A Basic Overview of the How’s, Why’s and the Continuum of Strength

A Basic Overview of the How’s, Why’s and the Continuum of Strength

Last week I wrote about the basics behind our conditioning.  This week (and at least next week as well), I’ll talk about some of the theories behind our strength work.  First of all, without a doubt, strength work is the most important aspect of training for nearly everyone.  And I only say “nearly” because I’m factoring in the handful of people that can Snatch bodyweight, Clean and Jerk 1.5x bodyweight, Squat double bodyweight, Deadlift 2.5x bodyweight, etc.  Those people are certainly at a point where their strength is extremely developed.

To further clarify, when I say strength work, I define it as moving deliberately in a certain pattern to reinforce or strengthen that pattern.  This can include: squatting, bending, pushing, pulling, rotating, jumping, throwing and more.  Within those patterns, there is some variety, including different planes of movement, directions, loading implements, etc.  For example, within Squatting, you can double leg front squat, single leg lateral lunge, single leg lunge up to an elevated target, down from a height, etc.  In other words, any pattern in which you can find yourself moving in everyday life, you can define, train and load.  

Within our general population classes, we are looking to improve your fitness in a general sense, so we’ll take a variety of common, vital movement patterns and use them for our strength programming.  

These are, with examples: 

  • bend- romanian deadlift, deadlift, clean, snatch
  • squat- back squat, front squat, overhead squat
  • single leg squat- lunge, step up
  • vertical push- shoulder press, push press
  • vertical pull- pull-up, chin up
  • horizontal push- floor press, push up
  • horizontal pull- ring row, bent over row
  • core work- planks, holds, knee raises
  • accessory “pre-hab”- wall slides, turkish get-ups, overhead carries, farmers carries

Now, this certainly doesn’t cover everything you could ever encounter in your life, but it’s a variety of patterns that can be safely loaded and trained properly.  You won’t find us standing on Bosu balls and juggling kettlebells while balancing a bowling pin on our noses, even if it is a neat party trick.  In general, all of the movements we do are functional, primal, and important to functioning in everyday life.  

Ummmm, no.  

Ummmm, no.  

To place the majority of our lifts in context, we work on a continuum of strength.  On one end, we have absolute strength, where we are trying to develop control, static strength, and the potential to move a “heavy” object in the most efficient and correct way possible.  This takes speed out of consideration.  We are focusing on moving at whatever speed is manageable and allows us to utilize the most raw strength possible.  Although you could identify the expression of absolute strength with something like a deadlift, back squat or bench press, those aren’t the only ways to prove that capacity.  For someone who is at an elite level of fitness, that could certainly be true, but for someone who is untrained or is out of shape, and perhaps has range of motion issues, a well executed plank, an air squat, push-up, or just bending over to pick something up could be expressions of absolute strength.  For the most part, the majority of our Function and Performance strength work is designed to improve the Absolute strength development.

As someone gets comfortable moving at an absolute level, and has ingrained these movement patterns into their subconscious, we can start to move towards developing Strength Speed, where the goal is to develop moving sub maximal loads at faster speeds.  This can be best expressed in the idea of a clean.  In it simplest definition, a clean is a deadlift that is performed fast enough to drive the weight all the way up to one’s shoulders.  In strength speed, we are working on an idea commonly referred to as “power” or “explosiveness”.  Our athletes work to develop this aspect of strength with the Olympic lifts, speed squats, speed bench, speed deadlifts, and some others.  

Continuing down the line, we move into speed-strength, where we are looking to develop the most force with light loads.  Though the two ideas of speed-strength and strength-speed can be a little convoluted or confusing, the best way to think about the two is where strength-speed is moving a weight of roughly 60-80% of a 1RM as fast as possible, speed-strength is moving a weight of 20-40% of a 1RM as fast as possible.  Throwing a baseball, a football, doing wall-balls, or doing very light explosive movements are great examples of this.  

At the opposite end of the spectrum from Absolute Strength is Absolute Speed, where you are moving, unweighted, as fast as possible.  We train this via sprints, and other movements done as fast as possible, while staying shy of a conditioning effort.  

So, if you can take an overarching view of the entire continuum that we work on, you’ll observe that we are training to walk before we can run, run before we can sprint, etc.  Although you may believe that it moving light weights fast is easier to learn than heavy weights slow, there are many advantages to training heavy and slow before light and fast.  Heavy and slow develops movement patterns and the ability to recruit the most amount of muscle fibers, increases connective tissue density, and develops an overall “base” for your pyramid.  (Plus, on an aesthetic level, training heavy is a great way to develop lean muscle mass).  

As we sharpen and strengthen the movement, and move faster and faster, you’ll know that you have the strength, stability and structural foundation to begin to move faster.  Although you may consider that doing a heavy back squat is more complex than doing a max height vertical jump, I can assure you that if you were to take a slow motion video of someone doing a back squat vs someone doing a vertical jump, you’ll see many more fundamental errors in the jump than in the squat.  After all, with a jump, you’re moving entirely too fast to make corrections or focus on proper form.  But with the squat, we are moving slow enough to observe errors in real time and correct them.  So, as we progress, and you can air squat perfectly, we can start adding weight.  As weight increases, one of four things will happen.  You can perform the movement perfectly and complete the rep, you can not complete the rep at all, you can complete the rep with a movement error (or a few), or you can not complete the rep and have movement errors.  This allows us to further develop your movement pattern and increase your strength.  Even if you aren’t here to get brutally strong, if you can perform a perfect back squat with your bodyweight on the bar, you can be confident that when you do other double leg movement patterns, you’ll be able to move properly and without pain or injury.

Next week: Reps, Sets, Rest and Tempo