The skill of strength: Why patience and longevity gets you strong

The Skill Of Strength

I’m currently coming to the end of a fantastic audiobook called “Evolve Your Brain” by Joe Dispenza. The book is an in-depth account exploring consciousness, reality and neuroplasticity. This article will explain how the concepts discussed in that book can directly help you in getting stronger.

Background

Strength is a skill. When we observe a 400 pound, tattooed silverback-like man squatting 9 plates aside, the last thing that springs to mind is skill. Sites like this are usually met with thoughts of brutality, aggression and mindlessness.

“He’s just lifting a heavy weight, what’s the big deal”

We overlook what is actually going on with a bias towards thinking it’s just some meathead who moves heavy objects. I’m here to debunk a misconception that will help you understand the principles of strength, movement patterns and progression.

What’s actually happening? The Biomechanical Observation

Firstly, let me start by making a few statements that will shock you. These being;

Squats do not build your legs

Bench Press does not build your chest

Deadlifts do not build your hamstrings

Intrigued? I bet you are.

The degree at which a muscle responds to an exercise is very much genetic. I do not mean genetic potential for growth, I mean individualised biomechanics based on how you were born. These factors never change.

The newbie gains people get from compound movements are due to the increased load on the skeletal system. However, after time, a trainee’s physique will start to resemble both the exercises they do most, their execution of these exercises and their own anatomical leverages.

From observation, people with short femurs who squat a lot will get big quads. People large AC joints who bench a lot will get big chests. Sometimes, when it comes to training, you are actually playing the genetic lottery.

This is relevant because there’s a difference between a strong muscle and a strong movement pattern. I find this one of the biggest distinctions between strength sports and bodybuilding.

When doing anything in the gym you MUST ask yourself; what is the purpose of this exercise? You need to be very clear to whether you’re looking to keep constant tension on the muscle, hence increasing the muscles strength and size OR strengthen a movement pattern.

So what does this mean?

The current Clean and Jerk record for a man of my weight is held by Kianoush Rostami from Iran. He is able to push 220kg over his head. Think about that for a minute. 2.5 times your own body weight being pressed above you.

Olympic lifting, like powerlifting and certain strongman disciplines, is about moving an objective from A to B. All the cues are directed towards enabling your body to obtain a degree of rigidity, stability and mobility in order to maintain an immaculate bar line. There is no squeeze the muscle so you can feel it, as the accumulation of lactic acid would be counter productive. It is all about cues to remain in the most biomechanically advantageous position throughout the movement so that you make the lift.

The Morpheus Moment: When everything changes

Eddie Hall is currently the “one of” the worlds strongest men. He can bench press around 300 kilos if tested. What do you think would happen if you handed him a tennis racket?

Well, he’s incredibly strong and so someone with that much power would be able to generate insane amounts of force in to a tennis serve. I like that theory and it makes a lot of sense, but what would happen if Eddie and Roger Federer were to go head to head in a serve off?

I’d be very very impressed if I found out Federer could bench press even 100kg for 1 rep, yet if he and Eddie were to measure their serves, it goes without saying that Roger would be miles ahead.

Well done Chris, slow clap, you’ve established the greatest tennis player of all time is better at serving than a Strongman who’d probably sink if he went on a clay court.

Yes I may have stated the obvious, but look more closely. The ability to apply force to a movement pattern increases the more autonomous the pattern becomes.  Consider the following chart;

I can summarise this by using something we’ve all been through; learning to drive.

Unconsciously incompetent is when you are not good at something and not aware of it. This would be sitting in the car as a kid and watching your parents drive. Consciously incompetent would be doing your first driving lesson and turning the indicator on when you’re supposed to change gear. Consciously competent is when you’re able to do a task well but need to focus on it hard, i.e. when taking your driving test. Unconsciously competent is when you’ve done something so many times you don’t even have to think about it. Like when you’ve driven home and a 30 minutes drive seemed like 2 minutes because your conscious mind had gone in to a day dream. 

All people who are extremely strong will have reached a level of being unconsciously competent in their chosen discipline.

So why is this one of the most important concepts of strength training? It’s because being unconsciously competent in something takes time and exposure to the stimulus. You must be patient in your mastery of a skill before you can add significant loads.

Frequency: Skill’s Time Machine

The most overlooked yet under-estimated aspect of strength training is patience. We all are guilty of wanting rapid results and as a result make poor decisions at the expense of quality training. I frequently say that goals in bodybuilding, fat loss and strength training are exactly the same; we get obsessed by numbers. When we purely focus on numbers, we’re playing with fire.

This being said, it is possible to increase the quality of performance through exposure to the stimulus. So in other words, the more you do something, the better you get at it. The only catch with this is the body’s ability to recover. Other skills such as painting and learning an instrument can be done often due to the minimal strain they put on the muscles. The same cannot be said for weight training.

I remember reading that elite Olympic weight lifters will squat anywhere between 9 to 18 times per week. This type of regimen for a recreational athlete would not be advisable for obvious reasons. However I believe that you can learn a lot from extremes. Don’t think of these athletes as training 18 times a week, but practising 18 times per week. 

Using Your Brain: Mental Rehearsal, Practice & Progression

As I’ve said before in many of my articles, I always write with the intention of what value am I giving? The explanations given above are so you have a better understanding of the advice I am about to give now.

If your goal is to get freakishly strong in a movement, you must do something that contributes to improving this movement pattern everyday. If you want to increase your squat numbers I would not advise trying to squat to high intensities 18 times a week. However I would strongly recommend using the John Broz method of squatting in some form every single day, even if it’s just the bar.

This being said, just squatting is not good enough. You may be familiar with the phrase “Practice does not make perfect, purposeful practice makes progression”. One of the most challenging concepts of weight training is getting your mind to work in tandem with your body. If you are squatting with just the bar or minimal loads each day, you must treat the weight as if it is your max every single rep.

A plethora of strength coaches will tell you that you must treat your warm up weights the same way you treat your working sets at high intensities. The reason for this is practice of cueing. If you haphazardly remove a bar from the rack with no tension or bracing, you are practicing a completely different movement to when you go heavy. It’s all about repetition in the same environment.

Furthermore, there is substantial evidence that merely thinking about something with enough focus and intent stimulates the muscles in a similar fashion to actually doing the movement itself. This may be hard to believe, but it makes sense when you think about neural patterns and networking. When you want to do a movement, your brain must send signals to the muscles in order for them to carry out the pattern. Mental rehearsal strengthens the neural networks in the brain and so increases the likelihood of getting to the unconsciously competent stage faster. You need to frequently think about what you want to achieve until your body catches up with your mind. This is something IPF world class powerlifter Stephen Manuel said that really resonated with me.

Summary

People aren’t just strong through training muscles, they are strong through practicing movement patterns. Movement patterns are skills that require focus, frequency and high quality repetition. If you want to get good at something, you need to do it, or something that will contribute to it, on a daily basis.

If you’d like to learn more about how you can improve your squat and deadlift technique, you can download my free eBook on it here.