Strength Is A Skill
This is another one of the articles I wrote for this week's newsletter. I chose this one because I figured it would be the most appropriate for the majority of the BS members here. It basically talks about why strength is much more than simply a product of muscle size. Which means that big guys aren't always as strong as you'd think they are, AND you don't necessarily have to be big in order to be strong. Which is a potential advantage for those of you who have to consider weight classes.
It is common to think that a person’s strength is only a physical attribute, that it is merely a product of muscle size. Of course, muscle size does play a role in someone’s overall strength. However, to limit the concept of strength training to this definition denies many of the most important training aspects.
You see it in the gym all the time. A large, muscular bodybuilder who at first glance looks like he could move trucks around the parking lot. Yet at the dumbbell rack there they are, doing Bicep Curls with 20 pound dumbbells. Or the very opposite, a smaller, 180 pound athlete doing Deadlifts with 435 pounds for reps. How is this possible? Why is such a large and strong-looking guy using weight that anyone could be using? Why is the other guy pulling such impressive weight, when it looks like it should break him?
The answer: Strength is a skill. What I mean by this phrase is that your real strength output is a combination of a lot of factors within your body. The size of the relevant muscles does indeed play a role, but it’s certainly not the only one. And to be fair to the aforementioned imaginary bodybuilder, the training methods to develop maximum hypertrophy are not the same methods used to develop maximal strength.
Like any athletic skill, strength is a product of proficiency. In this case, proficiency comes from a combination of a large number of factors, both internal and external. In detail, these factors are very numerous, including things such as bone strength, joint integrity, lengths of the levers, and muscular attachment points. Many of these are variables we have no control over. For the rest of this article, I’ll focus on what I consider to be the three biggest contributors to strength that we can control.
1. Muscle Size
As I said earlier, while strength is not solely a product of muscle size, it does have a role to play. The size of a muscle basically determines its strength potential. The reason it’s not necessarily a direct contributor to total strength output is because the muscle’s size by itself does not determine how much of that potential is actually utilized.
An analogy I like to use is that of water containers. The size of the muscle is analogous to the capacity of the container, while strength is analogous to the amount of water in the container. If you have a 5 gallon container and 1 gallon of water, no matter how you put it in the container you won’t come up with more than 1 gallon of water. Conversely, if you have a 1 gallon container and 5 gallons of water, no amount of pouring will give you more than 1 gallon. To get a greater volume, you need to enhance the size of the container (analogy for strength potential) and simultaneously have a larger volume of water to put into the container (analogy for utilization of the potential).
Bottom Line: Real strength output is a combination of muscular potential and actual realization of that potential. The realization of that potential brings us to our next factor:
2. Neural Recruitment
A quick lesson in basic neuromuscular anatomy. Each muscle is made out of millions of individual muscle fibers, packaged together in increasing levels to ultimately create an entire muscle. These fibers can’t contract on their own, they need input from the nervous system in order to contract. So motor neurons come from the spinal cord and attach to the muscles. The exact number of neurons varies depending on the muscle, but they’re numerous. Each neuron connects to and is responsible for a number of muscle fibers. In small muscles that require fine motion, such as those in your hands, one neuron might only connect to a relatively few fibers. This allows for greater finesse of movement, but sacrifices strength. In larger muscles where strength is of greater concern, such as the quadriceps, each neuron is connected to a relatively large number of fibers. This sacrifices finesse but maximizes strength. The combination of a motor neuron and all of the muscle fibers it connects to is called a motor unit.
When the neuron of a motor unit sends the signal to fire, every muscle fiber in the unit contracts. No more, no less. By itself, one motor unit only constitutes a small percentage of the overall muscle. If a few motor units fire, the muscle contracts weakly and slowly (think wiggling your fingers). If many motor units fire together, the muscle contracts powerfully (think lifting something heavy).
This is the key to increasing the realization of a muscle’s potential. Every part of your body adapts to the training you give it. This includes the nervous system. To keep it simple, strength depends on the rate and synchronization of motor unit recruitment. The more motor units you can engage simultaneously, the more strength you get. This improvement in motor unit recruitment is a factor of training. The way to achieve this is through high intensity, compound movement training.
3. Technical Proficiency
So far, we’ve discussed the internal factors related to strength. But in virtually all cases, strength also involves external components. Strength is applied against an external object, whether it’s a barbell in the gym or an opponent in a game. That means we have to acknowledge an inescapable factor: physics.
That means mass, acceleration, force, leverage, conservation of motion, all those kinds of things. It’s important to acknowledge these factors because they always exist, they can never be ignored.
This is the reason that there is “proper technique” for every exercise. It’s not simply a matter of looking pretty, proper technique maximizes efficiency for the combination of the physics variables involved. Let’s take a relatively complex exercise, the Power Clean, as an example. The starting position is close to the bar, and technique demands that you keep the bar close to you throughout its path of motion. This ensures that all force is applied in the direction you intend it to, nothing is wasted. There are multiple segments of the exercise, and they are timed precisely. If the timing isn’t correct, then at least some of the effort is again wasted. The exercise also involves a deep drop into a squat after the initial pull. The same amount of force can either move a heavy weight a short distance, or a small amount of weight a large distance. If you can shorten the distance the weight needs to travel, you can apply that force to a larger amount of weight. The list goes on, but I think you get my point.
The bottom line: Technical proficiency is about being more than “correct”. Technique maximizes efficiency, and being proficient at technique is one of the simplest and best ways to enhance your effective output.
Strength is a combination of many factors beyond purely physical capacity. The factors involved are the same as the factors for any gross athletic skill. Therefore, strength itself is a skill. To take your performance to the next level, enhance your skill level. Do something different in your workout sessions, try to learn something from every session.
Questions? Comments? Suggestions?
Last edited by TaeBo_Master; 6/27/2011 9:42pm at .
100% backed. Strength is very much a skill. I started o-lifting a few years back after powerlifting took a toll on my joints, and although I was able to pick up the snatch right away, I still learn small things about the clean-and-jerk every time I lift.
As it becomes more and more efficient, I am able to lift more pound-for-pound than I was before, and I haven't hit max effort yet. My goal by the end of this year is a 100kg snatch. I'd set a goal for C&J as well, but it's always been a difficult lift for me.
If you're allowed to call me out for clearly reading Cressey, I'm allowed to call you out for clearly reading Pavel. All of these articles have been good.
I've read Pavel. Not a lot, but some. But it's been a long time. Pavel's a little bit much of a hype machine. However, he's usually generally correct on his information. But nonetheless, this isn't coming from Pavel per se, but simply logic and physiology.
P.S. Reading Cressey isn't a bad thing at all. He's a highly respected name in the field. I'm in agreement with 99% of what Cressey put forth.
The phrase "Strength is a skill" (likely unjustly) is widely attributed or associated with Pavel.
I'm not against Pavel for the record. Some of his stuff is a bit outdated, but he's actually manned up admitted mistakes were made or at least said new information made him change his mind. That's a rare and admirable quality regardless of field. I could definitely do without his gimmicks and I also don't care for the group think the internal workings of the RKC seem to foster, but that's not even slightly unique for any sort of community.
I'm just busting your chops a bit. We likely follow and and agree on a lot of the same stuff.
I'm trying to figure out a way not to derail, but I've got nothing good right now.
Pavel and many of his guys are definitely capable of incredible feats of relative strength. But it's all about goals. Pavel methods won't make you a powerlifter, or a weightlifter (olympic).
Different goals = different training methods.
That's not uncommon. Although the snatch is, in many ways, the more difficult exercise of the two, it's often easier to teach and learn. And as an added bonus, you get the nifty one-handed variations on it. (I'm a big fan of one-handed barbell snatches).
Originally Posted by blackmonk
P.S. 100kg snatch = major props. That's quite a feat, when you pull it off, post vids!
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