The purpose of this blog is to look at established ideas with new eyes, under a new light and from a different vantage point, at the risk of fitness industry heresy. And now, time to tear apart, deconstruct and re-assemble yet another classic fitness world paradigm.
Train For Strength And Expect An Equivalent Aesthetic Improvement?
The idea seems harmless enough. Even almost makes linear sense. But is simply not true. I first learned of this concept from my mentor Scott Abel. Looking further back in time, many great coaches understood this intuitively/tacitly, especially Vince Gironda.
In time I hope the argument I present adds to the case against strength focus for aesthetic improvement.
But It Makes Sense?
What can seem perfectly logical can sometimes be perfectly not. Two things to consider, before we move on:
1- Just about everyone would “prefer” to look better, than be stronger. The myth, though, is that they must be stronger to look better. There is a grain of truth to that. But it is NOT the full story. And the half-truth leads to more misery than joy.
2- That strength is assessed via barbell movements is a problem. The barbell is no axiom. It is no fundamental. It IS a metaphor for a status drive – it says, “who can use ME to lift the most”. A vulgar display of barbarism, nothing more.
But moving on…
The consequences of focusing on the pursuit of strength are more negative than positive for your physiology AND psychology in terms of wear and tear and mental stress (knowing you have to lift a certain amount of load on a certain day, rather than fatigue the musculature is an enormous mental stressor). The most important consideration? That risk of injury is higher. Much higher. Because the focus is on an external variable, the quantity of contractions under high load rather than an internal variable, the quality of contractions under ANY load.
Strength is important to develop, but silly to chase.
The truth? Training for strength will generate aesthetic physique improvement as a mild side effect of straining against loads. This holds true for the general population, which includes everyone reading this; the gifted could be bothered less by my assertions. If you are going to focus on strength and all the physical and psychological pitfalls of this pursuit FOR THE PURPOSE of aesthetic enhancement, then a mild side-effect, (rather than an actual magnitudinally equivalent effect), is not and should not be good enough.
Is Increased Load More Progress?
To use strength gain as a yard-stick, rule of thumb or as a measuring rod of progress, is to be duped by this Joker of the physical quality world. Not only is strength nearly always in flux, and unpredictable even by experts of the strength game, but it is sometimes in stasis. While the body never is.
Anyone who has touched the ceiling of the Strength and Speed cathedral in our collective minds, the imagined peaks of physical expression perfection, the ones who have come closest to “world record” strength and speed levels, will tell you the price they pay in injury management is not worth it. As early as in their mid-thirties, the aches begin, the joints limit and the muscles fear load. Anyone with any wisdom, who has truly been there, done that, will tell you that living in pain for the rest of your life is too high a price to pay for something as artificial as loads lifted in perfectly controlled environments, for reasons that are as immature as they are selfish.
But I digress.
The Path of Least Effort
Moreover, strength enhancement is about LEVERAGE, and how to create it within the limitations of your own biomechanical milieu. If you focus on load lifted, you must find the path of least effort per unit of load. This leveraged path to push maximal weights is usually always going to mean, your weakest link muscle-chain remains under-loaded and under-developed. Accumulate enough wear and tear, and your strong link eventually breaks down. Combine this break-down with developmental imbalance and joint centration issues (which are probably leading contributors/factors in joint degeneration) due to the imbalance, and you realize you’re laying the foundation for destruction.
Strength As A Mild Side Effect? Aesthetic Enhancement As The Strong Effect
The best way to approach fitness is to focus on aesthetic enhancement FIRST, and to stimulate a strengthening side effect consequentially. To create a recursive loop that initiates from the focus of contraction quality rather than load quantity.
You do NOT need great strength levels for optimal physical development. Not at all. I made this mistake for 10 years myself. As a matter of fact, I completely gave up on the idea of maximal load lifting 3 years ago and have focused exclusively on contraction quality since then.
Moving on, a training program that focuses on muscle contraction quality over load quantity is basically a program that is focused on aesthetics. A program that is focused on multiple and weak plane of movement patterns, over the few and strong movement patterns is focused on aesthetics. A program that is focused on mild rest periods, rather than maximal recovery between sets. A program focused on medium repetition numbers, rather than low numbers to hit high weights. A program not restricted to barbells as some sort of essential, but rather on any tool that will stimulate the muscle in the plane of movement chosen. A program that appreciates the qualitative assessments the mirror provides instead of the quantitative assessment your log book hides. A program that “realizes” the fluctuating nature of maximal strength and provides freedoms within to adapt your stressors to your day to day state.
Once you focus on these things, the stimulation of your physiology will automatically accrue strength over time. As a side-effect of your drive to chisel the best physique possible using natures ultimate canvas, your body. And with NONE of the deleterious side effects.
A biological win win, in every sense of the term. To your forehead while keeping your elbows tucked.