Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Superhuman Strength

What is strength?
What does it mean to be strong?
When you think of someone who's strong, who do you think of?
My answer is pretty simple and fairly ridiculous. 

Truth be told Superheros are why I got into the game. I wanted to be bigger, stronger and faster than any of the bullies that kicked my a$$ as a little kid. I wanted to be able to do things other people couldn't even fathom. I did not, however, have any desire to wear brightly colored spandex in public (despite what my friend Katie might say about me). 

My first foray into the gym involved a lot of bodybuilding. Everything was about aesthetics. Sure, I was trying to put as much freakin' weight on the bar as I could handle, but ultimately it all came down to lots of reps and lots of exercise. I killed myself with volume because that's what the physical monoliths of my youth were preaching. Arnold seemed pretty damn superhuman to me as a kid as did Lou Ferrigno. I mean, he played the freaking HULK before everything was all CGI and fake muscle suits. I wanted to look like them because In my early days I lacked the education to understand a simple truth about real strength. It's not about how you look or how big you are. Strength is more complicated than that and the superheros I worshipped nightly by flashlight were more than just big. They were invincible. I wanted to become invincible.

My odyssey into the fitness realm has had it's share of detours and odd expeditions. I spent an entire year doing only calisthenics and bodyweight exercises because I was suckered by the functional fitness goons. A little too much of my career was dedicated to mastering resistance bands and their multiple applications before realizing they were a crutch at best; something to be used as a supplement but hardly a core component of a real program. I even experimented with eccentric training, a fad that came and went about eight years ago that involved only focusing on eccentric training.  I was so drunk on the functional fitness snake oil that I genuinely believed I was the definition of strength. 

I was wrong.

Competitive martial arts taught me a lot about real functional strength. Being manhandled by a female half your size forces you to re-evaluate your standards real fast, as does learning how to shoot a takedown and literally throw another human being. I'd lied to myself. I thought my 250 lb bench press meant something. I believed my ability to rip off push ups and squats by the hundreds mattered.Then I went for my first take down and my partner laughed at me because I couldn't even move him. He was probably a buck fifty soaking wet while I was easily 180 in those days.  

Then I came upon powerlifting and olympic lifting. Watching someone who weighs less than two hundred lbs. pull three times that from a dead stop shattered the paradigms I'd created in my mind. I thought my 225 squat was pretty badass until I saw a guy smaller than me use it for his warm up. The sheer power to weight ratio of some of these athletes is freaking absurd. 

Interestingly enough I think what affected me the most was an editorial I read by a soldier on the definition of fitness. Soldiers have a different perspective on it than we do. Fitness is directly related to their ability to survive. Not working out doesn't lead to guilt or a potbelly, it could be dangerous. It could be fatal. I've always admired the mental toughness of soldiers and avidly devoured any of the reading material i could get my hands on about their training methods. Not surprisingly, the training of the modern soldier has evolved a lot in the last twenty years just as the fitness field has. I don't remember the exact quote but it was something like this. The author was talking about what it meant to be fit and simply put he said that if you can't carry a wounded squad mate and eighty lbs of gear half a mile and then keep fighting as far as he's concerned you're not worth shit.


Think about that. Do you think you could carry another human being half a mile and then do anything after that? The average American certainly couldn't and I'd guess that's probably also true worldwide. You can take this one of two ways. You can acknowledge the truth in his statement: that our culture has come so far from dependence on physicality that most of us are weak and fragile; or you can get all upset and defensive and throw all the reasons why you shouldn't have to do that and why it's unrealistic at me and that's fine, but it won't change the fact that you're weak. You can be stronger than you are and I can show you how.

Why should you care? Simple really. Strength is the foundation of everything. If you're strong you're durable and capable. You are less prone to injury and more functional in every facet of your life. Don't you want to be strong enough to protect the ones you care about whether it be from an assailant, a fire or a natural disaster? Shouldn't you be strong enough to protect yourself? With a little effort and dedication you can be. It's not as hard as you think.

Ok, well, it's not as complicated anyway. 

Strength: What is it and how do I get it?

Generally speaking there's two kinds of strength.
-Absolute strength: This is simply the measure of your ability to lift a certain amount of weight through a movement. Scores are not adjusted for lean mass or body size in any way.

-Relative strength: This is the measure of how strong you are with the size of your body taken into account. You can get complicated with it and measure relative strength as a product of fat free mass (FFM) but for our purposes here that's a little more intense than necessary. 

In my opinion relative strength is really what the everyman (and woman) should be concerned with. There's always going to be someone bigger than you and stronger than you. You can't change your genetics but you can maximize your genetic potential. 

Moderate strength goals for a lifter with 1-2 years experience (keep in mind these are MODERATE. Really.) For women just chop .25 bodyweight off each recommendation. 

Bench press : body weight
Squat: 1.5x body weight
Deadlift 2x body weight

Think about that for a second. That means the average dude who is moderately strong should be able to deadlift about 350lbs at least once. Think you could do that? The advanced goals for someone who's been lifting for more than two years are as follows.

Bench: 1.5-2 times bodyweight
Squat: 2-2.5 times bodyweight
Deadlift: 2.5-3 times bodyweight

The reason I made the guidelines for this a bit softer is because progressions slows as you become an experienced lifter. Additionally it's not terribly realistic to expect someone who's 6'4" 235 to be able to deadlift 3 times their bodyweight and I'd hardly say that makes them weak. Again, these are really just guidelines to give you an idea of what it truly means to be strong and what can realistically accomplished in a few years of hard work. These are not meant to make you think you suck just because you haven't hit them. I just want to help you guys go through the same mental paradigm shift I did.

So...how do you get there? 5 reps at a time.

The 5x5 method is a golden oldie. People have been using it to get strong since the advent of the barbell. There's nothing crazy about it, nothing supernatural or snake oily. It just takes work. Technically the formula for the 5x5 is to do 80% of your one rep max (1RM) but that involves going for a max which can be dangerous without a spotter...and sometimes it just doesn't work that way. The body is a funny thing. 80% came from testing hundreds of people and averaging what they were doing, so the standard deviation could be like 10% (meaning 70-90% of 1RM ). Your body might only be able to do 75% or maybe it can do 83%. The best way to find out is to go lift. It'll take you a few sessions to figure it out but it's worth it and better than following a formula. You need to learn to listen to your body, not to use a calculator.

So how do you work it in?

Well it depends on what your current goals are. If you are doing a full training split on multiple days I would recommend starting each workout with 1 5x5 of a big compound movement (think squat/bench/deadlift) and then add in all your accessory work (read:other stuff) after that. For one thing working through a 5x5 will make sure you're good and warm for the rest of your workout and the other thing is that this type of lifting severely stresses your nervous system so you want to go at it when you are as fresh as possible. 

If you are doing more of a body part split (read: one or two body parts per day once a week) then work in the lifts on the relevant days. You can squat on leg day and bench on chest day, that's fairly obvious. Deadlifts could either go on leg day (although i wouldn't do a 5x5 of a squat and a 5x5 of a deadlift on the same day) or you can throw it in on back day to get a little more full body work in. As a general recommendation if you are a beginner I would not recommend doing multiple work sets of a deadlift in a given week. It jacks up your nervous system for longer than pretty much any other lift will. Increases in volume will come later, first just focus on perfecting the technique. 

You can also try an entirely strength based program. The two best ones I'm aware of are Stronglifts and Starting Strength. Personally I think starting strength is the better of the two in terms of raw strength. It is slightly less volume (3x5 per exercise where stronglifts is 5x5 every exercise) and it involves power cleans, which I love. That being said, if you are new to lifting learning a highly technical olympic style lift is probably not only unrealistic but downright dangerous. Stronglifts swaps out the clean for Bent Over rows which in some ways also balances the program out more (SS is pretty push-dominant). The exercises are shown to the right. Press, in this case, is referring to a standing overhead press. All the exercises are done with barbells and YES this matters. They are both meant to be done on alternating days with a day of rest in between. For example Monday - workout a, Tue - rest, Wed- Workout B, lather rinse repeat. You are also supposed to add 5 lbs to each lift every week. It really is that simple and yes, they both work frighteningly well as long as you keep track of your numbers and stay disciplined. I think it also bears mentioning that you should do a proper warm up before you hit your work sets, but thats really as easy as doing a couple of 3-5 rep sets of increasing weight. Just make sure you don't tire yourself out during your warm up, you god damn rookie. 

We need to move past the stigma that heavy lifting is just for jocks and meatheads. That's like saying financial planning is just for the wealthy. We can all benefit from it, no matter our age, gender, or level of strength. In fact, women more than anyone need to be convinced to lift heavier. I'm tired of hearing "I don't want to get bulky." You can't get bulky and if you don't lift heavy enough weight you won't change at all. Real progress requires hard work, ladies. I know you've got it in you.

The benefits of heavy lifting are myriad. Stronger bones and stronger joints increase your resistance to injury. The 5x5 not only increases your muscle muss but increases your nervous system's control of it leading to genuine, transferrable functional strength. When I went back to kickboxing training after I started powerlifting the difference in how the bag moved was almost comedic. Every contact sounded like a gunshot. The bag jumped and the roof rattled. Frankly, it was f*cking awesome.

Heavy lifting increases your core strength like crazy. People debate this all the time but i think the reality is fairly obvious. If you are going to support literally hundred of pounds your core has to be incredibly strong. I've seen people completely get rid of lower back pain by beginning a regimen of heavy lifting, something that most people would consider counter intuitive. It all goes back to developing those healthy movement patterns and maximizing their efficiency. Healthy movements, healthy body. Strong movements, strong body. Not quite so counterintuitive as it seems really. 

Heavy lifting also confers a mental strength that other types of training simply don't. There is a lot to be said for the mental toughness of endurance athletes, no argument there, but if you think you're tough why don't you let me put three hundred pounds on your back and see if you can even hold it up. The Brotherhood of the Iron is outlandish and borderline insane but it's also an unspoken bond between those who've been through a trial by fire and come out without quitting. Becoming Invincible isn't just about being fit. It's about being strong and tough. It's about being durable as f*ck and capable as hell in any scenario life has to throw at you whether it's a weight room floor or a zombie apocalypse. Strength matters. Period. Now go out there and lift something heavy.

Good luck and good lifting.



  1. can I do bodyweight exercises and 5x5, they get realy fit in prison with out weights, is reg park version ok,

  2. This comment has been removed by the author.

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