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Define Strength, Before you Measure it

When you hear the word ‘strength’ what comes to mind? For most of us, strength connotates to physical prowess or ability. Maybe you envision someone like Eddie Hall pushing the threshold of human ability while standing up an 800-lbs. squat, or perhaps you think of Mattie Rogers defying gravity hitting a snatch at nearly twice her bodyweight. Maybe you recall a vicious hit delivered by Ray Lewis as he obliterates an unassuming receiver coming across the middle, or LeBron James barreling through a barrage of Golden State defenders on his way to solidifying his third NBA championship.

Without question I would say that all of these examples above meet my criteria for feats of true strength, and at the highest levels imaginable at that. But in the same breath, I’d also say that these cliché examples, albeit vintage demonstrations of strength, are just one end of the spectrum. These are the examples we innately think of when discussing the topic of strength, and perhaps rightfully so. But there are numerous examples of strength that don’t have anything to do with poundage or career defining hallmark achievements that aren’t so wildly discussed.

Similar to the philosophy of “that which gets measured gets managed”, we need to have an outline, if not a definition of precisely what strength means before we begin to measure our progress or success. Far too often I encounter athletes or clients that have no idea what they want to get out of training, tangible or otherwise. And in more of these cases than not, it isn’t a lack of identified goals, they’re just making nonsensical goals to begin with. For instance, the mother of three training to shed her baby weight looking over at a college volleyball player back squatting and muttering under her breath “when will I be able to do that?” Or the wide receiver envious of the linebacker power cleaning 315 lbs. We see these situations in a variety of ways all of the time. This isn’t to say that the mother of three can’t back squat, or back squat heavy at that, or that the receiver may not one day be able to pull 315 lbs. The point here is that someone who doesn’t know anything about another person sees a snapshot of their training and suddenly feels subordinate to them; not having a clue of what their training history looks like or what they’re physical potential is.

Look, I get it. We all want what we don’t have, and you don’t know what you don’t know. I’m also aware that most of these comments are innocuous by nature, and in most cases I’m sure are factious remarks to detract from personal shame or disappointment. But I’ve seen too many scenarios where these “insignificant comments” manifest into true self limitation. As the coach, it’s imperative to recognize the lack of understanding that most people have when they first begin training. They don’t understand the unrelenting effort, dedication, and consistency it takes for someone to stand up a 315 lbs. power clean. They don’t understand the implications of individual biomechanics and the uniqueness of human physiology. And they damn sure don’t understand the labyrinth that is human genetics. In my opinion, at least, I feel some sense of responsibility to educate people on just this concept- the uniqueness of individuality.

So, getting back to the tangible content here, what are some ways we can emphasize defining strength and then measuring it on an individual spectrum? Bear in mind that this is typically reserved for the more novice athlete/client, because with your otherwise established athletic population, measuring strength is fairly cut and dry and often times not even under your guidance.

The first suggestion I would make is to select a few things to quantify, remember, that which gets measured gets managed. The operative word in that sentence is “few”. In no certain terms should you be dishing out a 6-item testing battery for someone who’s never set foot in a gym before. In my opinion, I would select 1-2 things that they excel in, and then 1 or 2 they’re not so proficient in. Here are some of the more unconventional things I’ve tracked for my novice population:

1.) Monitoring heart rate return

-Arguably the best indicator of improved cardiovascular/aerobic performance

-Typically shows improvement in ~2-weeks of regular training

2.) 12-minute stationary bike capacity test

-Easy to perform for both coach and subject

-Typically a surefire way to show improvement (low score at baseline, aerobic capacity is very easy to improve)

3.) Timed max-effort sets (completion or failure)

-Good indicator of improvement in both aerobic and anaerobic ability

-Extremely versatile, can be used for push-ups, sled pushes, back squat at bodyweight and damn near anything else you can think of

4.) Biofeedback

-Pants/dress sizes going up or down

-Changes in appetite

-Subjective pain

-Tracking sleep

-Medication/prescription usage

Once the athlete/client shows extended improvement (beyond 3 months) on measures such as these, this is the point when putting more conventional tasks in the mix becomes more appropriate. Think about the confidence level of someone who’s never trained before walking in to a gym and seeing everyone around them crushing their workouts. Or the special population client who’s training around able-bodied individuals. A lot of times it’s extremely difficult as a coach to “put yourself in the shoes” of the person you’re working with. Especially if the person you’re working with is completely the opposite of you. I will never, ever understand what it’s like to be fat, and I’ve expressed this openly to my overweight people. But the fact of the matter is I’ll never truly know what that’s like. So I don’t pretend to. I encourage dialogue to get a sense of what they’re feeling and do my best to accommodate that. It drives me insane to see coaches have someone 80 lbs. overweight doing a goddamn push-up test or some bullshit on day one. How in the hell is that a prudent decision?

Don’t be so hard-pressed to employ conventional measures right out of the gate with every single person you see. Take a little time to ponder where they are when they first come to you, and I mean this from predominantly a mental/confidence standpoint. Learn about the people you work with beyond their training, it will give you insight as to ways you can incorporate unique “testing” measures. An added bonus to this, is that it will also demonstrate that you genuinely care and consider their world while they’re in yours. This is a critical step in developing a confident partnership between coach and athlete, you will be perceived in a very endearing manner, because these things do not go unrecognized by them.

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