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