Strong Does Not Necessarily Equal Tough

In 1984 I started college and said goodbye to a football career. I was coming off of two ankle fractures and knew my chances to play ball and get respectable grades for PT school were not complementary. It was then, as a college freshman, I first found the weight room.

We didn’t have a legitimate weight room at high school and instead, most of us worked jobs around our rural community where strong and tough went hand and hand. When I arrived at college and became part of the weight room scene, I observed all the fussiness and culture associated with just lifting some weight. I noticed the rigid routines, the gadgets, the notebooks and the 400 mirror checks per workout. This was a new language, with a lifting etiquette, and we had to know our numbers: Dude, how much can you bench?

I wondered how much of this was science and how much was the lifting culture. The guys I grew up with were easily as strong with half the work and without the social gathering to discuss it. My unpopular philosophy to get some work done and get out meant I really did not fit in.

The following year, I was validated by a 10-minute segment of a goofy movie—the movie was Rocky IV. Watch the clip and then read on… just do it!

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Yes, I know the soundtrack is totally ’80s and, yes, I’m that old, but don’t miss the point because I’m going to make one.

You just watched a video of two guys training, both expending physical energy. One was in a stable and modifiable environment, and the other had to adapt and work around natural limitations. One was having his workout brought to him, while one was just looking to work. Rocky’s work looked like hard fun and Drago’s work looked like some kind of exercise lab rat.

Part of why I like the clip is because I’m an outdoors guy and I always work harder out of doors, but this does not mean I don’t like the gym. I just feel a deeper and subtler message, a message that says we can engineer strength, but maybe not toughness, tenacity, adaptability and functionality. Those things need to grow naturally from correct doses of stress. The message says when we try to micromanage and control our workouts—when we try to microscopically isolate focus—we actually give up some degree of function and adaptability. A workout should be an obstacle that becomes manageable through hard work, movement learning, proper technique and physical adaptation… then we move onto other obstacles.

I often see people doing awkward or unnatural movements and exercise variations just to make things harder. Some are proud of how hard they can make a goofy exercise. They demonstrate a dumbbell front raise with the thumb pointed down as they awkwardly shrug the shoulder and contort the neck and face. Why would you lift that? Or how about a weighted squat on an unstable surface—what’s that all about? I guess the front raise thing is supposed to isolate the rotator cuff, but learning to push, pull and press correctly creates an integrated and stable shoulder, and thus the need to isolate the cuff using supplemental exercises never presents itself. The guys I grew up with did not know what a rotator cuff was, and never lifted with an intentional mechanical disadvantage. They knew how to manage weight, use leverage and work efficiently—injury-free.

The point is not to make things unnecessarily hard; it’s to make really hard stuff become easier, safer and more manageable, and then move to something harder. Somehow squatting weight on an unstable surface does not seem that smart or necessary. Balancing on an unstable surface is a great way to train balance reactions, and squatting with weight is a great way to get strong, but combining the activities only reduces the benefit of each in an artificial attempt to be functional. You can’t fool nature; nature knows it’s a stupid exercise. Instead of trying to make our fluffy exercises harder with awkward angles and bad lines, we should pick some hard exercises that are time-honored and technically sound, and learn the art of making them easy.

When I first learned kettlebell training, my team of instructors did not obsess on making the work harder—it was naturally hard. We instead learned how to make a large amount of weight seem manageable. Our instructors spoke of fatigue management and preached alignment, pressurization and proper technique. They demonstrated how to tap into more efficient tension and competent movement patterns. No one ever spoke of calorie burning, muscle hypertrophy or a cool way to make something harder in order to smoke oneself. This work was naturally hard and in this environment the fat-to-muscle ratio took care of itself without being the subject of conversation.

No mirrors were used throughout the entire RKC experience. One might wonder, has this weird tribe of RKC athletes discovered that we don’t need permission from a reflection to get stronger?

Maybe real functional training is the ability to adapt and tolerate various forms of work and naturally become more efficient. The work you do should create body knowledge, movement awareness, and over time maybe it even produces some toughness. The obvious goal of exercise is to learn the movement in front of you, but the deep goal is to learn to use your own body with its abilities and limits. When I train and rehabilitate athletes, military operators, firefighters and regular Joes, I design the work to produce and reinforce smart minds and tougher, more functional bodies. The strength seems to take care of itself.

Nice workout, Rocky, and thanks RKC.

Author’s note: The same year Rocky IV came out, the band Dire Straits hit number 5 with Money for Nothing. Please don’t look at the four songs that charted above it. I think Aerosmith was in rehab that year.

Manage Your Minimums

Sometimes I feel like telling people to stop posting maximums unless they’ll also post minimums. Whether things are posted on the Internet or the gym wall, we always seem to post our strengths and somehow neglect to report our weaknesses—to others as well as ourselves. It is easy to fall into a situation of looking at numbers and posting maximums in our training. It’s human nature to do more of what we do well, and less of what we do not do well.

This can be a problem if one of the things we don’t do well is an essential element of mobility, stability or movement. It can also present a problem if the weakness or limitation is a fundamental performance parameter. Let’s just all agree we are much more enthusiastic about posting our maximums than managing our minimums. Let’s also agree that if we, the exercise and rehabilitation professionals, can lose perspective, then we must also be vigilant when those who trust and depend on our expertise are not enthusiastic about managing their minimums.

To clarify the phrase about posting maximums, this might be weightlifting, running times or any number of physical measurements that demonstrate success. But many of us also have a minimum, and we also may not do well with certain mobility or stability tests. One might be great with extended endurance activities, but poor with interval training and high intensity bursts. Another has great upper body lifting stats and poor lower body lifting stats. She has an asymmetry on the Y-Balance Test. He has a very low score on the FMS. Human nature entices us to focus on our most positive attributes. However, the genius of developing talent is about attacking minimums. The true nature of coaching and training is about keeping things in perspective and managing minimums. More than one Hall of Fame coach has expressed some version of it’s not about what we do well—it’s about all the things we no longer do poorly.

I recommend two books to anyone interested in training and personal development. They are Talent Is Overrated and The Talent Code.

Both of these books connect the dots for success for the self-coached individual and professional, including coaches, trainers and educators. There is a common thread shared by both books and it’s about the way we develop perspective and the way we practice. While the masses make maximums part of identity, the truly talented are just as clear that their minimums are also part of their identities. In fact, our minimums are usually our weakest links and influence outcomes more than our superlatives. Whether they are mobility issues, stability problems, performance troubles, or skill and technique flaws, minimums usually represent the limitations that control performances. These limitations, once removed or at least managed, will allow for greatly improved skill acquisition, much better performance, much greater durability and also reduce wasted time doing ineffective training. Our minimums rob efficiency and waste valuable training time.

Many times minimums can actually be unknown entities. Just follow me and my partner in crime, Dr. Lee Burton, to a Functional Movement Screening seminar and see the scenario unfold before your eyes. Our audience is filled with intelligent and fit individuals. A majority of these individuals are surprised with their screen results. They are even more surprised when they hear what area the screening technology points to as the most compelling minimum or greatest weakness. Expert training and coaching can bring us close to our minimums, and screening and testing can be the most systematic and reliable way to identify the issues that are robbing our true potentials.

If you self-train, you should have a short list of both your maximums and minimums in your training journal.

Coaches and trainers, remember that the best coaches of all times have an excellent perspective of both an athlete’s or client’s maximums and minimums. Both of these pieces of information together help the professional understand problems and potentials. It is a freshman mistake in coaching to simply exploit an athlete’s strength and not challenge the individual to complete gaining or athleticism by working on weaknesses. It is the seasoned coach or the wise mentor who quickly appraises both strengths and weaknesses, and delegates a majority of training time to the areas of weakness. It is not as much fun and is actually intimidating, but in the long run it is the most complete form of training and education we can achieve.

Look around. You will not find many people posting their minimums at the gym or on the Internet. You will find them posting their maximums and discussing their proficiency in their workouts. However, now you know the best way to help them improve those maxims, if they should ask your advice. Simply redirect the focus to the minimums and watch all the stats improve. This perspective is essential when we are managing large groups like the fire service, military operators or groups of school children. It is more beneficial and more helpful to the group as a whole to identify minimum levels of competency across a wide array of attributes, and to make the entire group achieve statistics above a minimum accepted level of proficiency of each attribute.

When we screen groups, our primary goal is not to find a perfect movement screen. The goal is to get as many individuals about the cut (lowest acceptable FMS score), the minimum level of risk. This is truly what training a group or team is all about. Leave no one behind. Work on minimums first. Maximums will take care of themselves… and you know you want to post ’em!