What Is Strength?
There are varying definitions available, but in the global sense, strength is the ability to do work. More specific to our discussion here, strength could be defined as the ability of the neuromuscular system to create force. In strength-coaching circles, strength is classified as one of the many “motor abilities” that permit high-level human movement. Some other motor abilities include aerobic endurance, mobility, ability, coordination, quickness, speed, and power.
When developing physical preparation programs for athletes, strength coaches try to think in terms of which motor qualities are already sufficiently-developed, and which ones need further improvement in order to improve the athlete’s overall performance capacity. When working with “everyday folks,” I take the very same approach — I’m looking to see which motor qualities, if further developed, would improve my client’s performance, relative to his or her specific needs. In the process of conducting such a “needs assessment,” the need for improved strength usually presents itself, for at least three reasons:
1) Strength Is The Basis For Other Motor Qualities:
This involves a concept called “positive transfer” which I’ll discuss in more detail in just a bit. For now, just realize that strength is what allows other motor qualities to exist. This is an important reason why the top male performers in sports that don’t appear to involve strength (such as tennis and golf) will always beat the top female performers — they’re not superior by virtue of being male, or even because they’re taller — they’re better because they’re stronger. In a related observation, the gap between the Men’s and Women’s World Record time in the marathon has been steadily evaporating in recent years. Why? Because women have only recently been exploiting the advantages of strength training, as opposed to men who have been taking advantage of this “dirty little secret” for decades.
2) Strength Creates “Margin”
Imagine for a moment the obvious similarities to a barbell squat and getting up from a chair. Both activities involve a very similar motor pattern using exactly the same muscles. Next, imagine a person who can squat with a 500-pound bar across his back, versus someone who’s maximum ability is only 30 pounds. The 500-pound squatter rises from a chair with almost no effort, because doing so represents only a microscopic percentages of his maximum strength. The 30-pound squatter struggles to get out of his chair however, because doing so requires nearly all of his strength in that movement pattern. If we had a “sitting up and down for reps” contest, our 500-pound squatter would be able to perform perhaps hundreds of reps, whereas the 30-pound squatter would be lucky to manage 10 reps. The correlation between squatting strength and sitting can also be used to illustrate the impact of strength on speed: who can rise out of a chair faster— the 500-pound squatter or the 30-pound squatter?
Below: A link to me squatting 280# for 7 reps.
The bottom line is perhaps obvious — the stronger you are, the easier “life” is, whatever life happens to be for you. Recently, I took a mountainous hike near my home in Phoenix, Arizona, with a group of experienced female hikers who were expecting me to have a difficult time keeping up with them, since I’m a big guy who “only lifts weights.” Much to their surprise, I had absolutely no problems at all, and in fact, I managed the hike easier than at least two of these women who claimed to be avid hikers. The reason? I’m strong. When you can squat over 400 pounds, deadlift over 500 pounds, bench press nearly 300 pounds, and perform 15 chin-ups in a single set, hiking up a mountain (at least the one we were one) is comparatively easy, even though I do no endurance training at all. All of this is because of a phenomenon known as “transfer:”
Transfer simply refers to the ability of an ability or capacity (once developed) to either positively or negatively affect another ability or capacity. In strength training, the goal is to develop strength that will positively transfer to a specific activity. Typically there are two ways to accomplish this objective:
- Overload the activity itself. This is the most intuitively-obvious strategy, but if often leads to poor results. “Cyclic” activities (activities where a single movements is repeated over and over) such as running, cycling, swimming, etc) can be overloaded with a positive result. For example, sprint coaches often overload their athletes by having them run uphill, against the wind, or against resistance in the form of an elastic tether or a small parachute.
- Strengthen the body in a “primal” or global manner, with the hopes that this newfound strength will positively transfer to the desired activity(s). “Acyclic” activities cannot be successfully overloaded in most cases, although many have tried. Boxers, for instance, have long trained by punching with small dumbbells in their hands. There are at least two problems with this method. First, the resistance from the dumbbells comes from the wrong direction — instead of opposing the punching movement, the dumbbells exert a downward resistance, which is 90-degrees from the punching plane. A second problem is that only very light dumbbells can be used to mimic the punching motion, and such light weights are insufficient to develop strength.
Unless you’re looking to become stronger in a very specific skill(s), the second method of strength development is what you’ll want to exploit. If you’re skeptical about such seemingly “non-specific” methods, allow me to share an example that convincingly demonstrates the existence of positive transfer from non-specific strength training to a specific skill:
If I were to teach the deadlift to a healthy, average sized male with no prior strength training background, he’d likely lift at least 185 pounds on his very first session. A question that’s worth asking here would be “where did that strength come from?” It clearly wasn’t from deadlifting, since he’s never deadlifted before. So where did it come from? The answer is indisputable — it came from a variety of activities, including standing, walking, climbing stairs, cycling, skating, various recreational activities or sports he may have played, and so on. All of these activities — some to a greater degree, others to a lesser degree — developed the strength he needed to deadlift 185 pounds his first time out of the gates.
3) Strength Training Reduces Biological Age
Strength training not only makes you stronger, it also increases your lean mass (muscle tissue). Both of these adaptations make you younger in a very real sense. When you’re stronger and more muscular, you’re less prone to illness and injury. Every physical task you need to perform is easier and safer.
Typically, most people become less and less active as they age. This results in reduced strength and muscle mass, with a commensurate rise in body fat. Together, these changes lead to a increased “insulin resistance” (a condition in which the body cannot use insulin effectively… insulin is needed to help control the amount of sugar in the body. As a result, blood sugar and fat levels rise). A recent study (link: http://care.diabetesjournals.org/content/26/11/2977.full ) illustrates the ability of strength training to lower insulin resistance.
Another important benefit of strength training is increased bone density. During strength-training exercises, tensions generated by your muscles are transmitted to your bones by ligaments and other connective tissues, which creates increased bone density at these attachments sites.
In the final analysis, people who exhibit a high level of strength also tend to have greater lean-mass than their weaker peers, and more muscle means greater health, functionality, and biological youth across the board.
How Do You Get Strong?
Although I frequently reference my bias toward weight-training, the fact is that there are many different methods and equipment choices available for strength training. For example, for novice trainees, calisthentics such as pushups, chin-ups, and lunges can be performed, which require no equipment whatsoever. Elastic tubing is another possibility. For some of my clients with injury issues, we even use isometric (“without movement”) drills which allow the development of muscular tension with minimal joint stresses.
Strength-training machines, such as those found in nearly all commercial gyms, can also be used, although they are not my preference: machines force you to overcome resistances over a pre-determined movement path, which removes the all-important skill component of the exercise. More often than not, the strength gained from machine exercises tends not to transfer to “real life” movement. Further, from my experience, training on machines is not as intrinsically rewarding as free weights or other forms of movement training.
What Does This All Mean To You?
I trust I’ve made a convincing case for the importance of strength training for anyone desiring optimum health and performance. When I examine the course of my nearly 25-year career as a fitness professional, it’s easy to see my ever-increasing reliance on strength training as opposed to other modalities (such as endurance or flexibility) for most of my clients. In the battle of life, all else being equal, the strongest shall survive (to borrow from the title of Bill Starr’s classic book). In future installments, I’ll provide practical tips and strategies for unlocking the secrets to physical excellence.
Until Next Time…
Guest TFT Strength & Conditioning columnist