Focus on Strength

Due to my class schedule during summer quarter I have been working out at a different time than I did throughout the previous school year. I am in class until 1:50 PM so I work out at 2:00 for about 45 minutes before heading home. One of the consequences of changing up your gym time is that you see a different set of people there. It isn’t that the gym has prescribed segmants for different people, but people are creatures of habit. Especially for something as onerous as working out can be, you want to have a pretty well established habit supporting your efforts.

Sometimes a different group of regulars is good, sometimes it isn’t. Most of the time I don’t even notice them. I’m too busy working.

One of the 2:00 – 3:00 regulars is a young strength and conditioning coach, who is going to community college to get some classes he needs for a degree in kinesiology. He is also one of the strongest power-lifters I have ever seen. I routinely see him back-squatting in the 450 range. We aren’t talking any silly little quarter squats either. He goes all the way down and sits on his calves, pauses for a second, and then powers back up. It is pretty impressive.

We usually get to talking a little bit, and it is apparent that he is a true believer in the Church of Iron. At the drop of a hat he will explain and describe and demonstrate any power-lifting move and share his own personal philosophy on lifting. Our attitudes and training philosophies are similar in a lot of respects, but he is a great deal more disciplined and systematic about it. He sets his goals years out and programs his workouts in 6-8 week chunks. I just kind of make it up as I go along.

One of our topics was on different exercise priorities. Mine has always been functional strength. I want to be able to run or hike somewhere, probably with a heavy load on my back, and then be able to smash all of the things when I get there, throw the casualties on my shoulders, and hike back out. He just wants to win power lifting competitions.

Athletic priorities are such macroscopic attributes as Strength, Speed, Power, Endurance and Work Capacity. A brief working definition of each would be:

  • Strength: The ability to move a load under resistance
  • Speed: The ability to move fast
  • Power: The ability to move a load fast under resistance
  • Endurance: The ability to move for a long period of time
  • Work Capacity: The ability to move a load fast under resistance for a long period of time

Of course the real definitions are a bit more complicated and not nearly so black and white, but you get the idea. Strength and Conditioning coaches can get as technical as they want, but this guy made a great point. In an overall fitness routine, the priority goes to working strength, not because strength is the most important, but because it is the most foundational. Unless you are training for a sport that relies exclusively on some other quality, (e.g. ultra-marathon running) and you are competing at such a level where a few extra pounds of muscle really makes a difference, then strength is your foundation. Do you want to sprint? You need leg muscle to be able to move your body-weight. Do you want to play basketball? You need the strength to jump straight up in the air to launch the ball. Do you want to do ballet? Check out a ballerina’s quads next time you go to see “Swan Lake.”

The other reason why strength is the priority in regular training (as opposed to a trainup for an event) is because strength takes such a long time to build, especially if you are building safely. Muscles get strong fairly when you first start working out. This is called “novice gains.” It is good because it encourages people to stick with it, but dangerous because muscles adapt to stress a lot more quickly than the connective tissue that makes up the structure of the moving limb. Tendons, ligaments, cartilage and bone all have to adapt and they do so, but much more slowly. Making too much of novice gains is a recipe for overuse injuries, burnout and setbacks.

So safe strength training takes a lot of time. Getting strong is the work of years not months. Professionals measure it in decades even. Of the athletic categories above, beyond a certain baseline level, strength takes the longest to develop. The rest can be seen as just specialized applications of strength. They still need to be trained, but train them within the framework of overall strength and resilience that makes up your regular routine.

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