why strength is functional

Take Your Strength Outside

By: Barbell Logic Team

Most of the reasons people give for training–fitness, health, sport–really boil down to one thing: Fun. We train so that we can play. Because while being strong is great, and the health benefits of training for strength are many, anything that makes the things we do for fun safer and easier makes our lives better. While we do believe in the power of voluntary hardship we also believe in enjoying life, doing the things you love with the people who make your spark on this planet a little brighter and more worthwhile.

Take Your Strength Outside

why strength is functional

Photo: Nick Delgadillo

The gym is a laboratory where alchemy happens. You enter in one form and become refined by a process. In the gym, you control all the variables of the process. The weights you lift are shaped to allow you to lift with anatomically-dictated perfect form. The equipment is such that you can make the smallest necessary changes to measure and adapt your training regimen. You wear the right shoes. And, if you are taking full advantage of the process, you fuel with the right food. No one else is responsible for your success in the gym—no bosses or coworkers to rely on, no bureaucrats or government agency regulating your gains, no one to interfere with the process—there’s only you. Sure, you can mess it up by not working hard and by the choices you make, but that’s refreshing. Success and failure are in your hands—at least in your den of alchemy.

But outside the gym, real life rarely works like that. Starting Strength Coach, Dr. Sullivan, recently discussed this on his GreySteel YouTube channel. He talks about the Noble Lie that hard work always pays off in the real world. It doesn’t because there are too many things we just can’t dictate through hard work alone. But, he says, “I’ve found a refuge, a magical place, where the beneficent fable still holds sway, where the noble lie still holds true, a place where hard work always pays off: the gym.” The process is biological, if you engage it, you will get stronger.

The training you do in the gym probably won’t get you a job, won’t get you a promotion, or help you get into the school you want; but it certainly won’t hurt. And barbell training has many other benefits for dealing with mental health, stress, and survivability. But one of the best reasons to train is to take your strength outside of the gym.

Most of the reasons people give for trainingfitness, health, sportreally boil down to one thing: Fun. We train so that we can play. Because while being strong is great, and the health benefits of training for strength are many, anything that makes the things we do for fun safer and easier makes our lives better. While we do believe in the power of voluntary hardship we also believe in enjoying life, doing the things you love with the people who make your spark on this planet a little brighter and more worthwhile.

Functionality and fun are really one in the same goal. Making yourself stronger makes you better able to interact with the world around you. Consider strength at its most basic definition. Strength is the ability to produce force against an external resistance. The “external resistance” may be a barbell, or you can just think about it as the world around you. The ground is an external resistance to your foot when you are walking, running, or keeping your balance and preventing yourself from falling down. Doors, groceries, children, bicycles, boxes, everything you move, lift, push, pull, or grab every day represents some level of external resistance.

Be Strong

Why do we define strength this way? This definition of strength highlights the outcome of training rather than the internal processes that make strength happen. Muscles contract to move your skeleton, producing observable action. But a lot goes into the simplest movements: Your brain sends signals to move your muscles; for your muscles to move your cells have to engage in lightning-fast chemical reactions; these reactions fuel muscular contractions; and those contractions create tension, pulling on the complicated system of levers that is your skeleton; your control over that skeletal movement is mostly unconscious, since even for the simplest stroll down the street, the coordination of each muscular contraction that keeps you moving forward and upright is too much to control consciously. The result, a step forward, is the observable end of a complicated process, producing force against the ground to move your center of gravity forward a little bit, catching your weight on your other foot, and repeating. For most people, walking requires a very small fraction of their ability to produce force and is, therefore, overlooked as a movement that benefits from strength.

But for other people, that’s not true. At the extremes of our lives, you can observe the heroic effort of muscular strength that makes up the most basic tasks. Watch a 1-year-old child attempt to take her first steps. The amount of constant balance, control, and coordination that goes into the movement should make you wonder how anybody can walk without constantly falling down. At the other extreme of age, elderly people who have very little muscle mass are constantly in danger of falling. For the young child, growing and developing the muscular strength allows her to stand up, hold onto the couch, and reach out for her first steps. For the elderly person, sarcopenia and the attrition of muscle mass and strength prevent them from the same control that becomes so automatic during our lives. There are people for whom just standingthe act of your muscles’ isometric contraction holding your skeletal system in alignmentis difficult. There are underlying reasons for this difficulty. Age, obesity, injury, or other pathologies may affect someone’s ability to do everyday tasks. But on some level, every physical act calls upon the ability to produce force against the external resistance of the outside world.

If most of your daily activities involve force production at sub-maximal levels—meaning they require a force that is some fraction of your absolute ability to produce force—then increasing your maximum ability to produce force increases your ability to perform those activities. We have certain proxies for measuring your strength level. If you are strength training, you have a training log and data that shows how much weight you can squat, press, bench press, and deadlift. These are indicators of your strength level. Your training log will also show change over time. You started somewhere on Day 1 and you got stronger. So, while we don’t know what your absolute strength might be in terms of the myriad of daily tasks that you will encounter, we know that you got stronger. And you did so in a laboratory-like setting, in which the conditions were such that you could control for all the variables that aren’t related to strength. This means that all the muscles that might be called upon to act when you are outside having fun got stronger. The work you did in the gym makes everything else easier and opens new doors for new activities—climbing, rowing, swimming, martial arts, activities that you maybe didn’t feel up to trying previously. Raising your physical capacity removes challenges to trying new things.

Be Safe

Strength also makes things you do every day safer. Two common sources of injury are attempting to move things that overload your strength or moving things improperly, like twisting your spine while carrying something heavy in your hands. The first is fixed by making yourself stronger. If something causes injury because the activity represents an effort that is so close to your maximum ability that it causes injury, then raising your maximum ability makes that activity safer.

Also, when you learn to lift with barbells, you learn the habits that make lifting and moving other things safer. The first and most important aspect of lifting is holding your spine in a rigid position so that it does not flex, extend, or rotate under load. In barbell training, we can achieve a normally extended spine, using the muscles of our trunk to hold the spine in anatomically normal extension under increasingly difficult loads, training not just the primary movers but the stabilizing muscles of the spine as well. You also learn how to lift things in the most mechanically efficient way—close to your center of balance and in a straight vertical line.

As Rip says, “Strong people are . . . more useful in general.” They also have more fun.
One of the best reasons to be strong is that you can do more fun things, try more physical activities, and be more helpful. Few things you will encounter will be as physically challenging as what you do in the gym. So, lift for strength; lift for fun.

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