How do we think about strength?

I. Don’t think so. Anymore…

“Strength is the Ultimate attribute.”  

“Strength is a glass; everything else fills it.”

I’ve heard multiple people make those statements, and I honestly don’t know who to give credit to as the originators – so, for that, I apologize.  

For a long time, I believed both of those and until very recently when I gave it a lot of thought those two tenants guided a lot of what I did every day.

But, I’ve changed.  They are great quotes that stick in your head, but when I begin to really think about them, I realized they were both missing something.  These sayings don’t fall short because strength isn’t important.  In fact, its the opposite – these one-liners fall short because they undervalue strength.  Let me explain.

If I said that the ultimate training tool was the barbell would you agree or disagree?  If I said that bodyweight training was the glass, and all other training filled it up would you agree or disagree?


Hearing that strength is the ultimate attribute leads to a giant misconception that further leads to programming errors that lead to problems.  This belief leads those that are less experienced and that don’t fully understand how strength develops to blindly and single-mindedly focus on strength only.  Troll around social media for about 10 seconds, and you will find the never-ending argument to the question of “which is better being strong or moving well?”  Those that believe strength is the ultimate attribute will argue for strength above anything else.  It’s a chicken and egg discussion – you need both to make a great meal.  And a steak.

Strength is a fundamental attribute, but saying it is the ultimate misses a lot of other attributes that actually will increase strength – for example:

  1. Better tissue quality will improve the contractile ability of the muscles, which will lead to increased strength.
  2. Better mobility will lead to a greater ROM which will lead to increased strength.
  3. A better warm-up will make for a better work out.
  4. A better recovery strategy will allow the body to turn that work in the gym to increased strength via the muscular adaptations that follow.

I could go on – but all of those will increase strength.   Not appreciating how these other attributes contribute to increasing strength and not understanding the reciprocal relationship they have with strength devalues the very attribute we were looking to emphasize.

The glass is half-full.  Or, half-empty.

When I first heard the statement “strength is the glass, everything else fills it” I threw my hands in the air and started throwing out praise-allelujah’s!  I was in agreement hook, line, and sinker.  In fact, some of my former grad students should be able to recall the fantastic whiteboard artwork I put together to emphasize this.  

But, it’s not entirely accurate.  I have several glasses at home – shot glasses, highball glasses, plastic cups, kiddie cups, Red Solo cups, fancy glasses, cheap glasses – and they all share one commonality: THEY STAY THE SAME SIZE.  There is no room for growth.  I’ve swept up a few of the fancy glass glasses we had after they got dropped and shattered all over the place (not a great characteristic…).  Where does mobility fit?  Or, movement compensations/dysfunctions?  Or motor control?  Or the developmental postures/patterns?  Stability?  The archetypes?   Injuries?  Where does life fit in?  Viewing strength as a glass doesn’t take into account everything that goes into building/affecting strength – and, it doesn’t do anything to tie strength to a greater purpose.  

The path to understanding strength.

I’ve used (and written about) the road analogy in regards to strength for about two years now.  Strength is a road that guides us to where we are going.  The better the road, and the more lanes the road has, the better the trip.  When I first moved to Springfield Mo from where I grew up,  the trip took me right around 5.5 hours.  The first 250 miles was on two-lane roads, and the final 25 miles was on a four-lane interstate.  There were even a few gravel roads mixed in early on.  Now, if my wife drives, we can make the same trip in just under 4 hours.  If I drive, its a little over 4 hours.  Why is it quicker now?  Today,  225 miles of the trip takes place on either a 4 line highway or interstate – over the years they expanded the roads to match the need.  Isn’t that what we want with strength?  As our needs increase, so too shouldn’t our strength?    Here are those other “things” that contribute to the attribute of strength:

      • Mobility and stability are the rocks/gravel that serve as the foundation of the road.
      • The Postures/patterns are the rebar that adds strength to the driving surface.
      • The archetypes are the asphalt/cement that makes up what we see.
      • Motor control makes up the white lines that mark the boundary, and the center lines that control the flow.
      • The compensations/movement dysfunctions are the other drivers on the road that we need to navigate with/around/through.
      • Injuries/aches/pains?  Those are the lane closures we encounter that require repair.
      • Life is the landscape on which we build the road.

In a previous post, I began this explanation on strength specifically regarding fatigue.  If you have read that, you can apply the above bullet points to the concept from the aspect of what we can do to help improve strength and prevent fatigue – both of which are good most of the time.

So, ultimately in my world strength is the road that moves us towards our goals.  There is always room to grow, and a lot goes into making that road as smooth as possible.  Am I just trying to stir things up with this?  Not at all, I’m just trying to add to the understanding of strength and why it is so crucial to what we do – but the real strength of strength is in its integration with all the other attributes that get us through life/work/sports.  If you want to think of it as a glass, that is perfectly fine.  Just make sure not to drop your glass because gravity is a cold, heartless force.  

Either way, as long as you understand that increased strength is essential, you are better off than not having that understanding. Realizing that many things contribute to improved strength gives you more tools and a better comprehension of how you can affect strength and how strength can affect your greater purpose.

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