Strategy vs. Tactics: Strength is Consistent with Everything

The practical, pattern-seeking part of your brain learns to read a situation, assess your present options, weighing the comparative advantages of each before making a decision. The problem is that it is easy to get stuck into an all-or-nothing tactical effort. The direct path may not be the best one to take.

What’s Your Strength Strategy?

Barbell training is simple, four main lifts, organized into sets and reps, with minimal variation or equipment. The variables are limited and so are the possible organizations of your limited resources—your time, energy, and the ability to recover from training. Borrow terms from game theory and decision-making, the deployment of your resources is the tactics you use to train, contrasted with the broader strategy of your overall physical goals.

People tend to think tactically, shorter-term, being goal-oriented and motivated for more immediate gains. The practical, pattern-seeking part of your brain learns to read a situation, assess your present options, weighing the comparative advantages of each before making a decision. The problem is that it is easy to get stuck into an all-or-nothing tactical effort.

The direct path may not be the best one to take. As an example, how would you plan a route around town to run errands? Harken back to a time when you would leave the house to go buy things that you needed or wanted. In this pre-COVID era, one might take a trip to go to work, see friends, and pick up groceries, all in the same day. It would be terribly inefficient if you drove to your first destination, returned home, drove to your second destination, returned home, then drove to your third destination before returning home. It may also be a poor choice to pick up groceries before going to work; the ice cream isn’t going to make it. Compartmentalizing your three separate goals and pursuing each one separately, even efficiently, is not the best way to get things done. Instead, we learn to think strategically, organizing our tasks according to some broader goal so that the route we take (tactics) makes sense in the bigger picture.

One mistake many people make is to trade big picture objects for direct action tactics when it comes to training for physical goals. They get stuck in the tactical elements, looking for the most direct path that leads to their most immediate goal. If your goal is to get strong—and you are a novice strength athlete—then the best tactic is the novice linear progression program. Simple. Right?

Now add in some different goals. Perhaps, you have been lifting for six months, become decently strong, and now you want to take up a new sport or hobby that is not exactly consistent with strength training. Maybe you find out that your health markers are not what they should be, or you decide that you want to lose weight. People who have invested countless reps and tireless hours into barbell training will see these decisions as an impasse: they can train for strength or do something else, but they cannot do both. When you feel like you are at am impasse with strength, take a step back, pull out your map, and start to look at your goals as a cohesive collection of tasks.

Strength Strategy

Strategy vs. tactics is often talked about when learning complex games. The opening move in chess is a strategic decision. As the game develops, tactics dominate. Good players analyze the lay of the board, rank the best possible moves against counters, and set up threats and defenses, progressing toward the end game. Though there are many possible plays, a good chess player is a good tactical player, narrowing down possible moves into a few strong moves. A game with less structure and more variables will involve more strategy. The game of Go, for example, has fewer rules and many (many!) more possible plays. (“After the first two moves of a chess game, there are 400 possible next moves. In Go, there are close to 130,000.” Why Go is so Much Harder for AI to Beat Than Chess.) Go players have to be more creative and intuitive as part of the game’s incredible strategic possibilities.

Physical training is neither as tactical or as strategically challenging as either chess or Go, but it does require big picture planning and creative thinking. Every person comes with their own resources, limitations, and goals, making the methods by which you use and pursue strength a more strategic process. Mostly, it is important to know that you do not have to throw out strength when your goals change.

Strength is consistent with every other physical goal. The work you do in the gym makes everything else easier and opens new doors for new activities—climbing, rowing, swimming, martial arts—and improves your ability to change your body composition. (Read more: Muscle vs. Fat Myths: Can You Gain Muscle Without Fat?) When your physical goals change, don’t abandon strength training. Strategically, strength is still the foundation of fitness for your new goals. Instead, change your strategy. Figure out how strength best fits your new goals. And, change your tactics: What should your workouts look like in light of your new strategy? There is room for creativity in strength programming, as long as you stick to the basic principles of physical adaptation.

Many of our lifters will plan out their strength strategy a year in advance: winter is for bulking, which makes Spring ideal of competition training, followed by Summer (beach bod and vacation), then the back-to-school and back-to-work drudgery of the fall where you are going to build your base for the next phase of training. Tactically, you cannot plan that far in advance. MED changes to training take place based on actual performance in the gym. But you can know and plan for the shape of your training based on different goals.

Strength can remain a constant pursuit even when your tactics might have to change.

Strategic thinking, when it comes to strength training, takes some experience and creativity. Below are some of our resources that can help you plan for different seasons of training to help keep strength a consistent part of your strategy.

Busy Schedule? How to Train with Time Limitations

Summer Accessory Work and Conditioning

Strength Training for the Low-Priority Lifter

In-Season vs. Off-Season Strength Training for Sports

Strength and Martial Arts: You Can Do Both

What is Strongman Training? Getting Started in Strongman

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