The Strength ConnectionThe extremes of the population help show the universality of strength training. In the very old and the very young, one can observe the effects that building strength has on the body, on performance in everything from sports to daily tasks, and on a mindset that craves both physical competence and self-esteem.
The Strength Connection
One of the great benefits of coaching people from every walk of life, age, and demographic is the perspective you develop on the importance of strength. As a lifter, everyone approaches strength training personally, coming to the decision to train as a result of some personal imperative. At some point, they make a decision that they want to get stronger. That decision may come from a personal bias for strength, from a desire to improve sports performance, looks, health, or just because the idea of moving a barbell that exceeds the weight of several human beings seems like a pretty cool thing to do (it is!). In the lifting community, you start to see the connections between the many “whys” for strength training: why, for example, it is just as important for competitive athletes to squat, press, and deadlift as it is for masters lifters who are trying to improve their quality of life.
The extremes of the population help show the universality of strength training. In the very old and the very young, one can observe the effects that building strength has on the body, on performance in everything from sports to daily tasks, and on a mindset that craves both physical competence and self-esteem. (Read more about strength training and psychological needs here: “Training for Control and Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.”) There are deficiencies at the extremes that affect demographically diametric lifters, and in fixing those deficiencies, we get to observe the connection between training for strength and the benefits of the improved ability to produce force to all populations.
Anyone who has tried to teach children how to lift weights will note that they are “noodly” when they try to lift. Children tend to crash into the bottom of a squat, mime a seizure when they try to press a bar overhead, and bend like Gumby when they set their back on a deadlift. Part of their wobbly-ness is a simple lack of muscle mass, but children will not build muscle mass like pubescent teenagers or adults. Yet, if you are patient and teach them to move correctly, you will see them improve their strength in proportion to an improvement in controlling their bodies. As they learn to hold still, they will be able to press more weight. This should make sense: all their wiggling under the load represents a force that should be traveling from the ground to the bar, getting lost in the extra body movements. Imagine the Stay Puft Marshmallow man trying to lift a heavy weight; the weight would stay put, but he would be squished down. As kids become less marshmallow-like, a higher percentage of the force they generate actually makes it to the barbell.
Something similar tends to affect lifters who start strength training late in life. A person adapts to their lifestyle. Like water taking the shape of whatever container you pour it into, a person chooses the shape of his or her life, and the body molds to fit it, adapting its strength, readiness, and energy usage to the typical demands of the day. Unfortunately, in modern society, the demands of the day for most people are not particularly physically taxing. Many adults decide to start strength training in response to some stark reminder of this fact, as they realize that the preoccupations of everyday life did not prepare their body for the demands of aging.
As coaches, we see unpreparedness manifest in many different, most of which can be boiled down to an inability or unwillingness to access their physical potential. They have been conditioned by some experience or knowledge to believe that they are not supposed to do things like lift heavy weights and have accepted that belief on some subconscious level. The decision to train for strength and, specifically, barbell training seems at war with these false, preconceived notions. Improvement in this area comes from changing the lifter’s mindset both as to what “heavy” means and to breaking down ingrained notions of what a person should or should not do.
Less dramatically, but also important, many older lifters—as a result of disuse—have a degrade sense of proprioception (the feeling and control of their bodies in space) and are less adept at voluntarily controlling muscle groups needed in barbell training. A pop-fitness term for this might be that they lack a “mind/body” connection, but really it is the detraining of the voluntary control over their muscle groups. One area where this tends to affect older lifters is in the voluntary contraction of their spinal erectors to “set their backs” during the deadlift.
The concept of “setting your back” doesn’t mean much to those who haven’t experienced it. Coaches may spend a considerable amount of time explaining what the lifter’s back should be doing during the deadlift, teaching the feel of voluntary contraction of the spinal erectors, and setting the groundwork for cueing the lifter later on.
Strength and Weaknesses
This may be an odd statement for a strength training coach to make, but the concepts of “strong” and “weak” have very little to do with the process of training for strength. To an extent, almost everyone is weak. And “strong” is a constantly shifting target. A minuscule percentage of the population will ever be as strong as they could be at any given moment, even with dedicated strength training. If we care about strong versus weak, we are always weaker than we could be. Being strong gives you something to strive for, but if that is all you ever chase, you are likely to be unsatisfied. “Strong” and “weak” are too broad and too static to be of any use for strength training.
But, identifying and fixing “weaknesses” is one of the great levelers of strength training.
Strength training exposes weaknesses. Proper strength training involves the entire body moving a coordinated manner under controlled conditions. With coaching, a lifter can epitomize the perfect use of coordinated voluntary and involuntary muscular contractions, skeletal alignment, and form as they perform each lift. As a result, the loads a person will move during barbell training exceed anything they have encountered outside of the gym; the range of motion across which they move that load around each joint is more than they will move in everyday life; and the coordinated use of muscle mass exceeds their daily experience. The end result is the improvement in their ability to produce force, but because the contrived efficiency of barbell training tends to expose deficits in a lifter’s ability to produce force. Force production involves several “links” in a chain that starts with the intent to produce force and ends with a muscular contraction and force being applied to external resistance. Any weak links in that chain will show up, usually on your first day of training.
Functional adaptation connects all the links in the chain from the ground to the bar and from the sensory experience of lifting to voluntary muscle control. Every repetition is a cascading reaction of these interconnected links, like dominos being pushed over, each link leading to the next. Big, coordinated movements like the squat will expose any links in the chain that are not keeping up with the demands of the movement. At the same time, however, those weak links are forced to improve for the imposed demand of the task. In this way, every lift is specific to how the human body produces and transmits force along a big kinetic chain.
The connectedness of the human body parallels the similarities between people of diverse backgrounds and their reasons for lifting. For the near-limitless ways in which a person can interact with his or her environment, we are all pretty similar. In each of those ways that we interact with our environment—from walking, running, and jumping to pushing, pulling, and carrying—our bodies only really know force production.
There is a shared weakness that tends to affect both very young and older lifters when they first start. The noodly-ness of kids and the “mind/body” connection of older adults are both examples of a deficit in the voluntary and coordinated control of various muscle groups toward a specific task. Improvements here occur by exposing the lifter to the demands of lifting. Developing the feel of straining against a lift, the feeling of coordinated motor control, and the discomfort of correct lifting form unlocks an essential use of the body that we do not experience very often in our daily lives. Strength follows.
These shared weaknesses connect many lifters’ goals together. We are all chasing strength, but strength is relative: The septuagenarian who deadlifts 1.5 times her body-weight is brutally strong, even if objectively that weight is less than 200 lbs. What she has discovered in the journey to that number is no less than the kid who wants to go out for sports or the athlete who is chasing a competitive edge or parents who want to be healthy and durable for their children.
At the far ends of the population lies a critical fact: strength is for everyone. Whether anyone realizes it or not, it connects us together in a shared struggle for physical improvement. Strength affects every young person’s growth from child to adult and every adults’ eventual, inexorable physical attrition. The core of our mission at Barbell Logic lies in this connection. Strength really is for everyone, and no one needs to struggle alone.