What is strength? Strength is grit, resolve, and persistence in the face of adversity. Strength is something we all need more of in our lives. But unfortunately, strength is something society actively discourages us from building by systematically imbuing us with a false fear that if we become too strong or too powerful that we become physically undesirable.
That needs to change. And that’s why we’ve built Spitfire Athlete. With Spitfire, we teach the athlete’s mentality: it’s not about what you look like. It’s about what you can do.
We built Spitfire to fight this misconception and to show women everywhere that building their strength and power is not only physically beneficial, but mentally for building self confidence, grit, and an indomitable will.
We wrote this guide to show you how to start strength training the spitfire way.
There are many different expressions of strength.
- Maximum strength: The maximum amount of weight you can lift in one attempt. Also called 1 Rep Maximum, 1 Rep Max, or 1RM.
- Relative strength: The maximum amount of weight you can lift relative to your bodyweight. In the sport of weightlifting and powerlifting, people use the Sinclair Coefficient and the Wilk’s Coefficient respectively to compare strength levels of athletes in different weight classes.
- Bodyweight strength: The ability to use your body in a coordinated, strong, and powerful manner (think gymnastics, parkour, dance, rock climbing).
- Power: The ability to exert a high amount of force in a very short period of time (think of sprinting, punching, or back flipping in the air).
- Endurance: The ability to produce force for a long period of time. Endurance is rooted in strength.
Strength Training 101
There are three fundamental concepts to understand in order to train effectively.
- Progressive Overload: Lift More Than You Did Before
- Periodization: Have a Goal for Each Cycle
- Structured Training: Just Follow The Damn Plan
Concept 1: Progressive Overload
Progressive Overload: In order for a muscle to grow, strength to be gained, performance to increase, or for any improvement to occur, the human body must be forced to adapt to a stress that is greater than what it has previously experienced.
If you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you’ve always gotten.
Let’s say that you start squatting your bodyweight three times a week for 3 sets of 5 reps. You continue doing this exactly for a month. How strong are you going to be by the end of the month?
You may be tempted to think that you’ll become really strong. But actually, you’ll only be slightly stronger than when you started. Why? Because your body doesn’t care that you are consistent with your training since consistency doesn’t force it to adapt beyond the initial stimulus of the training.
Doing the exact same workout with the exact same weights will not cause your body to adapt after the initial stimulus. Once it has adapted to squatting 3 sets of 5 reps at your bodyweight, it will not expect to lift more, so it will not prepare to lift more and it will not become stronger.
You can exercise every day – but if your training isn’t structured to provide a progressive overload towards your goal – your body will not change beyond its initial adaptation to the stress that it has encountered. This concept applies to any athletic ability you want to improve: strength, endurance, power, flexibility, and so on.
On the other hand, let’s say that you squat 3 days a week starting with your bodyweight for 3 sets of 5 reps. Now let’s say that each training day you increase the weight you lifted by 5lbs. How much stronger will you be by the end of the month?
We can actually quantify this: 5lbs * 3 days * 4 weeks = 60lbs. You can measurably lift 60lbs more than when you first started.
Consistency is a great thing. But consistency is not the same as structured progressive overload. Without structured progressive overload, you won’t go very far towards achieving your training goals even if you exercise every day.
Now, increasing the weight that you’re lifting isn’t the only variable you can adjust.
You can adjust many training variables over time towards your goals. Some include:
- Choice of exercises
- Order of exercises
- Number of sets
- Rest between sets
As you progress, care must be taken to make sure that the training that you’re following actually develops the improvements you seek by adjusting the right variables in a structured way.
This is why we aren’t a fan of randomized workouts. Randomized workouts are fine if your goal is to just exercise. But if you want to hit specific goals, you need to train.
The foundation of every great training plan is structured progressive overload of the variable the athlete is most focused on improving.
Concept 2: Periodization
Periodization: the practice of structuring your training so that you’re focused on improving a specific variable for cycle, or a period of time. A cycle is a pre-determined period of time, it can be a week, a month, or many months.
You can schedule training cycles separately, simultaneously, or one after another in order to achieve a specific training goal.
For example, if you want to build strength, an effective way to do this would be to focus on a strength cycle for a period of time. In a strength cycle, you’re only focusing on training that increases your strength. If you want to build endurance, you can focus on an endurance cycle for a period of time. In an endurance cycle, you’re only focusing on improving your endurance.
You can combine cycles as needed in order to train towards a specific outcome. For example, if you want to build both strength and endurance, you could start with a strength cycle and then transition to an endurance cycle. If you want to train for aesthetic goals, you can start with a strength cycle and then transition to a hypertrophy cycle.
You can either focus on one cycle at a time or you can follow training plans that layer cycles on top of each other (strength work on Monday and Wednesday, endurance work on Thursday and Friday).
You can train towards two goals at the same time, but not equally. One will often be the emphasis and the other significantly less emphasized. For example, a runner doing strength work will emphasize running if they run first and lift weights after.
If the same runner does strength work first and running after, they are emphasizing building their strength for running. In this example, whichever one you do first is emphasized.
You can have a main emphasis and have your other goal be accessory work. But, if you want to truly progress in any one area, you will best set yourself up for success by focusing on one variable at a time.
There are different theories around periodization and different approaches to different goals. But conceptually you’ll want to know, “What specific variable am I training for during this cycle? How long is this cycle going to last? What variable or goal am I going to train next?”
Periodization is an important concept not only for sports performance, but also for goals like weight loss.
Example: The Runner – How Structured Training Supports An Athletic Goal
For example, in our training program The Runner, the plan layers three different cycles: strength, non-running conditioning, and endurance. You’re building your strength by focusing on lifting more than you did in the last training session. You are improving your non-running conditioning by completing biking or rowing sprints for 250-400 meters and focusing on sprinting just a little bit faster each week. You are also building your endurance by increasing a 2km long run each week, so at Week 1 you start with a 2km run, at Week 2 you go up to 3km, etc. Effectively, you get stronger, faster, and build your endurance in a structured way.
Example: The Daredevil – How Structured Training Supports a Weight Loss Goal
When you have a weight loss goal, what you really want is to build muscle and lose fat. If you only do cardio and starve yourself all day, you will lose muscle and this will hurt your metabolism and ability to function. So you can’t just go on a mad deprivation spree. You have to follow a structured plan.
In our plan The Daredevil, which serves as a great plan for a goal like weight loss or for aesthetic goals, you start off with a strength cycle, transition to a split training cycle, then transition to a more specific split training cycle, then increase cardio until the end of the program.
This way, you start off building your strength, then build increased levels of hypertrophy, and then lean out with increased cardio towards the end of the plan.
Concept 3: Structured Training: Just Follow the Damn Plan
We learned that the first fundamental concept of strength training is progressive overload, which is that for you to get stronger, faster, etc, your body must be forced to adapt to a stress that is greater than what it has previously experienced.
We learned that the second fundamental concept of strength training is periodization, which is the practice of focusing on a specific variable for a training cycle.
This brings us to the third fundamental concept for building strength, which is that you should train with a structured training plan. This is because structured progressive overload is more important than mere exercise variety if you’re training with a specific goal in mind.
The fitness industry has promoted many odd ideas around exercise variety, like the idea that you need to “confuse your muscles”. But the truth is, muscles simply respond to any stress that they haven’t experienced before.
This is why you want to control the specificity of that stress – are you increasing weight? Are you reducing rest times? Are you increasing speed? Controlling the specificity of a stress better guides your body towards the goals you want instead of just throwing random exercises at your body at hoping your muscles will respond.
For example, you can do hundreds of different exercises but if you don’t challenge yourself to lift heavier for those exercises, your muscles will not expect to get stronger, and so it’s unlikely that you’ll become stronger or reach your other goals after your muscle’s initial adaptation to the novelty of the new exercises.
It’s better to focus on one exercise that you lift progressively heavier weight (or for which you adjust a specific training variable) than for you to indulge in any number of random exercises every single day for variety’s sake.
This is why you will see cycles in our app of the same training for as little as 2 and as much as 12 weeks, depending on the goal and the training plan. This level of consistency allows you to focus on increasing the weight that you lifted each time you encounter the same exercise, which assists you much more productively in the pursuit of your goals.
So basically, just follow the damn plan.
Putting it All Together: Starting Your First Strength Cycle
We believe that every woman, no matter her training background, age, or experience level should go through a strength cycle at least once in her life and ideally, at the beginning of her strength training journey.
A strength cycle is the most efficient way she can become the strongest she can be.
A beginner strength cycle involves training exclusively to build one’s strength three days a week over the course of months utilizing the major barbell lifts: squat, deadlift, bench press, and the overhead press.
In the Spitfire Athlete app, we suggest every woman start her training with The Warrior, our beginning strength training plan, which will guide you through your first strength cycle.
You will squat, deadlift, bench press, and overhead press three days per week. If you are healthy and in good athletic condition, your goal is to increase the weight you are lifting on the squat and deadlift by 5lbs each training day.
Your goal is to also increase the bench press and overhead press by 2.5lbs each training day. You will rest for a day in between sessions.
You will alternate on the bench press and the overhead press every other training day.
Here is what your training looks like for Week 1:
- Squat – 3 sets of 5
- Bench Press – 3 sets of 5
- Deadlift – 3 sets of 5
- Squat – 3 sets of 5 + 5lbs
- Overhead Press – 3 sets of 5 + 2.5lbs
- Deadlift – 3 sets of 5 + 5lbs
- Squat – 3 sets of 5 + 5lbs from Wednesday
- Bench Press – 3 sets of 5 + 2.5lbs from Monday
- Deadlift – 3 sets of 5 + 5lbs from Wednesday
In the app, this plan lasts for four weeks, which is the minimum amount of time we recommend focusing on a strength cycle.
After finishing The Warrior, you can progress to our intermediate strength training plan called The Powerlifter.
There are many reasons why you want to do this. First, this is the most efficient way that the strength community knows of to build full body strength. Building strength helps fortify your body against injury, helps prevent and fight osteoporosis, improves your metabolism and coordination, decreases risk of sarcopenia (muscle loss), helps you build fat free body mass (muscle and bone), and helps you prevent many diseases like osteoporosis, decrease arthritis pain, and improve glucose control (for people living with Type 2 Diabetes).
Welcome to the Weight Room
Training Barbells, Powerlifting Barbells, and Olympic Barbells
Barbells come in many sizes and weights, from as small as 4ft to as large as 8ft. The three major categories of barbells are: training barbells, powerlifting barbells, and olympic barbells.
Training barbells come in all lengths and weights. Most commercial gyms have training barbells, so just make sure you know how much they actually weigh by asking the staff.
In the sport of powerlifting, the athlete specializes in squatting, deadlifting, and bench pressing. In most federations, all male and female competitors will use the 20kg/45lbs bar.
In the sport of olympic weightlifting, the athletes specialize in the snatch and the clean and jerk. There are two types of weightlifting barbells: a women’s bar (15kgs) and a men’s bar (20kgs).
In the sport of weightlifting, women’s bars are 15kgs, 6.6ft long, and 0.98in diameter. Men’s bars are 20kg, 7.2ft long, and 2in diameter. Both barbells are capable of holding the same amount of maximum weight. All women from novice to olympic world-record holders train and compete with the women’s bar. All men train and compete with the men’s bar.
Why do men and women use different bars? In weightlifting, the movement of the snatch and clean and jerk require the barbell to spin rapidly until it’s balanced overhead. In the snatch, you are holding the barbell with a wide grip, which puts a certain strain on your wrist. It’s important that the barbell spins well and that it fits in your hands or else it could fall out of your hands mid-movement, and this has happened to weightlifters before. The women’s barbell has a smaller diameter so that it can fit our hands better.
Which bar should I use?
For most lifts, you can use either weightlifting or powerlifting barbells.
For snatching and clean and jerking, we suggest using the women’s olympic barbell to help you better handle the rapid, controlled movement overhead.
Here are the major barbell lifts everyone should know in order to complete their first strength cycle. Books have been written on each of these lifts, so this section of the article is meant as a brief introduction and not a comprehensive instruction manual.
Setting Up A Squat Rack
Squat racks were made so that athletes could squat safely. The essential parts of any squat rack include:
- hooks: where you need to place the barbell for your lift
- safety pins: to catch the bar in the event that you fail your lift
Where do you place the hooks? Generally, you want to align them with the bottom of your shoulder.
Test the height by placing your shoulders underneath and positioning yourself under the bar. You should be able to stand up and take a few steps back.
Now squat and make sure that the barbell is above the safety pins. The safety pins should be aligned with the crease in your hips when you are in the bottom position of the squat. You are now ready to load the barbell with weight plates.
How to Squat
How to Fail A Squat Safely
Failing a heavy squat is normal. It means you are reaching your limits and trying to exceed them. You typically fail a squat by placing the barbell on the safety pins and exiting either behind or in front of it.
As shown in the photo, when you’re failing a squat, continue to squat below parallel until the barbell is resting on the pins. Notice, in the picture, that the barbell is resting on the pins. The lifter should let the bar roll behind her and exit by stepping forward.
Alternatively, you can also roll the bar forward and exit by taking a step back.
Setting Up A Bench Press
You can easily set up a bench press by aligning a bench perpendicular to a squat rack. Adjust the hooks just high enough so that you can reach and un-rack the bar to the bench press starting position.
When you position yourself on the bench, your shoulders should be in front of the barbell pins. In this photo, notice how the lifter’s shoulders are in front of the barbell pins. You can extend your arms as shown to make sure your shoulders are properly aligned before starting.
How to Bench
Lay on the bench. Your feet should be flat on the floor. Arch your back such that your shoulders are creating a strong, stable base. Unrack the bar and hold it over your chest near the bottom of your sports bra. Take a deep breath and puff your chest outwards while bringing your shoulders back and down, creating support for your upper back.
Push the bar up until your arms are fully extended and exhale on the way up. In the extended position, the bar should be parallel with the upper part of your sports bra. When you bring the bar back down to your chest, it should return to the starting position at the lower part of your sports bra.
Keep your entire body tight in the bottom position and push through with your heels.
How to Fail a Bench Press
The best way to fail a bench is to have a spotter lift the barbell and put it back on the rack.
Never place collars on the ends of your barbell when you’re bench pressing. This way, if you don’t have a spotter, you can just tilt the barbell to one side and let the plates fall off and get unstuck from underneath. It’s better to be safe and get the weight off you, even if it’s embarrassing, than to be stuck underneath it and to potentially suffocate. This is an important safety consideration.
We strongly recommend benching with a spotter. With these safety tips and best practices in hand, you are now ready to start bench pressing and express the primal urge to push heavy things!
How to Set Up An Overhead Press on the Inside or Outside of the Squat Rack
You set up an overhead press the exact same way that you set up your squat.
How to Overhead Press
Grasp the barbell from the rack with an overhand grip. Your elbows should be pointing straight to the floor. Puff your chest out nice and strong. Press the bar overhead until your arms are fully extended.
How to Fail an Overhead Press
You fail an overhead press by being unable to press out all the way at the top. Just bring the weight back down to the rack position and put it back on the squat rack.
How to Set Up A Deadlift
The best way to deadlift is with bumper plates. Load the plates on the barbell and use a deadlift platform when you can.
How to Deadlift
With the bar over the middle of your feet, bend over, and grab the bar with your arms shoulder width apart.
When you lift the bar, your feet should feel like you’re pushing the floor away with your heels.
Squeeze your glutes and lock your hips out at the top of the lift.
How to Fail A Deadlift
You fail a deadlift when you can’t finish pulling it all the way up and extending your hips at the top. In this case, just put it down and guide it.
How To Determine Your Starting Weight
Ok. So you’re ready to start lifting. What weight do you start with?
To find your starting weights for each of the big lifts, start with the empty barbell and do 5 reps. From there, add a small amount of weight and continue to do 5 reps, waiting about 2 minutes of rest in between sets.
You’ve reached your starting weight when you feel that the next jump you take will slow the bar speed down or prevent proper form. Use this weight for the rest of your sets on your first day.
When you say increase the weight by 5lbs, is this 5lbs total or on each side?
In the squat and deadlift, increase the weight by 5lbs total (this means 2.5lbs on each side). In the bench press and overhead press, increase the weight by 2-2.5lbs total (this means 1-1.25lbs on each side). If you train at a commercial gym, you’ll want to get your own set of fractional weight plates so that you can better control the rate at which you are increasing the weight. Or, you can also ask the gym management to buy fractional plates for the entire gym so that their members can get stronger with the right equipment.
Do women need to train differently than men?
Women and men should be able to compete and participate equally in all sports and physical activities. But the training regimen of a 125lbs powerlifting woman may have a different combination of sets, reps, and percentages than a 225lbs powerlifting man even though both athletes are training the squat, deadlift, and bench press.
For example, some training programs will suggest going up on the squat by 10lbs each training day. This isn’t really a sustainable or reasonable increase for a 125lbs woman or a 60+ yr old woman just getting started with strength training. If she were to follow these instructions it would set her up for failure. We take the time to consider and explain these distinctions so that you can find the information that’s tailored for you and your goals.
Can I get strong without lifting weights?
Absolutely. Look at gymnasts, they’re some of the strongest and most powerful athletes who don’t lift weights as part of their training. But they do employ the same concept of progressive overload – they practice skills more challenging than what they’re used to – which is why they’re strong and powerful. Bodyweight strength training is a sub-category of strength training. With bodyweight strength training, you’ll need to progress to more challenging bodyweight exercises in order for you to get stronger. Follow The Spitfire Athlete Bodyweight Strength Training Guide.
Ready to hit the weights? Download Spitfire Athlete and start building your strength and power today.