0.8 grams per kg) of body weight per day (18).

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In addition to getting enough protein, you should also aim to enjoy a balanced diet.

This includes high quality carbohydrates like whole grains alongside fruits and vegetables that provide fiber, vitamins, and minereals. Besides fueling your workouts, eating a balanced diet can benefit your health and help prevent disease (19, 20).

Increasing protein intake can improve strength. However, keep it below 1.6 grams per kilogram of body weight per day to be beneficial. Also eat a well-balanced diet in addition to the protein intake.

The bottom line

Building strength requires consistency, intensity, patience, and dedication.

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There are optimal levels of reps, sets, rest intervals, and frequency for different training purposes. Use them as a guideline and adjust them to what suits your body, lifestyle, and training goals.

To support your strength-gaining journey, its also important to eat a balanced diet high in protein.

Last, but not least happy training.

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