Strength – How Much is Enough?

There are a number of things we can do to improve our health and fitness. Strength training is one of the more popular options.And it’s not an uncommon goal to hear people new to exercise describe their goal as wanting to get stronger.

‘I’d like to have stronger arms’ says the woman as she massages the back of her triceps.

‘I’d like to be able to do a pull-up’ says the female athlete trying out for a new team.

‘I’d like to deadlift xxx pounds’ says the business executive that wants to be able to test himself in a gym setting.

And these are all reasonable goals. But after we’ve trained for an appreciable amount of time e.g. 6-12 months, we notice the gains start slowing or stop altogether.

For example, the person that has never deadlifted could pull 135 lbs in their first month. And it’s not unreasonable to hit 225 lbs by their third month. This progress won’t continue linearly for the rest of the year. In other words if three months is a quarter of the year we can’t expect this person to increase their deadlift to four-times their three month total by the end of the year. This would result in a 900 lbs deadlift. That’s not happening.

So we get it that our strength has limits and that the gains come more quickly at the beginning.

But at point should would be satisfied with our strength? When is enough strength, enough?

Well, if you’re a competitive lifter you’re never satisfied with enough. You’re always seeking an extra kilo on the bar or maybe a second rep at your max load.

This is because the higher we get in a competitive field the harder it is to continually improve. Track and field shows us numerous examples of this. In the 100 m race it’s not uncommon for a world class sprinter to not achieve a personal best during an entire season, practices and races included. Obviously the goal here is still to go as fast as possible but it gets that much harder to continually improve at the highest level.  You could go 12 months without seeing an improvement.

The other group that seems to always be chasing more load on the bar is young males. Oftentimes though this quest for extra strength results in over-reaching, over-training or injury. And most often it doesn’t lead to increased strength.

So if we’re not competing in strength as a powerlifter or Olympic lifter than how do we know if enough strength is enough?

I guess the first question would be what do you need your strength for? And why you are chasing a particular number? Do the risks of attaining that higher load outweigh the benefits? Let’s consider a real-world example.

Through our strength and conditioning business, Okanagan Peak Performance Inc, we have seen a number of men come to us with the goal of getting stronger. And once in a while we will hear that one of the goals is to bench a certain amount. Let’s say this amount is 315 lbs or ‘3 plates’ as it’s referred to in the gym setting.

Now that we know what the goal is we ask ‘why’? And the answer might come to something such as ‘that was my PB when I was in college’.

In other words, we are now trying to replicate a performance from a time in your life when you ate tons of protein, slept-in when you wanted to, took every supplement that might offer a benefit, didn’t yet have any significant injuries or joint pain, didn’t yet have a career/wife/family/mortgage (or any significant type of responsibility), produced the most testosterone at any point in your life and had training partners all competing with you for the same goal.

Does this make sense?

Obviously it doesn’t but we see it from time to time.

But let’s look at another example.

Let’s assume this time. And yes, I know the risk of assuming. Anyways, our lifter now has achieved some solid numbers in the various lifts. He or she can squat, deadlift and bench some impressive loads. And to this person’s community i.e. work, neighbours, family, they are known to workout. How much more should this person be seeking in terms of strength?

One way we could look at this is to ask if the person has balanced strength? Do they have proportional amounts of strength on the front side compared to the back side of the body? Can they push as much weight as they can pull? Can they flex as much load as they can extend?

Achieving this type of balance looks better aesthetically, minimizes the potential for injury  and lends to better sports performance.

Looks ridiculous, doesn't it? Nobody wears Timberlands anymore.

Looks ridiculous, doesn’t it? Nobody wears Timberlands anymore.

So again back to the question, when is enough strength enough? One answer to this would be to compare the lifts to the world records in the same lifts. And you want to pick a couple of reciprocal, or opposing, lifts to compare. The deadlift for example is a lower body pulling exercise and the bench press is an upper body pressing exercise.

If an individual had a bench press of 275 lbs and a deadlift of 295 lbs we could compare these to the world records. For the bench press the world record is 739 lbs and the deadlift is 1014 lbs. I am selecting raw lifts, without the use of lifting shirts and gear, as the average gym doer would not wear these either. Here’s how our lifter stacks up against world record lifts.

Bench 275 lbs /739 lbs  x 100 = 37.2%

Deadlift 295 lbs /1014 lbs x 100 = 29.1%

We can see here there is more of a gap between this lifter’s deadlift and the world record and their bench press. The goal here is not to set a world record put to have balance in the lifts and to figure out which lift is lagging relative to a world record.

Let’s look at another example comparing squats and deadlifts. We’ll use the same standard for the deadlift at 1014 lbs and the world record for the squat is 1053 lbs. Our lifter has a deadlift of 295 lbs and a squat of 235 lbs.

Deadlift 295 lbs /1014 lbs x 100 = 29.1%

Squat 235 lbs/1053 lbs x 100 = 22.3%

From this example it appears this lifter should bring up their squat. And including the previous comparison with the bench and deadlift we can see that the lower body looks to be lagging the upper body. It might be helpful for this lifter to address the deficits in his lower body strength as his lower body numbers are 22.3% and 29.1% of world records where as his upper body lift is 37.2%

Obviously this is an over-simplified way to view your training. We know nothing about the individual’s goals, training history, previous injuries or body type in order to simply state ‘get this lift up’. But when the question comes up as to how much strength is enough this might be one way to answer the question.

 

 

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