Programming Strength, Part II: Potential Versus Actual Strength
Matt Wichlinski and I were Skyping about strength one day (as such geeks do) and we quickly realized we had the exact same definition for Strength. If you’ve kept up with my blog over the decade+ it’s been around (heck, it began as a series of posts on a Bodytribe Yahoo group over 14 years ago), you might already be quick to shout out that strength = ABILITY!
In fact, it is easy to come to an agreement with trainers (coaches, whatever) that training is our tool to get good at stuff. Ya know… building skills.
The biggest skill folks seem to be building in the gym is the ability to workout. There is no guarantee that anything you do in the gym transfers to that big chunk of life beyond the gym. That actually has be an important component of your programming. Yep, that’s right. You have to program potential strength into actual strength. And, from the observations from these cheap seats where my butt dwells, there doesn’t seem to be a lot of that.
All the pulls, ups, downs, pushes, snaps, boings and kabooms we do in the gym are simply to create potential. Programming will decide the degree of usefulness, the amount of transfer, that potential has. Here’s a quick example…
A burpee. As I’ve often described, a burpee can be done as a floppy mess or it can be a well-tuned production between two major body alignments we call ‘shapes.’ Understanding and practicing the shape model will create an awareness, and a potential for embodiment, that has an easy transfer to other aspects of movement and athleticism, even if the numbers are small. The spasming worm style, on the other hand, has about as much potential for furthering other skills as learning to dance by watching John Hughes films. And adding more icky reps is, as mentioned many times before, practicing slop. Since practice makes permanent, where ya at here?
It doesn’t take a giant leap to see how your training might not actually help your ability to take a giant leap. Does an 800 pound squatter instantly have mad skills at the other foundations of movement? That squatter has probably taken his training beyond the point of usefulness, choosing instead to create potential in one thing. Standing up with a heavy bar on his back.
If strength is ability, he is actually fairly limited in his strength, whereas a 500 pound squatter who hasn’t squandered his time on an all-squat diet, but instead uses that squat as simply a tool for building potential at other strengths/skills, could be considered less limited in his strength. If we sum up our potential as usefulness, then the ‘weaker’ squatter would have more potential, therefore being more useful. More skilled. More able. In other words, stronger.
Let’s continue this game. A muscle-up is preschool for gymnasts. Sure, pretty challenging for mere mortals, but considered a very basic skill that is meant for one thing: To get up on something so you can then DO OTHER THINGS. Get up on bars or rings, so you can then create a greater movement palette. So once you have the ability to do a few, if you’re going to increase potential, ask yourself what’s next? The answer is not DO MORE OF THEM FASTER! Why? What potential are you building? Once ya got a handful under your belt, graduate. Move on. That’s their purpose as a movement… to get you to the BEGINNING of something. Turning the muscle-up into a high rep workout, or better yet, part of a sport, is like being a 8 year old in preschool. You’ve mastered step one into the ground. You’ve made a sport of the warm up from another sport. You’ve sucked the potential right out of it by giving it more importance than it should have. That’s an interesting programming decision to make.
We could play this game all day. Box jumps? Not as much a skill you need to build as it is an outcome from other skills. Getting good at high rep box jumps doesn’t make you particularly good at much else, while training other more potential-building skills will actually make you a pretty bad-ass box jumper. Anyone see the video of olympic weightlifters hopping up onto giant stacks of bumper plates almost as tall as they are? Don’t think for a minute they got there by practicing tons of box jumps. That’s an outcome of their potential, not the actual skill itself.
I know, I know, you’re using box jumps as a conditioning tool, as a movement to build the skill of fighting fatigue. Who cares if it, in itself, is a skill worth building?
Aren’t there better choices? I bet you could find them, and your client’s shins (and morale) would appreciate it.
I get it. You covet power output as a skill. And it is, in fact, a pretty useful one. But the point of power output is to create a potential foundation of stamina to then be able to practice and improve OTHER SKILLS. It, in itself, isn’t the key to potential. So when we reduce the potential of other skills by creating high rep, low load, speedy versions of them in the name of power output, we’re actually reducing the potential of our programming.
Here be some maths and some truths that might not agree with the maths…
Power output is measured by work over time. Do a bunch fast. Let’s take a famous example. In the CrossFit world, she’s called Fran.
If ya don’t know, Fran is a workout consisting of the following: Squat presses (called Thrusters in the CF world) and pull ups (and, let’s face it, for most these will be kip ups). With a rep scheme of 21/15/9, as fast as ya can.
Although the barbell is set at 95 pounds for men, let’s round up the weight to 100 pounds, just to make this math easy. A decent Fran time is under 4 minutes, so 45 total reps at 100 pounds would be 4,500 pounds of work completed for that task. Qualifying the pull up is harder… let’s just use bodyweight of the person, in this case a 200 pounder, so 9000 pounds of pull up work. All done in 4 minutes, for this example.
So, to sum up, example 1:
4,500 pounds of thrusters
9,000 pounds of pull ups
all done in 4 minutes.
What if we doubled the load of the thruster? And simply changed the pull up by enforcing that it be strict? And we reduced the reps to 10/7/4. Here’s the maths:
4,100 pounds of thrusters.
4,100 pounds of pull ups… and they went slower.
In fact the whole thing takes 5 minutes.
So far, by formula, the power output is considerably lower.
But let’s double the load again for the thrusters. Yup, a 400-pound thruster. And we’ll add 100 pounds to the pull up by hanging weight from our fictional character. Yet this isn’t far from reality. I’ve known at least a couple of folks who could probably pull this off at 200 pounds of bodyweight. Now let’s reduce their reps to 4/3/2.
Total pounds of thrusters: 3,600
Total pounds of pullups: 2,700
Let’s say it went slightly speedier, back to 4 minutes. That would still be a slow, much worse performance, according to the power output model.
Yet who would you you want on your team? To save your family from a hurricane? Heck, to hang out with as a person? The guy with the greatest potential here would be the final example, and if you see otherwise, remind me not to pick you for my dodgeball league.
See it this way: who can become the other the easiest? Guy number three can become guy number 1 easily. But guy number 1 has a heck of a lot of work to do to reach even Guy #2’s status. So why would we put the majority of our training into a lower outcome of potential? Why would we train primarily like Guy #1 if we see that Guy #3 is more of an ideal of potential? Guy #3 sure didn’t get that way by following Guy #1’s programming.
In part 4 of this (coming soon… make sure to read part 3 now), we’ll start outlining a template for programming greater potential.