One of the exciting parts of moving back in proximity with my family is that I get to be in charge of their training lives, and help them get into better shape. While they are all 'active' folks, none of them lift regularly, and most of them never have. For me, the idea of a bunch of untrained and willing individuals is delicious--so much potential! But thinking of working with each of them has made percolate on an old theme for me: people would solve most of their problems if they just focused on getting stronger. This deserves a little breaking-down, as does any blanket statement that purports to tell people what they "should" do.
So first, let's define people in this case as un- trained or lightly trained. The same general argument applies to highly trained populations too, but for additional and different reasons than I'd like to discuss today. Second, by solve...their problems I mean both that many of the problems (sources of pain) in their physical lives would be mitigated and that they would move closer to their goals. Then, by focusing I mean that their training would be committed to getting stronger and their mind-set would be tuned toward that concrete goal. Finally, when I talk about getting stronger I mean doing exercises that are directed at making your whole body more effective in resisting weights that are heavy for a given person. I am talking about squatting, hinge-ing (deadlifts, swings), pressing, pulling and rolling.
This is a big topic that gives me the heebie-jeebies to even think about attacking. But it's also hugely important, and one that informs and shapes everything that I do, most simply because when you are stronger, life is easier. For the sake of thoroughness (and readability), I want to break this into three distinct posts. Today, I will talk about some of the physical reasons that a strength-focused program makes sense for people new to training. Next, I will talk about why this approach is important for the psychological health of new lifters. Finally, I want to dig into how such a program faces so much competition from the current fitness industry, and why new lifters (and truly, most of the rest of us) are best served by just keeping our eyes on getting "simply stronger." I'll throw in a sample program at that point, too.
Almost everyone that I work with says during our initial conversation that they'd like to "tone up." People love this little nugget for the same reason that fitness-industry folks hate it--it is broad enough to include a whole variety of body-fat, muscle tone, muscle size, and strength goals while still sounding small enough to not commit the person too much in any direction. It is decidedly not a specific and directed goal, but for people who have never picked up a bar, let alone in a controlled way, THAT IS OK! Why?
It's ok because when it comes to improving, our bodies respond to stress that is outside our comfort zone. For untrained folks, that comfort zone is pretty small and just about anything will get you there; our first goal should be to just learn how to work hard, a goal that the basic lifts (squat, hinge, etc.) are uniquely designed to accomplish. And anyone who has ever strength-trained in a real way knows what I'm talking about. After a few short sets, sweat is pouring, we are gasping for breath, and generally we feel like wrung-out washcloths. Maybe more importantly, all the big muscles in the center of our bodies feel hot and engaged because they have been called out! They are being asked (finally!) to do something that is more difficult than can be accomplished by the usual cast of overused muscles that get us through the daily grind; it is decidedly outside our comfort zone.
That feeling of strain, of reaching beyond your current abilities, is a powerful and potentially dangerous thing, which is exactly why it's worthwhile to get some coaching when you are at this first stage. But living in that space outside of your current comfort zone is the only way to make changes to your current "normal". Calories are burned, metabolism is sped up, muscles are directed to change their composition, hormones and their receptors are turned up or down, and a thousand other little physiological tweaks take place. How these different aspects are specifically effected have everything to do with what you do outside that comfort zone, but just working hard ends up being your best tool. (I think we all intuit this on some level, which is usually why working out seems not so fun, but that's for the next post).
And while doing any one thing will make you better at that specific thing, doing strength will make you better at everything, especially early in your training life. But while most of those popular programs that you've seen on late-night TV (and that usually involve 3 "easy" payments...) are really good at making you work hard, they put little to no thought toward the sides of training that gradually make movement easier and less painful. This is the next way that strength as a training focus wins out.
As those big, central muscles start to wake up in response to these new, high-intensity demands problems of of movement start to dissolve. Issues caused by the imbalance of muscles, like certain pain in your back, hips, knees, neck, and shoulders, often start to ease in reaction to completing movements that reflect efficient patterns well-suited to the human body (squatting, hinge-ing, etc.). Unlike other movements that are directed toward mere task-completion, these movements are also consumed with completing those tasks well, and in a way that is best suited to your body. The take-away is that working on these movements in a methodical, intense way yields changes exactly where your body needs them. That new, targeted work in corners of your body that were weak, unbeknownst to you, suddenly rebalances the status-quo. Yes, pain sometimes disappears, but many, many other parts start working better, too: flexibility and posture, for example, invariably improve.
And looking ahead, as you get more conditioned to stresses (i.e. stronger), familiarity with those basic, whole body lifts will continue to serve you better than any of the millions of tweaks that the fitness-industry tries to sell you. As I said before, these lifts have been selected for over the millennia because of their unique efficiency at accomplishing work. They allow you to do more with what you've got, which gets right back to why we train for strength in the first place: it makes everything else easier.
When you are faced with the plateaus that are inevitable for all of us, keeping your eyes on just getting stronger simplifies the process. We need not talk about looking all the way to final conclusions (are you powerlifting?! olympic lifting?! doing gymnastics?!); no, just focusing on moving more weight will get us most of the way toward where we want to be. And while there will be a need to start looking at different variables and alternative methods (I'm mostly talking about programming here), those changes unfold organically, as you need them and not a moment before.
I call all of this, the physical aspect, the "easy" part of getting Simply Stronger because it involves the things that stay put, like muscles and bones, and do what we direct them to do (for the most part). All the ways that the mind can get in the way, and screw with our perception of improvement will be the subject of Part II. Stay tuned.
Please, I welcome comments from all you: did I make your day? piss you off? make you curious? Let me know.
Now, with a nod toward my buddy Mike, go lift some heavy shit!