If you’ve been training for a while, there’s a good chance you’ve gone through a strength training program at some point–whether with or without weights–and you’ve likely experienced the problems with “standard” strength training programs.
- they often make you strong, but only in specific, isolated ranges of motion that don’t translate to the activities you care about
- they’re based around arbitrary standards that can lead to stagnation in your progress
- they don’t allow for personalized, flexible progressions
The truth is, if you want to be strong for dynamic, athletic movement, your strength training needs to embrace coordination, complexity, and various ranges of motion.
We teach this through progressive skill development. Here’s an example of this in action:
In this video, I’m going through progressive variations of the Inverted Press, a skill we teach in several of our programs.
The muscles worked with the Inverted Press are similar to, say, the Military Press–a standard weightlifting exercise. But what sets this apart is the room to make minute changes in form, the range of motion variations that occur depending on the positioning of the body and the use of apparatus, and the increasing complexity with each progression.
This approach will help you get strong in a way that traditional strength programs can’t, and it’ll apply directly to the skills you use in the activities you love.
In this article, I’ll show you how this works and help you incorporate it into your training right away.
Why Skill-Based Strength Training is the Way to Go
Most of the activities we engage in on a daily basis have some aspect of skill involvement.
Whether you’re into climbing, running, martial arts, yoga, or skateboarding, you’re using skills in the activities you love.
But even so, most strength programs do not incorporate skill-based work. While they may help you get stronger in certain ways, that strength doesn’t necessarily carry over to your favorite activities.
If you drove a Maserati, you’d probably make sure to get parts made specifically for Maseratis. Sure, some other parts might fit and technically work, but if they’re not made for your Maserati, they probably won’t help it run in the best way possible.
It’s similar when it comes to strength training.
Sure, standard progression-based programs might help you get stronger, but since they don’t directly address skill levels, they won’t help you get strong in the best way that carries over to your skill-based activities.
I’ll show you how this can be applied in the next section.
Improve Your Performance With Skill-Based Strength Training
How can you apply skill-based strength training to your routine? Here’s how we approach it in our Integral Strength program:
- We start with an assessment that not only shows you where you need the most work, but also helps you determine what level to start at.
- Then, throughout the program, we give you access to all the progression levels so that you can test things out as you go and move on to a more complex skill level when you’re ready.
- We emphasize control and quality of movement above any suggestions for sets/reps.
All of this helps you to continually improve your skill levels across different body movements and planes of motion, so that by the end of the program, you have made progress in the skills you need for the activities you love.
Let’s look at each of these elements in detail so you can see how this can be applied to whatever strength training you do:
1. Start With Your Baseline
Before starting a strength program, it’s important to always start with an assessment. This is a baseline where you rate your quality of movement from the beginning, and thus, you know what you need to be working on and can evaluate how you are improving.
In our Integral Strength program we include a detailed assessment of many essential exercises, but here are 3 exercises from that assessment, which will help you gauge your current level:
These don’t all use the same type of strength, but going through these assessments will give you a good idea of how much work you have to do on your strength, and what’s most difficult for you.
You can use the following scale to determine how well you performed with these three exercises:
If your “Ease” level is at maximum or challenging and your “Quality” level is at broken or rough, that’s a sign you need to spend some time working on your strength.
Pay attention to what specific aspects of these exercises were challenging–Did you land with sloppy form when you practiced your jumps? Did you have a hard time controlling your movements in the shrimp squat? Was it hard to keep your elbows in on the inverted press?
We include this type of assessment in our programs because when you have a full picture of your current abilities, you can make sure your efforts match your needs.
2. Use Flexible Exercise Progressions
The problem with most strength programs is they have standards that almost encourage you to get stuck. For example:
- A bodyweight strength program may have you work up to 3 sets of 20 push-ups before moving on to diamond push-ups.
- But what if you get stuck at 2 sets of 15 push-ups? You just have to stay there until you can bang out those 60 reps before you move on.
Instead of aiming for an arbitrary standard, wouldn’t it be better to allow for individual differences in how to progress?
For instance, maybe after working up to 10 perfect push-ups, you decide to try out the next progression and find you can do it. Why would you continue working on rep after rep of the level you’re on? Why not start working on the next level?
Conversely, you may find that the next level is too hard, even after you’ve hit the “required” sets/reps. Does that mean you just stay at the lower level forever?
A skill-based approach allows for far more flexibility, as there are infinite possibilities with how you can progress and modify skill levels.
Instead of using arbitrary measures, you can make progress by making incremental improvements to your form, changing leverage, going deeper into a movement, or any number of infinite variations.
This flexible approach to progressions will help you hone your skills so that you are better at the activities you want to be better at.
3. Emphasize Control and Quality
Our ideal of strength necessarily includes body control and movement quality. Whereas bodybuilding strength emphasizes isolated muscle control and weightlifting strength emphasizes controlled technique to lift the most weight, our emphasis is on steady, full control of our bodies throughout whatever training you do.
If weightlifting is your activity of choice, then isolated movements might be what you need. But if you want to be strong for the complex, coordinated movements required in sports, martial arts, and other activities, then that’s not gonna work.
It comes down to biology. Muscle systems trained in isolation through limited ranges of motion don’t develop the neural framework or the resilience for complex movement.
When your sole purpose is to hit a certain number of reps, the quality of your movements will most likely suffer, but for skill development, the quality of your movements has to be of the utmost importance. This is why we teach strength using a time-based approach, rather than aiming for a certain number of sets and reps.
With this approach, you’d set your clock for a certain amount of time (let’s say 1 minute) and do as many reps of the given exercise as you can with perfect form within that time. This means taking as many breaks as needed and monitoring your form the whole time, as opposed to an AMRAP (as many reps as possible) approach.
Timed sets encourage adjustments in speed, range of motion, and technique adjustments better than aiming for specific repetition ranges. This improves quality of performance.
Build the Skills and Strength You Need for Your Life
If you’ve been following a traditional strength program but haven’t seen much carry-over into the activities you care about, it’s probably time for a different approach.
As we’ve shown, most strength programs rely on arbitrary measures of progress that don’t improve your skill levels and, often, can lead to stagnation and frustration. A flexible, skill-based approach is much better suited to the kinds of activities most of us are engaging in on a regular basis.
Our Integral Strength program is designed with this in mind.
One client of ours, Topi from Finland, shared that “the time-based and quality-focused training of Integral Strength has really made a difference. The fact that there are progressions from the really simple to the hardest level allow me to scale the training a lot, depending on my energy levels of certain days.”
Use Skill-Based Training to Build Practical Strength
Integral Strength is a skill-based strength program that helps you build practical skills and strength that carry over into your beloved daily activities.