A New Definition for Strength Training

by Mark Rippetoe | April 19, 2023

What exactly is “strength training”? This is a legitimate question, because the internet seems to think that anything more strenuous than billiards can be referred to as Strength Training. I have seen almost everything you can do in a gym referred to as “strength training.”

If an organized program of activity is going to make you stronger, it has to satisfy one important criterion: it must increase the force production capacity of the body during the execution of normal human movement patterns, thus increasing the strength of the entire body for any physical endeavor. All human movements are subsets of six basic movement patterns determined by musculoskeletal anatomy, and if we strengthen these basic movement patterns we strengthen everything derivative from them, without having to attempt to train the derivatives in isolation – which doesn't work anyway.

So, we train movement patterns, not muscles or muscle groups. But first, what is training? “Training is the process of accumulating the specific physiological adaptations necessary for improved performance in an athletic event. These adaptations depend entirely upon the physical nature of the performance in question. They may be 1.) metabolic, involving changes to the chemistry in operation within existing tissue, as in endurance-based sports, or 2.) structural, involving the growth of new contractile/connective tissue and bone densification, as in sports involving explosive maximal effort, or 3.) a combination of the two.” [The Two-Factor Model of Sports Performance]

What Is Not Strength Training

Bodybuilding is not strength training. Bodybuilding uses weights and machines, but the entire purpose of bodybuilding is to improve aesthetics, not strength. It is concerned with body parts, muscle groups, “muscularity,” “definition,” and proportion. It is not concerned with the measurable production of force, and to the extent that it trains progressively, it does so for the sole purpose of increasing muscle mass for the sake of subjective appearance. But most of the time bodybuilding gets interpreted as bodyfat loss, especially at the entry level. A bodybuilding show is judged in precisely the same way a beauty contest is judged: who is the most beautiful contestant on the stage tonight?

I just heard from a guy who was coaching his son for a bodybuilding show. The kid is 5'11” at 168 lean, muscular, vascular, tanned, shredded pounds. He is not very strong. But it doesn't matter, as long as he is the best-looking kid on the stage. Bodybuilding is not about strength.

Powerlifting, or Olympic weightlifting, or “strongman” is not strength training. Those are competitive sports that use strength training (sometimes, if their coaches understand it) to prepare for competition. But none of these are substitutes for a correctly-designed strength program, since strength is not the sole determinant of competitive success in these three sports. Louie Simmons was not a strength coach, and neither was Ivan Abadjiev – they were barbell-sport coaches, and that's not the same thing.

“Functional training” is not strength training. As it is commonly understood, “functional training” is the use of light weights for higher reps in the context of a wide variety of unilateral exercises using dumbbells or kettlebells, and which attempts to mimic the movements encountered in sports or “life.” The load being lifted is never the bottleneck in performing an exercise that has been specifically designed to create a balance or stability problem, so strength cannot be improved. And sports “practice” – the repetitive execution of movements that depend on accuracy and precision under the conditions in which they will be displayed during the performance – makes mimicking its movements in the weight room impossible, unnecessary, and pointless. Dancing in the weight room with light weights is just a form of masturbation.

Strength training does not use dumbbells, kettlebells, or pushups and situps, or side-straddle hops, or “burpees,” or Nautilus machines, or unicycles, or colorful balls, because strength training must produce a programmable long-term increase in strength, and these exercises cannot do that. In order to produce an increase in strength, the execution of the movement must be limited by your ability to produce force, and you must regularly challenge your force production ability. In other words, increasingly heavy weights are required to increase strength.

Swinging a kettlebell for 10 minutes does not test your ability to generate enough force to swing the kettlebell – if you can swing it for 10 minutes, it's not heavy – if you can swing it for 10 minutes, you can swing it for 12 minutes. It may be a test of your attention span, but not of your ability to produce high levels of force. Likewise, Nautilus machines cannot drive a strength adaptation, because strength is neither developed nor utilized one muscle group or one joint at a time. Push-ups and sit-ups and calisthenics use bodyweight for high reps, and high reps for bodyweight do not make you strong.

What is Strength Training

The only way to get better at producing high levels of force is to produce progressively increasing levels of force on a regular basis, for the purpose of accumulating that adaptation. Force production, like any other adaptation, must be driven by repeated challenges to the current level of ability. Playing your scales slowly on the keyboard does not increase your ability to play them faster. And light weights do not challenge force production capacity, and therefore cannot drive a strength adaptation.

When we talk of strength training, we are discussing normal human movement patterns that involve multiple joints, multiple systems of leverage, and lots of muscle mass operating over a long range of motion while involving a balance component that ensures the participation of the majority of the neuromuscular system. The strength adaptation thus produced is applicable to all other movement patterns, since they all derive from a few very basic movements natural to the human musculoskeletal system.

The trainable basic movement patterns are:

  1. Squatting down and standing back up
  2. Picking something up from the ground
  3. Pushing something up overhead
  4. Pushing something away from you
  5. Pulling something toward you
  6. Throwing something up and catching it

These movement patterns can all be safely executed, loaded under resistance, and progressively increased in loading over time. There are dozens of other movements that do not fit these criteria – crawling, walking, running, climbing trees, square dancing, building a snowman – and which cannot be trained for strength.  

Correct performance requires the greatest amount of muscle mass involved over the longest effective range of motion, for the purpose of lifting the heaviest weight and thereby increasing strength. Correct programming requires regularly planned incremental increases in load.

Each movement pattern has its own barbell exercise that corresponds to the movement, and when performed correctly and programmed progressively that exercise adequately stresses the kinetic chain involved in the movement to produce a strength adaptation. And with the exception of the bench press, each of them is performed while standing under a load – not falling down is inherent in their performance, and each of them is therefore a balance exercise as well as a strength exercise. I would submit that not falling down with 500 pounds is a more impressive demonstration and practice of balance than not falling down with a 20-pound dumbbell.

Each of these exercises has a “key,” and mastering them is not difficult. It just takes an awareness that there is a place to focus your attention in each movement, and that your concentration must be on that piece of the system, not the weight on the bar.

Squatting Down and Standing Back Up

This fundamental human movement pattern is trained most effectively by the barbell squat. When loaded heavily enough, it uses the entire body and all of the muscle mass, most of it in eccentric/concentric contraction, the rest in isometric contraction. The squat is the most important exercise in the strength program, and provides greater stimulation for increased muscle mass than any of the other 5. I have devoted quite a few thousands of words to the correct execution of the squat, and the other lifts as well – analysis of the movement for efficiency and effectiveness, and for moving the most weight – so I won't reprise it here. 

lifter at the bottom of a squat

But the key to the squat is the use of the hips, not the knees. You lower your ass into the bottom of the squat and then drive your ass straight up out of the bottom, never losing focus on your ass. Think about a spot right on top of your sacrum, and pretend that the bar is sitting right there while you shove it up out of the bottom, never thinking about your knees or quads. Quads are involved since the knees extend – they get trained accidentally, but they are certainly not the majority of the muscle mass trained by the squat, and they are not our focus.

Hip drive is the key to completing a heavy squat, and it must be learned. Hip drive's enemy is raising the chest, which you will have to unlearn. Watch enough video and you will see that raising the chest kills the bar speed on the way up.

Picking Something Up Off the Ground

The deadlift trains this movement. The barbell permits the movement to be more efficient than picking up a rock, but the strength increase produced by the deadlift applies to rocks, sacks of corn, boxes of file paper, dead bodies, and everything else you encounter in daily life. The main advantage to the barbell is that it's very easy to hold on to, and it can be pulled up in a straight line right over the middle of the foot, in balance from floor to lockout.

lifter locking out a deadlift

The deadlift is the most accessible of the barbell exercises – people who are too detrained to press or squat can still deadlift something, and then go up 5 pounds the next workout. It's the most useful exercise in the gym across a wide demographic. If you train older people, they will be deadlifting, because they almost always can perform the exercise, and they can slowly increase the weight.

The key to the deadlift is to not think about pulling the bar – you set your back hard and push your feet into the floor, essentially pushing the bar away from the floor. This produces a knee extension that gets it moving without shoving it forward and out of balance. The bar remains over the mid-foot, in balance, and you think about shoving the middle of your foot straight down into the floor while the bar rides up your shins.

Pushing Something Up Overhead

Your arms can push and pull things. We are anterior creatures, with everything facing forward, more or less. So our arms can push up and forward; they can pull down and back. Up is the overhead press, forward is the bench press, down is the chin-up/pull-up, and back is the barbell row. The deadlift is a “pull” in the sense that the arms transmit force to the bar, but the elbows stay straight as the bar comes up for maximum force transmission efficiency. When driving something up overhead or forward, extending elbows are part of the process, like flexing elbows are for the chin-up and barbell row. 

lifter locking out a press

The press trains pushing something up overhead. It's done out of the rack set at about the same height as the squat. The bar is walked back, the set is performed, and the bar is re-racked. The key to the press is that it is not done in a strict fashion, but rather with movement of the whole body. The hips (not the knees) are used to start the bar upward, then you drive it up as close to your nose as you can, and as it crosses the top of the head you move forward under the bar, locking it out with straight elbows and a shrug from the traps.

The press is the most difficult of the barbell exercises to get strong. The distance between the bar and the floor at lockout is the longest potential lever that can be applied to the human body, and controlling the moment arm on this potentially long lever is one of the more challenging movement problems in barbell training. And the muscle groups involved in the lockout overhead are relatively small in proportion to those that finish the squat and the deadlift. The press has the longest kinetic chain of any of the exercises we use, and there is no better work for the abs than stabilizing the spine during heavy presses. For this reason, a heavy press is the best balance exercise in the weight room, far better than any contrived unilateral dumbbell instability exercise.

Pushing Something Away From You

The bench press trains this movement – since it is 90 degrees from overhead, a bench must support you instead of your feet on the ground. Even though you are laying on a bench for support, the bar path must be controlled for both efficiency and safety. This is the only movement pattern we train where the body is not supported by the feet while standing on the floor. The feet and legs serve to connect the base of shoulder contact with the bench to the floor for support, and they are actively involved even though they are not part of the kinetic chain. The other exercises more than compensate for this deficit in the bench press.

The key to the bench press is thinking about your position between the bar and the bench – you push them apart. You're not just pushing on the bar, even though that is what moves. Your upper back actively drives into the surface of the bench while your grip on the bar drives it up. Supporting this position on the bench is important, and you have to drive your feet into the floor to reinforce your chest-up position under the bar. The kinetic chain is shorter than the press, so the bench press allows the use of much heavier weights, since a shorter kinetic chain is easier to stabilize and there are fewer places to leak power – like the rack pull is to the deadlift, but with the force vector at 90 degrees to the body's axis. It also keeps your pecs from being floppy.

Pulling Something Toward You

The chin-up trains this movement – it's the only important non-barbell exercise we use. Chin-ups and pull-ups are the same except for the forearm/wrist supination/pronation. The supine wrists of the chin-up add the biceps of the upper arm to the muscle mass being trained, and more muscle mass is always better. You are obviously not standing on your feet during a chin, and the muscle mass of the legs and trunk are not supporting your position; it's the only one of the exercises we do without base contact. 

lifter in the middle of a chin up

It's also the only bodyweight exercise we do – reps up to about 15 work well for chins, especially considering the fact that as your bodyweight goes up as a result of the rest of the program, your chins are going up too. Most people cannot do more than a few chins when they start training, so they have to start out easier. Add weight later if you want to, with a weighted-dip belt. This is an important basic movement pattern for shoulder strength and stability, and it can be improved over time – trained – albeit more slowly than squats and deadlifts due to the lower amount of muscle mass involved.

If you pull the bar toward you as you hang from it, you're actually pulling yourself up. The key to the chin-up is to pull the chest all the way up until it touches the bar at the top of every rep, and then to return to straight elbows and vertical shoulders at the bottom. A partial range of motion chin is pointless – you'd rather do 5 complete chins than 10 done only “most” of the way up and back down to only 120-degree elbows.

In fact, a full range-of-motion chin on a lat pulldown machine with lighter than bodyweight is preferable to a partial chin done with resistance bands, which deload the bottom of the ROM too much. If you can't train the full ROM, you can't strengthen the full ROM, and by adding a little weight on the lat machine every workout to the full ROM, you can eventually work up to a bodyweight chin. And if you don't practice using the full ROM while you're strengthening it, it will never be available to you.

The barbell row is also a way to train a version of this movement pattern, and for more advanced lifters it is a perfectly reasonable exercise. We don't use it for novices since they are already doing deadlifts and cleans, and don't need another floor pull. Done correctly, it is a dynamic movement like the power clean, since you cannot pull a heavy weight from the floor to your belly slowly. You have to get it moving quickly and finish the pull with a little “english” at the top. If it's light enough to do strictly and slowly, it doesn't accomplish the mission. Like all strength training movements, light weights do not produce a strength adaptation.

Throwing Something Up and Catching It

This movement is trained by the power clean. Those of us that have worked outside doing manual labor know that movements like this occur “in the field” every day. If you're going to load an object laying on the ground into a truck, a bale of hay or the aforementioned dead body for example, you have to shift from pulling it to catching it above the waist, and this involves some acceleration during the pull. Most people find this to be a perfectly natural movement, and welcome the clean into their strength program. But most coaches are not comfortable with teaching it – it's one of these things that's actually easier to do 90% correctly without coaching than to coach to 100%. 

lifter racking a clean

The key to the clean is to finish the first part of the movement – the pull from the floor – with straight elbows having pulled the bar as fast as possible off the ground, and only then drop down and rack it on the shoulders. Any deviation from a completed pull with straight elbows is inefficient, exactly like towing a car with a stretchy spring instead of a chain.

You have to learn that the pull is from the hips and knees, and that the elbows bend only after the bar has been accelerated up as high as possible with straight arms. The clean is not an upright row – elbows facilitate the rack, not the pull. This is hard for some people to learn, and even harder to coach. This makes the power clean a valuable movement because even though the weight is light relative to the deadlift, you have to learn to focus on the details of the movement. This increases movement efficiency across all the lifts – paying attention is a useful skill.

Train Movements, Not Muscles

Humans move in ways controlled by their skeletal and muscular anatomy, their habits, and their environmental requirements. By focusing on correctly strengthening the movement patterns, you learn to move more correctly and efficiently, and you strengthen all the kinetic chain components of the movement patterns in precisely the way they contribute to the movement. You also save a lot of time and aggravation, and you don't look silly in the gym. By broadening your focus onto the whole movement instead of its constituent pieces, you start training instead of just exercising and wasting time.

I'm sorry that I've presented some things you may disagree with, since everybody knows that kettlebells are strength training, and that Louie Simmons was a strength coach, and that Gold's Gym is a strength training facility. I don't want to make you feel bad – I just want you to think.

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