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How Strength Training Works – Part I

Work muscles. Get stronger.


Well… at least I find it interesting. How does that work? What’s happening? What’s adapting to cause this increase in muscular force production? What is special about muscles; why are they so good at adapting when some strain is applied to them, yet I can’t see farther by straining my eyes at distant objects regularly?

This isn’t a how-to article, or even a benefits-of article. Its a how-it-works article. This article is primarily for beginners to the concept. For more detailed reading, see part II, although this article is a good primer. And if you don’t know anything about muscles, skim through this.

101. Here’s the basic idea: You’re muscles are very adaptable, and they need to be to keep your body moving efficiently. If you don’t need to produce a large amount of force in a particular way, then your muscles don’t need to be prepared that way. Having bigger, stronger muscles would be a waste of metabolic energy. But if you start doing something difficult with those muscles, signalling to your body that you need to get stronger, then it will adapt to meet that new requirement. If you stop doing those things, it goes away. Use it or lose it!

So how does this happen?

102. What happens: When you impose a difficult task on your body, your body reacts to make it easier next time. It may be that you are already strong enough, and you simply have to learn this new task (like knitting, or typing on a keyboard). But, if the task requires more force production than you are used to (like climbing a rope), your muscles must get stronger too.

For getting stronger, your muscles use two main mechanisms to adapt: 1. changing how your nervous system recruits and activates the muscles (neurological changes), and 2. changing the muscles themselves (morphological changes).

Essentially, morphological changes are pretty general; the muscle changes to produce more force. The muscles that get trained by the exercise get stronger, plain and simple. However, neurological changes are more specific; your nervous system coordinates the set of muscles to activate specifically for the task trained.

103. Timeline of changes:  When you start training to increase your strength, you pick a few movements that you want to be stronger with. Muscles start growing and changing right from the start. However, strength jumps up quicker at the beginning, more than what would make sense if it was just muscle growth.

Any movement will involve many different muscles working in a particular pattern. Therefore, at the beginning, strength increases often ramp up quickly due to the learning of that particular movement (like doing a proper squat).

As you continue to train, the squat becomes easier, and you can add weight. Increases in strength are still coming quickly because your nervous system is learning to recruit and coordinate the muscles better. This begins to slow down as you keep training, and most of the increase in strength can then be attributed to morphological changes.

Check out my handsome drawing of how this happens:

Promise I'll make something more professional/pretty eventually...

Opinion: So, if your goal is to just get stronger muscles, probably best to stick with the basics and only change exercises occasionally (usually when your gains seem to plateau, which can actually takes a long time). However, if you like to be strong in a variety of ways, you might switch it up more often and do a program like Crossfit. However, Crossfit is intense and not all athletes need to train this way (you need energy and time to practice your skills). Since I dance, I kinda do something in between.

Depending on your goals, how much time you have, and whether you even like to do this, the way you strength train can be very different. As long as the way you train matches your goals, then you should do well. But again, this isn’t a how-to article.


  • When you strength train, your strength builds up fast, then slows down.
  • At first, much of the increase comes from learning the movement. A practice effect, sort of.
  • During the first couple months, your nervous system is learning to coordinate and activate the muscles specifically how the exercise is performed. At this time, a lot of the strength increase is due to the nervous system.
  • Muscle is growing right from the start. Once the task is learned, and the nervous system has adapted, most of the strength increase is due to changes in the muscle itself. It might slow down but you keep getting stronger.


  • Part II coming up soon! More detailed discussion of the mechanisms at play. An article for exercise nerds! :D
  • Benefits (why you should care about strength training… all of you).
  • How-to: the simple, minimalist approach for people who want the health benefits but don’t care to be superhuman.
  • How-to: for athletes. Strength training isn’t just for body-builders and power-lifters, it’s beneficial for any sport. And still, it don’t need to be that complicated, nor do it need to get in the way of your regular practicing.

Hope you found this enlightening!



Folland, J. P., & Williams, A. G. (2007). The adaptations to strength training – morphological and neurological contributions to increased strength RID B-6817-2008. Sports Medicine, 37(2), 145-168. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17241104

As well as: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16464122

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    7 Responses to How Strength Training Works – Part I

    1. great article, looking forward to whats coming soon

    2. Tri says:

      This is exactly the kind of info i need for my Bboy training withouth overdo any part of my body

    3. Tri says:

      Thanks for the info by the way.

    4. Micheal says:

      Nice article . As a bboy I do body’weight training to increase my strength and also stretching exercises to increase my flexibility . I also try to go beyond my comfort zone when working out by add more weight on my body to gain more strength . More weight = more strength. Bboygreat from Nigeria

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