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• August 2, 2011   |   0 Comments   |  

What is Strength?

There is no longer any question:  Engaging ourselves in a systematic strength training program throughout adulthood can make us healthier, more capable, and more energetic than we would be if we did not participate in this endeavor.  Decades of research confirm this.  However, buried within this assertion are two important requirements:

  1. To be effective, a strength training program must be systematic, that is, well-organized and executed consistently.
  2. To continue enjoying its benefits, we must continue to engage ourselves in this activity for as long in life as possible.

All of the studies verifying the numerous physiological benefits of strength training are based upon evaluations of subjects who performed carefully designed workout plans on a regular basis for extended periods of time.  In other words, haphazard and occasional strength training workouts have not been demonstrated to produce notable health benefits.  Therefore, if we are to enjoy better health and vitality through strength-training exercise, we must meet the requirements for systematic and consistent long term participation.

Unfortunately, although each year millions of adults take up strength training for the first time, a majority of us do not continue.  Some of us quit after one session, others after one month, and others after one year, or two, or three.  This is a true tragedy.  To have a lifeline to greater vitality within one’s grasp and then let it slip away is depressing, equivalent to losing 50 pounds by eating better and then regaining that weight and more by sliding back into debilitating eating habits once again.  The obvious question is this: Why do so many of us give up strength training when we know how important it can be to enjoying a long physically active life?

Based upon the experience of coaching adult fitness trainees for more than 25 years, it is my observation that the majority of those who continue to train intently are able to identify their primary goal, that is, define for themselves the human quality of strength they are seeking.  In other words, they begin to realize personally and feel intensively what strength is.  As the feeling of greater physical and mental power, flexibility, and energy grows within them, they are internally motivated to continue training.

Conversely, it is my observation that the majority of those who drop out of strength training, do so because they never really begin to understand and/or feel what strength is.  They may have started because their doctor, their spouse, their friend, or a magazine article inspired them to give it a try.  However, if the spark of internal motivation fails to ignite within, they continue training only as long as external fears—such as displeasing others or gaining fat—force them to do so.  Extrinsic motivation lasts only so long in any worthwhile endeavor, particularly one which is physically demanding.

The preceding argument has one primary purpose—to illustrate why we need to develop a clear definition of the human quality of strength, especially in relation to our long term health.  This is essential for two more specific reasons:

  1. Strength training is not easy.  It requires us to perform progressively more physical work.  It does not become easier.  As we progress, we cannot just do the same workouts over and over.  We must challenge ourselves constantly to perform better.
  2. Strength training is not a simplistic, repetitive, mechanical activity.  On the contrary, it requires intensive internal mental focus at all times, if we truly want to realize its greatest benefits.

There are many highly varied definitions and uses of the word strength.  We might first define strength as the ability to lift or move heavy objects, such as do bulldozers, elephants, draught horses, or pro football players.  Or we might define strength as the resistance to failure of durable materials, such as concrete or steel.  Or we might define it as movement of large bodies, such as ocean tides or exploding stars.   Physiologists would define strength by measuring maximal physical forces.  None of these definitions, however, nor any dictionary definitions, come close to defining the human quality of strength in terms of the better health and vitality we seek through strength training.  The specialized endeavor of strength training for health requires a special definition of strength, one broad enough to account for the multiple effects of this activity and yet specific enough to keep us focused while we are actually performing strength training exercises.  Therefore, the following definition of strength is offered:

Strength for purposes of health is the capacity of an individual to create the physical, mental, and spiritual forces necessary to exceed the demands of one’s daily tasks, to excel in one’s chosen endeavors, and to stimulate growth, and repair of the human body.

In other words, strength is a quality of functional health, a characteristic that allows us to perform with grace and power all of the required and desired actions of life without experiencing a premature breakdown of one’s body.  Physical strength is generated by contracting our skeletal muscles in a smooth, coordinated, and skillful manner to execute those tasks we judge to be important.  Mental strength and spiritual strength, the ideal complements of physical strength, are present when we can face various challenges of life with calmness, confidence, and bravery.   Although dedicated strength training develops physical strength most obviously, the mental focus and the spiritual will to engage intently in this discipline consistently for years help us to develop mental and spiritual strength as well.  Furthermore, training to develop one’s strength must also be seen in its capacity to cause healing and growth in our connective tissues, improve function in the nervous system, and promote improved cardiovascular circulation.  With these enhanced functional health attributes in mind, pursuing the quality of strength through progressive resistance training becomes intrinsically and highly self-motivating.

When defined in terms of health, strength has at least two important characteristics that we should consider.

First, strength is not a permanent characteristic for any of us.  Even those blessed with great natural strength by genetic inheritance begin to lose this quality after age twenty if they are physically inactive.  It is ironic that in contemporary life we can succeed in so many ways with very little physical activity, and yet to continue to be healthy enough to enjoy our successes, we must exert ourselves physically on a daily basis.  Even if your job and domestic activities do not require physical work, your body does.  To be healthy throughout adult life, we need to challenge ourselves to become a little stronger.  We need ample muscle tissue to help control our body fat, blood sugar levels, and body temperature.  We need muscular exertion to stimulate muscle growth, bone mineralization, and the flow of blood in our arteries, factors that help to prevent sarcopenia, osteoporosis, and arteriosclerosis, respectively.  We need to challenge our hearts, blood vessels, and lungs regularly or they will literally clog themselves and precipitate a steep decline in our health and well-being.  In short, strength is not an absolute, finite, permanent characteristic that some people possess and others do not.   We do not possess strength; we have only the capacity to become strong to the extent of our individual potentials.  It is a quality of life for which we must strive continually.  Strength training is an ongoing developmental process through which each one of us has the opportunity to improve our strength and health as we age.

Secondly, strength in terms of health is an individual characteristic.  The degree of physical strength that is necessary to be healthy for one person may not be adequate for someone else with different needs and choices.  This is true even for two people of the same sex, height, and age.   For instance, someone who works for an overnight package delivery service and is an avid downhill skier may have to lift boxes weighing 75 pounds many times each day at work as well as have the stamina to careen down a schuss in a deep crouch at breathtaking speeds for several minutes.  Another individual of the same age and size who is a computer analyst and whose favored recreational activity is golf may have to do nothing heavier than push a mouse or swing a golf club with controlled grace.  Clearly, the delivery person/skier needs to develop more physical strength to become and stay healthy than does the analyst/golfer.  This is because the high levels of demand in the former’s work and play will cause premature musculoskeletal breakdown unless she or he can attain a level of strength and cardiovascular capacity that is superior to these demands.  Just as clearly, the analyst/golfer is not healthy simply because she or he can swing a club or press “enter” without becoming fatigued.  Because the physical demands of his or her life are relatively low, he or she must do strength training in order to prevent premature bone and muscle breakdown from disuse atrophy.  The conclusions to be drawn here are that (1) virtually every adult needs to do strength training to become and stay healthy, but (2) the necessary degree of physical strength development varies according to our individual pursuits.  It is irrelevant to compare someone else’s strength needs to your own.  You need to be as strong as you alone require and desire.  How much someone else can lift, how much he or she weighs, or how fast he or she can run matters not in the long run of your health.  What does matter is that you develop your own strength capacity so that you can act forcefully when you need to and that your body and your spirit do not degenerate prematurely and unnecessarily.

Having in mind a functional definition of strength, such as the one presented above, is essential for each of us to continue performing strength training exercises effectively throughout life and realizing the phenomenal variety of important health benefits this discipline offers.  Each year that we so engage ourselves, we develop an increasingly higher level of awareness of what we are doing, why we are doing it, and how we are progressing.  If you listen to yourself attentively, you will learn more and more about how your body works, you will have more control of your health, and you will be capable of enjoying life more fully.  At this level of consciousness, being “in the zone” so to speak, you will transcend the potentially mechanical and repetitious aspects of strength training and begin to experience first-hand the great sense of well-being that comes from understanding and feeling your own strength, the essential quality of health that you are working so hard to acquire.

Category: Exercise Fitness, Strength Training

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