February 3, 2013

The Single Greatest Physical Attribute That Anyone Can Develop

The Importance Of Strength

Strength is the one physical attribute that crosses all athletic/sporting barriers, as well as the gender barrier. There is not one person, male or female, or one activity that they’d choose to perform, that wouldn’t benefit from them being stronger! Think about it: the stronger you are, the easier (or less physically demanding) everything else becomes, relatively speaking.

With that being said, I realize that there are optimal amounts of strength required for various activities, and that more strength doesn’t always translate into better performance/results, but it certainly wouldn’t hurt.

It is for these reasons that building a solid foundation of strength, systemically throughout the body, is the underlying theme to all training programs that I am in charge of developing for the people that I work with, and it should be for anyone that hasn’t achieved optimal levels of strength. Once someone has attained an optimal level of strength, there is a lot more room to play around with variety and still make progress. Until then, it is of little value to spend time performing movements that you are only able to move minimal amounts of weight with.

The nervous system, and its interaction with the muscular system, is primarily responsible for gains in strength, especially in ‘beginners’ and those with little training experience, so let’s go over a brief rundown of how it does that.

Brief rundown of the nervous system and how it relates to moving weight

A ‘motor unit’ consists of a ‘pool’ of motor neurons and ALL the muscle fibers that it innervates. Another way to look at it is each muscle fiber(s) is supplied by its own pool of motor neurons.

Motor signals originate in the motor cortex, travel down a corticospinal pathway and connect to a motor neuron (in what is called the ventral horn of the spinal cord), which then relays the message to the muscle fibers to contract. A muscle fiber is either fully contracted as a result of it being recruited to assist with the execution of the task at hand, or not contracted at all due to not being recruited because the brain doesn’t perceive the task to be challenging enough to need to recruit it. There is no in between, and no such thing as a ‘half contracted’ muscle fiber. Even though it may feel as if a muscle feels ‘harder’ at times, than it does at others, this is simply due to the fact that more muscle fibers are being recruited based on the demand placed upon the muscle.

The nervous system balances excitation (+) with inhibition (-) which determines the end result. Through strength training, one can increase the excitability of corticomotorneurons in the motor cortex, and motor neurons in the spinal cord. The more excitable a motor neuron becomes the larger response ANY given signal will produce.

If maximal force production, or strength development, is the goal, maximal excitation coupled with minimal inhibition is the obvious desired adaptation.

Theoretical examples of excitation and inhibition

Let’s say ones brain perceives a given task (ex. lift a given amount of weight) will require the recruitment of 10 hypothetical motor units (we’ll use a round number for simplicity). The brain then sends those 10 from the motor cortex to the motor neuron where they are processed (assuming none are inhibited), to which 10 hypothetical motor neurons are then be sent to their correlated muscle fibers to generate force/contraction.

Following periods of strength training (generally several weeks), the excitability may be increased to the point where, for every 10 motor units sent from the motor cortex, 15 hypothetical motor neurons may then be sent to the muscles, whereas before it would have only been 10. More motor neurons being recruited per motor unit would mean that the nervous system has become more efficient, resulting in being able to produce more force!

The concept of increased force production due to decreased inhibition is similar to the above example about increased excitation. For example, it is possible that, out of the 10 hypothetical motor units that are sent from the motor cortex in the example above, only 5 of them may make it to the motor neuron, due to some form of presynaptic (before the signal reaches the motor neuron) inhibition. Decreasing this inhibition, which results from strength training, could lead to 7, or 8, hypothetical motor units making it to the motor neuron. The more motor units that make it to the neuron, the more neurons that can ultimately be recruited.

For the record, the nervous system is a lot more complex than the examples above may suggest, but their purpose is to help one develop an understanding of its role in force production.

The ways in which the nervous system specifically contributes to force production

The following is the order in which the nervous system works to produce force. The first factor, motor unit recruitment could be looked at as the ‘quantity’, while the remaining factors, rate coding, motor unit synchronization, doublet firing, and alterations in antagonist activity could be looked at as ‘quality’. Combined, quantity and quality, could be looked at as ‘efficiency’.

Motor unit recruitment – motor units are recruited as needed in order from smallest to largest. The largest, high-threshold motor units are only called upon when the smaller, low-threshold motor units have already been recruited. There is a ceiling effect to motor unit recruitment, as you are limited by the amount of motor units that can be recruited, and once you’ve reached the maximum number of motor unit activation, increased force production will have to come from the following ways.

Rate coding – the frequency, or ‘rate’, of discharge is referred to as rate coding. A motor unit fires at an increasingly rapid rate to produce increasing amounts of force once it is recruited. Only when a motor unit reaches its maximal firing rate, are additional motor units recruited.

Motor unit synchronization – when two different motor units are firing at the same rate (or very close to), there is a rapid increase in force production, as the second firing is able to take advantage of increased muscular stiffness created by the first contraction.

Doublet firing – is very similar to synchronization, only it involves the same motor unit discharging at a faster than normal rate, which results in a rapid increase in force production, as the second firing is able to take advantage of increased muscular stiffness created by the first contraction, much like with synchronization.

Alterations in antagonistic activity – strength training results in decreased antagonistic activity/increased antagonist inhibition. Hypothetically, if the agonist recruits 15 motor units, and the antagonist recruits 5 motor units to provide joint stability, the net result is 10 net motor units. But, if the antagonist recruits less motor units, there will be a higher net result, leading to more force production.

*The reason beginners, or those ‘just getting back into it’, typically see rapid gains in strength, is due to the fact that the nervous system adapts relatively quickly to training (or anything for that matter), and not because muscles have ‘memory’. Muscles only know tension. They don’t know why they are creating tension, and cannot differentiate whether that tension is being placed upon them due to lifting a free weight, machine, or any other form of resistance.

The nervous system is a trainable characteristic, which means, if one has not spent a great deal of time and effort in developing it, their ability to recruit the high-threshold motor units, as fast as possible, in synch with one another is limited, and therefore there is a lot of room for improvement.

Factors that influence neural adaptations

If strength is the goal, then it is of paramount importance that one trains the nervous system to become as efficient as possible at recruiting the high-threshold motor units as soon, and as often as possible, when a weight is lifted. There are a few ways in which the nervous system can be trained to become more efficient and improve performance, and they are, but are not limited to:

Intended concentric lifting speed: The faster one intends to lift a weight, irrespective of how heavy it is, the more force that is required, which means the maximal amount of motor units are more likely to be recruited faster, and in synch, to complete the lift. This is why ones intent should almost always be, to lift with as much force as possible, because the sooner the highest-threshold motor units are recruited, the more time they have, before fatigue becomes a limiting factor, to increase their firing rate, therefore more force can ultimately be produced. Lifting as fast as possible basically trains the nervous system to go from ‘0-60’ in as little time as possible.

Lift heavy: The heavier the weight is that one attempts to lift, the more force that is required to do so, which means the maximal amount of motor units are more likely to be recruited as fast as possible, as well as in synch with one another, to complete the lift. The heavier the weight is, the less reps that can be performed, which means there will be minimal reliance on the lactic acid energy system, which enables one to focus on the quality of movement and cement the proper motor pattern needed to maximize improvements in the lift, without reaching technical failure which is typically associated with higher rep sets.

The major drawback to lifting heavy is that the coordination pattern of the lift may be negatively affected, and technical breakdown is more likely to occur as a result of the weight being so damn heavy.

For example, it is all too common to see an elite lifter attempt a maximal deadlift, in which their back instinctively rounds forward, which by most standards would be considered ‘poor form’. This is primarily a compensatory effect that allows many lifters to handle far greater weights, as the deadlift itself is a dynamic spinal extension movement (the spine is lengthened in the bottom position, and shortened in the top position), and rounding the spine places the muscles of the core in a mechanically advantageous position to increase the amount of intra-abdominal pressure to stabilize the spine, even though the risk of injury is greater.

Technical breakdown (like allowing the back to round during a max deadlift) combined with maximal weight, greatly increases the risk of injury. Though lifting heavy is necessary if one wants to continuously gain strength, nearly every near maximal attempt will include some form of technical breakdown, as that’s just how the body will naturally compensate in whatever way in needs to to lift extremely heavy weights. However, consistently performing reps in which there is some form of technical breakdown will not lead to the development of the proper motor pattern needed to maximize improvements in the lift, and the pattern that is developed will take a lot longer to unlearn, than it took to develop, which is why it is suggested that maximal lifts be used sparingly.

Lift moderate-light: Where heavy lifting excels in terms of recruiting motor units by default of the weight being heavy, lifting moderate-light weights makes up for by enabling one to lift with more explosiveness, and focus on the quality of the movement to cement the proper motor pattern needed to maximize improvements in a given lift, without reaching technical failure (unless enough reps are performed to the point that lactic acid interferes with muscular contraction).

If power = force X acceleration, and acceleration = distance / time (therefore power = force X distance / time), then moderate-light weights permit more power to be exerted than near maximal weights do, which will lead to positive adaptations as far as strength development is concerned.

For example, out of the three variables that make up the power equation, there is one constant (distance), as the bar can is limited to how far it can travel based on the length of one’s limbs, and two variables (force and time) that are subject to change based on the load used relative to ones strength levels. Hypothetically speaking, let’s say the maximal amount of force that one can generate (AKA 1RM) in the deadlift is 400 lbs, and being that a max weight cannot be lifted explosively, we’ll say it takes 3 seconds to complete the rep (which is very generous, as true max lifts can take up to double that amount of time, or more, to complete). This means that one rep performed with 400 lbs. would produce (400 lbs. X 2 ft. / 3 sec. = 2.67) 267 units of power, and since only one rep can be performed, the total units of power produced during the set remains at 267.

Surely, if we drop the intensity to 80% of 1RM (320 lbs.), which would be equivalent to roughly ones 8 rep max, it would be safe to assume that one rep performed as explosively as possible could be completed in roughly 2 seconds (in reality it would probably be less than 2 seconds, but for arguments sake, and the purpose of keeping it simple we’ll go with 2). This means that one rep performed with 320 lbs, by an individual that is capable of pulling 400 lbs, would produce (320 X 2 / 2 = 320) 320 units of power. Combine this with the fact that the weight could easily be lifted at that speed for roughly 4-6 reps before fatigue would negatively affect acceleration, and the total units of power produced during the set is (320 units of power X 4-6 reps = 1,280-1,920) between 1,280, and 1,920 units of power. That’s a total of 4.79-7.91 times more units of power produced compared to the max rep set!

Ultimately the limiting factor in the power equation becomes time, as one can only rise so fast from the bottom of a deadlift, to the top, regardless of how much weight is on the bar. If the intensity was lowered to 60% of 1RM (240 lbs.), which would be equivalent to roughly ones 20 rep max, it would be safe to assume that one rep performed as explosively as possible could be completed in roughly ¾ of a second. This means that one rep performed with 240 lbs, by and individual that is capable of pulling 400 lbs, would produce (240 X 2 / 0.75 = 640) 640 units of power. Combine this with the fact that the weight could easily be lifted at that speed for roughly 10-15 reps before fatigue would negatively affect acceleration, and the total units of power produced during the set is (640 units of power X 10-15 reps = 6,400-9,600) between 6,400, and 9,600 units of power. That’s a total of 23.97-35.96 times more units of power produced compared to max rep set!

There does come a point though, where lowering the weight further, just to lift the weight faster, provides no additional benefit. To prove this point, let’s use 40% of 1RM (160 lbs.), and assume that one could not lift any amount of weight through a full range of motion in the deadlift, in less than ½ a second. In this case, one rep would also produce (160 X 2 / 0.5 = 640) 640 units of power. In this hypothetical example, there would be no additional benefit to use loads under 60% of 1RM. While a 40% load produces just as many units of power as 60% does, the absolute amount of weight used does influence the end result. If it didn’t, the best lifters in the world wouldn’t bother risking injury by putting any weight on the bar.

Train to failure: As far as motor unit recruitment is concerned, training to failure is the great equalizer that bridges the gap between lifting heavy and lifting moderate-light. For whatever reason, when it comes to motor unit recruitment, emphasis is only ever placed on lifting heavy. But what a lot of people fail to realize is that, if motor units are recruited as needed, then training to failure, in which you cannot perform another rep, would mean that all available motor units had been recruited and exhausted, irrespective of how many reps were performed. If they weren’t, then it wouldn’t be failure! If lifting sub-maximal weights to failure did not recruit and fatigue the high-threshold motor units, and therefore the larger fast-twitch muscle fibers, bodybuilders wouldn’t train the way they do (typically relatively light weight, with incomplete rest intervals), and build the kind of size they have. Recruiting and exhausting only the low-threshold motor units, and therefore the smaller slow-twitch muscle fibers, does not result in building the kind of size bodybuilders have, regardless of the amount of pharmaceuticals they are using.

Strength is a skill that is developed

A skill is something that is developed through stress and repetition, over a sustained period of time. A skill is also something that is very specifically developed, meaning that performing a given task will only maximize your ability to perform that task, and not any others. This doesn’t mean that developing one skill may not improve your ability to perform other tasks, as it may have some level of carryover (which is why any athlete would strength train in the first place) it simply means that it will not maximize your potential at performing other tasks. An example of this would be, if one wanted to improve their accuracy shooting a hockey puck or basketball, or hitting a baseball, then that should be the primary focus, and all other tasks should become secondary until that skill is developed to a satisfactory level, because no amount of weight lifting (or any other activity aimed at improving performance) will improve your accuracy as much as performing those specific tasks will.

In regards to strength training, excelling at one lift will not have complete carryover to other lifts. This is why the term ‘World’s Strongest Man’ that is given to men who win strongman competitions like the ‘World’s Strongest Man’, as well as the absolute Olympic weightlifting champion (typically the winner of the heavyweight division), is inaccurate. If strength was ‘standardized’, and the ability to perform one lift/event better than anybody in the world carried over to other lifts/events, then the ‘World’s Strongest Man’ would indeed be able to bench press more than anybody in the world, squat more than anybody in the world, deadlift more than anybody in the world, clean and jerk more than anybody in the world, snatch more than anybody in the world, farmer’s walk more than anybody in the world, you get the point. But, because there is a different name in the record books under each of those lifts/events, the term ‘World’s Strongest Man’ is not validated. The purpose of mentioning this is to reinforce the point that strength is a very specific skill, and to excel at one lift, does not mean you will excel at all, and as always, your goal should ultimately determine exactly what you do, to get what you want.

The connection between strength and every other notable physical attribute

There are many physical attributes that can be trained and developed, to which one can become (more) ‘skilled’ at. The most practical as it relates to human movement/functionality, in no particular order, are:

-          Speed – how fast one can go (distance / time)
-          Acceleration – amount of time it takes to get to top speed
-          Agility – how quickly one can change direction (decelerate to accelerate)
-          Power – force X acceleration, AKA one’s ability to move a certain weight, a certain distance in the shortest amount of time
-          Endurance/stamina – the ability to maintain/repeat an effort over a sustained period of time
-          Flexibility – the range of motion around a joint
-          Size – pretty straight forward, the amount of muscle mass one carries on their frame
-          STRENGTH! – the total amount of force that can be generated, irrespective of time

While the attributes listed above can certainly be enhanced with specific (drills/exercises used to specifically develop each attribute) and non-specific training (strength training to make the body stronger as a whole) programs, it is important to note that one’s God given ability, or natural talent will ultimately determine just how far they can go with their athletic endeavors. No amount of any type of training will take an untalented person, and make them as good as a talented person, if the talented person is working just as hard (or in some cases putting in only a fraction of the effort). The only time the talented person will be beat by an untalented person is if the talented person doesn’t bother to develop their craft. After all, “Hard work beats talent, when talent doesn’t work hard”.

The difference between talent and skill

Will Smith says, “Talent you have naturally. Skill is only developed through hours, and hours, and hours of beating on your craft.” As it relates to the scope of this article, you can’t necessarily train a weak person to be strong, but you certainly can train them to be ‘stronger’! And the same can be said of each of the physical attributes, or skills, listed above.

If we look at each of the trainable physical attributes listed above individually, and break them down in attempt to identify what the greatest limiting factor is to each one, the common denominator would be strength, either directly, or indirectly. While each and every attribute may be limited by any of the others on the list, unless one is severely underdeveloped in one of the attributes, strength is likely the single most limiting factor there is.

Speed vs. strength

For someone who wants to improve their speed (running, skating, biking, swimming, etc.), the primary focus would obviously be to work on the mechanics, or form/technique, as it relates to the specific movement. Once they’ve developed the proper motor pattern to propel their body into motion and attain maximum speed, the only thing that would essentially prevent them from getting faster would be their strength levels. Therefore, to increase their speed once they’ve mastered the movement, they would need to increase their strength.

Ones speed will have very little to do with limiting one’s ability to gain strength, therefore making strength the more valuable attribute of the two. Strength wins!

Acceleration vs. strength

As with speed, acceleration is strongly dependent on technique, but technique will only take you so far. There comes a point where your ability to generate force (strength), and to generate it as fast as possible (power), is limited by your strength levels, and eventually you’ll have to increase your strength levels if you want to cut down on the amount of time it takes you to get to maximum speed.

Like speed, one’s ability to accelerate will have very little to do with one’s ability to gain strength, therefore making strength the more valuable attribute of the two. Strength wins again!

Agility vs. strength

Agility is commonly referred to as one’s ability to decelerate, change direction, and accelerate once more. Once again, there is a sound technique that ought to be developed to make one as efficient as possible when it comes to changing directions, but sooner or later strength will become a limiting factor in reaching ones potential. The stronger one is, the faster they can decelerate and come to a complete stop (if needed), and then change direction and take off.

As with speed and acceleration, one’s ability to change direction will have very little to do with one’s ability to gain strength, therefore making strength the more valuable attribute of the two. Strength wins yet again!

Power vs. strength

Power and strength are dependent on one another in a sense that without one, the other cannot be fully developed to ones potential. This is why ‘power’ lifters have two very different types of training days/methods incorporated into their routine: Maximal Effort (ME) days/methods, and Dynamic Effort (DE) days/methods. The ME days/methods consist of near maximal weights, which are used to improve overall strength levels so that greater loads can be used with DE days/methods, and the DE days/methods consist of relatively lighter weights, lifted with as much explosiveness as humanly possible, and are used to improve the rate of force development, as well as promote further neural adaptations by focusing on the quality of the movement to cement the proper motor pattern needed to maximize improvements in a given lift, and also allow the body to heal from heavy weights used with ME days/methods.

With nearly every training program, especially ones used to maximize power, the amount of weight that one would select to hit the prescribed number of sets and reps is generally dependent on one variable, and that is, how much weight one can lift for one rep, AKA 1 rep max (1RM). For example, typically training programs, and even warm-up protocols, will suggest that you use ‘X%’ of your 1RM for your working sets. However, ‘X%’ would hypothetically be a greater number if your 1RM was greater than it currently is, therefore, the amount of weight you use for your working sets, or warm-up, and how much tension you can subject your muscles to, is limited to how much you can lift for 1, making strength once again, a limiting factor. It is for this reason that strength barely edges out power as a more valuable attribute. While more power can result in more strength, it’s a lot easier for someone that is already strong to maximize power, than it is for someone who is weak to have a lot of power. Strength wins again!

Endurance/stamina vs. strength

Cardiovascular conditioning is the single greatest contributing factor in providing one with the ability to sustain a certain amount of effort over a prolonged period of time, as it is the heart that provides the muscles with the oxygen needed to be able to utilize fat as the primary energy source needed for continuous muscular contraction. However, there comes a point and time when the heart will be as strong as it needs to be to get through whatever athletic endeavor you choose to involve yourself in, and that is when strength becomes the major limiting factor in enabling you to improve further. In the case of endurance/stamina, the stronger an individual is, the less effort that goes into each and every stride, which theoretically means one will not exert as much energy to sustain a certain amount of effort, and therefore can maintain pace for a greater amount of time (this isn’t always the case though, as you’ll eventually find out if you keep reading).

Ones endurance/stamina ‘could’ hypothetically limit their ability to gain strength, because if one has very little endurance/stamina, such that, they are not able repeat their efforts (perform another set), or need a hell of a lot of time before attempting to repeat an effort, then they are limited to how much work they can essentially get done within a training session. However, at the end of the day anyone could probably still expose their muscles to some form of tension, which would likely be enough to illicit a positive response. It is for this reason that strength trumps endurance/stamina as the more valuable attribute. Strength wins another one!

Flexibility vs. strength

Strength itself does not directly limit the range of motion around a joint, but it can indirectly limit ones overall flexibility, as adaptations that result from strength training can limit ones flexibility, if there are imbalances within the body that are not addressed with ones training program. On the other hand, strength can also indirectly increase ones range of motion around a joint by increasing ones intrinsic stability. When the brain senses instability (think walking on ice), it subconsciously tries to create stability by forcing muscles to contract, or ‘tighten up’, which ultimately ends up limiting ones flexibility. In this example, the brain does this to prevent what could lead to one falling and injuring themselves. By strengthening the body systemically, there is a greater sense of stability from within, and when the brain senses that the body is stable, it allows muscles to go through greater ranges of motion, because it feels safe and there is no threat.

Lack of flexibility can easily limit one’s ability to gain strength by preventing one from being able to perform certain movements safely, and through a proper range of motion. For this reason, adequate flexibility is needed if one wishes to fully maximize their potential to get as strong as possible, but being that flexibility is often the result of a lack of intrinsic stability, this can often be ‘fixed’ with ‘activation’ drills/exercises.

Flexibility, or lack thereof, is an attribute that can ultimately be the major limiting factor in one’s ability to develop any of the skills listed above, strength included, but is often neglected in the discussion of what is ‘holding someone back’, unless it’s a really glaring issue. The major difference between flexibility and strength, when it comes to being ones limiting factor is, flexibility can only be developed so much, as in, once someone is as attained an optimal level of flexibility, there really isn’t any room for improvement. With strength, constant and never ending improvements can be made in many quantifiable ways, which therefore makes strength the more valuable attribute, when compared to flexibility. Strength wins!

Size vs. strength

If ever there was a mathematical equation, or formula, that would summarize what is needed to build muscle (size), it would be, “Load X Time Under Tension”. The more weight (load) that is placed upon a muscle and the longer it is subjected to it (time under tension), the bigger and stronger the muscles will ultimately have to be. This equation can be interpreted in many ways, leaving room for many methods to be used to achieve the same result (building muscle in this case).

One could look at that equation and interpret it to mean that, if they wanted to build muscle, then creating as much tension as possible, by way of handling maximal loads is the way to go. While near maximal loads definitely place heavy emphasis on the ‘load’ side of the equation, they unfortunately put very little emphasis on the ‘time under tension’ side of the equation, as near maximal loads are usually only lifted for a few seconds at a time.

On the other hand, one could very easily interpret that equation to mean that, if they wanted to build muscle, then creating as much tension as possible, by way of lifting relatively moderate, to light, loads, for extended periods of time is the way to go. In this case, strength becomes the limiting factor once again, in how much weight can be used. While lifting lighter loads in an attempt to subject your muscles to tension for prolonged periods of time is, in fact, a very effective way to build muscle, it would be even more effective if you were able to use a heavier weight, for an identical period of time. For example, if one could bench press 225 lbs. for 10, and over time increased their strength to the point where they could bench 315 lbs. for 10, the muscles involved in the bench press would (likely) have to grow in direct proportion to those gains.

As stated at the beginning, strength gains are primarily the result of neurological adaptations, but are not limited to neurological adaptations. This is where ones size can become a limiting factor, as strength is also heavily influenced by biomechanical factors, all of which could be summarized under one term, ‘muscle architecture’ (muscle fiber type, pennation angle, cross-sectional area, and muscle length to name a few). While one can hypothetically continue to get stronger and stronger, as there is no limit to how strong one can get, there comes a time and a point where getting stronger is considerably more challenging than in the beginning stages. Once the ‘beginner’ neurological adaptations have been considerably developed through stress and repetition, the size of the muscles will ultimately need to become greater in size if one wishes to keep getting stronger since they also play a role in how much tension can be created.

Because these two attributes are so tightly linked together, and quite frankly are dependent on each other for maximal development of the other, it’s difficult to say which one is more valuable than the other. Both these attributes have seemingly no limitations, as one could hypothetically continue to get stronger and stronger, just as much as one could hypothetically get bigger and bigger, although size gains are extremely dependent on various other factors (hormonal, nutritional, genetic, etc). All factors being equal, ones training experience will ultimately determine which of these attributes is more valuable. If one wishes to gain size, then their strength levels will ultimately limit their ability to handle the weights necessary for them to build more size. If one wishes to get stronger, then their size will ultimately limit their ability to generate the force necessary to lift heavier weights. It’s for this reason that I’d say it’s a tie between these two attributes. However, I’ll entertain those of you who don’t believe in ties, by selecting the one attribute that I believe to be more valuable, and surprise, surprise, it’s strength once again.

In my experience, it’s a lot more common for one to hit a size plateau, before they hit a strength plateau. I can’t recall encountering anyone who has attained optimal levels of strength (relative to their size), and still have room to add size to their frame. If someone has maxed out their strength so to speak, in relation to the size of their body, the only limitations that should prevent them from building the amount of muscle that they desire should be non-training related (hormonal, nutritional, genetic, etc), as they would easily have the ability to adjust the amount of reps, sets, and weight however they like to maximize both variables in the ‘Load X Time Under Tension’ equation.

Strength vs. strength

As far as strength is concerned, it is possible that one’s own strength levels could limit their ability to continue to gain strength, if the strength that they possess is not in balance. For example, if one has imbalanced development from one muscle to the next, as a result of overemphasizing the development of any of the attributes above at the expense of strength training, then the relatively weaker muscle(s) may not be able to generate the tension necessary to provide the intrinsic stability needed, to allow for heavier loads to be used for movements performed by other non-related muscles. If a muscle is too weak to provide stability, the nervous system essentially shuts down the muscles being trained, as a way of trying to prevent the body from injury. This is why all programs should place equal emphasis on developing each muscle equally, unless there is a glaring imbalance that needs to be corrected in the first place.

At this point it’s clear that strength is the single greatest limiting factor in one being able to maximize their potential, irrespective of their goal. Until one develops optimal levels of strength, all other attributes should take a back seat to strength development (unless of course there is a specific need to which any of the other attributes ought to be developed).

Optimal strength levels

Ones goal will ultimately determine how strong would be considered ‘optimal’. The following are strength standards, for the lifts that have the most room for improvement, for a male weighing between 180-190 lbs.

Deadlift 294% of bodyweight

Squat 262% bodyweight

Bench Press 192% of bodyweight

Chin-UP 166% of bodyweight

With any training program that I overlook, the goal is to get an individual as close to hitting those numbers as possible. The numbers listed above would be considered ‘elite’ for a male weighing in between 180-190 lbs, and should be adjusted based on whether the individual is lighter, or heavier. The lighter an individual is, the more weight they could expect to lift in relation to their bodyweight, whereas the heavier an individual is, the less weight they could expect to lift in relation to their bodyweight.

For example, all things being equal (training experience, body composition, etc), a lighter individual will almost always outperform a heavier individual when it comes to bodyweight exercises like pull/chin-ups and dips. The reason for this is because more force is needed per repetition the heavier an individual is, and more force means more recruitment, which means the high-threshold motor units will be called upon sooner, and because the high-threshold motor units are least resistant to fatigue, one will ‘run out of gas’ sooner.

Most people fail, not because they aim to high and miss, but because they aim too low and HIT

I realize that only a select few will ever be able to meet the strength standards outlined above, and that’s fine. Success to me isn’t determined on whether or not one achieves those levels of strength. Those numbers are simply goals that I’ve outlined for myself, as well as anyone under my guidance, to provide direction when designing a training program. Even though one would be considered ‘elite’ by many by meeting those standards, the fact that many have, proves that there’s no reason why anybody can’t, if they devote the time and effort necessary towards achieving it because, ‘it is possible’!

When it sucks to be strong

You may have missed it near the beginning, so let me say it again, “The more excitable a motor neuron becomes the larger response ANY given signal will produce”. One more time, in case it’s not sinking in, “ANY given signal will produce”.

This means that, as one becomes more efficient at recruiting the high-threshold motor units as a result of strength training, the more one will unintentionally call upon them for anything, and everything, they choose to do. Since the fast-twitch muscle fibers that are the least fatigue resistant, any task you choose to do will become more daunting from an endurance/stamina standpoint.

While increased strength levels will make anything and everything one chooses to do relatively easier than if they were weaker, the fact that the muscle fibers that provide that strength fatigue much faster than muscle fibers that are not capable of generating as much force, may not be a desirable effect for those who work long days in which both strength as well as endurance/stamina are needed.

A mover for example (anyone that has strength trained over a sustained period of time and has ‘moved’, or helped someone move, can relate here as well), would typically need a great deal of strength to move large pieces of furniture and home utilities, but also a great deal of endurance/stamina to be able to repeat their efforts throughout a day, as moving generally consists of multiple pieces of furniture (beds, couches, love seats, dressers, etc.) and utilities (fridge, oven, dishwasher, washer, dryer, etc.), and requires your muscles to generate tension for prolonged periods of time (in some cases this means holding onto something for minutes at a time without rest) to ensure that nothing is destroyed in the process (like smashing something off the wall for example). This combined with the fact that moving generally doesn’t allow for ‘complete’ rest intervals could lead to unwanted fatigue. There’s nothing worse than knowing you are physically strong enough to do something, but your muscles are too pumped, and causing enough discomfort to make you not want to do it.

If you have any questions about strength, strength standards, or how to manipulate your own training to help you get stronger, feel free to contact me at ben@paramounttraining.ca. I'm available for online consulting and personalized program design, as well as one on one training if you are located in the Greater Toronto Area (GTA).

1 comment:

  1. As I workout for the last 3 years and it changes my body and mind set when it comes to exercsie, I've learned that strenght training is the best and this includes that stamina of your body which can be achieve to proper rest and avoiding nutritional deficiencies like zinc deficiency and fatigue which is a common problem to vegetarians and people doing excessive exercise.