Category Archives: Strength

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?

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.”

Notes:

  1. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23242910

Can lifting heavy weights make you bulky? Not if you’re a woman.

woman weight lifting

We combine personal experience, three expert opinions, and a healthy dose of scientific research to explain why most women simply won’t get bulky from lifting weights.

Too busy to read the whole article? [1600 words, a 7-minute read] Here are the takeaways:

  • Women lack the right balance of hormones, testosterone and growth hormone, to put on muscle mass the way men do.
  • When women start lifting, they complain of getting bulky because of a combination of fluid retention, inflammation and plain old “feeling ‘swole”
  • Even if you lift enough to put on some weight, many women [and men] prefer the change in body composition.
  • Supplements. Men and women react very differently to pre-workout supplements. Find out what supplements women can use to booster their performance in the gym.

irst off, let me explain my perspective. I took up competitive weightlifting in my 30s and ended up being pretty good at it—in 2011, I broke the American Powerlifting Association record for the squat in my weight class. I tell you this not to brag, but to explain that I wrote this article not as an outsider, but as someone who has actually lived through the training and science we’ll dive into below. (I also ended up overtraining my way into an ugly injury, but that’s another story for another day — stay tuned.)

When I started training, I never got bulky and I never needed to intentionally increase my mass. In fact, I dropped a pant size or two while I traded some cushy padding for clearly defined muscle. But one woman’s experience does not fact make. So I turned to a couple of experts for their input.  Dr. Krista Scott-Dixon, founder of Stumptuous.com, is the Lean Eating Program Director at Precision Nutrition. And Jerry Handley is a West Virginia University strength coach who works primarily with female athletes.

Women can get bulky, but it’s very difficult

Let’s get right to it. “It is possible for women to get bulky,” Jerry said. “But it is highly improbable. They don’t hit the perfect storm of variables needed.”

How improbable are we talking? “Less than 1/10 of one percent of women are going to hit it,” he said. “It’s going to take a huge amount of consistent long term effort, consistently applying yourself to training – not just recreational [working out]. And it’s going to take a big nutrition push.”

Simply put, women aren’t built the same way as men are and we do not gain muscle mass as easily. According to Jerry, although “the hormonal situation while lifting causes the same triggers in men and women,  men elicit – minimum –  10 times more anabolic hormones than females do, particularly testosterone, which is what actually encourages muscle growth. Even though females can train just as hard and put in the effort to eat, their actual response is much much smaller and slower than a guy’s.”

Or, as Krista put it, “men’s muscles are bathing in a testosterone soup.”

Let’s talk more about those anabolic hormones.* Two things are going on here. Testosterone is stimulated when you lift heavy. What does heavy mean? Jerry defines it as “anything they can do a max of 6 times.” That’s the rep range, according to Jerry, that elicits the highest testosterone. When you “feel the burn,” on the other hand, doing higher volume or spending more time under tension, that’s when you’re stimulating growth hormone. “Women are typically worried about lifting heavy because they think it will make them big but really, while the testosterone will help the muscles repair, it’s not enough to make the muscles much bigger,” Jerry said. “Especially when they’re dieting, lifting heavy can help them retain their muscle mass and retain their strength.”

*Hormones are naturally-occurring chemicals that trigger organs and muscles to perform actions within the body. There are two basic types of hormones involved in normal metabolism: anabolic hormones generally “build up” tissues while catabolic hormones break down tissues for energy. This is a really simplified explanation; we’re working on a full-blown article on hormones and we’ll link it here when it’s ready.

Since few women actually get bulky from lifting heavy, why do so many of us think we do?

Aside from the  very small percentage of women whom Krista called “genetically gifted, hormonally ready easy gainers,”  what’s with all the cries of “I get big!”? Even Jerry sees it with his college athletes. “When it’s the first time they’ve done serious weight training, at least half of them are worried they’ll get bulky,” he said.

Culprit #1: Self Perception

“The first thing to remember,” Krista told me, “is that our self-perception is generally inaccurate. We are all very poor judges of ourselves. I’ve had women swear they were growing giant biceps, and flex for me, and I can’t see anything. But they FEEL like their guns are getting swole. So that’s their reality. The same is true of the FEEL of body composition. Few people truly have the self-awareness and accurate perception to gauge body changes.”

Culprit #2: Fluid retention

Krista explained: “In the early stages of training, you get a lot of inflammation and the muscles draw in glycogen and water. (By way of simplified explanation I say that muscles are “fluffing up” although that is not really what happens; it’s just a handy visual.) The fluid retention and inflammatory process is what causes the stiffness and soreness, same as what happens if you sprain your ankle and it swells up. So, women will train for a couple of weeks and swear they have ‘bulked up’ — and perhaps they have, but it’s not muscle.” And that means it’s not permanent.

Culprit #3: Eating more

“Many women consciously or unconsciously eat more to compensate for an increased training load,” Krista continued. “Some are just hungrier; others deliberately eat more because they think they need it to support their training. More food = more mass… but not always muscle. Most people don’t realize how much body fat they’re actually carrying. I like to show an MRI cross section of an average woman’s thigh to give them the idea. The light/white area is fat; the dark/dense area is muscle. You can see the bone as a circle in the middle.”

Sort of #4: Muscle gain… eventually

“Now, I really do hate to put a figure on it, but we are probably looking at no more than 1-2 lb/month of lean mass gain on average, tops,” Krista told me. “Even 18 year old boys don’t add as much muscle in a short time as some women swear they do.”

Jerry agreed. When you’re new to working out “your system hasn’t learned how to use the muscle fibers enough to create the muscle damage which creates growth. It’s almost completely nervous system,” he explained. “They may look more toned but actual muscle growth is almost impossible in the first few months.”

To sum it all up, “I think what women are often responding to is a different feel rather than an empirical reality,” Krista said. “The body does feel different… it’s just that their interpretation of why that feels different (i.e. the assumption that it’s muscle, and not fluid retention, which is much more probable) is often incorrect. The only way to truly know what’s what is to get regular, accurate body composition measurements. Otherwise it’s just speculation and rampantly imprecise self-perception.”

What actually does happen when women lift heavy?

When Jennifer Hudy‘s boyfriend showed her an article from Nerd Fitness with before and after photos of a girl who lifted, she was heavier in the ‘after’ photo. “She was no longer skinny-fat; she was quite fit,” Jennifer said. “I had never heard of skinny-fat but then realized that was exactly what I was. My build was skinny, but just skinny and nothing more. I envied her body and wanted to look like that!”

Using The New Rules of Lifting for Women program, Jennifer “ended up gaining eight pounds in six months. To see the scale going up was quite intimidating, but since I never had a weight issue it really didn’t bother me too much because I liked the way my body was shaping up.  Not only was my body significantly changing for the better, but my attitude about myself and my self-confidence skyrocketed.”

At the end of the day, lifting weights will change your body. But that’s the whole point, isn’t it?

It feels like a cop-out to say it, but the changes in appearance induced by exercise will be different for each woman. Once again, hormones play a critical role. “Some women with healthy levels of estrogen and progesterone will see body recomposition that reinforces the hourglass shape,” Krista said. On the other hand, “many powerlifters notice that their waist thickens–not from fat, but from the increased mass and density of the spinal erectors, which are powerful spinal support muscles required for a strong deadlift. Many women in upper-body-demanding activities (such as boxing or rowing) may find their bra size changes as their back muscles develop.”

And that’s just what we can see going on. For me, my bone density shot off the charts. Like Jennifer, so did my self confidence. Once you know you can take on a freaking intimidating weight, things that used to worry you seem a lot less scary.

How does lifting heavy compare to low-weight-high-reps?

So I think we’ve made a good case for why lifting heavy weights can help transform a woman’s body without making her get bulky. But, there’s an inherent risk to getting started with weightlifting. Plus, there’s the cost of weights, a coach to correct your form, etc. Is it worth it?

Without going too much down the rabbit hole, there does seem to be some evidence that traditional workout regimens for women actually do more harm than good.

When I asked Jerry about this, he told me “The idea of … doing higher reps and smaller weights [has] pretty much been shown over and over that it’s a crappy idea. It is completely against what the body actually does.” Here’s why: “If you do high volume and cardio and take in lower calories you’re using too much energy [thereby] encouraging your body to break down muscle mass.” And if you’re body isn’t producing the testosterone necessary to put on muscle, any excess calories you intake after a hard workout are more likely to be stored as fat.

We’ll go into loads more details on specific workouts in future articles, but I thought Jerry’s explanation was worth sharing.

Your next action: get started

Here are some ways you can get starting weightlifting for body recomposition. We’ll update this section as we find more resources and as you leave us comments below.