Fitness is merely the ability to perform a very specific physical task successfully with skill and precision. Because fitness is task specific, we can further breakdown fitness into quantifiable measures that make the whole system perform whatever it is being asked. Those measures include but are not limited to: power, strength, local muscular endurance, cardio-respiratory endurance, joint stability, joint mobility, flexibility, balance, agility, speed, hand-eye coordination and psychological well-being.
Strength is the king of these qualities and should be a priority for people who engage in exercise. This article highlights why strength improvements are critical for the exerciser regardless of whether you are a recreational cyclist or a mother of three.
Strength (force production) is expressed by the body’s system of muscles and connective tissues that connect to the bones and where the muscles shorten when exerted and lengthen when relaxed. This causes the bones to flex and extend at the pivot points (joints) to overcome external resistances.
For example, let’s imagine that your car is stuck in the snow and you are trying to push it out of a snow bank. Your musculoskeletal system of bones and muscles receive signals from your brain to push against the rear of your 3,500-pound car. In order to be successful, your musculoskeletal system has to create more force and mechanical leverage through these joint fulcrums to overcome the force that is acting against your body in the form of a 3,500-pound piece of metal.
This is where strength comes into play. Strength (force) is equal to mass multiplied by acceleration. It is the essence of moving our bodies through daily life. Everything we do from taking out the trash to pedaling our mountain bikes over the pass demand that muscles contract and display that contraction through pivot points that causes us to move.
Why is it then, most people prioritize force production (i.e. strength) out of their exercise routine? Why do people train with the same light weights year after year? A colleague of mine, Mark Rippetoe, owner of the Aasgaard publishing company and author of “Starting Strength,” uses a perfect example that will suit our Vail audience rather well. Bill, a recreational cyclist, is pedaling down U.S. Highway 6 at 18 miles per hour; he has a pedal cadence of 75 and is producing a force that is representative of 80 percent of his absolute maximum output.
The following week, Bill goes into the weight room to quantify his strength. I spend the afternoon teaching Bill the finer details of the barbell back squat. After a few sessions, he successfully works his ways up to performing a five-repetition maximum of 100 pounds. Bill now has a baseline on his ability to exert force against an external load. After a five-month training cycle, I increase Bill’s five-repetition maximum to 200 pounds, doubling his strength.
Increasing ‘motor size’
After five months, Bill is cycling down Highway 6 again at the same rate of 18 miles per hour, at the same cadence of 75. The difference now, however, is that Bill has doubled his strength and is now operating at 40 percent of his maximum output, not the former 80 percent. So by the very nature of increasing his strength, he has lowered his perceived effort, heart rate, lactate threshold and is now further away from his limit since he has increased his system’s “motor size.”
Moreover, Bill can operate at the same speed with less total effort as a percentage of his maximum. He also has the increased “motor size” to ride at 21 miles per hour, for example, at a cadence of 75 with the same perceived and literal output before he began the strength training program.
I am not suggesting that strength production should be the sole focus of any training program. Although, moderate improvements in strength in a controlled environment (a gym in which the load, movement, execution speed and rest period are precisely measured) are extremely advantageous for any athlete or healthy individual interested in becoming a more physically complete and functional individual.
Lastly, there are other priorities in a well-planned training program that should take precedence before structured strength training. Specifically, joint health must be established first and foremost. Once joint integrity is established, it’s time to increase that motor size. As the adage goes in motor racing, “there’s no replacement for displacement.”
Ryan Richards has a B.S. from Ohio University and is a certified strength and conditioning specialist through the National Strength and Conditioning Association. He is the personal trainer at the Sonnenalp Golf Club and the owner of R2HP, an athlete consulting and personal training company. Richards’ passion comes from overcoming childhood obesity and a T1-L3 spinal fusion. Contact him at r2hp.com or 970-401-0720.