What Does Ultimate Strength Look Like?
A lot of people might picture ultimate strength looking something like this:
With this much muscle this individual is bound to be strong in certain planes of movement. This person also looks quite muscular because they have fairly low body fat.
You can’t really tell how strong a person is unless you see them move.
This static photo is a picture of physique. Physique and fitness are related to one another, but they are not the same thing and shouldn’t be conflated.
I like this question–what is the definition of ultimate strength–because it relates to another question that I’ve been mulling over for some time. That is, how strong do you really need to be? I wrote an article about that Here. (The answer I came up with was that you need to be strong enough to do all the activities you want to do and have reserves left over…including activities you only want to do once in a while.)
When a person thinks about strength, they might be thinking primarily about its use for picking up heavy objects, carrying bags of potting soil, wielding a hammer, pushing a wheelbarrow. This is an important part of strength, it opens up a lot of potential and makes life more fun.
But we also need physical strength in order to control the motion of our own body.
Our body is the heaviest thing we move around on a regular basis. It’s one thing to be able to control my body weight through the small range of possible joint movement that it takes for me to get out of my chair and walk across the room. It’s another thing to climb a rock wall, or even to spring lightly up from the ground.
We need to be able to control the motion of our body at all of our joints or we will have impaired mobility. What we’re shooting for is good, clean, springy movement at every joint in our body.
My definition of ultimate strength is; having the ability to control every joint in your body through its full range of motion against a resistance that slightly exceeds what would be needed to move the weight of your body.
That’s ultimate strength, which might be just a tad more than what most of us are actually shooting for.
Most of us don’t need or want that kind of strength in our arms, but it’s essential to have that kind of strength in your legs and torso. For the arms and shoulders it’s enough to be able to move 60% to 70% of your body weight because most of the time your feet will be on the ground taking some of the weight. (I say 60% because I googled it and one source states that in the upper push-up position 60% of your weight is being held by your arms. It’s 70% in the low push-up position. I bet there’s a lot of variability based on subtle nuances of the position.)
If we lack the strength to control a given joint with the amount of resistance we’re giving it, two things might happen. The first is simply that the motion of the joint will stop. The body has ways of keeping us from injury and it’s unlikely to let us move a joint past our ability to control it.
If you want an illustration of this you can try pulling your knee to your shoulder while sitting in a chair, and then try to achieve anything like the same range of motion standing up and squatting down. (But a great way to practice squatting more deeply is to hold onto a rope or a stable table leg and then squat down.)
So the purpose of strength is to control the movement of our own body, as well as to sculpt our environment.
We’re probably able to do some of that right now, but only in the vectors of force and ranges of joint movement that we use on a daily basis.
A third important element of strength is in preventing injuries while we’re moving ourselves and the things in our environment.
The number one way that injuries occur is when our tissues become overloaded, suddenly or slowly.
This sudden overload is unlikely to occur whilst you’re in your comfortable range of joint motion. It happens when you’re subjected to a force while at the extreme end of joint range or when the force is coming in from an unusual direction. For instance, when you lose control of a heavy wheelbarrow and it takes you down sideways. Or when you reach into the backseat, or to return a tennis volley, and the resistance you encounter proves too much for the extended position.
When there is enough torque or enough momentum behind the movement the body won’t be able to stop the motion, though it might try, and we’ll end up with tissue damage, i.e. injury.
A lot more strength is required to control the motion of a joint at the extremes of that joint’s potential range, because it’s at a mechanical disadvantage.
To sum up my rather meandering point –
- Strength is for:
- Moving your body.
- Moving things in your environment.
- Preventing injury in and around joints.
- Lacking the ability to move your joints against the resistance of your bodyweight leads to:
- The body inhibiting the motion (to the best of its ability).
- Tissue damage if the body cannot inhibit the motion.
I suppose all this is to say that training strength isn’t about being able to do “crazy stuff”. It’s about moving well, being at ease, and not worrying about tearing something if you take a tumble.
It’s also to say that it’s best not to stick to a limited plane of movement while your training strength. Changing the joint position and using unstable loads and unstable surfaces (that don’t exceed what you can handle) will make you more durable.