Athleticism for Strength Training SuccessThere are times when you can't get under the bar, but you can still be an athlete of strength training; you can still control your nutrition and take care of your health; you can crave physical activity and not shirk from hardship. All of these things build the foundation that is uniquely you.
Athleticism for Strength Training
Mass-produced steel beams providing the frames, concrete filling massive foundations, and excavation and anchoring technologies using Earth’s bedrock to lower a structure’s center of mass, technology and innovation have allowed humans to build tall, narrow structures, making skyscrapers possible and dwarfing even the greatest feats of architecture from the ancient world. Two main goals drove these technologies forward: how to build tall without falling over and how to do so with the least amount of building materials. When the ancients wanted to build tall out of quarried and cut stone, their designs mimic objects found and geometric principles. Before the ancient Romans perfected the use of arches, this meant that the most massive ancient buildings were, generally, triangle-shaped.
Today, the pyramid is synonymous with anything that has a wide base that provides the foundation for some pinnacle. The pyramid principle applies not just to physical structures but to mental structures (read about Maslow’s hierarchy of needs), economic structures, and physical fitness. We preach—often and with conviction—that the most general physical adaptations provide the best foundation for specialization. Specifically, strength is the most general physical adaptation because it affects every other type of physical activity. Therefore, training for strength is typically the first step toward reaching most other physical goals, whether your aim involves a sport, longevity, durability, or general fitness. Strength training provides a wide foundation on which to build other fitness goals.
Yet, strength is, at least somewhat, exclusive. Specialization may refer to any pursuit that requires time, energy, or resources to the exclusion of other pursuits. For example, a young athlete has a limited amount of time to dedicate to training or practicing his sport. Many athletes make the mistake of choosing extra sports practice over gym time early in their careers. If you practice too often or don’t give yourself an off-season, you cannot adequately develop the basic strength that will help you succeed in your sport down the road. Similarly, a lifter who chooses to dedicate all her resources toward improving strength cannot easily train for some other physical attribute—even though strength may improve one’s endurance, for example, for a limited about of time, an athlete cannot optimally train to improve strength and train to improve a marathon time concurrently. If you try to do both or have it all, you will undercut your efforts on all fronts. We like strength training because it is general enough that getting stronger will benefit your sport, your hobby, and your health. However, to train for strength properly, you still have to specialize to some degree. You need to eat enough protein, dedicate enough time for sleep, and carve out the time and energy to make your strength training worthwhile. This makes strength a very general specialization.
Though strength benefits everybody, some people have more success under the bar than others, raising a question: what traits benefit strength training? We know that certain things make some people more amenable to training for strength than others. This is an important question to answer right now, as many people are stuck at home without strength training equipment. Because, if there is something you can do at home to help build a foundation for future strength training, then you can organize your home training around something to help your strength training when the gyms open back up and you can get back under a barbell again. The question is equally important outside of quarantine, too, when people wonder what they might be able to do to make themselves more trainable, more pliable, more coachable, as they try to lay a long-term foundation of strength for health and fitness. Athleticism, the qualities that make someone amenable to all forms of training, is something you can improve inside and outside the gym.
What Is Athleticism?
Athleticism is the group of qualities that form a wide physical and mental base that helps some people take up and respond to training more readily than others. (To be fair, we are bending the term athleticism a little bit to fit our interests here.) As we are using it, athleticism is a catch-all term to describe the combination of qualities that amount to a person’s ability to develop physical traits, learn skills, and adhere to training regimens—those qualities we think about when we think of someone as being “good at sports.” Some qualities of athleticism are inborn. But many are learned. We are interested in the experiences and habits gained through playing sports, training, and being generally physically active.
Learned traits of athleticism include a general physical competence, a willingness to work hard toward a goal (what we sometimes couch as voluntary hardship), coachability or a willingness to learn and apply information, good training habits, and good practices for recovery. There are other characteristics that help define great athletes: neuromuscular efficiency, anthropometry, and talent. Those traits, however, aren’t trainable. While talent may be as rare as diamonds, hard work produces iron that can be shaped and sharpened and put to many useful purposes. Athleticism comes from the experience of hard work.
There is a kind of basic physical competence that is difficult to measure outside of knowing it when you see it. Watch a group of children at play, and you can often pick out the ones that are more inherently athletic. They are usually a little faster, a little more headstrong, and more coordinated.
Physical coordination is complex, suggesting it is both a learned skill and somewhat built-in. When you learn a new physical skill, you are engaging a part of your brain that coordinates all your moving parts to accomplish a particular goal. When you first learn a skill, your movement is clumsy. Even if you know what your body should do, the unfamiliarity of the new movement prevents you from doing what is in your mind’s eye. But the more you try, the better you get. The coordinating part of your brain learns movement in the same way a path is worn through a tangle of forest. Repetition. Repeat the movement over and over again, with conscious and intentional corrections, and your body gets used to it. It will recognize a squat, a golf swing, a punch, a throw. Not only that but the experience of learning how to move becomes more familiar.
The easiest way to learn physical competence is to try new things. You did this when you started challenging yourself to learn to squat, press, bench press, and deadlift, and in doing so, you started to build strength and athleticism. The next step is to take your strength outside or into new experiences. Trying a new sport and playing games can challenge your ability to learn movement, building this aspect of athleticism.
Strength training is for everyone. If you can train for strength, you should. One of our missions at Barbell Logic, it is to get as many people under the bar, training for strength as possible. The potential, life-changing effects of hard work in a society that eschews hard work is a powerful motivation. Most of our society revolves around getting more production for less effort. More for less is, essentially, the basis of technological advancement. For socioeconomic growth and quality of life in society, this is an excellent goal. It also creates a society-wide pursuit of less effort. Many of us need to cultivate a balance between the ability to float through life with relatively little effort and the obvious design of our bodies to be physical.
One of the first challenges many new lifters face is the understanding of what heavy feels like or what hard means when you are lifting weights. A good coach can evaluate effort objectively by a lifter’s form and bar speed, and most often we find ourselves pushing newer lifters forward when they would rather slow down or stop, not because we are sadists but because we can see how much more effort the lifter can safely put into the lift. With coaxing (sometimes not so gentle) one of the first breakthroughs we often see occurs when the lifter racks the bar after moving a weight they didn’t think they could lift and comes back for more because they know that while it was hard, it was worth it; and they have more to give.
Barbell training is great for teaching us to desire voluntary hardship. The desire comes from the satisfaction of a job-well-done and the challenge of all things worthwhile. That satisfaction may come from many places but is a valuable athletic trait. Athleticism is built on hard work and the ability to engage hard work when at least some part of you would rather stop. Voluntary hardship leads to mental toughness. Mental toughness is decision-making with the full expectation to pay the cost of your decision out of your flesh and sense of well-being. The quality of toughness is defined by the magnitude of your motivation to make a less costly decision with a smaller intrinsic value. The opposite of mental toughness would be settling for something less than what you want. There is a learning process for mental toughness. Everyone responds to hardship differently. By practicing your responses to hardship (voluntary or otherwise), you learn to make consistently valuable choices.
The best athletes are coachable. Being coachable is much more than just doing what you are told and trying your best. The coachable athlete is a skeptic. A skeptic is not someone who simply doubts, but who investigates and engages in deliberate practice of the things he or she values.
The skeptic should always assume there is deeper knowledge or experience to be gained. If you don’t know what that deeper knowledge is, then the only assumption to make is that it exists. And that assumption forms the basis of further investigation.
Coachability is the willingness to learn and apply knowledge with the assumption that there is always more to learn. There are few things more frustrating than a novice athlete who thinks he knows it all or a developing athlete who doesn’t attempt to apply the knowledge they’ve gained in new ways, using it and adapting it to their own benefits. Coachability is something one develops through instruction. The back-and-forth that occurs between a coach and athlete involves much more than rote. It is an experience of joint problem-solving and critical thinking. Through it, the athlete is taught how to learn. This is true even for something as uncomplicated as the basic barbell lifts.
Process without expectation. Every athlete expects to pay their dues, and there is rarely a 1-to-1 payoff for all the hard work they put in during training and in practice. We see this often with intermediate lifters and beyond. When the novice effect has worn off, every incremental gain costs more time, effort, and energy. Many lifters get to this point and struggle mentally with training. Why train when every session isn’t a self-contained victory? Instead, each session becomes a building block, unadorned and uncelebrated but essential to the bigger picture. For the vast majority of one’s lifting career, training should not be a daily decision or act of willpower. It should give you a fix and satisfy your training habit.
This, too, is a learned lesson of athletics. Only the smallest volume of work occurs on game day or in the match. The athlete’s performance is largely built on countless hours and repetitions, on months, years, or even decades of training. The athlete builds habits that enable long-term progress; one of those habits is the habit of training.
Recovery, Nutrition, Health
Other useful habits of athletes encompass all the things that happen when you are not training: recovery, nutrition, and health. The barbell is not magic. Many of us start training with the idea that we are going to dedicate an hour or so, three times a week, to lifting a barbell. As powerful a tool as the barbell is for building strength, the barbell will not overcome the effects of the other 165 hours in your week. Athleticism views training as a catalyst that interacts with all the other factors of your daily life.
What so many people tend to ignore are the important other practices that make the hours you put into training effective. These are things that mostly occur outside of the gym, sacrifices you’ve made to help your training or improvements you’ve made to how you eat or how well you sleep at night. They are not nearly as Instagram-worthy as the big PR—few people brag about crushing their sleep last night—but they really should be.
These practices are not overly complicated. Eat, drink, and sleep in ways that fuel your training and help you recover. You can support this adaptive change, then, by fueling muscle synthesis, creating a nutritional environment conducive to muscle growth, and promoting other physical responses to training. Athleticism creates a reality in which strength matters to you. Even if you never compete, you are a strength athlete because you participate in the sport of life.
Athleticism is a perspective that affects how you engage the things that matter to you. It is something you can develop while training for strength, but it is also a perspective that should broaden your view of your physical self. There are times when you can’t get under the bar, but you can still be an athlete of strength training; you can still control your nutrition and take care of your health; you can crave physical activity and not shirk from hardship. All of these things build the foundation that is uniquely you, and on that foundation, you have the strength to carry much more than you might ever have thought.