Sara Fleming and David Van Skike
Why strength train?
. . . no really. Why?
You have probably heard this mantra before in regard to weight training: Train movements, not muscles.
Initially, this idea was just an overreaction to the bodybuilding centric physical culture movement that began to be popularized for the masses in the 60’s. Physical culture is still really still about bodybuilding in one form or another, not that there’s anything wrong with that, but now, no one wants to admit that a big part of why they are training is for aesthetics. That’s okay, we all want to look good, but we also want to perform well and have a good quality of life.
Getting people to think of strength training not as a path to a beautiful body, but as building an athletic, moving machine was one of the outcomes of this mantra. It is a valuable way to look at training in general and it’s an idea that sports coaches have promoted for decades: you strength train not to move more weight but to move yourself better, run faster, throw farther, jump higher, and move with ease. This is the key. Strength training has a specific goal, of making you move better. However, somehow, when translated for the masses, something important got lost.
To move correctly, the body needs a foundation of strength that allows for postural and joint stability under load that allows for consistency of correct movement. This idea sounds basic, but is extremely profound. Read it again:
In order to correctly train movements, there must be a foundation of strength that allows for postural and joint stability under load that allows for consistency of correct movement.
Why does this matter and why is this important?
It’s important because most of what we call “training” in commercial gyms/circuit training facilities is not really strength training at all. This happens for a number of reasons among which are the following:
- Many well-meaning trainers and fitness enthusiasts don’t really understand the nature of strength training and how it differs from strength endurance.
- Trainers cater to their client’s desire for exhaustive exercise, and circuit training.
- Outside of a few niche sports, there is widespread ignorance and lack of appreciation for the fundamental value of real strength.
This last point, we will address in this article. Far too many people underestimate the game-changing value of true strength.
Think about the differences you notice when watching an accomplished athlete vs. an average person just learning a sport. One of the first things you might notice is the ease with which the athlete moves. Movement is efficient and more importantly, consistent. Whether it is a running stride, a jump, a throw, or a complicated gymnastic movement, the execution is repeatable, time and time again. With the beginner, you will see a lot less efficiency, movement patterns are inconsistent, and he or she will probably look “floppy”. It may sound humorous but floppy is a key term here because it indicates a lack of postural strength.
As an aside, another misconstrued fitness meme is the notion that children are perfect natural squatters. Yes, they can squat down with relative ease. That’s because children are flexible.. However, they can’t stabilize their spines under load in that position or many positions at all. A child’s squat posture is relatively relaxed and when watching kids play sports and engage in physical activity, unless they are particularly gifted, “floppy” is a term that applies to them very well. It’s a quality that probably keeps them from getting hurt when they crash into and fall over any number of random objects and bodies, but as they get older, faster and heavier, strength in addition to flexibility is the key to protecting those joints from damage.
Postural strength for all intents and purposes, is the ability to maintain one’s posture over time or through a series of complex powerful movements. The average person begins to slouch as the day comes to a close simply because remaining upright all day can be fatiguing. If being upright all day is fatiguing, imagine how much strength is must take to maintain correct posture through a two hour game, a 6 hour race, or a day-long strength competition. When the posture begins to go, so do the optimal leverages and biomechanical advantages. Once you’re out of position regaining it is difficult at speed or under load. Right away that strength contributes to one’s ability to sustain all kinds of efforts and hold sports specific postures over time. This type of strength is what we think of as “endurance.”
Alongside this postural endurance is a corollary ability which is to maintain athletic postures while applying or resisting external forces. Let’s take that same average person with floppy posture and have him or her throw a 28lb weight, or jump off a three foot ledge, or get tackled by a 200lb man. What is the likelihood that he or she has enough strength to support his or her posture through those movements and optimally athletic positions to protect the joints and bones from injury? Our athlete, on the other hand, has strong musculature supporting the spine and abdomen to protect the joints and distribute the forces applied and to apply counterforces.
The strength of the joints in relation to the core builds postural stability through a multitude of movements involving multiple joints and planes. Simply building strength in the shoulders, hips and knees through a full range of motion that both stabilize and transfer energy through the core improves coordination, stability, power, strength, and speed. This is why strength training works for sport. There are few (if any movements) outside of the fairly basic squatting, pressing and pulling that impart any special abilities. The basic lifts work because they are the most optimal positions for the major joints of the body to apply substantial external force. The squat in all its forms is superior to its often substitute alternatives, (lunges,pistols and step ups) because it runs the body through the greatest range of motion with the most amount of weight for that individual’s leverages.
When building strength for an athlete or the average exericiser, don’t get caught up in squat politics. Whether the trainee is taking a wide stance squat like a powerlifter or a narrow stance squat like an Olympic weightlifter is a silly argument. The variation that allows that individual to apply substantial force through a wide range of motion will prepare the body for a myriad of athletic postures regardless of minor variation in technique.
Now, what about specialized strength and movement training in the weight room? How does that affect the athlete? Agility, power, and speed training are all about hitting correct position to optimally apply force. If you cannot consistently hit the correct position, you cannot optimally apply force. Again, if you are “floppy” and cannot stabilize your joints and spine while applying force, you are going to be much less efficient. While skill training builds this specific position strength, a foundation of strength allows for this training to be more consistent and therefore much more effective.
So called special strength exercises are fine for those experienced in their use but remember, these are really not about applying gross amounts of force as much as they are about training the body to be more coordinated; to apply force in at a time and in a way specific to that activity. These are useful to those who have already developed in a base of strength and a high level of coordination in their sport, they are not for beginners. In fact, they aren’t really going to do much for the novice or intermediate athlete. They are really for those who have reached a level of strength and skill development that cannot be significantly improved, ie, those playing professional sports and maybe trying out for the Olympics. For the rest of us, specialized strength, specific to a sport, is best trained through practice and repetition of the sport movements themselves. Sprinters Sprint, throwers throw, grapplers grapple.
Squat, Press, Pull. Practice your sport. Period. Work these major lifts, practice your skills, and you will improve a broad range of athletic abilities.
The simple conclusion we are reaching for is that, if strength is what makes the athlete perform at a high level and resist injury, what is the easiest way to get the average, floppy postured person, (just average folks, not athletes) to perform better at daily tasks and resist injury? That’s right, its basic, full body, compound strength training with significant loads. The movements must be appropriately loaded, performed with CONSISTENT GOOD FORM, and must be performed as effectively and efficiently in a way that optimizes a person’s individual biomechanics. It really is that simple. For most people, no matter what their daily activities consist of, if you can get stronger, you will almost always get better.