I’m about to ruffle a lot of feathers with this one statement: Your maximal strength doesn’t matter. That might seem like a surprising statement coming from the head coach of a strength and conditioning gym that is heavy on the strength part, and of course it’s a situational statement. But I’m not talking about Weightlifting, or Powerlifting, or any other strength sport. I’m talking about “traditional” athletes and general fitness clients.
Strength training has become a fan favorite in the exercise world, especially over the last few years, and it’s easy to see why. It’s extremely measurable. Last month you may have only been able to bench press 150lbs, and now this month, you can do 185lbs. It’s tangible, and measurable progress. With that it also lends itself to easily making smart programs. There’s also plenty of scientific evidence to show that being stronger is better for just about every single athletic endeavor in existence, as well as your long term health. In fact famous sports scientist Tudor O. Bompa says that maximal strength is an important element for ALL sports, of course to varying degrees.
Most of our training here at Arkitect is percentage based. Meaning we establish a one rep max (the most weight you can lift for a single rep) on a variety of exercises, and then program our sets and reps at differing percentages of that 1RM. Of course different times throughout the program we retest those maxes. Often the number increases, but not always. When it doesn’t, clients and athletes alike usually express quite a bit of disappointment. What’s the difference between a soccer player that deadlifts 350lbs, and a soccer player who deadlifts 300lbs? Answer: 50lbs in the deadlift. And if you put me on the sidelines of a soccer field, I probably couldn’t guess which one was which, because both have sufficient strength to excel in their sport. At a certain point, the return on investment just isn’t there with maximal strength and particular sports. Don’t forget, “strength” is not a universal thing. There are different types, and one doesn’t always lend to another.
Basic Types of Strength
- Strength Endurance- This is your body’s ability to perform a strength based movement over and over again. Examples:
- Speed-Strength- This is also often called “explosive strength” or “explosive power.” Examples:
- Weightlifting (snatch and C&J)
- Maximal Strength– This is the type of strength most people mean when they just say “strength.” Quite simply this is the most weight you can lift for a single rep or movement. Examples:
- 1RM Back Squat
- 1RM Bench Press
- 1RM Deadlift
It’s important to acknowledge that plenty of activities utilize multiple types at once. Volleyball and martial arts are a great example. In Volleyball you have to jump high to hit or block a ball, which is an explosive movement, but you need to do it dozens, if not hundreds of times throughout the game. Same with martial arts. Throwing dozens of punches to the head of your opponent is near useless if those punches don’t have any significant force behind them. It’s also important to note that when these attributes are untrained, they will all improve no matter what type of strength training you do, but as you get more experienced, you have to specifically focus on one type in training for it to continue to develop. In other words, if you were a new athlete or trainee, your maximal strength would improve from doing lots of reps with light weight, even though that type of training is best for strength endurance.The obvious question is, if maximal strength doesn’t matter for a developed athlete who doesn’t compete in a strength sport, why do we have them test a 1RM? It’s a perfectly logical question, and one that certainly needs to be answered. We often think of maxing out as a “test” of ourselves. For sure it is one (of many) indicators of our progress. But does maxing make us stronger? And the answer to that question is a resounding YES. There are different hormonal, physiological and neurological responses in our body with heavy loads than lighter ones. There is more than the physical though, there’s also the psychological. Often times we are more limited by our minds than our bodies, and if it’s been a while since you’ve taken a heavy squat or press for a ride, the next time you do might be a big mental challenge to overcome.
It’s important to understand that there are a lot of things I’m looking for when someone takes a heavy max or near-max weight: Speed, posture, ease, etc…If you squat 400lbs and it’s a real grinder, and a few months later you squat 400 again and it’s a breeze, and then you go for a new personal best of 410lbs and fail, did you get stronger or not? Obviously you did, that strength was just expressed in a different way.
Maxing is, of course, not just for developing strength, but for demonstrating it as well. This is more common in strength sports, naturally, and just because you weren’t able to express your newfound strength with a new personal best, doesn’t mean you didn’t get stronger. it’s not easy to lift at your limit all the time. As a good friend of mine once said “not every day is a holiday.” There are so many factors that can keep you from performing your best when it comes time to max out. How much sleep you got the night before, your mind set, the environment you’re training in, your hydration or caloric intake. Other stress factors in your life at the time can greatly effect your performance as well.
How Strong is Strong Enough?
This is a topic hotly debated in the world of strength and conditioning, and unfortunately, despite the large amount of science that is available regarding training, people (even at the professional level) still base a lot of their programming on what is “hard” or what makes the athlete “suffer” the most. On the flip side, you have those people who are strength sport purists that thing adding a never ending amount of kilos to the bar is the answer to all your athletic development problems.
For me, enough is a enough when I can’t make the athlete any stronger unless I put them specifically on a special strength program. That means when you can’t put any more weight on the bar without sacrificing some other type of physical quality. Keep in mind, that off season training for most sports should be strength based. During the season is not a great time to be trying to pack on pounds in the weight room. Your focus should be on game play, strategy, and maintaining health/recovery in your down time. The overwhelming majority of practice is skill based when you are in-season. As such, the physical attributes that are important, but not at the forefront of your sport will deteriorate throughout the season. It is during the off season that the focus needs to be brought back to these attributes. If you have an abundance of strength going in to the season, you will still have adequate strength by seasons end. If you have the bare minimum going into the season…you’re probably going to be in trouble.
Putting it All Together
If you don’t include strength work in your training, regardless of your sport or goals, you are doing it wrong, and I don’t mean doing some squats with a 12kg kettlebell. I mean legitimate and progressive strength training. The benefits are immense, it’s empowering, it protects you from injury, and of course, it’s just plain bad ass. But at the end of the day, it’s important to keep everything in perspective. There are many different measures of progress in and outside of the gym, and you need to utilize them. Just like we constantly tell people not to put too much emphasis on the number on the scale, don’t get too hung up on the number on the barbell, either.