Why do people train for strength?
Well, the simple answer is, “To get strong.”
But why? I get why powerlifters or strongman competitors train for strength, but what about the rest of us? (Says the man who wrote a book that says, in part, that men need to be strong.)
The best answer I can give is that people train to get strong so they can do more stuff. Sounds reasonable, right?
If that’s the case, then maybe something more of us need to do is look at how strength is displayed in the real world and how that impacts our training choices.
So how is strength displayed?
I’ve spent a while thinking about how we utilize strength in the real world on a regular basis. This includes displaying strength for the sake of displaying strength but generally excludes gym-based displays. Basically, anything that can only be displayed if you have a barbell handy.
So that means no CrossFit Games, no powerlifting or strength lifting meets, no Olympic-style weightlifting meets. None of that.
What does that leave?
A lot, actually.
There are a handful of ways we display strength in the real world, and if you think about it, you’ve seen it. But here is my list of basic displays of strength:
- Carrying heavy weight
- Lifting heavy weight off the ground
- Lifting heavy weight over your head
- Pushing heavy weight
- Pulling heavy weight
- Throwing heavy weight
Now, these are just the basics I cooked up in my head, so there are likely others out there. Additionally, these are based on the kind of events I could mostly see happening semi-regularly. Yes, I can see someone having to get under a tree and squat it up for some reason, but that’s not something that happens all that often.
But carrying heavy weights around? Sure. I’m sure most of us have helped someone move before.
Lifting weights off the ground? I’ve had to do it more times than I can count.
Pushing heavy weight? Sure. Every time my mom ran out of gas and I had to get her car out of the middle of the road.
Pulling weight? That’s not something that happens quite as often, but I’ve seen it.
Now, admittedly, things like throwing weight and lifting it over your head are more showing off for the sake of showing off, but is there anything wrong with that? Competition is good for the soul from time to time. Is there anything wrong with that?
However, I can see real-world applications for both as well. Lifting something heavy over your head to toss it over a wall or side of a large truck, or to hand it off to someone else, for example.
Or, we may have to throw a life preserver well out into the water to help a drowning victim.
These are the kinds of things that we do that require strength to some extent and that literally any of us could find ourselves in situations requiring just that.
And yet, how many training programs actually equip people to move weight along a horizontal plane?
Don’t get me wrong. Barbells don’t work that way that way. Moving a barbell or dumbbell that way is an injury waiting to happen.
Yet so much of what is listed above is basically moving a weight along a horizontal plane. Pushing, pulling/dragging, carrying, all are moving weight along the same plane, but an awful lot of training ignores this.
Today, far fewer ignore it than there used to be, though.
For example, a lot more people are pushing prowlers or dragging sleds than there were when I first lifted back in the early 1990’s. My school’s weight room had none of that. Neither did the Gold’s Gym I joined around the time I graduated.
It wasn’t something most people did.
But they should have.
Today, people are doing more of it, thankfully, but I’m not really focused on those people. I’m more focused on me.
I’m also focused on knowing that I need to be able to improve those movements. But what type of training will help?
As noted previously, I started lifting with Starting Strength. It did well enough, helping me improve lifts over the initial period and making me feel a whole lot stronger than I did before.
But did it help me be able to display strength?
In a way.
The press and the deadlift are explicitly programmed in the workout. The press is lifting stuff over your head and the deadlift is picking heavy stuff off the ground.
Further, pushing a prowler is often recommended for conditioning of Starting Strength athletes, which is pushing heavy stuff, so that’s a third.
There’s still a lot that it doesn’t cover. It’s no different than a lot of programs, in that regard.
Now, that’s not to say that it doesn’t help at all.
By building up strength through the compound movements, you’re going to get stronger in general. You could give a world-class powerlifter farmer’s walk handles for the very first time and they’ll do far better than many right out the gate.
But moving weight in these ways is a skill, and skills need to be developed.
Then you add in the idea that sometimes, you need to do things that are combinations of these movement patterns and things get interesting.
After all, what is a clean and press other than lifting weight off the ground, then pressing it upward? Those are two of the basic strength displayed merged into one complex strength display.
“But isn’t that a gym lift? I thought you weren’t using that.”
Which is fair enough. But now, instead of a barbell, make it a big chunk of a tree that needs to be loaded into a trailer for disposal.
See where I’m going here?
Now, let’s add in the myriad of other things that factor into being able to display strength in this way–say, crushing a weight against your chest so you can walk with it for 50 feet–and the whole thing becomes even more complicated…
The easiest thing, at least so far as I can tell, is to train these kinds of things so I have the right kind of strength when I need it.
Now, for some, that might sound like it’s anything but easy, and they’d probably be right…if I just had normal gym equipment. But I don’t.
I have a yoke, and farmer’s handles, and dumbbells, and sandbags. I also have the ability to acquire more implements and the willingness to build things if I need to.
Oh, and this kind of training already exists. After all, if you look at my list above, you can see that a lot of this is the kind of thing you see in strongman events.
In other words, when the World’s Strongest Man is crowned, he probably is the strongest man in the world. After all, he can use his strength in ways that even the baddest of powerlifters would likely be unable to duplicate.
Further, strongman training is beneficial for other things.
I took the opportunity a few months back to ask strongman YouTuber and MMA practitioner Brian Alsruhe about the carryover between strongman and MMA.
Here was his response to me:
Alruhe isn’t alone on this. A quick look at Zach Even-Esh’s channel over at YouTube shows him training his athletes using some unconventional movements, many of which you find in strongman events. It’s not just his channel that has this, either.
In Even-Esh’s book Encyclopedia of Underground Strength and Conditioning, he outlines training his athletes in a similar way. What kind of athletes did he training? Many are high school wrestlers.
You know. Combat sports athletes.
Sounds like Alsruhe and Even-Esh are on the same page so far as that goes.
Why does this matter? What does combat sports have to do with displaying strength?
It matters because of one area where strength matters that isn’t in that list: Battle.
Wrestlers and MMA fighters are combatants. They’re fighters. They do for sport things which the rest of us do only for survival. They measure up against another man to do battle.
Now, the nature of what they do is different than, say, a street fight or hand-to-hand combat on the battlefield. I won’t even pretend they’re the same. They’re not.
It’s very different to stand face-to-face with a man you’re competing against than to stand face-to-face with a man who wants you dead. They’re not even comparable, despite the surface similarities.
That said, there’s still a lot we can learn from this kind of training. Especially since combat sports athletes are almost always in good physical condition. The best are usually fairly strong for their bodyweight, flexible, and have good stamina (more on that next week).
So what is all of this about? What in the world makes this something I felt like I need to write about?
Well, since I’m looking for a new training program, I figured I needed to look at what I wanted to do with strength. How would it really be used?
What I have listed are the ways I envision it being used. I don’t plan on competing in bodybuilding competitions, so aesthetics don’t mean crap. I’m not really considering a powerlifting competition nor a strength lifting competition, so there’s no reason to focus on barbell lifts. And Olympic-style weightlifting isn’t remotely on the horizon so far as competitions go.
But I might need to do the things on that list above. Worse, though, is that I may need to fight for my life in a time and place when all I’ll have to rely on is my own strength, speed, endurance, and skills.
I think we all need to spend some time digging in and getting ready for that potentiality with regard to our training. Don’t you?