The word “strength” is commonly used in the health and fitness community and although it has one definition of explanation, the word can be used in a plethora of contexts to describe different elements of training. I think for the everyday athlete, strength training usually is used to depict some sort of weight lifting and exercise that is aimed towards stimulating a bigger and stronger version of ourselves. This is partially true, but often times people think of strength training as ONLY taking its form of weight lifting or some sort of heavy weight training. The definition of “strength” is the skill to recruit your muscles as close to their true maximal recruitment potential during a specific pattern or exercise.
Strength is a Skill
The first aspect of this definition I want to breakdown is the fact that strength is a skill, just like dribbling a basketball between your legs, or the ability to throw a football across your body 50 yards down the field. It is something that needs to be worked at, with continuous repetitions, as your body is consistently trying to find the most efficient and optimal recruitment pattern to achieve a desired activity. In order for us to build strength for a specific movement pattern, we need to consistently practice this activity as the more reps we practice, the better our body understands how to achieve the desired goal. This follows a principle termed the “SAID”* principle, which states that what ever stimulus we present to our body to complete, our body will learn & adapt to get better at only this one activity.
The skill that is ultimately at the foundation of strength training is the ability to build maximal tension. Specifically, this is referred to as “Intramuscular tension”. Intramuscular tension speaks to the ability for someone to build tension throughout their body and musculature with or without an external object. Why this is important, is because it is a skill to build tension through your body and this tension feeds into the ability for you to build upon your foundation of strength. When you see someone at the gym moving through a squat pattern, a realize that maybe they do not have the best form or structure when moving, I would argue that individual does not have the awareness to build tension in the appropriate areas, so therefore, is that individual really getting stronger?
Strength is Specific
The next principle I would like to breakdown for strength is the fact that strength, similar to the “SAID” principle, is context specific. This means that just because we are strong and comfortable barbell deadlifting does not mean that we will feel as strong deadlifting with a hex bar or dumbbells. Every movement pattern and every exercise equipment tool places a unique stimulus for our body, necessitating a completely different response from our body and nervous system and therefore forcing our body to adapt in a unique way for similar looking exercise. One of the main reasons I like to bring this up is because I hear a lot of people in the fitness industry claim that “ ‘x’ program will get you stronger”; our follow up question should be “ in what context will I be getting stronger”?
How do we get stronger?
So, with all this in mind, how do we get “stronger”? Just as I have mentioned in the paragraph above, it depends upon the activity that we are challenging ourselves to maximally recruit against. In general terms, once we understand the principle of needing to maximally recruit our muscles during a specific activity, how we get stronger is finding the way to build maximal tension during an activity. For example, lets take a deadlift to breakdown. During this movement pattern, the most common mistake is that athletes begin by pull the weight from the ground and then try to build tension through their body once the bar is being moved. In my opinion, not only is this a way to injure yourself by placing most of the demands on your connective tissue (tendons, ligaments, joint capsule) but it is not working at building strength. Although you may think that because there is a lot of weight on the bar, it is working strength, remember the definition of strength, which is defined by MAXIMAL recruitment. If we do not teach our body the skill of building maximal tension, then we are not technically training to become stronger and therefore, cannot expect our training to feed into our daily performances.
Mobility + Strength
Another example I would like to speak to is the practice of daily mobility and strength. Many coaches that I have had the opportunity to collaborate and learn with often think of mobility and strength to be completely polar opposites. Many believe that the more mobile you are, the more you are taking away from your strength gains. I completely disagree, and I think it is important to define what mobility means for the Durable Athlete context.
Mobility is comprised of two components: 1. Range of motion (flexibility) and 2. Strength (neural control). I think everyone understands what flexibility is which is the ability to freely move your joints through a range of motion but the neural control component is vital to ensuring that your mobility practice feeds into the rest of your training and everyday life. Neural control is the skill of your brain to communicate with your muscles and maximally recruit those bigger muscles to complete a task. Without this component, I can see how freely moving your joints without control does not feed into your strength training. So the next time you are moving through your mobility practice, (don’t have a mobility practice? Check us out!) ask yourself are actively driving through all points of contact with the ground? Are you building tension through the joints and muscles that are being moved? Are building tension through stabilizing joint structures?
To conclude, strength is a skill. How well do we build maximal tension throughout our body when moving through an activity? Instead of grading strength levels upon how many 45lb. plates we have on a barbell, let’s begin to internalize how well is someone able to build maximal tension through their body to hold structure as they move. If you are interested in taking the first steps to building foundation strength, then make sure you check out our daily mobility training via the Hiitide app and keep an eye out for the Durable Athlete foundations course via the Durable Athlete website.
* SAID: Specific Adaptation for Imposed Demands