Strength and its Derivatives

by Mark Rippetoe | August 07, 2019

starting strength poster bottom

The production of force against an external resistance is the way all living creatures interact with their physical environment. Even plants do this, albeit very slowly. This ability has been in development for at least 3 billion years, and it's time to embrace it as a unifying characteristic of life. Even the tiniest scrap of your successful physical existence (your tenure in Hospice does not constitute any aspect of this) is predicated upon your ability to move, and this ability is predicated on the production of force by your muscles. I'm sorry to be so blatantly reductionist, but there it is.

As we have observed rather incessantly, strength is the ability to produce force against an external resistance. In the simplest physical science terms, force is the quantity that produces acceleration – a change in velocity from, for example, zero to any positive number. It is merely a measure of the efficiency with which we can interact with our physical environment over a broad range of circumstances. Note that a strong man can play the piano, while a weak man cannot move the piano.

Athletes and lesser men have something in common: they both depend on strength, whether they know it or not. Athletes depend on it completely, whether they know it or not. Lists of the physical traits of athletes have been produced over the years, but they have been based on the observations of elite athletes in the absence of any attempt to explain why they possess these characteristics. A few moments thought reveals that strength is the basis for athletic prowess. More important, strength is the basis for your ability to interact effectively with your physical environment, be you athlete or insurance salesmen, scholarship candidate or retiree, grandson or grandmother.

It is useful to understand the various ways in which physical strength are manifested. Leaving plants aside (since their time frames are quite dissimilar to ours), humans (and animals too!) benefit from an improved capacity for force production. Some of these manifestations are due to the acquisition of greater strength itself – the physiological consequences to the body of the stress/recovery/adaptation response that increases the ability to produce force. And some are functions of the ability to produce the force.

Strength Acquired

First, lots of important things happen when we get stronger. Our body's systemic integrity increases. Basically, if you apply an environmental stress to a living system that requires an adaptation, i.e. one it is not already adapted to and one that must be adapted to, the organism generates the changes that are within its capacity to make the new environment unstressful. For us, strength training is that environmental stress, carefully designed to be both currently unadapted to, yet able to be adapted to. We respond by getting stronger. Most obviously, our muscles grow larger, because that is one of the primary adaptations that facilitates an increase in strength. The force-transmission structure operated by the muscles – the skeletal system – adapts as well, because it has too; if it didn't, it would break under the increasing force it has to transmit, and 3 billion years has given the system plenty of time to ensure that it won't.

All of the other mechanical parts of the system adapt as well, because they have to. Ligaments, tendons, fascia, cartilage, bursae, synovial components – everything subjected to the load adapts to the load by rendering the load normal to the system. It's still heavy, but it doesn't exceed your capacity when you're exposed to it again, and it improves your ability to perform at a level higher than before. Men have deadlifted well over 900 pounds – more than just their muscles are strong enough to do that.

The neuromuscular system adapts too, early in the process, to the limit of its limited ability. Motor pathways are quickly established that make movement patterns more efficient. Motor units become easier to recruit into contraction. This is why physically active people and those who have previously trained have an advantage over sedentary people. The nerves that operate the muscles also become more efficient, although this is not a robust feature of nervous systems. Nerves are highly specialized terminally-differentiated tissues, and they don't adapt (or heal) nearly as well as the less-specialized structural tissues that happily grow stronger under correctly-programmed training. This is why programs that attempt to focus the majority of attention on neuromuscular efficiency (“rate of force development” training) are largely a waste of time and potential. Strength training focuses on the parts of the system that can actually adapt productively and show a far larger return on the time invested.

All of the parts of the system that support the stress/recovery/adaptation response also adapt, even though this is not immediately apparent. Hormone and immune systems, the autonomic nervous system that controls these functions, energy systems, and even the psychological framework in which all these systems are embedded adapt to strength training by getting better at performing all the functions required of a stronger organism.

starting strength poster top

A stronger person is harder to kill, is more resistant to injury, is less affected by injury, and is less susceptible to the psychological effects of pain, fatigue, discomfort, emotional stress, deprivation, heat, cold, and shitty days. And you can write your own prescription for it.

1. Strength Displayed as Endurance

If you get stronger, your ability to lift a maximum load improves: the stronger you are, the more weight you can lift. This is always true, for everybody every time. Improved strength means only one thing, Dr. Siff's Supertraining notwithstanding, because strength is the ability to produce force. Strength training is therefore the systematic process of increasing the amount of weight you can lift. This means that calisthenics, kettlebell swings for 5 minutes, running, playing with the dumbbells on the balance balls, suspension training, Navy SEAL swimming, yoga, Pilates, P90X, Fight Gone Bad, and anything that confuses your muscles is not strength training. Strength training is simply the process by which you enable yourself to lift heavier weights than you can now. If the activity doesn't force you – and thereby enable you – to lift heavier weights, it may be fun and it may burn calories and make you hot, sweaty, and tired, but it isn't strength training.

When you are stronger, everything lighter than the heaviest weight you can lift is by definition submaximal. Movements that are performed with bodyweight, that are repetitive, done for a period of time, or assessed with a stopwatch/clock/calendar are inherently submaximal. And the stronger you are, the more sub-maximal they are. Performances that last longer than a couple of minutes are endurance activities, such as distance running and cycling. Even sprints of any type represent submaximal force production, since they are accumulations of submaximal repetitions.

A 1-rep max squat (1RM) is a maximum effort. So a 100m sprint is a 45RM, a mile is a 2250RM, and a marathon is a 55,000RM. Getting stronger benefits all of these submaximal strength expressions by making each component repetition a smaller percentage of 1RM, thus enabling either more force production per rep and greater total velocity, or a less fatiguing performance at the same velocity. Endurance is therefore an expression of strength.

2. Strength Displayed Technically

Balance is a submaximal expression of strength as well. Balance is the ability to control the body's position in space, specifically the ability to keep the center of mass (COM) over the feet by either 1.) controlling moment arms created between the COM and the balance point with isometric strength, or 2.) shifting the feet rapidly enough that moment arms between the COM and the mid-foot to do not become unmanageable. That this is strength-related should be apparent from the statistics of people suffering injury during a fall: the severity of injuries sustained during a fall vary directly with age. Older people are not as strong as younger people, so they are both more prone to falling and more prone to injury upon contact due to lower systemic integrity.

Coordination is the ability to control complex movement patterns. Sports like tennis, hockey, basketball, downhill skiing, hurdles, and everyday activities like juggling the groceries, dodging 3 dogs lying in the floor while juggling the groceries, climbing a ladder with a full paint can and brush, and running through the airport are examples of coordination-dependent activities. All of these activities are dependent upon force production in complex ways. A stronger athlete is more coordinated on the ice than that same weaker athlete, since positional control is a function of force production between your body's mass and the ground and the implements you are using. If the groceries or the paint can are heavy for you, your coordination will suffer. This also gets worse as you age out of your strength.

Accuracy and precision may be a little harder to understand as strength-dependent qualities, and the use of these terms in this context is not the same as it would be in common speech. In sports, the concept of accuracy is best described as the ability to perform as closely as possible to the described standards of the performance. For example, throwing a baseball at the catcher's mitt in the desired path at the exact position necessary, or hitting that pitch with the position and timing that produces the best hit. Precision is the ability to execute accuracy repeatedly and dependably.

Strength is involved in that each expression of accuracy depends on exquisite control of the movement, to the extent that congruence with the desired pattern is hard to maintain at very high intensities. A surplus of strength is necessary for fine motor control: Olympic weightlifting, the hammer throw, discus, javelin, the shot put – moving heavy things in ways that demand technical perfection are dependent on strength levels far above that which is merely necessary to move the implement. This applies to lighter implements as well, since repeated efforts under accumulating fatigue are even more dependent on the submaximal nature of the movement. Since stronger makes things more submaximal, strength benefits movement patterns that are dependent on accuracy and precision.

Mobility is a popular term, and actually means “able to be mobile” – it should not be used when what is meant is “flexibility,” meaning the ability to stretch a joint into an extended ROM. More time has been wasted in the gym by stretching than by looking at yourself in the mirror. If you are flexible enough to perform your sport and to use full ROM barbell exercises, you are sufficiently flexible. Most people who train already possess sufficient range of motion around their joints, and for them intentional efforts to create additional ROM are counterproductive in terms of both time and performance.

Training for strength improves mobility as a side-effect of full-ROM barbell exercise, and benefits people who need it without their having to waste time stretching while not getting stronger. (In the event that the ROM is limited by osteoarthritis, stretching is both ineffective and dangerous.) Older people – the demographic that displays a limited ROM most frequently – are almost always limited in their displayed ROM by their strength: they will not use a ROM they cannot control, because their bodies know not to fall. For these people, strength training improves ROM without stretching, because strength training uses a full ROM in the exercises, developing strength and familiarity with the positions simultaneously. For everybody else, hypermobility and the stretching that produces it causes injuries and reduces power production. Tight joints are stable joints. Just train and quit wasting time. 

3. Strength Displayed Quickly

Power is best understood as “strength displayed quickly.” The ability to explode is power, and it is the common denominator for the vast majority of sports, with several other characteristics derived from this aspect of strength. Yet the ability to explode – a neuromuscular efficiency-dependent characteristic – is not very trainable, as evidenced by the lack of marked improvement in the Standing Vertical Jump test over time. The ability to recruit large numbers of motor units into contraction instantly is largely a function of genetic endowment. The NFL tests power capacity with the SVJ test, because they are looking for explosive athletes who have highly efficient neuromuscular systems. If you're going to pay a guy several million dollars to play your explosive sport, it's reasonable to try to find the most naturally explosive athletes you can – especially if your S&C staff doesn't understand what they're supposed to be doing.

But power is in fact trainable by competent strength coaches, because it is defined by three variables:

P = (F x d)/t

where F is force, d is the distance over which the force is applied, and t is the time of the force application. The distance is largely determined by the test and the dimensions of the athlete: a punch is as long as the boxer's reach, and a snatch ROM is limited by the lifter's height. Time is the “explosion” variable, the one you can't control very well since it is dependent on genetic neuromuscular endowment, and F is force. Force is strength

The value of P goes up if the value of t goes down or the value of F goes up. The algebra shows us that if strength goes up, even for a person of average SVJ capacity, power has gone up too, in the complete absence of any improvement in explosive capacity. As we have seen, it is hard to significantly affect explosive ability, but it is possible to improve strength for years, and an average man can double his deadlift in a relatively short period of time. A kid with a very-average 24-inch vertical can hit you harder with a 405 squat than the same kid with a 185 squat, and a 405 squat is just not that hard to train in a kid of normal size and ability.

Speed is power displayed repeatedly, the ability to move at a high velocity. It obviously requires a high level of force production, since velocity is the result of acceleration and force is the quantity that produces acceleration. Speed is tested by the 40-meter sprint in the NFL Combine. Sports which require speed are dependent upon strength, one way or another, and getting stronger improves performances in speed-dependent sports. If this seems rather obvious, good, it should be. It is amazing that people who should understand this often do not.

Agility is the ability to rapidly accelerate, decelerate, and change the direction of your body's own mass. The NFL tests this with the cone drill, and there is no more obvious an example of strength than an athlete's ability to accelerate for 5 yards, decelerate and change directions, in absolute control of his body's 255 pounds. It has elements of coordination, power, speed, and balance.

Field Strength is a term I first heard from my friend John Welbourn. I would describe it as derivative of and related to agility. Field strength is the ability to apply force effectively from a position that is technically off-balance – where your COM is not over your feet, a position encountered in every field and court sport where your shoes provide traction against the surface. Agility is your control of your position as it changes rapidly, whereas field strength is your ability to be effective even in a position where your control has deteriorated. A field athlete must be effective in every position he encounters during performance, and the stronger he is, the more force he can still use in a compromised balance position.

Too strong?

In an apparently automatic reaction to the suggestion that athletes and other humans should get stronger, the same straw man is always trotted out: Not everybody needs to squat 600 pounds. Not everybody needs to be a powerlifter, Rippetoe, you moron.

1. I never said that. But that won't stop you from saying I did. Enjoy your typing.

2. Getting stronger does not require a specialization in competitive powerlifting. However, it does require more than playing in the floor with dumbbells on balance balls and skipping around the gym. It requires very few progressively loaded basic barbell exercises that use the whole skeletal system and which contain a balance component. If you are performing more than about 6 exercises, you are substituting exercise variety for strength acquisition. This is not productive.

3. If you can't take an untrained 18-year-old kid from his first workout to a double-bodyweight deadlift in 6 months, you are not a Strength Coach, even if that's what your shirt says. And if you can't take an older person from her first deadlift workout to double that weight in 6 months, you are not a Strength Coach. This is not a remarkable achievement – it is merely baseline competence in this profession. Up your game, or Learn To Code.

4. Increased strength should be acquired as a general part of all human physical preparation. Athlete or not, it is your responsibility to yourself to treat your training as part of your work day. Most people will understand how to appropriately prioritize it within their schedules as they become more familiar with the process. Effective strength training does not replace other activities – it enhances them. It cannot be allowed to interfere with other priorities, but it must be a priority, an important part of the schedule of a responsible person.

To summarize: We are physical beings: physical existence is the basis of everything we experience. Strength is the ability to produce force, and is the foundation of human physical existence. The production of force is the basis of our interaction with the environment. The improvement of our capacity to produce force improves the systemic integrity of our bodies, and improves the quality of our lives. And since strength is the basis of endurance, balance, coordination, accuracy and precision, mobility, power, speed, agility, and field strength, improving strength improves all these characteristics of good athletes and effective humans.

Discuss in Forums

Starting Strength Weekly Report

Highlights from the StartingStrength Community. Browse archives.

Your subscription could not be saved. Please try again.
Your subscription has been successful.