Written by: Kevin Cann
I got the idea to write this article from an internet hater that told me I have no idea how to get people strong. What does that statement even mean? What exactly is strength? I know what it is not. It is not sitting behind your computer commenting on articles, that is for sure. In all seriousness though, how do we define strength?
The dictionary definition of strength is as follows;
1. The quality or state of being strong, in particular
2. A good or beneficial quality or attribute of a person or thing.
After seeing this definition, I do not even think Miriam-Webster even knows what strength is. For the sake of this article, let us discuss strength only as a physical component. We all know many people that have great emotional strength. Not that this should be discarded, but as strength coaches or athletes we need to define strength for particular purposes.
As a strength coach I see all these “strength” guidelines for athletes. They go something like this; 2x bodyweight deadlift, 1.5x bodyweight squat, and 1x bodyweight bench press. Is this is a display of strength for a field sport athlete? Many of you will be nodding your head at this point and saying that it is. However, for a field sport athlete strength is important on the field.
Remember that each movement we perform in the gym is specific to the joint angles and positions of that movement. Just because an athlete can pull a 2x bodyweight deadlift does not mean that they will be able to generate enough force to tackle someone on a football field. I am not saying that athletes should not deadlift, I think just the opposite. The deadlift helps make the athlete stronger, by building bigger and stronger tissue.
Research has shown that squats and deadlifts can increase sprint speed, jumping ability, agility, and so on. However, the majority of these studies take athletes and have them lift for a period of usually 6-8 weeks and test and retest certain attributes. Nowhere does it say that a 2x bodyweight deadlift is needed for maximal athletic ability. So why would athletes see increases in their abilities by adding the exercises? We will come back to this question.
A powerlifter would look at those strength numbers for athletes and think that they are not that strong. Most elite lifters can pull 3-4x their own bodyweight. That is double what a field sport athlete can pull. However, can any elite lifter outjump Lebron James? I would take James on a vertical jump over any pro lifter. I will also guarantee that James does not squat or deadlift as much as the pro lifter. Is Lebron James strong?
The answer is yes. Too many times we view strength in an extremely narrow tunnel. Strength has many components to it. A pro lifter demonstrates absolute strength, Lebron James jumping demonstrates reactive/elastic strength and power, and we have strength speed, speed strength, and strength endurance.
Absolute strength is the ability to lift maximum weight. Elastic/reactive strength is the ability to utilize the muscle’s stretch reflex to display strength in activities such as jumping and sprinting. Speed-strength are conditions where we move fast in the presence of strength. Basically, trying to move as fast as you can. This is developed by lifting weights between 10% and 40% of 1RM as fast as you can.
Strength speed is displaying strength at speed. Typically this is performing exercises around 50% to 60% of 1RM as fast as you can. Strength endurance would be my mother finishing her first marathon January 10th in Florida. Running a marathon requires low force production over a long period of time. This IS a form of strength.
Strength is much more than you can lift in a particular exercise in the gym. It is specific to each individual and the activities or sports in which that athlete or client participates in. Let us get back to the question posed earlier, why would squats and deadlifts increase someone’s sprinting and jumping ability?
The answer is because it improves their absolute strength and strength is still an important piece. Each term listed above has the word strength in it. Improving absolute strength will also improve strength-speed, speed-strength, and strength-endurance. However, if we only focus on the strength aspect we are missing out on the other piece of building a better athlete, and that is speed.
Dr. Fred Hatfield, the first to squat 1,000lbs said “Speed is king.” To develop speed we need to use exercises that allow the athlete to move fast. This is where accommodating resistance such as bands and chains can come into play as well as plyometric exercises. This is even important for lifters, not just field sport athletes.
Building a bigger strength profile is important for all sports, even the strength sports. Spending time training strength-speed, speed-strength, and even strength-endurance can help build a greater absolute strength number by teaching our bodies to recruit more motor units more quickly and more effectively. Building strength-endurance allows us to build greater work capacity so that we can do more work in our training and recover quicker from training day to training day.
So what is strength? Well it depends on our sport, lifestyle, and goals. Strength has many components and is a very broad term. There is absolute strength, speed-strength, strength-speed, and strength-endurance. As a strength coach understanding each athlete’s strength profile is extremely important. Find out their strengths and weaknesses, and begin making those weaknesses strengths. Including all aspects of strength in training is also important, no matter what the sport.