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Strength, Skill; Skill, Strength?

Posted Sep 30 2009 10:13pm

One prominent  and controversial question in strength training circles: Is training strength and demonstrating strength the same thing or different things?  In other words, what’s the best way to build strength – by “demonstrating” it through heavy maximal lifts, explosive movements, and plain-ol’ ‘ lifting stuff ‘, or by ‘training it’ through more measured and precise means?

This is a huge waste of mental energy (better directed towards actually exercising).

To clarify what I mean, take a look at my foster kids’ handstand form:kidshandstand

For my convenience’s sake (l.-r.): Max, Shirley, Santa

Who would you say is the strongest?  Why?

Note the following observations:

  • Santa has near perfect form (it’s only imperfect because she’d been holding the handstand for a minute waiting for her siblings to get into their handstands).  It’s safe to say she’s not only well-practiced at handstands, she’s strong for her size.
  • Upper body wise, Shirley is the weakest in the upper body – you can see her arms beginning to give way to the weight of her torso and legs (alas, her leg falling forward makes this obvious).
  • Max fell over a split second after this picture was taken.  And yet, he’d be the first one of the three I’d enlist to help me carry a Murphy bed up three flights of stairs.

Of course, it’s a trick question.  You can probably see what I’m getting at here.  Strength can be demonstrated.  But in order to be demonstrated:

1) You have to be able to demonstrate it (skill).

2) You need to have strength to demonstrate.

Pick a different skill (say, carrying a Murphy bed up three flights of stairs with a partner) and the evaluation changes.  Now, it’s clear who’s “strongest” – the only one capable of performing the task at all.

All this is mental piffle.  For actual exercise purposes, here’s what it boils down to:

The muscular/joint system has one global job: To move your body through space.  There is a near-infinite number of potential movements in which your body can be propelled (an infinite number of “skills”).  To effect the greatest change, choose those movements that are most global in scope (that effectively work the most muscle) and most applicable to your goals (after all,  a ballet dancer and your bocce ball-playing grandfather probably have markedly differing fitness goals) and apply measured, precise doses of exercise to improve the capacity of that muscle.

So it doesn’t matter if you lift a sandbag or a chrome-plated machine handle.  Work hard at increasing your ability; make it so that you can do more today than you could yesterday or yesteryear.  You’ll never master every skill known to man.  But you can make yourself a better version of yourself by mastering a few skills.  You even get to choose which skills they are.

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