Strength: Are You Strong Enough?

 In The Everyday Athlete
  • What is it?
  • Why is it important?
  • Are you strong enough?
  • How do we become stronger?

What Is Strength?

For the purpose of the Ten Components of Everyday Athleticism, we are referring to the physical definition. Mental strength is arguably more important and falls under another category, mental resilience, but more on that later.

Strength is the ability to produce force. Our bodies are objects of considerable mass and to move them requires force. The faster we have to move, the more force is required. Do you remember studying physics in school? Force = mass x acceleration.

In order to produce force, our nervous system innervates a muscle or group of muscles and causes a contraction. In a strong body, the nervous system is able to innervate a large percentage of muscle fibers during a given contraction. In a weak body, where the muscle itself may appear to be the same size, the nervous system is less able to innervate as many muscle fibers and much less force is produced. Strength is the ability to recruit a large proportion of muscle fibers and produce as much tension throughout the body as possible.

When selling strength to Everyday Athletes, I often use the light bulb analogy that I stole from Paul Wade in his book Convict Conditioning. An electrical circuit with a light bulb represents the nervous system and muscles; the battery the brain and spinal cord; the wires the nerves; the light bulb the muscle.

Imagine two circuits. One involves a light bulb that’s very large but dim because the wires are made of a low conductivity metal such as brass, the battery is weak and uncharged. This represents a person that doesn’t use their nervous system, however they achieve large (but weak) muscles through training with low resistance for many repetitions.

The second circuit has a small light bulb that is as bright as the sun where the wires are made of highly conductive silver and the battery is fully charged and made by Gucci. This represents a strong person who doesn’t necessarily care about muscle size but is able to innervate a very high percentage of their muscle fibers with a supercharged nervous system.

I’m not saying that big muscles are bad by any means. I grew up idolizing Schwarzenegger. “Get to da choppa!” I’m merely hammering home the point that muscle size and muscle strength have little to do with each other. That is until you become advanced and the nervous system reaches a very high level of capability. Then the only way to continue improving is by growing dense thick muscle fibers.

“Strength is not built. It is granted by your nervous system.”-Paul McIlroyClick To Tweet

Why Is Strength Important?

Imagine if everything in the world around you felt lighter. Your body feels light so you’re able to get up and down from the floor with incredible ease and locomote your body up flights of stairs and steep hills without difficulty. You look forward to the opportunity of moving furniture because it’s such an easy, enjoyable task. You can carry your entire weekly food shop in one hand while climbing stairs. You see others struggling with a heavy door you’re about to pass through, so you brace yourself for a challenge but wonder what the fuss was about.

The frustration that was once posed by opening jam jars is a distant, endearing memory and you jump at the chance of opening stuck jars for others. You can apply yourself to any physical challenge and not worry about being broken or injured because your tendons and ligaments feel unbreakable (the essential component of flexibility is critical for this one, too). You may or may not know self-defense techniques, but in what may once have been deemed a potentially threatening situation, you have an air of confidence and invulnerability. How can strength not be important?

Are You Strong Enough?

I love this conversation. Surely, if you’re able to carry out any daily tasks with ease and are able to handle any physical surprise that life throws at you, that’s enough, right? However, if it’s possible to continue to become even stronger by applying smart training principles, without compromising health or any other components of athleticism, surely that’s a worthy goal?

My respect for some of the worlds strongest is profound, but at what degree of “super strong” are other vital components of athleticism compromised?

In my opinion, the sweet spot of strength is the strongest that one can be without allowing any of the other valuable components to suffer. Finding this sweet spot is a lifelong pastime and can only be explored with years of dedicated practice.

All humans of all ages (able-bodied, uninjured and of good health) should be able to:

  • climb a flight of stairs without help.
  • break a fall.
  • get up from the floor while holding an almost-full cup of water, without spilling it.
  • walk a mile while carrying groceries.
  • dash, leap or bound one yard to move out of the way of danger.
  • hang from something for ten seconds.

The rate of age-related cell deterioration is almost entirely dependent on one’s food choices, lifestyle and activity habits adopted the for decades leading up to old age. The differential in physical capability between people at each end of the spectrum in their 60s is often huge compared to that of people in their 30s and 40s.

At what degree of “strong” are other vital components of athleticism compromised?Click To Tweet

I’ve worked with an 84-year-old ballroom dancer who was able to perform all of the above with great ease. I’ve worked with a 72-year-old triathlete who intends to keep competing until she’s in her 80s. Conversely, I’ve worked with people in their 50s who are in worse shape than my 92-year-old grandmother.

Therefore, I’m going to take the easy way out. Anyone over the age of 50 should consider their current level of activity, lifestyle, diet and gender, and meet somewhere between the standards above for all humans and the standards below for under 50’s (partly stolen from one of my mentors Dan John, with some of my own modifications).

Table Of Standards

Women Under 50

Should be able to perform Exceptional*
Push-ups

(remove hands from floor at bottom of each rep, no sagging)

3 10
Pull-ups

(sternum to bar, hollow body)

1 3
Deadlift 66% bodyweight

3 reps

150% bodyweight

3 reps

Squat Double kettlebell front squat

5 reps @ 2x12kg

Double kettlebell front squat

5 reps @ 2x20kg

Walk 25 meters carrying 24kg (53lbs) in each hand 40kg (88lbs) in each hand

 

Men Under 50

Should be able to perform Exceptional*
Push-ups

(remove hands from floor at bottom of each rep, no sagging)

10 30
Pull-ups

(sternum to bar, hollow body)

3 10
Deadlift Own bodyweight

3 reps

Double bodyweight

3 reps

Squat Double kettlebell front squat

3 reps @ half bodyweight (1/4 in each hand)

Double kettlebell front squat

3 reps @ bodyweight (half in each hand)

Walk 25 meters carrying Half bodyweight in each hand Bodyweight in each hand

 

*Exceptional: With smart training principles, this is very achievable without compromising any other components of athleticism.

Please note: Strength training will probably result in injury unless a base of good movement is present first. Please look out for further blogs covering the other components of athleticism.

“Old” is a state of mind.

Strength is of little use if a body can’t locomote Click To Tweet

How To Become Stronger

This is the subject of an entire book, let alone a few paragraphs at the end of an article. I’ll leave you with some key principles and concepts that all seem to be agreed upon by the strength police globally.

Familiarize yourself with your lats (latissimus dorsi)

World class teacher and coach Mark Reifkind calls them the “super muscles”. They’re the second largest muscles in the body for good reason.

Squeeze and crush things with your hands

Your hands have a strong neurological connection with your shoulders and hips. Carry an Ironmind grip trainer everywhere you go. When you squeeze, try to use every muscle in your body. Claw the ground with your toes, squeeze your butt and abs.

Relearn how to breathe

Unless you are a performer, a very experienced yogi or martial artist, it’s almost a certainty that your subconscious has forgotten how to breathe correctly. This is a result of too many years in a chair, among other factors. There is superpower waiting to be unlocked. Stay tuned for a lot more about this.

Lift up really heavy things (barbells, sandbags, furniture, stones, etc.)

High reps of light weights will get you nowhere for strength. One to five reps are all you need, but every ounce of effort must go into each rep and every muscle in your body should be activated. Three to five sets with four to five minutes rest between each. Once every five to two days will do it; your nervous system takes a little longer to recover than your musculoskeletal system.

Train with uneven or off-set loads

Nothing you have to lift in real life is perfectly balanced. The best strength-training tool is a heavy sandbag. If you train with kettlebells, go off-set. If it’s barbells, use a fat grip.

Perform whole body exercises

View your body as a single organism comprised of only one muscle, which is distributed throughout several hundred myofascial pockets (Thomas Myers said that). These must all work together harmoniously to create good movement and strength. Isolating individual joints and muscles makes the whole organism weak.

Don’t sit down when you lift

Sitting while lifting puts tremendous stress on your lumbar vertebral discs (check out Dr. Stuart McGill for more on this). If you ever have to use your strength in the real world it will be from a standing position or from the floor where you will need your core to be engaged. Sitting in a chair disengages your all-important core muscles and trains you to be weak.

Don’t take anabolic steroids

Creating a massive imbalance in your endocrine system in the name of some short-term gains will absolutely catch up with you in the future and cause weakness or death.

Strong hands + strong butt + strong core = super strong body

Perform full-body exercises that focus on these three body parts. Personal favorites: suitcase deadlifts, suitcase carries, heavy single arm swings, military press, heavy sandbag cleans, heavy sandbag carries, heavy sandbag bear hug squats, captains of crush grippers, heavy get-ups and weighted pull-ups (squeezing dumbbell between thighs so proper hollow body position can be maintained).

Strength and honor!

Phil McDougall

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Strength: Are You Really Strong Enough?
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Strength: Are You Really Strong Enough?
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Strength Matters
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Phil McDougall
Director of Athletic Performance for Strength Matters, Humble Welshman, Kettlebell Jedi and father to Henry of Cambridge. You can follow Phil here on Instagram or get in contact direct via his professional website
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