Optimization: It Doesn’t Mean What You Think It Means

by Gregory Hess | March 23, 2022

soldiers moving across an area

On a rather regular basis I find myself reflecting on the military and collegiate fitness venues that surround me, what I hear from my professional peers, and what I have learned from both personal experience under the barbell and from the Aasgaard Company. All too often a scene from The Princess Bride comes to mind, with the quotation: “You Keep Using That Word. I Do Not Think It Means What You Think It Means."

This popular phrase reveals my gut reaction when hearing the term optimization utilized in strength and conditioning. Optimization can be defined as “the action of making the best or most effective use of a situation or resource.” The conventional wisdom is that acts of athleticism in the weight room, submaximal endurance or hypertrophy work, and extremely specific isolation movements are optimal for improving physical performance.

Obviously, these folks have not read Starting Strength:Basic Barbell Training 3rd ed. or Practical Programming for Strength Training 3rd ed., nor have these experts engaged in long-term systemic training of their own. Prioritizing strength development achieves a more optimal performance capacity than most individuals in today’s collegiate and military weight rooms will ever fully appreciate. The question that comes to mind is: Why? What is the barrier to understanding the most efficient and effective method for improving one’s physical existence and truly optimizing a training plan?

As a little background for the topic at hand, physical performance optimization within the U.S. Army is formally housed within the interdisciplinary Holistic Health and Fitness (H2F) initiative. The five pillars – Physical, Sleep, Nutrition, Mental, and Spiritual – are viewed as complementary areas that cannot and should not be separated. This idea is nothing new, nor is it novel. Obviously peak performance cannot occur if one of these pillars is significantly deficient. However, the currently observed trend is the failure to recognize the phenomenon of novice potential within the Physical Pillar. This occurs as H2F fitness instruction is mandated to include discussions on non-physical topics, i.e. “mindfulness and meditation,” that reduce time that could be dedicated to practical programming. Once again, shiny new things take precedence over the tried-and-true basics.

Daily, submaximal, unilateral, isolation, “sport-specific,” and uncoached tasks are seen as the go-to favorites for most personnel. An example of this sub-optimal approach is evident when examining the Army’s “3-Repetition-Maximum Deadlift” (a.k.a. trap-bar deadlift) from the Army Combat Fitness Test (ACFT) website. The suggested training for this ACFT strength evaluation includes the sumo deadlift with kettlebells, a forward lunge with kettlebells, and the “alternate staggered squat jump.” But not the deadlift. Why would you recommend these inferior exercises versus simply pulling heavy loads from the ground efficiently? The easy answer is just that: it is easier for all involved.

Promoting and allowing individuals to exercise with light weights and sub-efficient technique is much easier and quicker than investing in teaching effective technique and true coaching development. “Show and Go” is the protocol, and exercise variety is seen as a positive. Equipment manufacturers have responded to this trend, selling numerous million-dollar elaborate set-ups via enormous contracts. Unfortunately, the ultimate loser is the individual service member, who will never truly learn about strength, and the novice progression – the rapid initial increases in strength that are the normal part of a correctly-designed barbell strength program – will be significantly diminished, if not eliminated altogether. Something is better than nothing, right? Or is it? It is certainly not optimal as advertised.

Perhaps part of the issue is that service members are said to be “generalists” by default. This means all individuals must be good in many areas of physical proficiency, but not specialized in just one. Strength training is viewed as a separate specialization that need not be continually targeted. The misguided idea that “functional fitness” and displays of innate ability must be practiced for optimal performance persists. This obviously misses the entire point of training for strength: Educated Starting Strength coaches and lifters know that strength is the most general physical adaptation, and the other attributes of fitness derive from strength. Yet again, pop culture and the perpetuation of what appears to work – usually with the genetically gifted – diminishes the development of potential for all others.

The basis for optimal strength development – and therefore optimal performance – remains with the basic barbell movements. And equally important, the process of systematically getting stronger contributes more to the mental and “spiritual” pillars, as the trainee learns that all things are within the grasp of incremental improvement. There need not be bands, chains, endless kettlebell swings, or replications of the physical fitness tests within a retrofitted squat rack. A carefully applied Two-Factor Model approach with the basic barbell arts and the skills used in combat more than sufficiently address the needs of any athlete, student, soldier, sailor, marine, airman, or guardsman. The Starting Strength community realizes this, but the decision-makers almost always fail to grasp the value of investing in progressive strength training. If the overarching goal is to optimize training as a generalist, do so with the most efficient and effective modes available. To be purposefully redundant, “…I do not think it (optimization) means what you think it means.”

Many other fitness trends promoting sub-optimal training stem from the national credentialing agencies, which publish “standards” and recommendations for exercise prescription. One such agency states the strength coach’s “primary tasks are safety, vigilant supervision, and a watchful eye of the implementation of the designed training program.” Note that neither technical knowledge, the necessary personal experience with training, nor the ability to actually improve the trainee's strength are mentioned in the statement. An attempt to “optimize” performance with only a theoretical, superficial understanding of what really works is sub-optimal. Ignorance is bliss in this condition, where “One does not know what one doesn’t know.”

The complexity most fitness “experts” perpetuate includes the unnecessary partitioning of muscular fitness – the separating of muscular strength, muscular endurance, hypertrophy, and power into artificial blocks of time on a calendar, and calling it “Periodization.” The value of prioritizing for strength, especially for the novice trainee, is that all these partitions are improved as a side effect of increasing strength, with no need to specialize in them. They all derive from increased strength, and they all improve as the trainee strengthens. To cite a popular example, what happens when the road cyclist’s squat increases by 100 pounds? The effort expended with each peddle stroke decreases, and muscular endurance has increased since each stroke represents less accumulating effort. Likewise, getting your squat up to 405 does not somehow mean that you lose the ability to run. Getting stronger is therefore a better use of time, since all physical attributes improve without devoting training time to each one.

Use the basic barbell movements, train intelligently and simply, change only what must change to allow progress to continue, and then apply the strength while practicing one’s individual craft. That is real-world optimization.   

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