Category Archives: Exercise

How Strong is Strong Enough?

Want to know how strong you are? Pick up any fitness magazine or read an article and you’re bound to find a measuring tool—a chart or benchmark you can use to determine how you stack up.

During my short-lived powerlifting career my focus shrank to pursuit of the numbers that told me how strong I was. A scrap of paper on my fridge reminded me daily (as if I needed reminding) that I would bench press my bodyweight (105), and squat and deadlift 200 pounds before the year was out. Were those things good for me? Would they serve any higher purpose? It didn’t matter. I wanted to be strong, and nothing else could get in the way.

After meeting these improbable goals at the cost of my health (myriad problems still plague me two+ years later) I had to learn to shift gears. But the question—how do I know if I’m strong?—persisted. I wanted a gold standard. To see if there is such a thing, I asked a few people with more experience and smarts than me:

  • Khaled Allen: Holistic health and fitness coach
  • David Dellanave: lifter, coach, and owner of The Movement Minneapolis
  • Dr. Paul McKee: Sports medicine doctor, team physician for University of Louisville football and baseball
  • Sarah Peterson: Personal trainer, yoga instructor and USMC veteran
  • Nick Sarantis: sports performance program coordinator for Baptist Sports Medicine, Louisville
  • Lou Schuler: award-winning journalist, certified strength and conditioning specialist, a contributing editor to Men’s Health magazine, and author or coauthor of many books, including The New Rules of Lifting

And, as if these people had conferred ahead of time, they all confirmed something anyone chasing numbers in a weightroom should consider:

If you’re asking how strong you are, you’re asking the wrong question.

Strength: What is it good for?

People like numbers. We love being able to say “I lost 4 pounds last week,” or “my mile time dropped by 10 seconds.” So I can understand why it can be so addictive to chase heavier weights and faster times.

If you really believe in fitness, shouldn’t you try to lift more weight?

David Dellanave just wants to know if you can get up off the floor. Telling me about a sit and rise test study at Gama Filho University in Rio de Janeiro, David explained that a person’s ability to get up from the floor with no support from their hands was an “incredibly accurate” predictor of mortality.1

As we’ve written before, avoiding an early death should be your most important consideration when making choices about health and fitness.

Dave questions the very notion of being strong, “if … you can squat 800 pounds but you can’t get off the ground without using your hands then maybe you’re not really that strong,” he said.

“if you can squat 800 pounds but you can’t get off the ground without using your hands then maybe you’re not really that strong.”

Nick Sarantis would agree. “You can have a car with a big powerful engine but if you don’t have the ability to shift gears it goes to waste,” he said.

Ok, so experts agree that huge numbers are probably not desirable for most people. But are there baselines that average joes should strive for?

Lou Schuler answered my question with a question. “What does anyone really need, other than a still-undefined baseline amount of physical activity? Nobody needs to be strong enough to squat or deadlift two, three, four times their body weight. … And why would a human ever need to run 26.2 miles in less than three hours?” he asked.

“The barbell was never meant to be an activity in its own right,” explained Khaled Allen. “It was always meant to train you for another activity. It is not something to aspire to. If you simply want to measure force output of a muscle, it’s not particularly useful in the real world because you can’t interact [in the world] by attaching your muscle and contracting.”

Not that Khaled hasn’t fallen into the numbers addiction trap himself. “I got into CrossFit and that was really going after numbers and times,” he said. “I got injured a lot and started exploring other things. I did powerlifting for a while. Then I started thinking ‘what do I really want to be doing here?’ And I wanted to develop enough strength to support … doing what I enjoy … martial arts, Parkour, running. Strength is really important but it’s not the holy grail.”

Too much of a good thing

Just as runners can get “runner’s high,” focusing on a single movement or metric can turn into a meditative practice that imparts positive feelings.

Khaled has a theory. “A lot of people … I think kind of use weightlifting as a refuge,” he said. When he was lifting just for the numbers, “I didn’t have to test what I was doing in the real world. I was interested in Parkour but I thought it was too hard. So I kept going back to the weightroom and would say ‘I’ll just deadlift.’”

While all this makes sense, is it possible that measuring strength has a place, but that we’ve just been doing it wrong? The ultimate strength training metric for many has been the one rep max—the maximum amount of weight you can move for a particular lift a single time with correct form.

“It’s interesting how so many times we use the one rep max as the gold standard for strength yet guys at the NFL Combine do nothing as one rep,” Dr. McKee said. “If it were that simple the NFL would have figured it out a long time ago. Back in the day they did [one rep max bench press] and all it did was tear their shoulders apart.” When it comes to determining how strong someone is, “If the NFL can barely figure it out when they’re trying to decide who to give a $25 million dollar contract to, you can imagine how difficult it is for a layperson going to a public gym working with a trainer making $15 an hour. ”

Simple strength rules of thumb

It seemed like my experts agreed that strength is not easily measured or charted. But could they think of any rules of thumb for basic fitness?

“Every man should be able to do a pull-up.”

When pushed, David cited the pull-up as his benchmark. “Every man should be able to do a pull-up,” he said. “ And every woman should work toward a pullup … I think that almost any woman could [do one] with training. ‘Should’ is a very dangerous word but I think it’s worthwhile to train toward.”

What else? “More so than a squat, I think a double bodyweight deadlift [men], or 1.5 times for women, is completely attainable by anyone, within bounds of reason. It’s the kind of strength that carries over into everything in life. I think you should be able to run a mile in a reasonable time … a nine minute mile, which is slow, but if you can’t do it in one mile, what’s going on?”

Though Khaled isn’t going after numbers in the weightroom anymore, he acknowledges “Strength is important because you need a foundation. Even when people want to become more agile I have them squat and deadlift so they have a baseline of strength,” he said. And that baseline is? “My baseline for transitioning from a foundation into applied movement [is when my client] can do a set of 5 bodyweight deadlifts. And I’m looking for a good squat at three quarters bodyweight.”

After years of research and writing in the field, Lou for one is not playing the numbers game. “Given how little we know about all this, why not tell people to do what they like, but try to do a lot of it?” he said. “For the average person, the ideal level of aerobic fitness is probably a little more than they have now. The ideal amount of strength or muscle mass? A little more. Fat? A little less. Total activity? A little more.”

As with anything in life, exercise poses risk. “Though you can get stronger in the weightroom, you can get hurt in the weightroom,” said Dr. McKee—the physician who tended me through a discectomy, stress fracture, janky knees and even rhabdomyolysis, all while I was trying to get stronger.

How overspecialization can lead to injury

“A lot of trainers and physical therapists talk about the danger of working too hard on your strengths,” Lou said. “Hypermobile women do yoga. Naturally strong guys go into powerlifting. Men and women with naturally high aerobic capacity go into endurance sports. And they all get hurt because they take a natural advantage and train it into something unnatural.”

David sees the results of that. “A lot of my gym members are refugees from something that didn’t work,” he said. “Like they came from CrossFit where they hurt their back, or another modality where they pick up more injuries than PRs.”

Chasing numbers in specialized skills can be especially dangerous. “I see it with people where they get a number stuck in their head and they’re not anywhere close and they’re trying to push their limits. I don’t believe in pushing limits and I know that sounds crazy for a trainer but if you work within your limits, your limits expand,” said David.

“if you work within your limits, your limits expand”

“We’ve all gone through that ‘I’m going to lift as much as I can and that’s all I care about’ phase,” said Nick. “When I’m talking to an athlete, I look at what’s the best way to get better. Not get stronger. The best way to get better is to stay on the field. I had a surgery every year when I played soccer. The amount of training [I missed] was sickening. The only thing you can never get back in life is time.”

“[Working out] is about feeling better,” Nick added. “We live in a society of chronic aches and pains. We’ve got to look at how to prevent this and working out is a great start, but if you’re not doing it right it’s going to do way more harm. The term no pain no gain is crap.”

Is your body even ready for weight?

Nick’s in no hurry to load up a barbell for his clients. Instead, he starts with just bodyweight. “Before we pick up a weight at all, we need to beat the environment that has beaten us down. A two year old has a perfect squat. We lose that ability because of the chair we sit in and car we drive. We’re constantly fighting the environment. The last thing we want to do is load a poor pattern. That would lock it in.”

Until you can “dial in just your body, you do not pass the test, you have no right to pick up a weight,” Nick said. He looks at it joint by joint: ankles, knees, hips, lower back, thoracic spine, scapula, shoulder joint. Are all these functional components adequately mobile? Is there anything a person might hurt by trying to do a squat?


How does he know when someone is ready for weight? “A nice way to measure this is an overhead squat,” he said. “With a PVC pipe, knock out a perfect pattern. Can you sit down pretty darn close to the the ground with your arms perfectly straight up?” An unloaded overhead squat will tell Nick everything he needs to know about ankle and hip mobility, knee stability, core strength, arm and spine mobility and more. “The weakest link is going to come out very quickly.”

Why work out at all?

Bingo: Maybe I’d finally convinced someone to give me a perfect measure of strength. But after talking with these folks, I’m beginning to wonder if it matters. Because while they’d never agree on the golden standard, they did agree on an underlying principle.

Nick’s mantra is “We’re working out to feel better.” For David, “I think the only thing that should matter is where you are right now and what you want to do.”

“No two people are the same,” said Dr. McKee. “You have to compare yourself to yourself.”

Khaled echoed that. “There are so many different kinds of strength … there’s no one standard for what makes a healthy or strong human being. You have to make your own charts. So much of being healthy is about self knowledge. You have to know your own body. That’s the hardest part. The easy part is training.” And, he would remind us, “It’s important to have fun with it. A lot of people start moving in the first place to play and we lose sight of that.”

My friend Sarah Peterson, whom I count among the strongest people I know, shared her wisdom with me. “You’ve gotta do what makes you feel good, even if it’s not instantly gratifying … it helps build your will up to the point that you can be confident in yourself and that can translate into other areas of life. That’s strength to me. I don’t even think about the numbers. I did heavy weightlifting and I liked the way it made me feel empowered but there has to be a respect for yourself that fuels [your workout]. If you feel better when you’re done then you’re doing the right thing.”

Lou wrapped it up for me. “I don’t know if this is a settled issue, but my current best guess is that the pursuit of fitness is what improves us systemically. It’s what improves immunity, reduces chronic disease and aches and pains, and makes people feel better about themselves and more optimistic about life. What you actually achieve? I don’t think it matters.”



First Yoga Class

I had planned to spend several months practicing at home before I went into a studio. After a month or so of steady practice with videos, though, I hyperextended my knee and it was hard to keep practicing. I asked for advice from yoga teachers, and found out that I might have saved myself the injury by getting in front of a teacher early on. Luckily, you can learn from my mistake.

Choosing a group class has different challenges from choosing a video class, but it also pays dividends in safety and motivation. This is how to pick the right class and things you can do to make your experience even better.

Too busy to read the whole article? [2,000 words, a 10-minute read] Here are the takeaways:

  • Try a few studios. Ideally you want one that (1) is convenient (2) has a good vibe and (3) has a good range of classes.
  • Keep an open mind and remember that yoga is traditionally a mental and spiritual practice, not just exercise. If you want just exercise, choose a class taught from this perspective.
  • Start with a beginner’s class (or a few), even if you have experience practicing from videos.
  • Try several different teachers until you find someone you connect with, as a teacher and a person. Ideally, you’ll spend some time learning from the same teacher and maintaining this relationship can deepen your practice.
  • Make sure your teacher knows if you have an injury or a health condition, because it might affect the adjustments they offer you.

Going to a group yoga class used to fill me with anxiety. I’m not competitive, exactly, but the idea of being the worst at something and in a room full of people who are all much better at it is intimidating.

“as teachers and as advanced yogis, we love beginners”

Once, another student told me after a class that she was glad I had been next to her so she could see “someone else also having a hard time.” It was reassuring that I wasn’t the only one struggling, but it did underline my fear that, secretly, we were all watching each other.

I used to worry that, not only were the other students better than I was, but even the teacher would be annoyed at dealing with a beginner in her class. I was relieved to hear from Instructor Laurence Gilliot that “As teachers and as advanced yogis, we love beginners and we love the feeling of the beginner’s mind . . . It’s like learning to walk for the first time. We forget how that is. But when we do yoga and especially in the beginning, it’s like a whole world opens. So instead of worrying about ‘Oh I can’t do this thing, and other people are looking at me,’ just really enjoy this newness, …when you get more advanced you will crave this feeling of the beginner’s mind.”

Step 1: get a feel for a few different studios

A good yoga studio is one of the most supportive environments you can find, so it’s worth getting past your nerves to step into a studio.

Before you commit to a studio, try dropping by for an introductory class, or even just walk through the front door and talk with whoever happens to be hanging around. Yoga studios might vary as much as, say, a planet fitness versus a CrossFit gym, but you should get a feel for your options in person, even as a beginner. Instructor Melissa Smith says, “when beginning a yoga practice, think of it as a huge yoga buffet. Sample as many recommended teachers, styles and studios as you can.”

“when beginning a yoga practice, think of it as a huge yoga buffet. Sample as many recommended teachers, styles and studios as you can.”

Here’s what to consider:

#1: Location and price. This might seem like a no-brainer, but the most important part of yoga class is, well, attendance. I wrote about the importance of building a daily habit in my first article on yoga. Signing up with the “best” studio in town doesn’t get you anywhere if you never build up the habit of attending on a regular basis.

#2: Community. A good community and studio can deepen your practice. Or as instructor Rob Williams says “practicing with others is a wonderful part of practice. A part of this process is about engaging in your life and life for most of us would be much emptier without a community.”

Ask yourself:

  • How sociable do you want to be? Do you want to chat with people from your class, or do you want to run in when you have the time, take the class, and then go? For instance, studios with a restaurant or coffee shop attached are often more social, while studios advertising short lunch-hour classes might be more businesslike.
  • Are you interested in learning more about things like meditation, body work, nutrition, or natural health? If you aren’t, and you want to take traditional fitness classes too, you might be better off taking classes at a gym than at a dedicated yoga studio.
  • Are you ok with spirituality? Some teachers only teach asana (the physical postures for exercise), some light candles and open and close a class with chanting, and some reflect on ancient yogic texts and openly discuss spiritual beliefs. Ask yourself if you are comfortable with integrating mediation or spirituality into your class, or if you want a 100% physical practice.

#3: Classes offered. I really think accessibility and community are the most important factors when choosing a studio, but if you want to keep the long-term in mind, make sure to choose a studio that offers a wide range of classes. As your practice grows, you’ll eventually want to try more challenging classes or target parts of your practice you feel are lacking.

What if there are no studios near you? Google Helpouts are a great option. We’ll talk more about this in an upcoming next article, but an 1-on-1 Helpout with a live teacher is the next best thing to an in-person class.In a Helpout you can ask questions, demo postures and ask for adjustments, as well as ask for help developing your own routine. If you have specialized needs, like a serious injury, a private hangout might be better than a large class taught in person, since you’ll have the teacher’s full attention, without the urge to compare yourself to the other people in your class.

What’s with yoga and spirituality, anyway?

You probably wouldn’t be asking yourself this question during a Pilates or a spinning class—yoga is different because it is not solely an exercise methodology. Even though most yoga classes today focus on physical postures, this is actually only one aspect of the tradition of yoga.

In yoga, physical postures, or “Asana” is just one of the 8 Limbs of Yoga. The other limbs encompass a holistic system with roots in Hindu and Buddhist traditions (among others) governing things like ethics and behavior, self-discipline and faith, breathing, awareness, and mediation.

There’s not enough space to go deeply into it here (and I’m not qualified—people can spend a lifetime studying this), but suffice it to say there’s a reason that many yoga teachers don’t stick to just telling you how to stretch. Rather than just exercise, physical asana was historically intended to prepare the body for greater spiritual discipline, growth, and union with the divine. Some further disciplines include breathing exercises, called Pranayama, and meditation practices—hence their inclusion in many classes. Some teachers also reflect on sacred texts like the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, (a foundational text of yoga), or spiritual teachings from many faiths

This sounds heavy, but even a very spiritually-oriented yoga class is not like a religious meeting or church; instead it’s an environment where people discuss spirituality from this perspective.

Many people do take yoga classes just for exercise, and a teacher should never be pushing their spirituality on you, but if you are uncomfortable with any amount of spirituality in a class, you’ll be missing out on a lot of classes. Light on Yoga by B.K.S. Iyengar is a great resource for more about yoga and spirituality, though it’s not a quick read.

Step 2: Choose a instructor you connect with

Later on we’ll talk about the huge range of yoga styles available to you, but try not to get hung up on that right now. Going to your first class should be about finding a teacher you connect with, regardless of the style they teach.

Melissa advised, “My preference is that you find a teacher that you can meet in person, as opposed to a video. That way the teacher can see your form and offer you adjustments or props that suit your body best . . . . Look for a teacher that speaks to you, challenges you, and offers you a practice that meets you where you are, not where you want to be. And, one that is humble enough to spend time listening and offering you some feedback on your practice.”

Laurence told me, “Go with someone with whom you connect as a person, not only as a teacher. You should like how you feel around them, in their presence, even outside of the class. Because remember that, whatever you practice, whatever teacher you have, if you practice a long time with them, in a way you’ll become a little like them. So be sure you choose a nice person, someone you want to become more like.”

Yoga instructor Garance Clos added, “yoga is an inner journey before being a physical practice, so even for beginners, it’s important to find a  teacher with whom you can be yourself, feel free, safe and comfortable.”

Melissa believes the right teacher is invaluable not just in the class they teach, but in your home practice. She says, “I hope that you also seek out a teacher that will equip you to do a regular practice on your own . . . . I believe mentors and teachers are priceless, but they should give you all you need to carry on to self-study and practice. One day you may grow out of a certain teacher or style and that’s ok. Just be open to what may come. An open heart is the beginning of a life-long practice in wellness through yoga.”

Step 3: Start with a beginner’s class, even if you’re not a beginner

If you’ve been following this series, maybe you’ve already done 30 days of yoga. Or practiced and memorized all the basic poses you need as a beginner.

Should you still be going to beginner’s classes? In my experience, yes.

Just because you have some experience with yoga doesn’t mean you have experience attending a yoga class.

Also, keep in mind that the atmosphere of a group class can make you push yourself harder than you would at home, and being too sore to move the day after a too-tough class is really demotivating.

“Beginning and Intermediate is a blurry line, and I think with intention. No one can tell you what level you’re at, but one can judge a great deal by looking around the class and seeing you feel like you fit in or if you are more lost than others,” Rob told me. “I’d guess one’s first 9-12 classes at least should be beginner’s… 6 would be for an avid athlete who already has advanced body skills and awareness. With all that said, I still go to beginning classes sometimes. One can use the time to work on settling the mind, moving with extreme intention, and maintaining a meditative mindset.”

The best thing you can do for your classroom experience is to come early and introduce yourself to your teacher. It’ll be easier for them to teach you if they know you are a beginner (or you’ve only learned from videos), and they really need to know if you have a health condition or an injury.

One reason your teacher needs to know about any injury or health problem is that they may offer adjustments, which can be anything from placing a hand on your body to remind you to relax to strongly pushing you into a posture. I’ve received very strong adjustments which were actually a bit scary, but which helped me immediately.

Once, though, I showed up late to a class and didn’t tell the teacher that I had a neck problem; then he pushed me into an posture which aggravated it. I had the feeling the adjustment wasn’t going to be good for me, and I didn’t pay attention – but I also don’t think the teacher would have offered the adjustment if he had known that I was hurt. Even though it’s your responsibility to keep yourself safe by listening to your body, your teacher is also there to help, so give them the information they need.

Settle in to your yoga habit

The most important thing when you select a teacher, class, and studio is that you feel comfortable there. A good yoga class is a supportive and inclusive community which gives you space to explore your practice. You should never feel judged about something like your technical abilities, your body, or even your clothes. If you feel uncomfortable for any reason, try a different teacher, class, or studio.

Your Next Action: make a list of convenient studios

  1. Research studios that are accessible: close enough and cheap enough you’re likely to actually go.
  2. Go to a few studios, pick up a schedule, and soak in the vibe.
  3. Try beginner’s classes with a few different teachers. There’s no hurry to commit to one teacher or style; you’ll try new classes throughout your practice.
  4. Show up early to class and talk to your new teacher, especially if you have an injury. Following basic yoga etiquette will make you more comfortable and improve your experience.

After spending some time with a live teacher, you’ll probably feel ready to move forward with your home practice. In the next article I’ll review several subscription services for learning yoga on your own.