It’s Jack’dtober, our strength focused month, so it seems fitting to talk about The Importance Of Strength!
Why be strong? Why is Strength important? For CrossFit? For Body Composition? Ok, how do I get strong? And what if I don’t want to get big? Can I become strong?
I’ve got to be honest, this topic is something I have come to take for granted because I got on board with strength training many years ago (thanks Coach Beam), and haven’t looked back. The lifting itself keeps me occupied, too. It never gets “easy,” but it’s worth it. But this is all the more reason to write about it. We have a lot of members new to fitness and barbells in general, who are coming from a much different place, so let’s talk about it.
Why be strong? Well duh, right ;)? I think it’s safe to say that Strength is something we value in our culture overall, for reasons I don’t even fully understand. First, there are multiple meanings or senses to Strength, and they are each slightly different. One type of Strength is in the mental toughness sense: the strength to endure hardships, the strength to overcome obstacles, and the strength that comes from dedicating yourself to a big project or mission.
A lot of our ideas about strength come from old writings and myths. There is the legendary physical strength of Hercules, who was basically born with it (being half god and half human) and was destined to manifest his strength through all of his adventures and “labours.” Gilgamesh, the world’s oldest written hero, was portrayed as very physically strong and mentally tough. Classical heroes are generally strong, though not always physically.
There is the strength exemplified by Odysseus in the Odyssey, a regular-ish, mortal man who demonstrated incredible mental strength to endure hardships, fight fantastical beasts, even face betrayal.. and overcome still. He famously declares at the end of his arduous adventure: “all is well.” That’s an admirable form of strength.
These stories are of the life imitates art, imitates life variety, but they form a basis for our general understanding of Strength concepts.
There is also, and perhaps more grounded, the mental strength that comes from enduring oppression and oppressive forces. The Civil Rights Movement’s commitment to non-violent protest in the face of violence… that is most certainly strength. History is filled with examples of this kind of strength, it is perhaps the dominant force that shapes our cultures today. We are all demonstrating exceptional strength as we speak…
There is also the physical strength that in the everyday sense is often attributed to having physically demanding jobs like construction, building railroads, farming, law enforcement, and military, among others. This is physical strength that is very task oriented and often specialized: the strength to get the job done. Nothing more, nothing less. We tend to respect this sort of strength, partly because it is usually in service of a project or cause greater than the individual.
Your favorite superheroes exemplify a sort of selfless physical strength in a simpler way: the strength to save lives, fight crime, and generally help others. You know The Hulk, Superman, Wonder Woman, Iron Man, Spider Man, etc. I remember trading Marvel comic cards in the third grade… I wanted all the ones with the best strength stats! Interestingly, in almost all superhero or supervillain cases, we think of the strength they have as intrinsic: they were either born or created with it, or some freak accident “gifted” (or cursed) them with it. This premise explains where a lot of our ideas about who can be strong come from. You can be strong if you were born strong, or if circumstances happened where that was your only choice (and you were lucky enough to survive).. But training oneself to become strong? Only Batman did that ;).
A lot of your favorite athletes from sports have high levels of strength which, depending on their sport, may be a big part of what makes them exceptional.
You could say being physically strong is a basic way of fitting in. If you’re strong, people will know they can probably count on you to help them if needed. Like when they need to move a bunch of furniture! Or to protect them from harm. It’s socially valuable. It’s also a heuristic in mate selection, though I can only provide bro-science here, so I won’t ;).
Let’s get down to business! It’s important to be strong because in the most basic sense it prevents injury. Strength is body armor. Muscles stabilize the joints, and when you have lots of tightly wound and neuromuscularly active fibers, i.e. strong muscles, your joints and connective tissues are literally harder to pull apart. If you want to stay healthy and active for many years, develop your strength, it will protect you even in situations you have not prepared for. True story, falls are the leading cause of death due to injury in seniors! You’ve all seen the Life Alert commercial where the senior person falls in their house and can’t get up. That’s not funny! And it is largely preventable with a modest dose of proper strength training in years prior.
However, it turns out injury prevention is simply one of the least sexy and therefore least motivating reasons for people to do more strength training. Pretty much the same for a lot of preventative care, actually. It’s like brushing your teeth and doing your daily stretches: everybody knows they should do it, most of us often suck it up and do it anyway (mental strength!), but we’re not exactly jumping out of bed to do it. So we need other reasons too.
How about this: Becoming strong(er) makes typical CrossFit Rx’d movements easier, which will make your workouts more effective towards achieving your goals faster. Think about trying to Deadlift 95# for 21 reps (to start a workout), when your 1-rep max is 135#. 95# is 70% of your 1RM in this case, which for 21 reps sounds like a really rough time. I’d probably advise against even trying it. Now imagine trying to do that same workout, and your 1-rep max went up to 185#. Now it’s only ~50%; it sounds doable! There is science behind this, but you don’t even need to know it to understand. Working at a smaller percentages of your 1RM is almost always easier, even in sustained efforts. There are some limits to this of course (CFers: think “Jackie”). But raising your 1RM is the simplest way to make a given weight feel lighter. In turn, this allows you to perform better at metcons, and get broader and better performance AND physiological improvements out of your workouts! Intensity = Results.
This applies to bodyweight movements equally by the way, it’s just more difficult to quickly “adjust” your bodyweight. This is probably an understatement ;).
Now, I can already hear someone saying “but I’m fine just using the “baby” weights (scaling), like, forever.” Maybe half kidding. Ok, are you also fine not getting the results you set out to get when you started a fitness routine in the first place? Are you fine repeating the 1st grade over and over again? That’s right, If you stop yourself from graduating to higher scaling levels, you’re basically insisting on staying at the same level of fitness. In turn, you will experience diminishing returns in your abilities AND your body’s ratio of muscle to fat. This means that if you always reach for the 5# bar, or the 12″ box, or wait for the time cap when you know you could’ve pushed yourself harder… you will run into a wall. This is potentially a whole conversation for another time, but suffice to say, you ARE capable, you can improve — nay — you must improve to get the results you want! We were all beginners once, and we are all star stuff, people.
It turns out that in most typical CrossFit workouts, working at 30-40% of your 1RM results in “optimal” power output, which is the holy grail of fitness, and therefore your results. In the most basic sense, it means that there is a “sweet spot” where you are working really hard and not having to rest very much over the course of a workout. Too much rest is not good for your results, because your power output at rest is essentially zero (I know it doesn’t feel that way though). Conversely, too light of a weight/intensity level results in the dreaded “I don’t feel like I did anything” effect. This generally happens when you use a sub-20% load, and are able to do the entire workout without having to even slow down. This is not a good place to be either, because you’re wasting your time and making no gains! Keep it at 30-40%. Up to 50-60% in shorter workouts (sub 7 minutes). Work on your strength to raise your 1RM to get to the next power level, and reap the benefits across the board!
How do you get strong? In a word, Consistency. Consistently work on your Squats, Presses, and Deadlifts. For weeks, months and years. For most people, these lifts will be more useful than even the Snatch and Clean & Jerk, because they cause more immediate, meaningful changes in strength and body composition due to the pure physicality of the lifts, which is different than the often technical focus required for the Olympic Lifts (that can take many years to develop).
Really though, just the Squats, because they’re that much more important. Perform full range of motion Squats: Back Squats, Front Squats, and Overhead Squats, 2-3 days per week. Use weights that are above 80% of your current 1RM but no more than 90%. Don’t try to PR your 1RM every day or even every week. DO try to squeeze out one more rep or add 5 more pounds to a multi-rep set (3+) at least once per week. IF you have been consistent. Vary the reps and sets so that you are not doing the same thing over and over, but instead “progressively overloading,” which means gradually pushing yourself to become a little stronger over time. Notice I didn’t say stronger “each day,” because you will have variations day to day that won’t allow you to always increase the weights, reps, or intensity level. Use Prilepin’s Chart for guidance. Follow a program, like one of our Squat Cycles, if that simplifies things for you. When you start hitting some plateaus, find a Coach. When you start getting bored, find a good pair of bass-thumping headphones. And when that stops working, find a Community.
If you don’t want to get big, whatever that means to you, start tracking your food intake. Write it down in a notebook everyday. Most people’s idea of big or “bulky” is really just having some muscle AND high body fat levels at the same time. Gainz of all types don’t happen on their own, they need fuel. If you eat sugary junk food, you will put on body fat, whether you are working out or not. If you eat healthy, you will put on some muscle IF you’re training hard, and drop body fat in the process. You can decide how much you’re happy with over time. Working with a Coach will take out the guesswork here. If you don’t want to gain any muscle, I’m sorry, you’re probably not ready to discover your Strength. It’s in there, just hiding, promise. Come talk to us when you are though, we’ll be here kicking ass and paying it forward with ours.
Finally, who can become strong? Everyone, it just takes consistent training. But it is especially for anyone who was ever told they shouldn’t, or can’t be.
“Strength does not come from winning. Your struggles develop your strengths. When you go through hardships and decide not to surrender, that is strength.” —Arnold Schwarzenegger
CrossFit Cypher Owner