Not all strength is equal.
- You can get stronger using a pec deck machine.
- You can get stronger using the bench press.
- You can get stronger using push-ups.
You can build strength lots of ways, but the effects will vary pending what you’ve gotten stronger at.
We’re talking about strength because strength is good for physique and performance. (Although, surprise surprise, the relationship isn’t linear.)
But now it’s time to talk about the exercises to use for strength training, otherwise you can be hammering away at “strength training” without getting as much benefit possible.
I kind of blew the pooch earlier: freeweight and bodyweight training are different beasts than most other forms of training.
And this is where using machine training as a reference point becomes useful.
You can feel the burn on machines, man! And they’re so much safer than those circular hunks of iron! Right? So if you can still feel your muscles work, then what’s the matter?
But there’s something special about you moving and controlling your body through gravity…and then beyond gravity. And when you think about freeweight and bodyweight training, that’s all you’re doing.
Every time you stand up from the toilet, you’re working against gravity, but—really—it’s similar to lifting a barbell. Imagine yourself on Jupiter, standing up from the same toilet. If you weigh 220-pounds here, you’d weigh 529-pounds on Jupiter.
Sit on the Earthly toilet, load up a barbell with a cumulative 309-pounds, and then put the barbell on your back. You have Jupiter living conditions. Now stand up.
How’s this different than, say, machine training?
Because you have to consider the totality of stress. And there are two factions of stress.
Local stress is strain on the structures involved. You can make a simple muscle contraction very locally stressful just by contracting as hard as you can.
- Flex your bicep as hard as you can.
- Lockout your knee and flex your quad as hard as you can.
- Stand up, then try touching your heel to your butt — contract your hamstring as much as possible.
Global stress goes beyond and looks at how the exercise effects you, as an organism. Because training stress is much, much, much more than muscular stress.
As Buddy Morris once said:
The stress of training is greater than that of a broken bone because it encompasses the entire system. It encompasses the cardiac, cardiopulmonary, detoxification, hormonal, metabolic, central nervous system, neuromuscular, and […] immune system. That’s all affected by training. And those systems do not recover at the same time.
So, yes, training directly stresses the structures involved. The bones, the muscles, the tendons, the ligaments, et cetera…
But it also stresses structures that influence the rest of your body. The nervous system you use to contract your muscles in a squat is the same nervous system you use to write with a pencil.
Training causes different degrees of total organism stress. This global training effect was coined general organism strength (by a pretty famous sprint coach named Charlie Francis, I believe).
Every exercise delivers a local hit (to the muscles and structures directly involved) as well as a global hit (to the entire organism).
Think of getting the flu. Your entire body goes out of whack (fever-global), but there’s also a very specific response to the thing that’s doing the damage (antibodies-local).
Your body is selectively dealing with a specific pathogen (benching stressing the chest and triceps), but you also have a fever because of the general immune response.
This is why sedentary people can get stronger in the squat (or even the bench press) by bike riding. The activity stresses you, as an ORGANISM, on a global level. And if you aren’t very trained, this global stress bleeds throughout your entire body.
Charlie Francis had his sprinters do heavy bench pressing a few days prior to a competition to serve as a general-global hit to the organism. This kept his athlete’s “fresh” and “trained” without stressing the legs.
Global stress also explains the crossover effect. If you have an injured limb, training the uninjured limb also strengthens (or retains strength within) the injured limb.
And even more? Pavel Tsatsouline often says, to retain strength during an absence from training, train your midsection and your grip.
Think of general organism strength as a power level or a “level” in an RPG. It tells you about your potential abilities, but, at the same time, it tells you nothing about your specific abilities.
In general, exercises that have low global impact are for the birds. This is why methods like dynamic tension by Charles Atlas didn’t quite prove effective.
But what impacts global stress?
Lots of things:
- Used percentage of maximum ability (% 1RM). The closer to your max you train, the more global the stress gets.
- Number of muscles involved. The more muscles that are involved, the more global the stress gets. So a deadlift (in which your legs, back, and grip are heavily taxed) is much much much more stressful than a bicep curl.
- Body position (standing, seated). Standing exercises are typically more stressful because there’s more muscle mass involved. Takes a lot of energy to stabilize your body in space.
- Total weight lifted. A bench press can be more taxing than an overhead press even though it’s done lying down simply because you can press a whole lot more weight during the bench press.
- Specific muscles involved. The hand and feet are neurologically intensive areas. If you do a lot of intense grip work, your system will be more fatigued than if you could have gotten away without using your hands. (Think of a deadlift with straps vs. a deadlift without straps.)
- Level of psycho-physiological arousal. Bashing your head against the wall and listening to Trivium will zap you more than being relaxed and listening to classical music. DON’T LET THE RESIVOIR DOGS KNOW YOU’RE LIFTING.
- Complexity of movement. Complex movements are more stressful. More joints, more muscle mass. But also more mental energy (to fathom the complexity).
- Novelty. New things are more stressful than old things.
The best way to think about it: how close am I to moving my body through space in a way that opposes gravity?
The more supergravity the conditions, and the more holistic the conditions (spread across your body), the bigger the general stressor.
Ah, yes — perhaps now you see a little why getting stronger within freeweight and bodyweight training are preferred.
Now, this isn’t exactly shelling out the darkest parts of my programming philosophy. I’ll get to that soon though. (Hint: slow cook the global, make it boring…have fun with the local, keep it fresh.)
First, onto the why of strength. Next letter, of course…