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!

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 that entire experience with Pavel and Brett Jones. One might wonder, has this weird tribe of kettlebell 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 Pavel.

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.


  1. Hi Gray,
    Great blog – have to add a very wee two cents to this sentence: “Maybe real functional training is the ability to adapt and tolerate various forms of work and naturally become more efficient.”

    Maybe real functional training is the ability to POSTIVELY adapt and tolerate various forms of work and naturally become more efficient.

    I love your outlook and will re-post for my staff at Human Motion to read.


  2. Jonathan Jackson says:

    Hi. Big fan of your work. I have shoulder problems. I had labrum surgery in one and going for a labrum surgery soon on the other one. Should I not be doing weird exercises that isolate the rotator cuffs?

    What should one do instead? I would love to know, as it would probably save me a lot of time. Rotator cuff exercises take time and they are boring.

    Thank you

  3. Hey Gray. This is a great blog and I really enjoyed this post!

    I find training outside exciting. I often take equipment down to a local park where there is a nice view and train there. TRX + Kettlebell. There is so much you can do!

  4. Hi Gray. I remember watch Rocky IV when I was in fourth grade on HBO in 1987, and I asked myself, “Why is Russian guy training with ‘high-tech’ equipment while Rocky is training using natural methods?” Of course, Rocky wins at the end and owes it much to the natural training. Thanks for using the clip to reinforce your point. I will share this with my clients and friends.

    Everyone who had read this and posted a comment, keep making the industry better. 🙂

  5. Eitan Gelber says:

    Training in judo for many years under some high level Russian coaches in Israel, I think Rocky is giving a bad rep to the Russian systems. Ironically, many are into KTB training these days 😉

    Gray, great points all throughout the article. I also believe we should let individual explore movement and not restrict it. Many times some of the professionals (including me) give too much feedback to try to correct the movement (or pattern if you may) instead of let the person explore via mistakes and learn. Not to mention out emphasis on internal focus of attention, which research indicates is the wrong thing to do.

    Anyway, great article and great Movement book. I can’t wait for SFMA to come to Stanford this June.

  6. Hi Gray,
    I am an “experienced PT” but new to athletics and orthopedics. In the past year I have learned a TON. When I read your blog, I get excited about the transition I made — you bring together my background in pediatrics and neuro together with this new direction. I particularly like your quote: “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.” You sum it up exquisitely. And you encourage me in my goal to be a true endurance athlete – something I never dared to attempt because my own body awareness has been so challenged that there was limited toughness for attempting serious training. Thank you!

  7. Gray,
    I have to say that I’m still clapping here in Canada after reading your view on Dumbell front raise guy, contrasted with the Rocky method. I come from the prairies and I can guarantee that the athletes who were from farm communities were always stronger than their size should have allowed. Myself, I was raised part city slicker, part bush ape, and part farm hand and I could see the benefits of the functional stresses that were just a part of my lifestyle.

    Weight training has its place, and there was a time where I learned a thing or two from the mirror worshipping body builders, but I love seeing the pendulum swing back to good old fashioned functional toughness. My Dad grew up working a trap line and canoeing to school and back every day. When he was 75 years old he still ran 8 miles most days and could hike into remote Canadian lakes with just a compass and a backpack, while the younger folk just took helicopters.

  8. How right you are. My husband has been playing championship golf for a long time now. Its interesting to follow him round especially when he’s in a four with other much bigger guys (my husband is very lean and only medium tall) He will always plant a ball on the tee off much longer length than the others even though by the size of their bodies they are considerably stronger than my husband. Tee offs have always been his favorite and he says it’s got little to do with strength – it’s all in the timing. This probably applies to most sports. You can often see the same thing in competitive weightlifting too.

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