**I wrote this a few years ago for a magazine. Only about 3 paragraphs were actually published, but I do tend to be long-winded. However, if you want some motivation to get stronger while we are unable to get to the gym, here you go. If you are just getting started, bodyweight movements are good for now, just practice good form. I will publish some more articles here soon that will give you a little more guidance.
Are You Strong Enough?
The science on the benefits of strength is clear and longstanding. Strength is the foundation that all other qualities of fitness are built on and is the most powerful tool in the fitness toolbox. It has tremendous benefits to both health and performance, but most people don’t take the time to develop it properly as they feel that other qualities are more important or believe they are “strong enough”.
People of all ages, from 7-8 on up to 80 and beyond benefit a great deal from appropriate strength training. Strength is the foundation of endurance, power, speed, flexibility, and balance. It also provides us with tremendous health benefits and is what keeps us active, independent, and pain free as we age. Without a good strength base, none of these things can be optimized. Getting strong takes time and will erode if you don’t maintain it. The bigger your strength base, the more qualities you can build on top of it. You have to be patient, don’t be afraid to go heavy, and treat strength training as a skill that you will continue to improve for a lifetime.
Unfortunately, true strength training plays a very small role in the fitness industry these days. This is in part because personal training and group classes often focus on the cardiovascular stress of exercise which makes the workout feel “hard”. Another reason is that there is a lot of appeal to modeling training after some of the specialized methods used by professional athletes and Olympians and so plyometrics, high intensity interval training, speed training, and other specialized tools dominate many of today’s fitness classes and training sessions. This approach can be fun, and certainly isn’t boring, but these tools were not meant to be the meat and potatoes of a training program. Instead, they were meant to be used to enhance an already large base of strength and endurance.
Specialized training methods can be fun and allow you to make progress in other ways, however, what all good coaches and high levels athletes know is that you must regularly drink from the well of strength in order to continue making progress for the long term.
Science based training is simple, precise, and begins with strength.
As a research scientist, my job was often to optimize experiments in the lab to get the most bang for our buck. Excessive and unnecessary steps cost time and money. A lack of precision gives you data you can’t use. And an inattention to detail can make a year’s worth of research completely worthless.
If you consider your own training an experiment of one, why would you waste your time and risk injury using unnecessary and inefficient methods?
Developing fitness is the same challenge as optimizing a complex reaction. You need to understand the science behind the process. You need to know what tools to use. And you need to understand how to progressively optimize the process based on your results from day to day, week to week, and month to month.
Likewise, when you understand the science behind how different qualities of fitness are built and optimized, the process of developing fitness gets pretty simple. The science is sound and it has worked for decades. There are many tools that one can use to build a fitness program, but you have to know your tools and when to use them. Too often, trainers either throw the entire tool box at their clients or focus on the wrong ones; either way, the results are sub-optimal.
Instead of using ALL the tools, you need to go back to the beginning. Even the most elite athletes had to start somewhere. On the road to greatness, the successful ones built an amazing strength and aerobic base to complement their specific athletic skills so why should we be any different? Start with strength.
Strength improves health and combats aging.
The inevitable consequences of aging: getting weaker, losing muscle mass (sarcopenia), and losing bone density, can have catastrophic results on your health and quality of life. It has been shown that a lack of strength and muscle mass has a direct correlation to early mortality. Heavy strength training has been shown to improve bone density in post-menopausal women and can also mitigate chronic back and joint pain simply by providing support to the spine and other joints. It turns back the clock, revs up our metabolism, prevents injury, reverses some medical conditions such as Type II diabetes and cardiovascular disease, and gives us the freedom of mobility and independence long into our twilight years.
The strength training my older clients do not only improves their quality of life, but has allowed some of them to reach lifetime training goals and accomplish feats they had all but given up on. Competing in the Crash B’s, competing in a powerlifting meet, hiking up a mountain, and finally deadlifting 300 lbs are all goals that my clients in their 60’s and beyond have been able to accomplish because of a simple focus on strength.
Strength is the base quality of all human movement and posture
To move correctly and efficiently, the body needs a foundation of strength that allows for postural and joint stability under load that allows for consistency of correct movement.
Postural strength for all intents and purposes, is the ability to maintain one’s posture over time or through a series of complex powerful movements. You can think of postural strength as core strength, but its much more than that. It is the ability to actively support the spine and associated joints (shoulders and hips). When we can no longer actively support our joints due to weakness or fatigue, we begin to slouch and our posture changes over time. We also lose our balance more easily and become less coordinated. Think about how you feel after a long day at work. If you have a hard time maintaining your posture when you’re tired, you lack postural strength.
Without the support of the muscular system, the skeletal system will actually begin to remodel itself into these unideal postures. Think about the posture of your average desk worker: head and shoulders tilted forward, rounded upper back, rounded or swayed lower back. These postural deviations may seem permanent, but can be improved simply by getting stronger. Furthermore, by getting stronger, one can maintain more ideal posture for longer periods of time and these deviations become less likely to occur.
Strength is the foundation of endurance.
If being upright all day is fatiguing, imagine how much strength it must take to maintain correct posture through two hours of football, a 6 hour race bike race, or a day-long track and field competition. When the posture begins to go, so do the optimal leverages and biomechanical advantages that keep one’s performance optimal. Once you’re out of position, regaining it is difficult, especially at game or race speed, or under load. Performance drops and injury risk increases. If you’re not an athlete, those deficiencies can become even more pronounced and daily living becomes more difficult. An increase in strength contributes to one’s ability to sustain all kinds of efforts and hold sports specific postures over time. This ability is what we think of as “endurance.”
Strength improves coordination and performance.
For full body strength, the major joints must be strong through a full range of motion and in concert with the muscles that support the spine. Full body compound movements, squat, bench press, deadlift, clean, snatch, etc., that build strength in the shoulders, hips and knees improve the ability to react and respond to external forces as well as improve coordination, stability, power, strength, and speed. These exercises increase both intra-muscular as well as inter-muscular coordination, ie the ability of the nervous system to more efficiently fire individual muscle fiber units and stimulate larger muscle groups to act in concert with one another. Whether we are talking about tackling a running back or being able to recover one’s balance from accidentally stepping off a curb, this ability to respond to external forces is incredibly important. This is why basic strength training works so well for sport and life. And where you start is extremely scalable so there are very few people who can’t introduce strength training into their lives.
Strength should hold a primary position in your training plan
And what ends up being the benefit of specifically focusing on strength? My clients experience an increased quality of life, freedom from pain, an increased ability to do activities they enjoy, and the ability to do work around the house and yard that was once out of their reach. They also compete in sports and participate in activities they never imagined possible. In short, strength training helps ordinary people do extraordinary things.
If it isn’t already clear by now, strength training is something we should all be doing on a regular basis. Basic, full body, compound strength training with significant loads contributes to quality of life, longevity, improved health, and freedom from pain. Whatever movements you use, they must be appropriately loaded and performed with consistent, good form. And it should be a regular focus throughout your training year. It really is that simple. For most people, no matter what their daily activities consist of, if you can get stronger, you will live better.
So where do we go from here? As strength is the foundation of all human movement, we must then consider that aerobic capacity and endurance are the foundation of all prolonged and sustained efforts. Therefore, aerobic and endurance training become the next most important tools in our toolbox. But that’s a subject for another day.
Chang SF, L. P. (2016). Systematic Literature Review and Meta-Analysis of the Association of Sarcopenia With Mortality. Worldviews Evid Based Nurs, Epub ahead of print.
Michael McLeod, L. B. (2015). Live strong and prosper: the importance of skeletal muscle strength for healthy aging. Biogerontology, Open Access.
North American Spine Society. (2013, October 9-12). Exercise Examined as Alternative to Spine Surgery. Retrieved from NASS Daily News: http://nass-365.ascendeventmedia.com/uncategorized/exercise-examined-as-alternative-to-spine-surgery/Watson SL, W. B. (2015).
Heavy resistance training is safe and improves bone, function, and stature in postmenopausal women with low to very low bone mass: novel early findings from the LIFTMOR trial. Osteoporos Int., 2889-94