To be strong is not good enough
Good day everyone. It is been a while since I posted my last article for what I apologize. This time I am going to talk about different components of our well-being.
Having trained quite a few people over the past ten years I cannot help noticing one thing. Every single person who would like to improve their fitness wants to become stronger. This goal is absolutely excellent, yet to be just strong is not enough. No matter how much you can increase your bench press or squats it will not bring the full spectrum of health benefits. I want to introduce to you other elements of an excellent fitness.
What is “strength” per se? The muscles have an ability to generate force by contracting. Any object on Earth has a weight. A weight of an object is a force exerted on the object by gravity.
Strictly speaking when we say “My weight is 75 kg” it is incorrect from the physics standpoint. The correct version is “My mass is 75 kg”. As the mass of an object is the amount of matter it contains. For example, a 3kg brick will have a mass of 3kg and a weight of 29.1N (3kg* 9.8m/s2, F=m*g, measured in Newtons)
The only way to lift it is to generate a force, by contracting the muscles, exceeding one exerted on the object by Earth gravity. For example, if we need to lift a 10-kilogram dumbbell then the muscles contractile force must be greater than 98 Newtons (10kg*9.8m/s2).
What does “being strong” mean? Depending on a social environment, it might refer to different qualities. Lifting more than an average person, ability to win a fist fight or run faster etc, all of these can be considered as “being strong”. In other words, it is subjective.
I propose these definitions:
You are strong if the muscles’ ability to generate a force allows you to perform the lifting part of your every day and other desirable activities with ease.
You are stronger if you can lift more than you could a day/week/month ago.
I would also suggest that you not compare your strength to another person’s strength. As our life experiences differ in many ways, person A might have devoted their entire life to training, whereas person B has been focusing on absolutely unrelated things. Shall person B compete with the person A it might end up being detrimental to person B’s health. Or on the contrary, person B’s strength potential might be much greater than one in person A, and taking person A as a reference point will severely limit person B’s maximum result.
Instead, I encourage a competition with yourselves and getting stronger than we were a month ago.
How to get stronger: increase a single exercise workload by 0.5 - 1kg every training session till you hit a plateau. After, go back to the weight you started with + 10%. Repeat the cycle.
Example (bench press):
Session 1: 3*5 50kg
Session 2: 3*5 51kg
Session N: 3*5 75kg (you failed to perform 3*5 with 75kg, even if it happened during the sent #3)
Session N+1: 3*5 55kg (50kg + 10%)
Session N+2: 3*5 56kg
Session M: 3*5 80kg (you failed to perform 3*5 with 80kg, even if it happened during the sent #3)
Session M+1: 3*5 60.5kg (55kg+10%)
Session M+2: 3*5 61.5kg
The less weight you add each session the better progression you will have. Be patient.
The Stamina of strength.
It is an extremely important component which is often overlooked by many. Say you can do 1 pull-up. It means your muscles can generate a force exceeding one exerted on your body by gravity. Very well. The question is for how long can you stay at the highest point of a single pull-up, preferable touching the bar with the chest? From my experience, a person who can perform 5-10 pull-ups with easy, often cannot hold themselves up at the highest point for longer than 1-2 seconds.
In other words, we need the muscles to steadily generate the maximal force for a prolonged period of time. Why is it important?
Firstly, for a safety reason. When you lift something and the muscles give up before you put it down, you might get hurt. Secondly, have you decided to add more complexity to pull-ups by lifting the legs to the parallel with the floor, while holding the body up, then better stamina of your lats and biceps’ strength are an absolute must.
It is important to notice, that in many cases, It is little muscles-stabilizers, which secure a certain body’s position crucial for the successful implementation of a movement, lack stamina of strength and get fatigue prematurely. When it happens, the joints might be placed in a slightly different position while the movement is still in progress, leading to ineffective pull from the primary movers. Even despite the fact that the primary movers are not yet fatigue, the movement will not be accomplished as planned. Have you ever seen a person, performing a pull-up, crunching and twisting the torso while trying to get up instead of keeping it straight and still? That is the case.
How to increase the strength stamina: get in the position where the muscles exert maximum pull and stay there for 2 seconds adding an extra 1-3 seconds every other training session till you hit a plateau. After, go back to the duration you started with + 1-3 seconds. Repeat the cycle.
Example (pull-up or a lat-pul in the machine, get the bar as close to the chest as possible and hold it):
Session 1: 3*3sec
Session 2: 3*4sec
Session N: 3*7 (you failed, even if it was 6 seconds)
Session N+1: 3*4sec (3 sec +1)
Session N+2: 3*5 sec
Session M: 3*10 (you failed, even if it was 9 seconds)
Session M+1: 3*5 (4 sec + 1)
Session M+2: 3*6
The less you add each session the better progression you will have. DO NOT HOLD a weight which compresses your spine (squats, deadlifts etc)
Very often there is a confusion between strength and power. As we already know strength is the ability of the muscles to generate a force. Whereas power is the ability of the muscles to generate a force within the shortest time possible. Power is also known as explosive strength.
For instance, if we are doing dead-lifts with 100kg then one repetition might last 2-4 seconds. If we are doing an Olympic jerk (clean and jerk) with 100 kg then we must accomplish it within a second. The first is an example of strength, the second is an example of power.
Power does not always imply lifting heavy weights. You can perform a powerful jump, kick or run simply by generating enough force to accomplish a movement as fast as possible. Any sport can take an advantage of powerful movements. In Gymnastics, power is required to get faster to some stage of a movement in order to not be exposed to gravity pull for too long or create a greater momentum.
Unfortunately, the body not always likes fast and powerful movements as they might inflict a great deal of damage to the connective or muscle tissue. When you contract a muscle suddenly with a power it pulls very hard against its tendons, which might be torn by such activity. Therefore the power training needs cautious. Do not rush the progress.
Often the following logic is used to train power: “If I can move the arm with a weight fast then without the weight I can move it even faster”. This is not always the case. Let’s say we have a boxer who wants to develop a faster and more powerful jab using a 10-pound dumbbell held in the hand. Albeit It is the least effective method of developing speed and power. There are two reasons why:
Reason 1. A jab is a combination of the triceps contraction and the biceps relaxation on the way to a target and vice versa on the way back. When the arm extends it develops momentum. Momentum is the product of the mass and velocity of an object (P = m*v). Consequently, the greater mass has the greater momentum. When the arm extension has been fully completed the Central Nervous System switches from the triceps contraction to the biceps contraction. When the biceps start the arm flexion it has to fight momentum, developed by the arm extension, whose vector of force still goes away from the body. Only after the residual force has been overcome the arm flexes. It takes just mere milliseconds, yet affects the speed rather significant. This latency is called electromechanical delay.
As you can see the heavier dumbbell the greater delay between the arm extension and flexion. Thereby, the Central Nervous System gets used to this gap, and after, even without the dumbbell, the brain will not relay electrical stimulation from the triceps to the biceps swiftly enough, making such approach counterproductive.
Reason 2. When the arm extends it develops kinetic energy (KE). KE is energy possessed by an object due to its motion or movement. Another definition is that it indicates an impact upon hitting anything. KE can be expressed by the equation: KE = P2/2m. If we have two objects, 1 pound and 10 pounds, moving with the same momentum, then the heavier object will have much less impact. How can two objects with different masses have the same momentum? Well, 1 pound object can be moved by the arm at a much greater speed than 10 pound one. Momentum is mass * speed. Consequently, if the momentum is the same it means that 1 pound object is moved faster than another one. The conclusion is that heavier objects do not always have a greater impact unless they have the same speed.
What is effective for power training? An elastic band. It is more effective than weights owing to the fact that the former is a dynamic workload and the latter is a static workload. The difference? A 10-pound dumbbell stays such at any point, whilst an elastic band increases workload when it is stretched, providing greater resistance when it is more effective. Not only that. Using the jab example, when it is time for the Central Nervous System to relay the electrical stimulation from the triceps to the biceps, it helps fight momentum by dragging the arm back, thereby decreasing the electromechanical delay, leading to almost an instantaneous reversal to the arm flexion. In this way, even without the band, the arm moves back with minimal pause, which is imperative in boxing. The same approach works excellently for golf, hockey, tennis, and any other “swinging, throwing, kicking” sports.
How to increase power: first of all you can still use weights but insignificant ones, not greater than 0.5-2 kilograms. Secondly, and this is my favorite, is to use elastic bands. Just attach one to your golf club, tennis racket or hockey stick and practice the move you want to become more powerful. Or if you are a runner then put a band around the waist and ask your training partner to hold you back with it while you are trying to run as fast as possible. Or attach the band to something behind you.
The Stamina of power.
Not only do we want to produce movements with great power, but we also want to do it for longer. For instance, during a boxing match, contenders throw powerful jabs at a great velocity with maximal muscular efforts for 12 rounds. It requires a lot of the shoulders’ stamina of power.
It is worth noticing that stamina of power is highly localized. If one can jump high repeatedly for a long time it does mean that pushups or pull-ups can be performed for an equally long period. The peak of a single muscle contraction and its duration depends on:
- the amount and firing rate of corresponding motor neurons recruited by the Central Nervous System to innervate this muscle.
- the energy available to the muscle.
Furthermore, the amount of available energy depends on:
- the capillary density of the muscle. The more capillaries the greater amount of oxygen and nutrition can be delivered. The capillary density increases as the muscle experiences a repeated physical activity.
- the “energy production facilities” called mitochondria. These tiny organelles inside the muscle’s cells produce energy using oxygen and nutrition supplied via the capillaries. The Mitochondria multiply and grow in size as the muscle experiences a repeated physical activity.
You can see that each muscle group needs to be specifically trained to develop the best ability to contract with great power for a long period of time.
Also, we should discriminate between “good cardio” and stamina of power. The former refers to an ability to produce movements for a prolonged period of time at a moderate pace, whereas the latter implies the ability to execute powerful movements. Ideally, we want to possess both.
How to increase the stamina of power: it is quite simple and fast. Choose a powerful movement you would like to be able to do for longer. Determine for how many seconds you can do it at your max capacity with the perceived exertion at 4-5 out of 10 (10 - super difficult, 1 - super easy). Each training session, add an extra 3-5 seconds. Keep adding till you reach the perceived exertion of 9. If, by that moment, the duration of the powerful movement you chose is to your satisfaction then great, if not then go back to the duration you started with + 20% and repeat the circle.
Example (max hight vertical jumps):
Session 1: 2*10sec (by the second 10 the perceived exertion is 5)
Session 2: 2*12sec
Session N: 2*25sec (by the second 25 the perceived exertion is 9)
Session N+1: 2*12sec (10 sec + 20%)
Session N+2: 2*14 sec
Session M: 2*30 (by the second 30 the perceived exertion is 9)
Session M+1: 2*14 (12 sec + 20%)
Session M+2: 2*16
This part of our fitness is an absolute must to pay attention to. By increasing the muscles’ flexibility you will allow the joints to move at a great range, contributing to a better mobility, the concept we will be talking about shortly.
When you band over, in attempt to touch the floor with the knees locked, and fail due to an immense amount of tension in the hamstrings, it is not because the hamstrings are stiff. Well, technically, they are stiff, yet it is not their fault unless you have special health conditions. It is the ubiquitous Central Nervous System (CNS) which tenses the hamstrings every time you stretch them beyond the “normal” and “acceptable” length. This length is derived by the CNS from the life experience and the hamstrings’ usage history. If you spend most of your time at an office desk or in a car seat then the hamstrings stay half shortened. The CNS, “seeing” it, starts perceiving this half shortened length as normal to protect you from overextending the hamstrings beyond their regular boundaries, which, in the CNS’ perspective, is dangerous.
With better flexibility, you will be capable of developing a better body control while executing complex movements requiring good coordination and balance. As the muscles stay relaxed you can resort to their help whenever a fine-tuning is required. On the contrary, when the muscles are stiff (contracted) they will not allow any further contraction to adjust a position of a body part they are associated with.
How to improve flexibility: please read my other article “Stretch Overkill”
to learn how to improve it in a proper way, which delivers most benefits.——————————————————————————————————————
Sometimes, mobility is confused with flexibility. As you already know, flexibility is related to the muscles, whereas mobility is about the range of motion of the joints. The more flexible the muscles are the greater range of motion the joints have. How do we benefit from it?
First, it just feels great when movements are not constrained by stiffness. You are a happier person as a result.
Second, the greater mobility helps develop the better power of the movements. For instance, imagine a baseball player with poor shoulder flexibility and, as a result, poor shoulder mobility, throwing a ball. Because of the limited range of motion, the ball is not going to gain a good momentum and the speed will be lost. The same is true about a golf player, who is trying to get a good swing with limitations in the lower back and the shoulders. You can see how it is applicable in many sports….except for Chess.
One very important note. After having improved flexibility and mobility it is imperative to exercise utilizing the new range of motion. The CNS needs to learn how to activate the muscles when they are used in the greater range than previously available. Otherwise, we risk damaging the muscles, ligament or tendons.
How to improve mobility: as you work on your flexibility, try to do exercises with little weights but at a full range of motion currently available to the exercised body part.
The apogee of everything we have been talking in this article is coordination, the ability to execute complex movements and their combinations seamlessly with confidence. In a way, your strength, stamina of strength, power, the stamina of power, flexibility and mobility are tools for your CNS to move the body gracefully in a complex and sophisticated way. Think of a gymnast performing a floor routine where all his or her fitness components are put to the ultimate test.
I am sure, you can clearly see all benefits of a good coordination, yet I want to mention another one. With good coordination, it feels like the mind is free of physical constraints of the body. It absolutely positively affects self-esteem, confidence, desire to be active, lead and inspire others, all of which projects into your personal, social and professional life delivering the best benefits of a good fitness not only in terms of physical health.
How to improve coordination: start combining the movements, you can do well, into a flow. Try to implement this compound routine with as little corrections as possible to achieve close to perfect fluidity.
For instance, standing under a pull-up bar, do a push-up on the floor, bring the knees to the chest with a little a hop, jump on the pull-up bar, do a pull-up, get off the bar onto the floor, roll back into a sit-up position, do a sit up, turn over into the push-up position. Repeat 5 times. Try to switch to the next element of the flow in one move.
You can come up with more demanding flows containing strength elements (push-ups, pull-ups), flexibility elements (going into a split or hamstring stretch), power elements (jumps on a plyo box) and so on and so for.
The Stamina of coordination.
The headline speaks for itself. Stamina of coordination is a lot of work for the CNS in terms of energy consumption to coordinate big muscle groups working in harmony towards a unified goal. You will be surprised to learn that the brain burns a lot of calories on performing a complex computational task, which a flow of moves definitely is. The ability to stay focused and keep executing a complex of compound exercises is crucial. It feels great, looks great and has tremendous health benefits helping the body stay fit and keep the brain sharp.
How to improve the stamina of coordination: gradually increase the time of a flow and add additional components to make it more complex.
In my other article “#LoseWeight. #NoRun. #NoDiet.” you can learn more about how complex and novel movements benefit to health.
That is it. I hope you enjoyed this article and learned something from it. If you have any questions please ask me, I will be more than happy to answer. See you next time and thank you for your attention.