Be More Useful?

by Keith Pranklin | November 24, 2021

lifter at the bottom of a squat

“Strong people are harder to kill than weak people, and more useful in general.” – Mark Rippetoe.

This quote has always made me laugh, it’s funny but it also tells us in no uncertain terms that being strong is a far more desirable state to be in than it is to being weak. So, why do so many people appear to be in the latter category?

When I joined the Ambulance Service, one of the most practical skills you could learn was to lift. I don’t mean barbells, I mean lifting patients – lifting people. When attending to people who are ill or injured one of the most common things a paramedic will face is that these people need to be carried. This could be to the ambulance from the street, but in my experience it invariably means from upstairs. These patients are even sometimes in the loft (“attic” for our American friends) or in a house that has four floors. I kid you not, it appears that the first thing anyone does when they feel the initial onset of an illness that will remove their ability to walk is to flee to the highest and most inaccessible point in the house.

Listening to one of the Starting Strength podcasts, Mark Rippetoe says that he is concerned not with the competitive athlete but with the athlete's Grandmother. He wants her to be able to deal with the physical demands of life unassisted. I’m paraphrasing here, but this statement really rang bells with me. I have found with nearly 30 years in the Emergency Services and 15 of those in the Ambulance Service that there is a very obvious lack of physical strength, and this is really a small example of Society in general.

When I joined the Ambulance Service the course was structured so that the academic knowledge the student learned was tested within practical scenarios. Every one of these scenarios contained some kind of manual handling. It was obvious from the start that an at-least-average amount of strength would be a necessity if a career in the Ambulance Service was to be long lived. At the time of joining the Service I was (and still am) involved in Martial Arts, and the training that went with this included at least some form of resistance training. So it was that relatively young, and armed with perhaps better than average strength, I found no problem with the day-to-day lifting and manual handling of patients during the course and for quite some time into my service.

This couldn’t, I must admit, be said for every one of my colleagues. There were more than a few people who struggled when it came to the application of strength in the various facets of the role of the Paramedic. It wasn’t that they couldn’t do what was required – it was that doing what was required was much more of an effort than it really should have been.

This all seems to come down to the fact that strength training, although important, is apparently not an attractive pastime for many people. I know plenty of very “fit” people in my line of work, people who train for triathlons and marathons and other great feats of endurance, but not many of these ever really consider the thought of resistance training. And if they do, even fewer consider the thought of embarking on a training program like the NLP.

I also know some very “strong” people in my line of work. I know one or two powerlifters and a couple of crossfitters. I’m sure you can imagine which group of people have the toughest time with the manual handling aspect of our jobs – it’s not the crossfitters, it’s the triathletes. These tasks are even more difficult for the people who don’t engage in any kind of physical exercise at all. It really does appear, from the point of view of keeping oneself healthy in this job, that it benefits us all to get stronger than we need to be for our everyday lives.

Although I was into martial arts and all the training that goes with it when I joined the Service, I hadn’t really trained with barbells, at least not seriously. I had done the get-big-muscles-in-10-weeks-type of “training,” but nothing which had ever gotten me big muscles. This changed when I hurt my back at work. It wasn’t even a difficult or heavy lift, just awkward and I sustained a partial prolapse of the disc between L4/L5. This hurt. A lot. I was referred to a physiotherapist who (wait for the shock) suggested some barbell exercises both as rehab for the existing problem and later to go some way to insure against it happening again – an unusual physiotherapist indeed.

I did some research and found Bill Starr’s 5x5, and without any coaching set about making a hash of that program. I did however start seeing some results – because I was actually training. I eventually found the Blue Book and the NLP. After reading the book (well, while reading the book actually), I began the NLP and after a while, still with no coaching, I got my lifts up to what I thought were fairly good numbers. I then reached out to Carl Raghavan at Beautiful Strength for some coaching to take me to the next level.

After spending some time under the watchful eye of Carl and getting a bit carried away with my progress, he once said to me, “Calm down, you’re not strong yet.”

He has a way of keeping his clients grounded! That certainly put me in my place, but it also got me thinking: I am nearly 50 years old, and although I know I’m not strong yet, I’m definitely stronger than most people that I work with, and most people I know, for that matter. I haven’t really had an issue with my back again, and I’ve become known as the strong dude on the team I work with. I think the point is that I have become stronger than I need to be for my everyday life. I don’t struggle with the day-to-day lifting requirements of my job, I can easily keep up with the kids in their various games and sports, and I’m rarely if ever injured to the point where I need to take time off work. All this I believe is 100% attributable to the pursuit of strength through the application of progressive resistance barbell training.

I think socially and medically, the whole population would be in a far better state of health if strength training was a more prevalent pastime than it currently is.

Carl is right from a Starting Strength point of view: I’m not strong yet, but I’m already stronger than I need to be to cope with any physical demands life throws at me, and that fact certainly makes me harder to kill and much more useful.

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