Weakness Training: The Key to Strength

October 11, 2004 08:49 AM

Ask the average strength devotee the question, "What is strength?", and you will probably receive a look that is normally reserved for "special" children and have the question returned to you as? Which classification, what sub-type? This is usually followed by a lengthy explanation of the many different types of strength. If you are willing to listen long enough you will even hear the reason (excuse?) why this person doesn't need to train most of them for his/her particular sport or activity.

However, unless you are a professional athlete, the real world seldom mimics sport. Why then, do so many of us who train to "be strong" become so specialized in our training? Let's face it, if you can only perform one or two feats of strength, it doesn't mean that you are strong, it means that you have practiced doing a trick. If that trick is 30 pull-ups, it doesn't lessen the accomplishment. But if you are unable to push your car out of a snowdrift, how well spent was your training time? If your 700 lb. squat drops to 200 after five flights of steps, are you really strong?

So, what is strength?

Because I have a rather feeble mind, unburdened by years of formal education, complex theories and definitions of strength tend to make me sleepy. It's not that I believe ignorance has some great value; it's just that I need to keep things simple. That's why I like the Webster's definition of strength: "The power to resist strain." Whether it's the strain of 100 more pounds, one more lap, or one more hour, it just seems to fit.

Now stay with me as I avoid all scientific theory and use good old-fashioned common sense.

If we accept the premises that strength is the power to resist strain, then it would stand to reason that weakness is the inability to resist strain. Following this unscientific line of thought, it would seem that the more types of strain that you have the "power to resist", the stronger that you are.

Of course, it's not possible to maintain all types of conditioning at peak levels simultaneously. But if an Olympic gymnast wins both the Ironman and World's Strongest Man in one year, I'll happily eat those words. The point is that the more strengths you have, the better athlete that you'll be, and I challenge you to find a physical activity that you will perform worse by being a better athlete.

Obviously there is value in setting a goal in one area and focusing on achieving it, but not at the expense of neglecting everything else. Would you say that a guy who can bench press 500 lbs. is strong? Of course you would. But what if he tears a rotator cuff because he was unable to resist the strain of throwing a softball? Would you now say that he is weak? (Safety tip: It's generally a bad idea to call 500 lb. benchers weak)

The point is that life is not simply the brute force of a big deadlift or the endurance of high rep snatches. Real life has a tendency to be very fast and unstable. Sometimes it's heavy and sometimes it involves long-term effort. Occasionally, it's all of this and more at the same time.

In The Naked Warrior Pavel defines strength as "the ability to generate force under given conditions". In the real world, unlike the training platform, conditions tend to change. So you need to learn to change them in your training.
Let's take the real world example of the sort of thing that could happen on any given day of any married guy's life. Your wife asks if that rock in the front yard is too heavy for you to lift (of course, maybe it's only my wife who plays my ego this way), "No problem" you say, knowing that your incredible deadlifting ability has prepared you for this. "GREAT", she responds, "I was wondering how it would look in the backyard".

Conditions have just changed rather dramatically. Now you have to absorb and redirect the force of the rock and your body as you negotiate an obstacle course of excited dogs, children's toys, and flower beds. Undoubtedly, your yard is sloped and it has just rained when she asks you to do this. But, you manage to relocate the rock and she's thrilled. "Thanks, honey" she says "would you bring the other 49 around now?" This calls for the type of endurance that your weekly step aerobics class might not have developed. If at any point you are unable to generate the force to overcome these changing conditions, you are at the very least risking an injury, or infinitely worse, a disappointed and unhappy wife.

My chief is fond of saying, "if it's predictable, it's preventable". So why not take the time to prevent your weakness from causing failure when you're called upon to perform.? If you hurt your back in our rock moving example, it was probably in spite of, not because of, your incredible deadlifting ability. So embrace your weaknesses and train them relentlessly. Your strengths tend to take care of themselves.

If you have a job in which people depend on your ability to physically perform at a high level (police, fire, military, etc.), then the consequences of failure increase exponentially. So get your ego out of the way and start training for as many predictable circumstances as possible. I'm sorry; did you want sugar on that?

Stop searching for the perfect workout, there isn't one. Pavel, the Sr. RKC's, and all of the fantastic resources that are available to you through Dragon Door have simplified the science. All you have to do is use it. I mean really use it; all of it. Nobody has the time or energy to do everything we want or need to do, but almost all of us can do more than we are doing. Do not confuse overtraining with under eating and sleeping. And definitely, don't use it for an excuse for plain old mental weakness.

Is it more important to really understand why something works or to know that it does work? If you spend more time trying to distill everything that takes place in the body when you do high repetition squats vs. low repetition squats than actually squatting, you'll always have weak legs. Knowing why squatting builds strong legs does not build strong legs, squatting does. This doesn't mean that you should not take the time to learn the proper way to squat, but that you should spend more time squatting than discussing squats.

How much time or energy does it really take to do a set on the evil wheel, or of pistols, or weighted jump-ropes, or hamstring stretches, or ??. (Insert your particular weakness or weaknesses here). Get up twenty minutes early and do mobility drills. Go for a run instead of bench pressing once in a while. Use the < href="/b10.html">Power to the People! routine, 'grease the groove', do every kettlebell exercise you can think of, pick up heavy things and carry them around, climb a rope. If you are a good presser, but can't do five pull-ups, do more pull-ups than presses. Like the Nike ad says, just do it. Occasionally do it all in one day; sometimes take it easy. And, of course, focus hard on bringing your weaknesses into balance. But, over the course of your LONG TERM training, expose yourself to as many different conditions as possible.

I realize that this sounds just a little too simple and obvious, and not at all exciting, but who among us has not been guilty of spending too much time doing the things that we enjoy and are good at and making excuses to not do the things we really need to. When you begin the process of eliminating your weaknesses, you have made the transition from the social event of "working out" to the athletic endeavor of training. In any contest, the opponent with the fewest weaknesses will almost always overcome one that is one dimensional, even if that one dimension is an overwhelming strength. So why not be the one with the fewest weaknesses? In the end, no one really cares whether you dead lifted 700 or only 625. But if the quest for that magic number was so all encompassing that the mere suggestion of a 500 yard swim makes you curl up in the fetal position, and whimper; you know, deep down inside, that you have been fooling yourself about what real strength is.

I'm not suggesting that you totally change your training, just a little introspection and an admission to yourself of your "untrained strengths". If you are having trouble finding any, I would suggest a weekend with Pavel and the Sr. RKC's. That usually does the trick.

If you've taken the time to read this, then you're probably the type of person who will spend a significant amount of your life performing some form of exercise. Why not give it a little thought instead of blindly chasing numbers. In the end, deep down inside, you will know that the time you spent training, didn't just earn you a neat party trick, but truly made you strong.