29 Jun 2009 16:38
In Part 1 we talked about watered down knowledge floating around, intensity, and its meanings, 'burning out' (or lack thereof), acclimation and percentage based training. In part 2 I simply want to talk about one thing: The Definition of Strength.
Today, during my workout, I noticed a piece of bright orange paper taped to a column. That piece of paper was an ad for a study that is about to be performed. At the top of this paper was the sentence "Is your exercise program making you strong?" I was first drawn to the ad by the colour (wondering what the hell it was, not because I like the colour orange) but I was intrigued when I read that line.
Reading on, the ad went on to say they were looking for female participants of a variety of ages and that they would be studying "how age effects the ability to recover from fatigue in knee muscles" (don't quote me on the title, but that is the jist of the study). Sounds great. Except what the hell does that have to do with the question of "is your exercise program making you strong?" I would say that the two are mutually exclusive. Its certainly possible to regress, or become weaker, and accumulate fatigue. But what I'm also wondering is how does fatigue or recovery relate to an exercise program making you strong? Does poor recovery mean your training is inefficient or poor or does the opposite hold true? By the way, this study had nothing to do with your training history or current history. The only training requirment was that you didn't perform lower body resistance training more than 3x per week.
The point is not to debate the merits or flaws of this study, the point is that people use the term strength, or stronger, or strength training without actually thinking about what that entails.
Pop quiz, you see a couple of people doing overhead squats. One person is using 115lbs (A) and the other is using 125lbs (B). Which is stronger? The guy with 125lbs, of course. Now I tell you guy B is shaking and looks very unstable but guy A is solid as a rock. Who's stronger? I would bet that everyone, or just about, says guy A.
So what happened. Well, our definition of strength changed. First we said, ok, guy B is lifting more than guy A so our definition of strength is based on the weight of the exercise. Then we introduced another parameter and our definition shifted to that one. We said, ok, guy A is doing this movement better than guy B so he's stronger. I would also bet that people based this shift on their perception of HOW MUCH guy A could do considering how well he handled that weight. And for those of you that stuck with your horse and said guy B was still stronger, well thats weight on the bar still. So really in the end our definition is still based on bar weight, its just packaged differently.
This is a big problem as soon as you mention anything about strength training or being 'strong'. The amount of weight you can push/pull/drag/throw/eat is a direct correlation to how strong you are. That is closed mind thinking.
On the left is an image of a spring scale, it measures force (or weight) and nothing else. Looking at strength in terms of only weight or poundage is like saying your strength training is a spring scale, only the numbers matter. It doesn't matter what you do or how much improvement you make elsewhere, it provides no feedback other than a measurement of weight. A spring scale is only fitting because it is only capable of linear measurement (Hooke's Law F=kx) and it just so happens that most progressions are linear and related to load only. We do not want our training or view of strength to resemble a spring scale, this only restricts our capability to progress and sustain it in our training.
Pop quiz number two. We have two people lifting the exact same weight with the exact same form. Which is stronger? Let's say they're at par. Now suppose one of them weighs half as much as the other. Who's stronger? The lighter one…?? Its not such an easy answer now is it, even the last one was a bit tricky. In this case why would the lighter lifter be the stronger one? They both lifted the same amount of weight with the same amount of form, so now maybe we're thinking his muscles are smaller AND stronger. He's more efficient! Or he has more RELATIVE STRENGTH.
Relative strength can also be a measure of strength. I'll use the famous example of benchpress. Guy A and Guy B are benching, A is benching 250, B is benching 275. Who's Stronger? Well, B is in terms of absolute strength but in terms of relative strength it may be different. If A weighs 165lbs and B weighs 300 then A is stronger in terms of relative strength. Let's not forget that there is something to be said for being able to man handle your bodyweight in just about every exercise, or even a couple. Purely from physics, it takes quite a bit to be able to accelerate your own bodyweight and it also takes quite a bit to be able to stabilize yourself with such a large shift in your center of gravity.
New trainees are especially susceptible to the poundages trap and while they can progress (linearly with single progression, spring scale) with plenty of strength gains, there will come a time where those small errors in form or poor movement patterns or reduced ranges of motion will catch up to you. Strength training is also about sustainable practices, its a marathon not a sprint.
Last quiz, I promise. You hurt your back or knee and go to a doctor or physiotherapist, they treat you and they give you some exercises to 'strengthen' your injured area. What is the definition of strengthen in this case? I would say that it means restoring the function of that area. Those exercises aren't going to help increase your max deadlift but they will help you get back to walking pain free.
Strength does not have to be all about bar poundages. It can simply be about becoming more efficient, having better form for a certain exercise or movement, having more stability, more functionality, and yes of course it means more poundage but to steal from Eric Troy, when we talk about strength or strength training we should simply talk about it in terms of becoming better. If you're becoming better at something you're becoming stronger at it. Strength doesn't even have to involve weights, you can be strong at MATH!
Thinking of strength as something more than just plates on a barbell can open up a lot of options when it comes to progression, and quite frankly, realizing that you can become stronger or better by something other than continually adding weight is of paramount importance.
Here's the definition from Webster's, what's yours?