Maxwell Strength & Conditioning Blog

Enjoy a peek at the world through Steve's eyes as he delivers sermons on everything from training to peace of mind.


Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Demonstrating Strength VS Building Strength

I get a lot of mail across my desk and it's become clear to me there's a major confusion, affecting the entire fitness industry; this is a misunderstanding between demonstrating strength and physical prowess versus building strength.

Exercise can be divided into two categories

  1. The exercise is a means to an end, or
  2. The exercise is simply an end unto itself

Exercise can help you become stronger, more muscularly enduring, less susceptible to injury. Engaging in regular exercise can improve body composition, and increase cardio-respiratory functioning.

Properly conducted, exercise shouldn't ever cause injury. Properly conducted, exercise will instead make the joints and connective more mobile, resilient, and tough--not to mention increase your ability to exert more force. Proper exercise will improve forcefulness.

All these statements make sense and are pretty well-known, yet there's rampant confusion regarding the best way to achieve these benefits.

The way to NOT go about it is to produce injury. If you're hurting yourself in your training, you need to re-evaluate what it is you're doing and why you are doing it.

A general exercise program, meant to improve your ability in a specific sport, should follow sane, logical loading parameters. The form and technique is of utmost importance. It's not enough to lift a weight or do an exercise--it is the manner of lifting--whether it be your body, barbell or any other modality.

Now, some people train with an express desire to perform feats of strength, either with heavy weights or body weight gymnastic skills. It is at precisely at this point that exercise becomes an end unto itself.

Realize what it is you're training for. Understand that feats of strength, and stunts, are more or less harmful in that their only purpose is show. There is no functional pretext of goals or scoring, and without an audience, would you still persist?

There is a price to be paid in vital energy for these demonstrations. The wages of the sins against the joints are as follows: pain, injury, potential disability, and months or years off your life.

Let me clarify, training can be classified into three categories.

  1. Health and well-being
  2. Improved sports performance
  3. Performance of feats and stunts

If you're training for health, you'll prioritize preserving muscle into advanced age, easy movement, maintenance of locomotion, and optimal body composition.

If you're an active athlete in any type of competitive sport, it's a well-known fact that when all else is equal, strength is the primary factor in getting over your opponent.

If you're training to acquire a particular feat, eg, a muscle-up on the rings, or an arbitrary number of reps in a movement, say 20 pull-ups, the exercise itself is your goal. So, it's a singular stunt instead of a dynamic series of spontaneous stunts, as in sport. When you consider dance, say pole-dancing, it's a sequence of gymnastic stunts for which you train.

It's important to understand that training for sport as well as gymnastic stunts is inherently life-shortening. Perhaps no one has ever told you these activities, in excess, are in themselves unhealthy in that they sap vital energy more than add to your stores. You are more than likely shaving years off your life.

I'm not telling anyone not to do these things. Go ahead and express yourself. I'm advising awareness of why you do them and the potential negative consequences. Disabuse yourself of the notion that competitive sport is health-promoting.

As a long-time athlete, I'm aware of the results of my actions and gladly accept them. I am content with the results of a career in violent, contact sport. A man can't just sit around while the sun still shines on his back. But understand how inconsequential and short-lived the physical nature is in the big picture and you may wish to pursue other dreams.

The average life-expectancy of an NFL player is reported as twenty years shorter than an average guy. Ask any one of the players and they will likely respond it was worth every minute for the opportunity to play at such an elite level. But what about you, there training in the garage? Or the local Crossfit? Are you getting an unholy return on your adrenaline investment?

You must assess the risk-to-benefit ratio--with this caveat--when training for general good health, proper exercise should NEVER produce injury. What is the sum of your equation?

A player accepts the fact that injury is a reality of sport--it's part of the deal. Here's the thing: the SAME THING can be expected when you make exercise into sport. In strength sports, like Powerlifting and Olympic Lifting, tweaks and injuries are not at all uncommon, yet not nearly as common as playing soccer or Brazilian jiu jitsu.

The quest to perform stunts in urban gymnastics. These movements are very impressive, but there is a heavy price to pay down the line, with permanent damage to the joints.

Once when I was training in a park, there was a group of young men doing some exciting feats like flags, front-levers, flips and stunts. When I talked with them a while, each complained of their shoulders and elbows bothering them. I advised them to "see me in twenty year". Yet in twenty years, I doubt any will be pursuing such activities at all.

My point? Be aware. Use critical thinking.

Another point is that training for feats and stunts has nothing whatsoever to do with your sports ability or any other non-related activities. Feats and stunts require very specific training and skill-sets that only minimally transfer or negatively transfer to other activities.

Training to demonstrate strength is no way to build strength, son.

In general, this widespread feats training demonstrates a widespread lack of discipline in rational, general strength training. People lack the attention span.

Herein are three examples.

#1. The law of diminishing returns

One of the first martial arts I studied was Kenpo karate. My instructor was an excellent, fifth-degree black belt as well as an incredible full-contact kick boxer.

At this time, I was very involved in powerlifting, and was doing a lot of heavy squats, benches, and deadlifts. My instructor noted that my training was creating a general stiffness in my body and one day during a sparring session, I'll never forget what he said:

Steve, how strong do your legs need to be in order to knock someone out?

He then gestured to his girlfriend, a lithe, kickboxing specialist, and said, Hey, she could knock you out with either foot.

He continued,

You're already plenty strong enough, and all the time you're spending in the gym to get negligibly stronger can be much better invested in your kickboxing skills and increasing your mobility.

Then we sparred. And despite the fact he wasn't even half as strong as me, he knocked me into next week...I'm still recovering.

Clearly a case of diminishing returns. I already had more strength than I needed. If I truly wanted to gain in martial skills and improve my situation, I needed to spend less time with the barbells and more time in the dojo.

Even though the barbell squat and deadlift are considered the highest order of so-called functional strength movements, in this case, in the kickboxing arena, they were the cause of my disfunction.


My next example is a BJJ player who wanted to do one-arm push-ups, pistols and one-arm chin-ups. As regards stunts, these are within the benign range. Yet it was obvious to me he was confused. While he burned to become the best fighter he could be, and enter the tournament circuit, all the same he certainly needed a good strength-training program to maximize his potential on the mat, and genetically, he was a weakling in body.

So why would he choose to specialize in unilateral training when he clearly hadn't even begun to achieve competency in bilateral training? An honest one-arm chin-up is a feat and stunt that few people will ever witness in a lifetime, let alone achieve. One-arm push-ups and pistol squats are more feasible, but still rare. I can give you a long list of BJJ champions who can't do any of these movements. Further, the ability to do any of the three exercises has little to do with success mat, and finally, the energy required to master them directly debits from the jiu-jitsu training account.

What to do? I put him on a body weight training protocol that vastly improved his strength without unduly taxing him, and he experienced great satisfaction without needing to specialize.


Another common refrain I hear from the guys is the desire to do 20-plus pull-ups. The ability to pull yourself up-and-over the bar does indeed require a great measure of strength-endurance--no doubt. Still, the number twenty is arbitrary; it has its roots in military training wherein being able to do more than 18 reps puts you in the 99th percentile of upper-body strength for men. Superficially, a worthy goal. I've seen guys perform up to 30 pull-ups in a set...with the most godawful form you can imagine. People lose sight of the fact that the primary reason to do pull-ups is in order to increase strength and muscularity in order to do other, non-related tasks. Trainees lose sight of this while piling on the reps to impress their bros, and so will heave, jerk, bounce, kip, kick, twist, haw, yaw, lurch, scream, grunt, hold the breath--in short, anything goes to get another rep, not to mention partial range of motion, and not clearing the bar with the head. So what is it they think is being measured, and what do these momentum-fueled reps mean? Guaranteed it means the shoulders, elbows and wrists will become inflamed and you won't be doing this for long.

Treating exercise as a skill is poor advice for improving physical ability in other activities. The more skill an activity requires, the less carry-over value to anything else.

Take this workout challenge

Instead of getting on the bar and yanking, heaving, and swinging to get as many reps as can be gotten, set a metronome to 60 beats per minute. (There are plenty of smartphone apps available). Start at the bottom position--a dead-hang--with tension in the lats, and shoulders stabilized in the sockets,

  1. Pull yourself up to a four-count
  2. Pause at the top for a beat
  3. Lower for a 4-count
  4. Use 1-second for the turnaround, without snapping, jerking, or bouncing

The first couple of reps will feel kind of slow, but by the third or fourth, you'll be pulling as hard as you can to keep up with the timer.

Your upper body will be exhausted somewhere between 4 and 8 reps although some rare specimens, will, of course, get more.

At any rate, go until you can't get another rep.

Now, compare how the shoulders, elbows, and wrists feel, and how thoroughly fatigued are the muscles.

People have lost sight of the true purpose of exercise. It's not about the reps or weights; it's about producing a deep level of fatigue without damaging the structure so that the body is compelled to adapt and increase its strength. It's about discipline. With discipline comes integrity and virtue. This is the source of beauty in the well-trained human body, and why you can't acquire it from the outside; it's an internal, mental quality shining through.

Whether your goals are to deadlift double your body weight, perform a certain number of snatches within a set time, or press a 48 kg kettlebell, you must ask yourself,

How does this help me attain virtue?

Is the time spent in this pursuit detracting from training in my primary sport?

How does this affect my joints?

Will I be able to sustain this activity for a lengthy time?

Is this increasing my character and integrity or merely my aggressive tendencies?

Is it fueling my ego?

Am I doing it for my own satisfaction or am I doing it for social approval?

I haven't always been so clear myself about these issues. It's taken my 50 years of training to figure some of this stuff out. I've got some probably-permanent joint problems because of sports-related injuries. You can't participate in violent activities like wrestling and jiu-jitsu and expect not to get hurt; I knew the risk and I accepted it. What I'm ashamed of are the injuries I sustained with some of the hare-brained training schemes and routines I did in the gym. I am embarrassed by them and wish I had known better at the time, but I learned from those errors and I urge you to heed my warning, young men and women.

One final thought: it's not always obvious injuries you will experience; much of it is accumulation of sub-acute injury that results in later problems.

In Strength & Health!


This just in:

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