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Wednesday, October 03, 2012

Strength & Barbells: The Foundations of Fitness

by Michael Wolf


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If I had a dollar for every time a client or athlete has asked me why they have to do heavy squats and can’t they just do lunges instead, or the same question phrased slightly differently and with a different alternative exercise, I’d probably have enough money to equip the black iron gym I’ve been trying to open.  If I added to that the number of times I’ve seen similar questions asked in the forums, I could probably even afford the rent.

The issue of force production and its importance in life and athletics is dealt with at length in SS:BBT3, PPST2, and the SS Seminar. So why this article? Well, it seems that many people are still confused about it, despite the information available in those resources. For some, this may be due to laziness; actually read the book and attend the seminar, and it will all become clear.  For others, it may be a function of organization: the info is there to find, but scattered throughout the sources. When you quickly learn so much information on a subject with which you were previously only passingly acquainted, it can be difficult to assimilate all that new knowledge into a coherent package that you can pull out of your brain for later use. You’re convinced of the efficacy of strength and barbell training, but can’t quite organize a cogent response to the question “Why?”

What I’ll try to do here is give you the “Elevator Pitch,” to borrow the over-used phrase from the marketing industry, on force production and barbell training. I’ll attempt to answer the following two questions directly, in a briefer article form:

1) Why should training focus on strength/increasing force production?

2) Why is using barbells is the best way to accomplish this training goal?

Reading this article doesn’t replace any of the valuable “how” of the books or seminar. Certainly not the “why.” But it does give a shorter, digestible summary of the latter that you can use to explain to yourself, or anyone who asks, why this training is so useful and important. Nothing here is original, and Rip always explains this stuff much more clearly than I can. I’ve simply attempted to put the material in one place, to answer those two questions.

Before going any further, let’s get some basic information out of the way: strength is the ability to produce force against an external resistance, and force is that which causes movement. Keep those definitions in mind throughout the article.

Now, to get right to the heart of the issue: Why aren’t dumbbell lunges and presses, kettlebell swings, cleans, and presses, and the TRX all you need? Why do we need to train to increase force production anyway (for those who aren’t powerlifters)?

The answer is simple. So deceptively simple that much of today’s fitness industry is comprised of unnecessarily fancy and complicated methods that avoid it, because simple and heavy doesn’t sell as well as complicated and light. Strength is the most general and useful fitness adaptation, the one adaptation that most affects all others.

When you do any form of resistance training, be it bodyweight, TRX, barbell, or pink dumbbell bicep curls on the Bosu, what you’re doing is making your muscles produce force. You’re using some percentage of your strength as your muscles contract to produce enough force to lift the weight, move your bodyweight, swing the kettlebell, etc.

Our muscles are simple engines. They can’t get confused, or decide in what direction to cause movement. They contract when the brain tells them to, and cause the bones to which they’re attached to move.  In the final analysis, any form of resistance training is essentially force-production training, and the only question is, are you training your muscles to produce more force, or are you making sub-optimal use of your time?

Jim Cawley’s 10 aspects of fitness is probably the most useful definition of fitness available today. Using his definition, the reason to train for strength becomes obvious.

1. Cardiovascular/Respiratory Endurance (CRE) – Although this aspect is the one least effected by gains in max force production, strength training using heavy sets of 5 reps does tax the heart consistently and heavily enough to elicit a small increase in CRE.

2. Stamina – Local muscular endurance is increased mightily by increasing maximal force production. As Rip writes in Strong Enough, and explains at every seminar: every pedal stroke in a 100-mile bike race is a repetitive sub-maximal effort that requires a very small percentage of max force production for Bob the cyclist, who can squat 100 pounds. Just to throw out a figure, we’ll say each stroke represents 0.1/100 of Bob’s force production capacity. If we take 6 weeks and double Bob’s squat strength to 200 pounds, now each pedal stroke at the same speed represents only half the previous percentage of Bob’s max effort – 0.1/200, which is 0.05/100 – so he can either go further at the same speed before fatigue, or go faster (by pedaling harder/producing more force) for the same distance.

3. Strength – It seems obvious to this author that increasing your strength will increase your strength. But perhaps I jump to too many conclusions. I’m reckless that way.

4. Flexibility – While increasing force production by taking a magic force production pill may not increase flexibility, we only need deal with realistic scenarios. Increasing strength by utilizing a full range of motion barbell program will increase flexibility if deficient, and maintain flexibility in those who already possess it in sufficient quantities. In some cases of extreme tightness, extra stretching may be necessary at first, but once the ability to assume the key positions in the barbell training program has been attained, simply performing the movements regularly is enough to maintain adequate flexibility in most people.

5. Power – Power is defined as (force x distance) / time. In layman’s terms: strength displayed quickly, or strength…RIGHT NOW! While the ability to recruit the strength you have for immediate use is largely genetic, the strength side of the equation can be trained for and increased significantly. And using some basic math, it’s obvious that if you increase the ‘force’ side of that equation, you increase the power. Even if you do not improve the ‘time’ side of the equation. As Rip says, “A man with a 500lb deadlift will always be able to clean more than a man with a 200lb deadlift.”

6. Speed – Linear running speed is most directly a function of how much force you can put into the ground during your stride. While this seems obvious, it was previously thought that the amount of time between one stride and the next might have a large impact on speed. In a study appearing in The Journal of Applied Physiology in 2000, however, Dr. Peter Weyand determined that all humans take almost exactly the same amount of time between one stride and the next, regardless of their running speed. The major determining factor in speed is not time between strides, but how much force is put into the ground during foot contact. Average runners put significantly less force into the ground than Olympic level sprinters.

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