Strength: Simple But Difficult?

Posted on 05 Jul 2009 22:32

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In my last post about strength training misconceptions I made a statement that needs to be expanded on, cleared up, qualified, etc. because you could read into it and maybe think I am saying something I'm not.


That is a very important word. A reason I avoid using terse, oversimplified statements, which I refer to as aphorisms, is because for them to be useful they usually need to be qualified. That is, a set of conditions and explanation have to be put in place so that they fit a general audience. So that they are not taken too far.

A good example of a much used and abused aphorism in the strength training and bodybuilding world is "NO PAIN; NO GAIN".

This statement is so fraught with consequences it eventually found it's way into the trash bin of fitness advice. The problem with such an aphorism is that it can be interpreted in various different ways and each individual using it can mean something different.

Some people, when they said, no pain, no gain, REALLY actually meant that you should seek out PHYSICAL PAIN in your training. Others meant that training will sometimes be uncomfortable, or various other alternative meanings.

A statement like that is just too over-simplified to be useful. It causes more confusion than it is worth. Even if sometimes it can be shown to be a useful aphorism by qualification it ends up being the page full of explanation that is useful rather than the aphorism itself.

So in the last post I stated that people want to be given simple straight-forward progression models. I said that linear progression will not continue to work forever. That is, if you are looking to continue to increase absolute strength or even power. So, in effect, continued progression is more complicated than that.

But that makes it sound like I am over-complicating strength training. Nothing of the sort.

It would be difficult to make you see this, but I am actually simplifying things. Only, I am not simplifying things in the short term by giving you pat and watered-down or "one-size-fits-all" advice. Instead I am attempting to help you avoid complications in the long-term.

The big picture or the long-term is what the general, watered-down, run-o-the-mill, fitness information is not concerned with. And that's how it fails you. Getting strong is the result of many, many workouts over many, many cycles. If you want to get strong, then you have to be able to continue training for years without unnecessary injury and set-backs.

Many people DO over-complicate things. I could point you to some websites and resources where you will encounter guys that have more in common with the guys in lab coats than they do with strength trainers or coaches. Along with those people come the over-simplified watered-down crap that is the majority.

That causes guys like me a big problem. We have to spend a lot of time on complicated seeming explanation for the sole purpose of eventually showing you how simple it is. IF you can get it right. It seems like a contradiction in terms but it is always harder to help people unlearn things than to learn them.

Here are some common characteristics of strength training advice purporting to be simple but actually resulting in setbacks and complications:

1. Such training tends to be monotonous and mundane.

Usually there are only a handful of exercises you are allowed to do. There is only one parameter for progression. Every workout tends to look and feel a lot like the one before.

Many trainers do not realize that mundane training can be a source of frustration and even over-training effects.

2. Such training tends to involve setting your poundages BACK over and over again.

If you remember the stair model from the post before this is basically like saying the only way to get to the top of the stairs is to walk up three stairs and then jump back down two. That may happen in the real world but you don't SEEK it! You seek the path of least resistance. That path may not always be a straight line but going forward is usually better than doubling back.

If you needed to walk down a steep incline you might go down it in "switch-back" or zig-zag pattern. This reduces the grade that you have to walk on. It might be slower than climbing down the sheer rock face without a rope but the chance of "failure" isn't nearly as drastic. It is certainly better than walking for miles and miles trying to find a way around. Well, can you imagine actually climbing a quarter of the way down the sheer rock wall, zipping back to the top, and then climbing a third of the way down, etc. and so on? People strength training this way! That is replacing a bad option, taking the shortest route possible regardless of safety, with a ridiculous one. Getting to your goal without backtracking over familiar territory is always better.

3. Such training tends to be inflexible.

In an old issue of MILO, sometime in the late 90's, I think (I don't remember exactly), Jim Schmitz1 had an article in which he stated that he did not like 'instinctive training'. This is when you train based on how you feel on a particular day. In essence, you do "what you feel like" doing. He pointed out that this was OK for some very advanced lifters but that while training should be flexible, it should be based on time-proven techniques.

Someone who trains "by feel" is the extreme opposite of what I am talking about. And these oversimplified, one-size-fits-all training models are the other extreme. It's All program an NO flexibility. There is a new thing floating around called 'reactive training'. Good strength training has ALWAYS been somewhat reactive. It's not a new concept, but you must have a plan AND be flexible. A middle ground approach to thinking about training is usually best. Taking a middle-ground approach TO training, however, is another post (and I'm getting to it).

4. Such training tends to be based on a Larry the Cable Guy operative

Basically, "get-r-done" is the slogan. Go to the gym and get the job done. How do you get the job done? Get your reps in, usually after you have loaded the bar again, that is. Just getting it done, is NOT good enough. Just getting it done is a recipe for failure at best; injury at worst. If not in the short term then in the long term.


Get-r-done, Samson!


Get-r-done, Samson!

I saw an old guy this year before the weather turned warm. It was about 7 AM and it was freezing rain. And here was this man who looked to be around 90 years old by my reckoning. Frail and weak looking, he was barely able to move. And there he was, out in the freezing rain, running. Or something like running or jogging. He seemed to be unable to actually move his hips and knees very much. He seemed barely able to move at all. A stride involved a big hitch in the torso and then one foot would sort of shuffle/slide forward..over and fast as he could. Which was not very fast and looked to be extremely painful.

What in the world was this old guy doing? Why, he was getting it done! He was going out there, rain or shine, and getting in the mileage. I cringed and wanted to stop him. It was as if I could feel the impact of each shuffling step. He wasn't going to get better. He was going to get worse. But he was getting it done.

Do I need to say more?

Next time, it will be time to get specific. I will give a fairly in-depth look at just the sort of training I'm talking about, the assumptions it operates under, and how it complicates, rather than simplifies, your training.

To conclude, I'd like to explain the title of this post. You see, when I talk about strength in this context, I am assuming that my audience is made up of people who are primarily interested in getting stronger and continuing to get stronger.

A lot of "fitness trainers" or even fatloss experts will tell you that resistance training is very simple and you only need simple programs. You MUST keep in mind that for many of these people and their clients strength is a secondary goal. They are looking to use strength training as a tool pursuant to other goals. If your primary goal is fatloss then getting your diet in check is going to probably be more complicated than your strength training.

This same thing can be true of bodybuilding trainers. While bodybuilders are once again becoming aware of the importance of a strength base their primary goal is still mass. So again, even if they engage in training stamped 'strength' instead of 'mass' it is still a tool and not a means to it's own end.

Far from criticizing these trainers, I am simply pointing out that they are speaking to a certain audience. So always consider who that audience is when you consider someone's statements.

Many very successful trainers have never come close to reaching their own strength potential because they have NEVER ACTUALLY TRIED. And they have never trained anyone with strength as a primary goal. Yet, this will not stop fitness writers from offering watered-down one-size fits all advice on strength, fat loss, and 'fitness' (which is a term I've grown more and more to despise).

Real strength training, you may come to realize, is simple, but simple is not EASY. Simple and easy are NOT THE SAME THING. To show just what I'm talking about (and then I promise I'm done) I'll tell you why I LOVE overhead squats.

I love the overhead squat because it is a very non-technical exercise. I.E. it is simple. But it is HARD, man! A simple but demanding exercise is a sure-fire way to make me happy in the gym.

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The Training to Fail Series

This page created 05 Jul 2009 22:32
Last updated 19 Jul 2016 20:54

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