The development of strength is a part of nearly all fitness programs. And for good reason.
It’s simple: Strength is an absolute requirement for daily life.
So how much strength do you really need? When building or choosing a strength training program for yourself, should your goal be to get “as strong as possible”? As I’ll describe in this article, no: That doesn’t really mean anything. As strong as possible for what?
Building Strength that Matches Your Goals
If you’re reasonably fit, you may not even realize how much strength you need everyday.
Carrying your groceries, lifting your child, climbing the stairs – these are all just examples of tasks many people do on a daily basis without even thinking about it.
We tend to see strength as related to athletic performance or other obvious demonstrations such as lifting and pushing heavy weights objects. But after a debilitating illness or injury even seemingly simple daily tasks will leave you huffing and puffing, sore, or simply unable to do them at all.
With this we see that being strong is a relative concept, and the strength you build should be specific to your needs.
Examples of Goal-Specific Strength
The idea of matching your efforts to your goals is not new, but it can seem vague if you don’t really have a specific goal. I’ll get to that in just a minute if you fall under that category, but first I want to illustrate what it looks like to focus one’s efforts on a particular goal.
- Say you’re a powerlifter. Your goal is to get better at the bench press, deadlift, and squat. In that case, all of your training should be focused on making you stronger in those three skills. Spending the majority of your workouts on maximum repetition pull-ups, for instance, would be a poor use of your time.
- If you are a rock climber, you are best served spending your time on improving your finger and hand strength, along with specific upper and lower body movement work.
- Another example is if you want to get really good at handstands and ring work (a common combination). Your training efforts should be spent on improving your straight arm strength and coordinated pushing and pulling strength. Spending most of your time doing bench presses and deadlifts will not help you with those goals.
These are just a few examples, of course, but the idea is not just that your training should match your goals, but that spending too much time on unnecessary things will be detrimental to your goals.
That bears repeating:
Spending your efforts in areas not directly in support of your primary goals will prolong your journey towards those goals.
The formula for the quickest success will always be laser focused efforts in a method specific to your objective.
But What if You Don’t Have a Specific Goal?
In an ideal situation, you’d have one primary goal to work toward, so that you can choose the right things to help you work toward that goal.
But that’s not necessarily realistic.
It’s more common for people to struggle with which goal they should be working towards. Unless you have a particular sport, skill, or activity you want to improve, you’ve likely wondered how a specific focus can be applied to general fitness goals.
Without specific goals, the best approach for the majority of people will be a focused, well-rounded strength training program (if that sounds like an oxymoron, don’t worry, I’ll explain).
The “well-rounded” approach will help you with two things:
- It will help you develop and maintain the strength you need for regular life, and then some. If you have only the minimal amount of strength for your daily activities, your life will suck – you’ll be exhausted all the time and unable to enjoy yourself. Proper training will give you a higher level of strength for what you need in your life, plus decidedly more as a cushion.
- If you find a specific goal later on, you can shift gears towards that because of the solid foundation you’ve already developed.
Let’s take a look at some best practices for building these qualities into your strength training program.
How Can You Make a “Well-Rounded” Strength Training Program “Focused”? (Here’s 4 Steps to Show You How)
You’ll start by assessing your current condition, and then focus your efforts on your weakest links.With a baseline measurement of your starting strength in specific exercises, you can make sure your program is focused on where you need the most work.
You’ll then be focused on evening out your all-around fitness.
A “well-rounded” program doesn’t mean a random bunch of exercises, or even a so-called “balanced” routine. Instead you’ll expend your efforts and time on what needs to be worked on the most, while maintaining (or slowly building) your stronger areas.
Here are some general guidelines for building an all-around program:
Step #1 – Know Exactly Where You Are
It’s incredibly important to have a reliable measurement of your current condition. You want to know your starting point and where you are along the way. If you don’t, how will you know how you are doing?
There are many ways to measure progress.
Comparing numbers of sets and reps is certainly the most popular, but we prefer using quality measurements.
By quality I am referring to how well you are performing an exercise in terms of your form and how you feel during its execution.
You can record the quality of your practice using a scale of some sort (it can be numeric or any other scale that will be helpful to you), or you can even take video clips of your training sessions to see if your form improves over time.
The important thing is to start out knowing your baseline, and keep track of your progress to make sure you’re moving in the right direction.
Step #2 – Choose Fundamental Movements
Generally speaking, compound exercises that train fundamental movement patterns (such as pulling, pushing, hinging – movements that are used in daily life), are your best choices.
A classic example of this is the chin-up, which works your entire upper body from your hands to your waist. There are many variations on this pulling pattern that can match any level of development you may have. From assisted chins, to L-sit pull-ups, and even rope climbing, you’ll have your choice of what’s best for you at any point in time.
These fundamental movements closely match what we need to perform every day in our lives. As such, you can see the immediate relationship these exercises will have towards improving the quality of your life.
Focus on those particular patterns that are the most difficult for you and you’ll see great gains in your performance, not just in your exercise sessions, but also in the rest of your day.
Step #3 – Use Progressive Exercises
In order to get stronger, your training has to continue to be challenging, even as you get better and stronger.
So, when an exercise that was once challenging for you stops being challenging, it’s time to up the ante. This can mean adding more reps in a given time period (by decreasing rest time). It can mean adding an extra set or two to your session. Or, it can mean moving up to a harder progression of the same exercise.
I’ll use the push-up as an example. If you are already at the point where you can bang out push-ups with perfect form without much trouble, you have several options.
- You can use timed intervals so that you are performing more push-ups in the same time frame.
- You can make the standard push-up harder by slowing it down and adding in a pause at the bottom.
- Or, you can move up to a harder variation, for instance, the hollow body push-up.
Step #4 – Make Sure You Enjoy It
This one may seem obvious, but you’d be surprised how many people overlook this when choosing or building a program for themselves.
Your training should be enjoyable, not just because we said so, but because you are far more likely to do it and stick with it if you like what you are doing.
So, when choosing an approach, the first thing you should do is ask yourself,
“Does this sound like a program I will enjoy doing for the next 6 or 8 weeks?”
If the answer is no, well then you have your answer. Choose something you will actually look forward to and you’ll be far more successful at doing it consistently.
Build the Strength YOU Need
The most important thing is that an emphasis on strength plays an important role in your training, but that it is specific to your condition and your needs.
Make your training as specific to your goals as possible, and if you don’t have specific goals, use the approach I’ve described above to target your lagging areas and give yourself a well-rounded foundation of strength.
Our program, Integral Strength, is designed to help you do just that.
Build Strength for Physical Skill and Mastery
Over eight weeks, Integral Strength will help you build the kind of strength that carries over into demanding physical skills and dynamic sports.
Strength is good and necessary, but without specific parameters, it can be easy to go off the rails a bit in the pursuit of more and more strength. Emphasize specificity, rather than infinite levels of strength, and you’ll be far more successful in the long run.