In technical terms, being strong refers to muscular strength, which is the ability of a muscle to exert a maximal or near maximal force against an object. In the military, muscular strength is an important component of optimal performance, especially in situations such as lifting heavy artillery, moving cargo on and off vehicles, or carrying a lot of pack weight over long distances. Building muscle improves your body composition (the ratio between fat and muscle), increases your bone strength, burns calories and it’s important whatever age you are—18 or 80. Increasing muscle strength also can help in reducing injuries.
Here are a few workout strategies you can use to improve your muscular strength and supplement your daily PT. It’s important to choose a program that you enjoy and that will help you reach your muscular strength goals. If you are new to strength training on your own, be sure to consult a professional instructor for proper technique. All movements should be controlled and involve a joint’s full range of motion.
Prior to starting a program, assess your current level of strength (with a partner for safety) using the 1-repetition maximum or 1RM test to help determine the amount of weight you should be working with. This is the most accurate test to assess maximal strength.
Improving your muscular strength requires a specific type of training—the use of heavier weights and fewer repetitions than for endurance training. The American College of Sports Medicine recommends following FITT guidelines for strength training:
- Frequency is the number of sessions in a week that an individual trains. You should do strength training at least two days a week.
- Intensity is defined by the amount of weight used per repetition. For muscle strength, your training should involve one to 12 repetitions of 65% to 90% of 1RM per set, and two to four sets.
- Time of your sessions should range from 30 to 60 minutes, with 30–120 seconds of rest between sets.
- Type of exercise should vary in both your strength and conditioning routines to prevent boredom and improve gains. ACSM recommends a combination of free weights and machines.
- Progression consists of increasing any one or more of the FITT components. Change your training routine gradually, avoiding large increases in any single component to decrease your risk of injury. Reasonable increments of change for the average adult are increases in duration of five to 10 minutes per session every one to two weeks for the first four to six weeks.
- Rest between sessions for at least 48 hours, or train every other day for the same muscle group (i.e., exercise you upper body and lower body on alternate days).
Free weights or dumbbells are available in most fitness centers and can be purchased at most sports stores. Using free weights for strength training can improve your stability and identify imbalances in strength between dominant and non-dominant (left and right). You can get creative with free weights—use household items like milk cartons or bottles filled with rocks, sand, or water and add more material as you get stronger.
Machine weights are also popular for strength training and are found in most gyms, but they are more expensive for personal purchase. These machines isolate certain muscles for each activity that the machine is built for. For example, a leg extension machine may help isolate and strength your quadriceps muscles, but you need to make sure the machine is set up properly for your body to optimize the exercise.
Body weight exercises (the use of your own body weight as resistance without the use of additional weights) are also great, especially for beginners, these exercises improve stability and strength by using just your body weight for resistance. The use of additional equipment such as suspension straps can supplement and increase the intensity of these types of exercises. However, suspension training may require more skill and instruction if you have never done this type of workout before.
Resistance bands are a portable and affordable option for resistance training as well, especially for beginners. By anchoring the band in a door way or to an immovable object, users are able to increase tension (therefore resistance) by adjusting hand positions closer or further away from where the band is anchored.
Circuit training is a type of training aimed at keeping heart rates elevated while doing short bouts of resistance exercises and battling boredom. Circuit training is typically a combination of cardio and resistance training combined in one quick(er), efficient workout—you get the benefits of cardio exercise such as a decrease in blood pressure and cholesterol levels (which can improve your time on the running portion of your PRT/PFT) PLUS the benefits of strength training (increased muscle and bone strength and reduced risk for injury). This type of training is most similar to an actual PT test, with a series of different exercises performed one after the other, sometimes with short rest periods in between.
These days, there are apps for just about any of these types of workouts that will show you how to do the exercises and may even have preprogrammed workouts for you to follow. Most services have an app of their own, but you can start by checking out these apps from the Army, Navy, Marine Corps, and Coast Guard.