March 31, 2011: Medicalization, Strength, And Maximal Training

I hope today's letter finds you well. I've been thinking about the increasing medicalization of, well, everything lately. Nowadays you don't drink wine because you like wine but because you want to get the resveratrol so you can enjoy that old 'French Paradox'. Strength trainees don't consume whey protein they 'take' it as if it is Excedrin and they are trying to get rid of a headache. A protein has become a nutraceutical.

And strength training, you don't do that because you want to but because it is 'corrective' or it gets you fit and healthy. Hell, some will even tell you that it is the key to weight loss.

All these may be excellent reasons to do strength training but the problem is that what was once a personal and cultural pursuit has started to become regulated and prescribed rather than pursued as a goal.

I know that I will never compete with such strength training sites which simply try to wrap strength training in a pretty package for bodybuilders. Likewise I know that I will never be able to hold off the rising tide of fitness trainers who seem to think they have the letters M.D. after their name. Just about everything that training for strength is becoming represents, for me, anti-strength training. Superficially plausible explanations, with a modicum of technical jargon and a few Pubmed references can easily sway many people past all reason, even when the claims being presented are ridiculous. Today I want to discuss just one of those ridiculous claims that makes it hard for people to train for maximal strength unless they fancy themselves a powerlifter or go completely to the other end of the spectrum:

There is No Need To Do Maximum Lifting Attempts Unless You Compete In Powerlifting

I have to be careful with this one because this particular nugget incenses me. The last thing I want to do is turn this into a rant and try to convince you by vehemence. Still, it is difficult to keep a little ranting out of it as I have a hard time lending a balanced perspective to things I find to be patently absurd. And this is one of them.

This strength training myth really needs to be stamped out. It is based mostly on the perception that unsupervised trainees cannot do max attempts safely. This is hogwash. Trainees simply need to have the proper amount of exposure to the lift and a good period of time at weights that are close to their (supposed ) maximum ability. Meaning low reps with longer rest periods.

The prevailing problem is the strength training authorities primarily see strength training as one part of an athlete's training or basically another word for bodybuilding. That is, they would like to abolish the body part mentality of modern bodybuilding and replace it with their interpretation of strength training.

But do you want to know the biggest reasons that so many strength training writers say that you should not do max lifts? There are two primary ones. The first is that the majority of strength training writers don't know jack squat about strength training per se and do not actually pursue maximum strength in their own training, let alone for their trainees. More often it is some kind of quasi strength/mass hybrid or one of the many fitness fads that have adopted strength training as part of their concept while trying to redefine it to suit their market. So, in other words, they tell you not to do a maximum attempt because they themselves never do it, never have, and can see no value in it. They are telling you their personal preferences but doing it in authoritative terms. See you do not need to "prove" to trainees that they should not do max lifts, you just need to shout it out loud and give some superficially plausible explanation of why they should not. For every armchair scientist who hollers "show me the studies" there will be hundreds who buy it without question.

The other reason, often, is because they are primarily knowledgeable in bodybuilding parameters and at one point or another tried to lift heavy without knowing what the heck they were doing, got themselves hurt, and then went on a crusade against maximal lifting. This seems to be more and more the case. Just because some know-it-all-got himself hurt does not mean you will. As usual it comes down to value judgments and personal hangups.

Even if you do not do strength training for the sake of maximal strength it is still very useful to test your maximum now and again in order to plan and coordinate your training. I find it to be imperative to my philosophy for strength training and most trainees, once they begin to do it, wonder how they ever got by without max attempts. Still, let me be clear about what I am upset about. I am not upset if you, or anyone else, chooses not to do max lifting. I will not try to shove it down your throught if it is not your cup of tea. But I will be upset if you want to pursue maximum strength and you choose not to do max lifts because you were told you were not allowed or it was not necessary. If you do not do max lifts, you are not pursuing maximum strength.

The repetition based 1RM prediction charts can only give you a loose guideline and they may not reflect your ability at any given time at all. Likewise trying to figure out your max by some kind of complicated evaluation of your recent training. This whole thing has led to a generation of gym rats asking each other "what's your max?" and getting responses like, "I think I could probably do 400." Probably doesn't count. Almost doesn't count. You cannot lift 400 unless you lift it.

So how do we use maximal training, as opposed to near maximal training, safely? Well, I'll get to that but first I have to develop the context.

The first thing we have to get out of the way is this notion of the "true one rep" maximum that Mark Rippetoe seems to have been able to shove down so many trainee's throats. There is no such thing as an "untrue" maximum! What an absurd notion. The problem is maximum lifts are viewed from the perspective of how much you go for it. An all out "competition style" lift is your MAX max and perhaps your PR. Other maxes become, as Dan John says, your sorta max or your sorta kinda max based on how far you skirt the edge between safety and desire. In the long run it will not matter if you understand the difference between fluctuations in preparedness and longer term fitness gains (see article and comments).

So, the notion of a true one rep maximum is based on statements such as "a novice is not capable of a true one rep maximum". This statement is used as part of the justification that strength training novices should not perform maximums. While it is true that absolute novices should not attempt maximum lifts it has nothing to do with the pie-in-the-sky notion that such a max will not be 'real'.

The belief seems to be that since a novice is neurally immature they cannot lift to their "true ability". Probably based on the oft repeated claim that "they can't use their muscles yet." The problem here is that the factors of strength development are cut up like a pie and handed out as if they are not an integrated whole. Strength is every factor coming together at any phase of development, from beginner to forever. As I said here.

Your ability is your ability. Period. Your ability the next time you lift is your ability that time. Displays of strength at any one time are always a result of your preparedness at that time. The idea that a beginner is not capable of doing a 'true' bench press maximum is such a vague and loosely defined concept it is useless.

Reasonably, a true novice has NO REASON to be performing a maximal lift and there are many risks associated with it. Novices do not need to do this and they shouldn't. But it has nothing to do with "trueness", whatever that is. What you lift is what you can lift. It's darn simple.

As I stated in the post linked above, if a novice swimmer gets into the pool and manages half a lap then he can swim half a lap. We don't say…"hmmm…I wonder how far he is truly capable of swimming."

He just showed us. When put it in those terms it sounds ridiculous and obvious. But it is not obvious to the trainees who get this stuff practically yelled at them together with the old fist banging on the desk. This type of thinking is common in the strength training world. At any given time in your training you will never be sure of your "true" 1RM. So many things come together to influence your preparedness and readiness and many of these factors cannot be controlled or predicted. As you may have gathered from the discussion I linked above, preparedness can fluctuate quite a bit over a short time period. Yet, we see many lifters planning their training based on their "1RM". A lift that is done at a certain point in time becomes a long term benchmark from which to plan training. Although this lift may be your current PR it may not be your current max.

A lifter manages to deadlift 400 after a lot of hard work. He marks this as his 1RM and then proceeds to plan his next few months of training based on this. Problem is, this maximum of 400 is a short term fluctuation in preparedness which has just become a benchmark from which to train. So during the next few months he is either training way below or way above his ability at any given time. I call that inefficient and yet it is the standard for many in the strength world.

Not only that but if this lifter then fails to beat his 400lb lift he will complain of being "stuck" at 400. Sadly he is more likely stuck at 375 to 390 and fails to come within 15lb of his 1RM for quite a while. In other words he is stuck at a range of weight that he can lift well pretty much most of the time and which he has maintained for a long enough period of time to represent a true benchmark, which is something that is semi-permanent.

This idea of the benchmark is very important in strength training. A benchmark is a standard by which things can be measured. For instance, in surveying, a bench mark is a fixed point of elevation from which other elevations can be measured. It is a reference. Think of it the same way in your strength training. Something you hit one time, two months ago, is not a very good benchmark. Your benchmark has moved! Making it close to worthless.

For those who do not compete, there are two kinds of maximums that are useful. One is your PR, or your best max for the last few months and the other is your relative max.

The PR is useful more in psychological ways than for training. Going all out for a test lift, for one, is damn fun! It is beyond me why anyone would want to work their butt off training for strength and then not be allowed to attempt a PR unless they are a competitor. Where is the intrinsic value in training for a goal you never reach? That is bogus, I think you'll agree, if your goal is maximum strength. There is no pride in a 1RM guesstimate. The PR or best test also gives you something to shoot far. The idea is, I did it once I can do it again, only better. Better would be, hopefully, with less deviation from the standards of good form. Perhaps with better amplitude, coordination, speed, etc. The best feeling is when a PR becomes a benchmark that you can do any day of the week. Many lifters hold this in their mind and can readily remember the time they struggled to do a weight that they now own at any time. This gives one a true feeling of progress.

The relative max is what we use for training. To understand the relative max you have to understand what "good performance" is. Most general strength training programs see performance as either weight on the bar or adding weight on the bar. This isn't a true measure of performance, of course, but only one aspect of it. So while you may get a great new PR, your performance, relative to your ability to lift a weight with excellent performance, may be poor. For a PR, we don't care as long as we have the experience to do it without getting hurt, and this comes with a lot of exposure and "body knowledge" as much as anything else.

So the relative max, if I can actually explain it, is a max based on a benchmark that represents preparedness that does not fluctuate greatly over the short term. That is, it is based on a range of ability that is within the "fitness norm" for you. This allows one to train closer to their maximum ability at any given time. The relative max requires much higher standards of performance than the PR attempt. We do it with good form, with little to no cheating or compensatory movement. Although I brought up the word excellent in regards to the PR explanation, it is not necessary to go for "excellence" in a relative max attempt. It is, after all, a max. It is a slow and demanding lift if you are not an Olympic lifter, for which the technical needs can mean there is very little divide between excellent technique and success.

The other side of the performance coin is that it is very difficult to make a trainee understand what a good relative max is if they've never really gone for it and attempted that big PR. Those "competition" days become useful in another sense. They teach you to recognize the difference between going all out and performing a more controlled relative max. Here we have again, the concept of references or benchmarks. The PR becomes a kind of performance benchmark for our general training. For instance, while you may allow the lower back to approach very close to end range of motion during the PR attempt, during a relative max you would be careful not to skirt that close to end range of motion. During a bench press PR you might let the back rise up a bit into an exaggerated arch whereas in a relative max you will try to stay pinned to the bench.

I am always asking trainees why they want to strength train or lift weights. I get all sorts of answers but rarely the one I want to hear. If you were to ask me why I want to lift a weight I'd probably reply, "because it's there". There is nothing wrong with pursuing an activity because you think it is fun, satisfying, challenging, etc. Finding intrinsic value in the thing you do is one of the keys to being successful at it. You can have fun, satisfy your need to grow mentally and physically while still enjoying all the fringe benefits. I talk so much about science and critical thinking and yet I am growing increasingly wary of the 'scientizing' of culture. So, I say let us not let this trend bleed the satisfaction out of our training. Yes, you can lift heavy weights! Of course there is always a risk. That risk can be managed. But, as they say, nothing ventured, nothing gained.

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