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STRENGTH Is A Set of Skills

Matt Wuchner
I am a fan of strength. Being strong is pretty useful, and really fun to play around with. I would go so far as to say the cultivation of this quality we call 'strength' is a passion of mine. If you are reading this article I'm sure we have a few things in common. So let me ask as you this:
What IS strength?
We all have our opinions of what we consider 'strong' and I feel that this lack of a universal definition is where we tend to lose each other. Is it a heavy one-rep max, more reps, or a faster time on the track? The answer: ...Yes?
On page 9 of The Naked Warrior, Pavel defines strength as "the ability to generate force under given conditions." He then goes on for another 184 pages illustrating the fact that learning to tense your muscles harder in order to generate more force (effectively increasing ones maximum strength) is indeed an in depth skill which requires plenty of deliberate practice. That book planted the seed in my head, which grew into the concept I present to you now...
In my mind, STRENGTH is an acronym for Structure, Tension, Relaxation, Efficiency, Nerve, Grace, Timing, and Humility. Each of these is a separate skill which requires individual attention to experience fully, but can be applied in conjunction with one another under any number of conditions to produce what we call 'strength.'
So we're all on the same page, here is a BRIEF description of what I believe each skill entails:
Structure: By this I mean, understanding your skeletal structure, and how the alignment of your bones affects the quality of your movement. Muscles act on bone. Movement (or the prevention thereof) is effectively job number one for our muscles, but movement doesn't occur if the bones don't move. You can't swing a kettlebell if your skeleton is frozen in place. When you look at it like that, you may want to check to see if your technique makes sense from a structural standpoint. Also remember, strength is all about leverage. Your bones are the lever. Without them your muscles would curl up on themselves kind of like a sea urchin and do nothing! This is why it’s important to approach strength training as 'movement under load.' Literally. Practice moving your bones. 'Kalos Sthenos' is a great resource for learning the application of this skill.
Tension: Tension can mean a couple of things. The first being, the tension created by muscular contraction to produce force. Pavel goes pretty deep into this one in 'The Naked Warrior' and just about every other book he's written. If you have access, the RKC/HKC manuals are an invaluable resource as well. I also look at tension as the physical manifestation of mental focus. In this way, Tension = Attention. When you focus your attention on the task at hand, results CAN come quite quickly. It’s like taking the scattered rays of the sun and focusing them on one point through a magnifying glass. Warmth becomes searing heat. A shaky plank becomes a crisp one-arm/one-leg pushup.
Relaxation: The Hardstyle School of Strength teaches that tension and relaxation are two sides of the performance coin. Again, this idea has already been covered in depth. 'Fast and Loose' or ‘Relax into Stretch’ anyone? I've also noticed quite a number of people conveniently forget this aspect of strength exists when they are first introduced to Hardstyle training. To them it becomes all tension, all the time. That way of thinking will only hinder your progress at best, and seriously injure you at its worst. Bruce Lee had it down when he said "Notice that the stiffest tree is most easily cracked, while the bamboo or willow survives by bending with the wind." LEARN TO RELAX. Once again, we can see a mental/physical correlation: Peace of Mind=Relaxation. It's the essence of internal focus; can you stay calm, cool and collected under pressure? This skill is even more important in today's high stress world. Relax your body, and you relax your mind. Relax your mind, and you relax your body. The two are inseparable. This is why kettlebell training is so effective. If you lose sight of this, you get smashed. Simple, not easy.
Efficiency: The skill of identifying and eliminating wasteful effort. This is obviously important in every area of our lives, but as it relates to expressing physical strength I simply mean you must know your goal and train appropriately. Are you training to press a heavier bell, or Deadlift a heavier weight? How about perform an iron cross on rings? If so, you may want to learn what "STAY TIGHT" means. Otherwise you're probably wasting valuable training time. Want to get more reps out? Learn how to dial back the tension enough to be successful. Tension is fatigue (that's why it’s called a ONE rep MAX). Remember that. To express strength in any given physical event one must learn how to use the requisite amount of muscular tension while staying as relaxed as possible to allow the event to happen. 100% TENSION means zero movement can occur in our joints. 100% RELAXATION means zero movement can occur in our joints. Viewed this way, the same idea of efficiency can be used for setting a deadlift record as for moving a lighter weight for more reps:
Use the least amount of tension AS POSSIBLE to complete the event. It just takes a BIT more tension per rep to max out your deadlift than to press a relatively light kettlebell 50 times in one hand. They are two different expressions of the SAME skill.
Nerve: Good ol' Webster defines nerve as "1. Fiber carrying signals through the body. 2. Courage 3. Insolent boldness." All three are appropriate in relation to this 'skill.' The first definition implies neurology.   As I'm sure you know our nervous system is kind of important when it comes to developing strength. Read ‘Power to the People' for a crash course if you haven't already (Couldn't hurt to read it AGAIN either). But I believe the other two definitions have quite a significant carry-over to expressing strength in our lives. Courage really is a skill. It must be practiced in order to develop it, and let’s face it; it takes a certain level of courage to excel in strength disciplines. As far as 'insolent boldness' goes, sometimes you just need to shut up, ignore the nay-sayers and go for it! Remember when no one would ever beat Paul     Anderson's weightlifting records, or Deadlift a thousand pounds? How about that 4-minute mile barrier? All of those examples would still be pipe dreams if nobody ever bucked back at the status quo. Strong people see 'impossible' and think "I'm Possible." ...Do YOU have the Nerve to think the same?
Grace: The skill of making hard things look easy. Think of the greatest athletes out there in any discipline and the element of grace--that beauty of form and quality of movement--is what separates the best from the rest. Gymnasts, Acrobats and Ballet dancers have grace built into their respective arts, and look at their results! Do you really want to argue the strength and power displayed by Baryshnikov? Developing Grace in your movement is a surefire way of developing truly powerful movement. They are one in the same. What is the ONE thing most everyone says after observing a shocking display of strength? "They make it look so EASY!"       Simply put, Grace IS 'strength in athleticism.'
Timing: This one is pretty straight forward. You can produce all the muscular force in the world, but if your timing is off, it's all for naught. It’s like what Pavel says about arm wrestlers: the amateur waits till the Ref gives the signal before he tightens up. But by then it’s too late. He's pinned before he knows it. Weightlifters know if they duck under the weight too early or too late, they miss the rep (or worse). In the world of performance, Timing is everything. It’s the difference between the perfect swing and an ALMOST perfect swing. One must learn to wait for the opportune moment, and take it before it passes you by. This is why so imperative to keep your mind focused on the task at hand. You may miss an opportunity if you're not careful.
Humility: The tell-tale quality of a truly strong human being. I took notice when Master RKC Jeff O'Connor said               "Lifting HEAVY objects makes you a better person." He went on to talk about how you'll run into a lot of guys out there who are stroking their own ego talking about how awesome they are and how they're the greatest thing ever because they lift weights and workout 8 days a week and can bench 365... But when you meet a man who can bench press well over 500 or 600lbs, you've met a man who has been humbled by the great equalizer we call gravity. He has learned to control himself under the toughest instructor out there. Is it 'just a coincidence' that gravity literally keeps you down to earth and Humility does so figuratively? What goes up must come down, whether it wants to or not, so I recommend practicing Humility from the get go.  Gravity is an equal opportunity force. As Master RKC Mark Reifkind says "It's all easy 'til it gets heavy." So keep your wits about you, stay strong, and BE humble. There will always be a heavier weight than you can lift, and there will always be an RKC like Max Shank out there who has already pressed it for reps… So have fun and enjoy getting stronger!
So there you have it. STRENGTH is a set of skills, which require a bit of courage, and a whole lot of deliberation. Hopefully this concept proves useful for you in your training. If you challenge yourself to work on at least one or more of the above aspects as the deeper practice within every single rep that your perform, you will hone your skill and grow your strength all at the same time.
 Of course you can always use O'Connor's definition of strong:
"Anything YOU can do that I can't."
That one works pretty well too!
Matt Wuchner is a Strength Coach and RKC currently living in Edmond, Oklahoma. He firmly believes uncommon methods yield uncommon results, and prefers to let the practice do the preaching