“Words are, of course, the most powerful drug used by mankind.”

Rudyard Kipling

There’s an old proverb floating about somewhere (that I can’t seem to put my hands on at the moment), that says something to the effect of agreement to one’s own notions being the most intoxicating form of flattery.  That being the case, check out this recent post by Mike Young for the EliteTrack site.  In it you’ll find that renown track and field coach Loren Seagrave’s take on the value of, and the eventual diminished cost-to-benefit returns on, the acquisition of additional absolute strength over-and-above what is essential mirrors my own thoughts on the subject.

Of course, the definition of exactly what is essential differs from person to person, and requires a true goals-vs.-skills, n=1 evaluation.  It’s also a major rub, as it were, because it is truly subjective in nature.  We’ve discussed this recently in the What, Exactly, Constitutes “Strong Enough” post, and in that post’s follow-up, More on the Acquisition of Baseline Strength.  Essentially – and when all the armchair coaching is done, and it’s time for the rubber to meet the road – what we wind up with is a purely subjective strength value for a particular movement, and at this point in the game, all the nifty linear progression spreadsheets, percentage of 1RM calculations and mounds of “textbook knowledge” have to take a back-of-the-bus seat to a (hopefully, fairly astute) coach’s wisdom, experience and gut feeling.  All is not lost, though.  For all that one must really do is to continually ask – every day, every workout and every rep – where is the deficiency, and what can be done to rectify that lack? We all wish it was so simple as saying, “the athlete needs to be stronger, throw some more weight on the bar”; the truth of the matter is, though, that with decently trained athletes, this is rarely the case – and if it is, it certainly should not be the case for long, as absolute strength is by far the easiest of all deficiencies to rectify.

And don’t think that you have to be an elite or professional-level athlete to benefit from knowing when you’re ready to graduate from the school of “absolute strength acquisition”.  A proper n=1 evaluation may prove that you’re ready to pursue other, more challenging modalities.  This is usually not the problem among young (in training age) iron game practitioners, though, most of whom are all too eager to “skip a few grades”.  Train true to an honest n=1 evaluation, fix what needs fixin’, and all else will take care of itself.

In health,
Keith

11 COMMENTS

  1. Hi Keith,

    The Kipling quote reminded me of his poem, “IF …”

    I summarize that poem as:

    “… don’t deal in lies … / … you’ll be a Man, my son!”

    (http://www.kipling.org.uk/poems_if.htm)

    On a more training related note, my n=1 evaluation of my athletic training has shown me that I do best in the narrow of sports performance realms when I do interval sprints for at least ten minutes a few times per week. Too much time without sprints and my metabolic conditioning can slide a bit and hinder optimal sports performance.

    Best,

    Brent

    • I’m hard-wired for sprints, too. My power-oriented lift numbers will begin to slide if I stay away from sprints for long. I think even short sessions of sprints at a routine frequency keeps the cns properly “tuned” for optimal firing rates. Another reason that I usually incorporate some manner of short sprint in my pre-lift warm-up sessions.

  2. I am a long-time lurker with some experience working out: I have trained in various martial arts for the last 18 (man, I’m getting old!) years and grew up working out with my father, a military physician who told me to get good at push-ups, sit-ups, and pull-ups before worrying about weight other than my own. I started lifting iron weights about 12 years ago: I had no instructors and found the Internet late, so my lifting program was a mish-mash of random things I saw others do (dips, pull-ups, bench press, leg extensions). At some point I had an epiphany and began using free weights (adding overhead presses with dumbbells, doing the bench press only with dumbbells, etc): while I did begin doing bodyweight squats somewhere along the line, I was still pretty weak training-wise in the legs. Until I came across Steve Ilg’s training manual (Total Body Transformation), I never did weighted squats. After reading Ilg (~6 or 7 years ago), I started squatting.

    Ilg’s protocol for squats is high volume, lower weight, which suited me fine as a solitary lifter with no powerlifting experience. I really liked his leg workouts (which also introduced me to deadlifts, which I did stiff-legged at first, with pretty low weight). I could definitely feel and see myself getting stronger. My kicking speed, which was always really good, remained static or improved while my overall strength (and lower body strength) definitely improved.

    Fast forward to now, about 7 years later, and I train like a typical martial artist: my workouts are skewed toward strength-endurance, with kettlebell cycles, the Cred, sprints, dips, pull-ups, high-rep squats, and heavy deadlifts being places I like to live. It has always rather irked me to read about “squatting double bodyweight” as a benchmark of strength, and then see the measly numbers I put up (in terms of weight: usually not more than 135 lbs for 10+ reps after something really hard, like a serious deadlift). While my deadlift numbers are good–I regularly take more than twice my bodyweight off the floor–my squat is still pretty sissy (though it still wears me out: I always do it “ass-to-grass,” and never do less than 10; usually I do front-squats).

    Until I came across your series of posts about evaluating strength, I confess I had not given the matter much thought: I trained to escape thought (I am a grad student), and assumed that I was just weak (in the squat, and in the overhead squat, which I can do only with weights so light it makes me laugh, after I have finished gasping!). Now I am wondering whether it may just be my body type (long legs) combined with lack of instruction (CNS misfiring) that retains my squat in “babyland.”

    I am not sure whether the above merits posting or not, but I will go ahead and put it up as a tribute to your making me actually think (a little bit, anyway) about my training. Kudos for a great blog!

    • I don’t know that I’d worry so much with a martial artist pushing his back squat max upwards. I would, though try to push that front squat up a little higher via something like a 6 sets of 2 (or similar) protocol, or a wave protocol similar to what I did today (and will post a little later). You’ve got to be very mindful, though, of not negatively affecting your kick/movement speed or overall MA technique. The best way to help ensure against that is to push the loading of the front squat upward, yes, but not to the point of grinding out any reps. Every rep ought to be fast and crisp. Again, look at what I’ll post a little later, and employ the same mentality to the front squat. Once you’ve pushed your front squat max to whatever you think best suits your MA effectiveness, move on to more power-oriented modalities and single-leg work (RFESS, for example).

      • Also I should point out the necessity of keeping MetCon work and strength/power work as 2 different animals. Note that a 10-rep (x however many set) squat is more toward the MetCon end of the spectrum. Not that that’s bad, per se, unless you’re operating under the assumption that a 10x scheme is the best way to positively affect strength gains (which it’s not). Just make sure that you’re using the right tool (modality) for the job (desired outcome).

        • My approach to training has always been heavily weighted toward the right brain, which is probably why I have gravitated toward met-con: I feel better (and perform better, as far as I can tell) “training the lungs” over short bursts of anaerobic activity interspersed with active rest (kind of like a fight, which is my game). The wrench in the works in my case is that ceteris paribus, the stronger athlete takes the fight: if I were to fight myself, with the only difference being measured in absolute strength, the stronger me would probably win.

          For much of my training career, I would hear people say I should do squats “to get stronger,” and I knew some pretty strong guys for whom that advice obviously worked. My circumstances were not theirs, however: for a variety of reasons I train alone most of the time, and I really did not want to drop a heavy bar on myself. Also, squatting with (heavy) weight has never felt as natural to me as (say) deadlifting (with heavy weight). So up to this point the squat for me has been mostly a met-con thing, and I have felt a vague “guilt” for “misusing” it. Reading your posts on strength has helped me see that this guilt is misplaced. Thanks!

          Also, I will try beefing up the front squat the way you suggest and let you know what happens.

          • Absolute strength, yes – but power production is actually the scale-shifting determinant. The “problem” with placing all of one’s training eggs in the strength basket is that at a certain point movement speed will deteriorate, and thus power production in that particular movement will suffer. And this is way more than mere semantics.

            I’ve never been a big fan of the back squat for athletes/trainees other than power lifters, or for those who are particularly well suited for the movement (high waist-to-inseam ratio). Of course it’s not a “bad” exercise per se (none are), I just think there are better options out there – front squats and deadlifts being at the top of that list. The goal is to manipulate absolute strength in such a way as to enhance speed, and manipulate speed in such a way as to enhance absolute strength.

  3. This is always the rub, isn’t it?

    One must also take into account preconceived notions about ones own strengths and weaknesses, especially when the last time one evaluated said notions. For example, I *knew* that my legs were *weak* compared to those around me so much up my training has been built on improving leg size and strength. Flash forward and I’ve hit a best of 400 x 1 on the box squat (ugly as sin; 2x bw is cleaner) and 2.5xbw on the trap bar. My upper body is now the weaker link, relatively speaking.

    It’s easy to believe what once was accurate as an eternal truth. Keep that in mind when programming.

    Best,
    Skyler

    • Truth. For every year I add to my total in and around physical culture, I add a few percentage points to my notion that training (one’s self and someone else) is more so psychology than actual physiology, bio-chem, kinesiology, etc. I’m at about a 90 -10 ratio at the moment 🙂

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