What is “strength” in Strength & Conditioning?

Define strength.

Depending on who you are, what education you have, or what type of training you do has everything to do with the answer to that question. In school you’re taught strength to be one specific answer that is definable by the textbook you’re working all semester to pay off. That textbook costs so much money, it better be right. Right? But for the people who instead choose to pursue other avenues of strength and conditioning might define it completely different because experience has molded them that way. A personal trainer who has worked with weight loss clients will see that word much differently than the guy working at an olympic training center. The discrepancy between these two people, who at a glance work in the same field, causes lots of confusion between how we evolve as a group. Articles online are available to anyone and everyone looking to continue their education and become better. Yet, even two consecutive articles on the same website will define strength differently based on what group of people the article centers around.

So is strength not an absolute? Does improving strength depend on whether weight loss is also a goal? What if I want to gain the most possible strength at all costs including body fat percentage, aerobic conditioning, mobility? The simple answer to most of these questions is “it depends”. Everything most definitely depends on your goals, and that’s something everything strength & conditioning professional knows. Sometimes, you can be lucky enough to avoid the unclearly defined concept of strength by coaching a group or a team. The group comes in with an understanding that they are in a bootcamp style session and this is what type of training they will receive. Teams involved in competition all need maximum power which is preceded by gaining a foundation of strength to which they can draw that power. But even then, each client in that group class and each athlete on the roster has different needs and different levels at which they can optimally train. Strength training for a 225 lb. linebacker would be different than strength training for a 110 lb. butterfly stroke swimmer.

But I’m not writing this is not to say things that we all know or to give the caffeinated personal trainer reading material that will finally give them a good nights rest. I’m voicing my opinion on a topic that really needs help in our field. I am sick of hearing the word strength used in sentences in which it should not. A brand new client in a gym is working on strength when doing almost any exercise because of the level they are currently at. But, even someone brand new to a gym with some time and hard work will start to need actual strength building exercises. So after we “fix poor movement patterns” and then TRX exercises start to run their course, then what kind of strength do we develop? Ah, functional strength. The common answer for everyone nowadays is that we now give them functional strength. In truth, I think every strength & conditioning coach/personal trainer would agree that we want them to have our clients use the strength they gain out of programs putting us all into the category of wanting “functional strength” for our clients. But again, what the heck does that mean going forward?

I’ve seen people doing 10lb. kettle bell walks and other clients learning the correct technique to pull  weight from the ground. And this my friends, is where we reach out fork in the road. We all were in the same boat when it came to gaining strength for our clients and making sure that they had they gained strength they could use in their daily lives and help them move better and yada yada. But then a barbell with bumpers got dropped a little too loudly and half of our crew jumped on the life boats and headed towards the ever popular way of strength training that includes do extremely difficult movements and finding a way to fit a 10 lb. weight into the movement. When I see someone using a 20lb. kettle bell doing a handstand and scissor kicking like street fighter all at the same time, I think “wow, looks like you worked really hard and got really good at doing a handstand and scissor kicking with a 20lb dumbbell”. I never think of how wonderful a feat of strength that is because if you take that same exact individual and throw them into something else they would have a really difficult time for 6 weeks and then eventually get the hang of it.

I choose to define strength as the amount of lbs or kg’s I throw around. I do this because there is no argument with the bar whether I got stronger using a program. If my program is great, I add more weight to the bar and the bar tells me if I pass or fail. A barbell with plates on it is a lot like a gatekeeper at a toll when you’re driving on the highway to strength. When you’re driving along and you’ve gone the right way and taken the right route, the bar moves and you can continue to the next one. If you’re program consists of one-footed bosu ball jump lunge kettle bell deadbugs….the bar might say “you shall not pass”.

The movement quality enthusiasts might argue that just because you get stronger doesn’t mean you feel better or that are more fit. True, that doesn’t mean that at all. In fact, I’ve never said lifting a barbell isn’t going to actually make you move a little worse in some areas because it probably will. But I would argue that by putting in time and effort into gaining strength that leads into more anaerobic power, I am doing so much more for my overall well-being than any TRX or sub-maximal balance exercise ever will. Lifting a barbell or even heavy dumbbells in the correct exercises not only enhances my body’s physiological system more, but gives me a better opportunity to be successful in whatever life throws at me. Your new trendy exercise on the new trendy equipment that targets my secondary moving gluteal external rotator that looks tight during your analysis won’t matter when push comes to shove and my body as a unit needs to push something heavy. And it won’t matter that my left piriformis is tight, inhibiting my from a completely symmetric way to push my car to the side of the road or whatever the case may be.

So what this rant is really about is to ask that we make an effort to stop using the word “strength” in situations that don’t really mean the word and to start training for strength the right way. There will be arguments that some clients who work all day and just come to train with me to stay in shape and don’t need to use a barbell. My reply to that is, “Do you really think you are not teaching real strength training because of them or because of you?” You see, the problem is not that the client doesn’t want to squat 135 lbs. The problem is that you either don’t know how to teach that person to squat 135lbs., or you just don’t want to spend the time and risk the client becoming frustrated with you for making them learn. And this is where I see the issue in all of this. People either don’t know or don’t want to try. It is because of this that the trainers who do try to show clients the benefit visually and physiologically to squatting 135 lbs correctly. Your client want to lose fat? Bam, front squat/back squat/rdl/push press. Your client want to get faster? Bam, FS/BS/RDL/PP. Your client want to be healthier to be around for their kids? Bam. Any and all goals fall under this way of training and if you would take the time and communicate to your team, your clients, or your members that learning this way of training is by far the best thing they could ever learn in a gym we will all be better for it.

I am sick and tired of hearing that the TRX is used for strength with athletes. I am sick and tired of people wanting to accomplish their goals, and then explain that a barbell or heavy lifting doesn’t somehow factor into that. We need to be better and we need to be better right now. Science is in the process of making huge leaps in the next 10 years in our fields and if we can stick to things that have withstood the test of time, we can accomplish so much more as a group in our fields.


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