What Is Strength?: By Head Coach Paul Roller
We talk about strength every day in the gym, but what do we actually mean? Can you define it quickly off the top of your head? Why do we work so hard to develop it?
Well, my purpose today is to answer those questions for you and to give a direction and focus towards your strength work.
Before we go into any sort of discussion on this topic, we need a proper definition of the word “strength” as it pertains to what we do in the gym.
Merriam-Webster defines it a number of ways:
- The quality or state of being strong : capacity for exertion or endurance (great, that tells us nothing)
- Power to resist force (Ok, getting better)
- Power of resisting attack (Eh, probably not relatable to us here)
- Force as measured in numbers : effective numbers of any body or organization (half of this is useful)
None of these quite do the trick for what we’re looking for, so let me give it a crack:
- The ability of our musculature to produce force against an outside resistance
I think that encompasses everything that we’ll chat about today. Cool, moving on…
You may or may not know this, but there are a handful of different types of strength that lie on a continuum, meaning that developing one type will eventually lead to development of the others IF the plan is laid out correctly. This is where there is debate and confusion in the strength and conditioning field. Which side of the continuum should you address first (hint, the order I write about them is the order they should be developed)? The four types of strength are:
- Absolute Strength
- Strength Speed
- Speed Strength
- Absolute Speed
You can think of absolute strength as slow speed strength. This type of strength does not have a time component involved, i.e. it doesn’t matter how long the rep takes, as long as the rep is completed. Examples of absolute strength movements are:
- Back Squat
- Bench Press
- Strict Weighted Pullup
- Strict HSPU
The reason why absolute strength is the foundation for the rest of the strength continuum is because if the requisite amount of strength isn’t present, it’s impossible to add speed or endurance. Another reason is injury prevention. If one muscle or muscle group is much stronger than an opposing or synergistic one, an imbalance will occur, causing dysfunctional movement patterns and eventually pain or injury. Addressing absolute strength first aids in suring up those imbalances and builds the foundation for the other types of strength to be built upon it.
Strength speed AKA power brings into account a time component. The only way to properly perform a strength speed movement is to move fast. Examples of strength speed movements are:
- Clean and Jerk
If you know what the Snatch and Clean and Jerk are, you’ll understand that in order to perform the movement properly, it must be as fast as possible. There is no way to Snatch a heavy barbell slowly (unless it’s a cringe worthy Instagram fail)!
Strength speed training is the next step in the strength continuum because it very obviously layers speed on top of the slow speed strength adaptations that should have been already developed.
This is where our conversation gets a bit cloudy. Speed strength refers to the same exact thing as strength speed, but at much lighter weights, and includes some other movements we typically see in Cross Training as well. Here are a few examples:
- Light Power Snatches
- Light Clean and Jerks
- Kipping movements (HSPU, Pullups, MU)
At what percentage of 1RM does strength speed become speed strength? Well, it depends largely on the athlete. From experience, you know that feeling at a certain weight where the load begins to feel very heavy and things start to slow down. This is right around the cutoff point.
Speed strength focuses on the speed per rep, rather than strength speed, which focuses still on the load being lifted, albeit in a fast manner.
The last of the main four strength types is absolute speed. When you think of an athlete that’s fast, you’re more than likely thinking of someone with high absolute speed. There are other movements however, that fit into this category. Here are some examples:
- Air Squats
- Box Jumps
The movements other than sprinting, in terms of absolute speed, are measured in speed per rep, as in the speed strength category. The difference between the two categories is that there is no external load (other than gravity) on the body during absolute speed movements.
Absolute speed is the last of the strength categories because in order to be fast, one needs the requisite amounts of type 2 muscle fibers (AKA fast twitch) to recruit quickly and efficiently. These fibers are developed in the previous strength types.
Strength Endurance – A Topic For Another Day
Did you think strength is that simple? You’ve got another thing coming! There are also the endurance categories of all four strength types we discussed today. It’s all well and good that you’re able to Snatch 225#, but can you do it repeatedly in a metcon with Rowing and Double Unders? That ability is completely different, and developed in a different way altogether. I won’t go into that today, but I’ll definitely write on it in the future.
At BK Fit Fitness, our coaches work hard to develop programming that balances all these types of strength in an efficient and effective manner. Keep an eye out on Wodify, workouts focusing on the different aspects are usually labeled!
Hopefully this article brings some light to our programming and allows you to see your workouts in a new way. To an outside eye, many of our workouts are the same, but be aware that there is always a deeper level!