Monday, July 11, 2016


(This is one of those kind of posts that just got away from me.  It's gonna go all over, but I think you might enjoy the journey)

As obvious as we might want to think it is, “strength”, as a concept, has grown increasingly confusing and nebulous as more and more trainees get into lifting.  I think it’s time we nail down this idea, discuss what strength really is, and talk about when, sometimes, strength can be a weakness.

Strength isn’t about weight moved.  This is the most common misconception about strength.  Now, I don’t say this to mean some cliché’ nonsense about how “strength comes from within” or “strength is all in the mind”, or anything else some guru is trying to sell you.  What I’m saying is that we cannot use a metric as evidence of strength’s presence.  This is due to the fact that weight moved can be influenced by a variety of factors completely unrelated to strength proper.

Image result for wake up motherf****r smelling salts
I'm just saying

I like the bench as a classic example of the failings of identifying strength.  Say that you hear that someone has a 500lb bench.  That’s a strong dude, right?  But what if that guy has the biggest arch you’ve ever seen in your life?  What if that guy is a bench specialist, who sought out the best instruction available for benching, and has quite literally mastered the movement?  They know exactly how and when to flare their elbows, they have mastered irradiation, their leg drive is phenomenal, they know how to raise their chest to meet the bar on the way down, etc.  What if this guy hit his 500lb bench after a 12 week peaking phase, and could never hit it again if their life depended on it?  What if they were jacked out of their mind on nose tork and amphetamines and spent 3 hours psyching themselves up for this one lift?  Keep in mind; none of this negates the impressiveness of a 500lb bench, nor does it mean it “doesn’t count”; it more goes to show that a LOT of things contribute to this movement.

What if we take another 500lb bencher, but we find out he’s actually a strongman who occasionally benches as assistance work.  He doesn’t know how to set up an arch, his body is loose on the bench, and this was just a lift he managed to hit in the gym one day when he wanted to see how much he could bench.  Both guys are 500lb benchers, but the latter is the stronger lifter, while the former is a much better bencher.  And again; this isn’t a judgement of one lifter being somehow superior to the other.  These are different qualities, both of which are important for being a lifter in totality.  It’s why it is necessary to have a clear understanding of what it is we’re discussing.

The nature of strength is such that it should be non-specific.  Strength that can only manifest itself in select movements is by definition NOT strength but skill.  A strong athlete is one that, regardless of movement, can move heavy weight.  My go to example for this is Paul Anderson during his time at the Olympics.  Watch how he essentially cleans a barbell in slow motion and then presses it to lockout.  Paul was simply ungodly strong, and was so strong that he could win in a sport against trainees who spent their entire lives perfecting their SKILL in the movement.

You ever see a guy clean 400lbs in slow motion before?

It is for this reason that I oppose the currently en vogue “beginner programs” as strength builders.  These programs create the illusion of building strength, because they allow a trainee to rapidly acquire skill in a handful of lifts that are associated with strength.  Yes; the power lifts are lifts used by big and strong lifters, but simply being able to move more weight on these lifts is not necessarily an indication of increasing strength.  Strength is built slowly, while skill increases quickly, and at the end of a beginner program, one has finally tapped out their skill potential and is ready to actually start building some strength.  If one understands this, it is fine, but when one deludes themselves into believing that they are building strength with this approach, THAT is when things get murky.

Strength is built during the unfun parts of training.  As great as chasing and setting weight PRs on the 1-5 range can be, this is simply the time where one learns how to harness their strength into singular focus.  One is BUILDING strength during their assistance work; hammering away at the muscles with lots of volume and repetition in order to force them to grow.  Yes, this can be done with lots of sets of low rep work, but it can also be done with the “bodybuilding” style of assistance work.  It’s the long, hard, dull, monotonous grind of building and acquiring strength over the course of many years.

Because strength takes so long to build and requires so much effort, it tends to be neglected by trainees who wish to find a quick fix.  These people are always seeking out new avenues of acquiring more skill to move weights.  These are the people who strict press little, so they learn how to push press, focus on maximizing their leg drive, before moving on to push jerks, before moving onto the jerk proper, before finally mastering the split jerk.  They are constantly finding ways to move more and more weight overhead, and kudos to them for doing so, because that’s what counts in a competition, but it’s not building strength. 

 Image result for small weightlifter
I legitimately typed in "small weightlifter" trying to make a point, but I got this photo and it's awesome

I do not make these comments to denigrate skill, but only to explain the difference between it and strength.  In turn, I now discuss the weakness of BEING strong.  I am a strong athlete, and I say that not as some sort of declaration of my superiority over other athletes, but more to identify the variety of athlete that I am.  I do not possess much skill in ANY sport I’ve ever played; instead having always relied on brute strength to accomplish my objectives.  This, in turn, displays the pitfall of being strong; you don’t NEED technique.  Not in the way that someone who ISN’T strong needs technique.  If you are lacking strength, you have to become proficient at moving weight overhead if you want to compete, but if you’re strong, you can just ignore technique and shove the weight overhead.  You might even win.  However, it comes at a cost; you end up not spending any time learning the finer points of technique.  It frustrates the strong athlete to try to figure out a way to maximize physics in order to achieve an objective that they can just DO through brute strength.  Why learn to jerk when I can just press?  Jerking takes too long to learn; that’s time I could spend building my press.  This is where strength can become a detriment, as it is now a barrier towards learning.

The athlete who only has strength needs to pair it with a ridiculous degree of conditioning if they have any hope of actually being competitive.  He is not conserving his strength by relying on technique, which means, on every single event and lift, he is greatly depleting his body.  Yes, a skilled lifter also pushes to the max for an event, but they know how to distribute the load through out their entire body and maximize all of their power.  The strong athlete is simply utilizing force of will and brawn to get to the end, and it’s exhausting.  Without a solid base of conditioning, the strong athlete will make a strong showing in 1-2 events and then just be exhausted by the end, having to rely on skill that simply isn’t there.

 Image result for Glen Ross strongman
I suppose you could just try being so awesome that it doesn't matter

If you CAN build up this level of conditioning though, you will now have a quality going in your favor that those who are relying on skill don’t; your brute strength.  Skill is about laser focusing one’s strength, but if that strength simply isn’t available, one cannot utilize their skill.  If, in a contest, you were forced to perform a truck pull as your first event, and now your legs are incredibly taxed, suddenly your leg drive is no longer applicable to the press event.  If you were relying on skill, you are now in a bind, but if you were relying on strength, you still have some potential to win.  Your legs may be shot, but your shoulders may have enough in them to still win the event.

I suppose now this rant has turned into a commentary on the 3 qualities that can really impact your odds of winning; strength, skill and conditioning.  If you only have 1 of those, you aren’t going to win.  If you have all 3, you’re going to dominate.  If you have 2, you’ve got a chance of winning.  Of those 2, strength and conditioning are going to require no talent; just some brutality in your life and being a little wrong in the head.  The lesson here is; if you’re an oaf, make sure you can outcondition everyone too, or else you’re going to get beat by someone who is better than you.


  1. Damn, this resonates so much within me... Right now I am focusing on learning to squat snatch properly and I have trouble sometimes with even 40kg... But I have done 87 at under 87 bodyweight in competition just exploding the bar up from the floor with no olympic technique whatsoever...

    1. Glad you could appreciate it dude. I've talked about this topic a bunch before, but it's something I always come back to. I appreciate the frustration you're undergoing as well. It's difficult to not be able to move a weight due to technique when you know you could easily just move it through brute strength. You'll be better if you learn the technique...but that's no fun, haha.

  2. Another fantastic article, as always! I do have a question for you, however. I apologize in advance for the long and boring post, but you seem to have a lot of experience with injuries like this, and I really like your attitude towards recovery/rehab.

    Fairly recently, my lower back got injured. Around six months ago, I was deadlifting (with a conventional stance and a rounded back, because I am an idiot) and started feeling some pain/discomfort in my glute/lower back area. Ever since, I was unable to deadlift because each deadlifting session, regardless of the movements used (I tried RDL's, Block Pulls, Sumo, SLDL, Staggered stance, everything you could imagine) would leave me with a crippled back. So I dedicated myself to squatting and benching a lot more, and I made some very decent gains on both lifts. However, recently my squats have been causing me some pain. It's gotten so bad that the last time I went to the gym with the intent of doing a squatting session (I squat low bar) I couldn't reach depth with 135 with no pain. So, I admitted defeat and started my rehab. I did some reverse hypers, bulgarian split squats, broomstick GM's (as suggested by Bill Starr) and followed that up with some pullups. Day after that, my back felt as bad as it usually does. Just today, I was doing an upper body session, consisting of things that didn't touch my lower back in any way (no standing/seated press, no bent over rows of any sort) and I decided to do some upper back work with snatch grip to finish off my workout (sort of a shrug/mini high pull hybrid). Big fucking mistake. On the third set, my lower back felt like shit. It was beyond fucked up. I was barely able to stand. And the funniest thing is, I wasn't even going heavy (I as doing 315 and planned on doing 3x15, only got 8 on the last set). What the hell do I do now? Never squat/deadlift again? Am I going to become a cripple at the ripe age of 20? Pls help.

    1. Hey man, I appreciate the kind words. IT's unfortunate to hear about your situation. Have you had it diagnosed? As much as I like to train through pain, with something like that, it might be helpful to figure out what you're dealing with before you try to move forward. It might be something you can train through/around, or it may be something that requires some really creative thinking.

      Right now, the biggest things I can think of is to use a belt if you aren't already, and to look into sled/prowler work for your lower body. That should take stress off the back.