One of the greatest things ever said about strength training comes from the great Pavel Tsatsouline.
"Strength is a skill."
When you apply some thought to this concept, it starts to change your ideas about getting stronger, and expose the lies printed in glossy muscle mags at the grocery store.
Today we will dive a little deeper into some of Pavel's concepts around getting stronger and how you can apply them to your training.
Strength is a Skill
If strength is a skill, then we should approach training like it is practice.
Another one of Pavel's maxims is to "save fatigue for competition."
The goal of training then is to increase your skill and proficiency over time. Going into the gym with the goal of obliterating yourself every time is counterproductive and shortsighted.
The goal should be to always stay in the adaptation phase.
Let's take a quick step back though and talk about strength in general.
What is Strength?
Strength is more than a function of muscle, it is a neuromuscular adaptation.
With proper training, the nervous system gets better at recruiting muscle over time.
More efficient recruitment of muscle means you can move more weight in a given lift or exert more force in athletic activities.
You might think your max on deadlift or bench is an accurate measurement of how strong you are, but that is not the case.
There is a concept known as strength deficit. Let's use an example to help you understand it.
Let's say I ask you to get in a leg press machine and press what you can. Under your own power you work up to as heavy a weight as you can tolerate and complete your lift.
This is known as your training strength.
It is the amount of force you can exert under your own control.
Now, let's put you back in that leg press but let's put some electrodes on your muscles. Instead of asking you to consciously lift the weight, we will essentially shock the muscles into contraction (and yes, these experiments have been done).
Under the external stimulation, you will move more weight. This is your absolute strength.
The difference between your training strength and your absolute strength is your strength deficit.
Closing the Gap
Reducing the strength deficit is a matter of becoming more neuromuscularly efficient.
This brings us full circle back to Pavel's concept of strength being a skill.
Pavel has a few pillars of strength training:
- Do not train to muscular failure
- Train everyday
- Train throughout the day
- Save fatigue for competition
One of the frameworks you can use and apply to your training is called "greasing the groove."
Let's say you want to be able to do more pull ups, and right now, you can do a set of 6 or 7 if you really try hard. There are two approaches, which can be applied simultaneously to improve.
First, address technical issues. While pull ups seem simple enough, there are some technical things that will help put you in a position to do your best. We won't go into those here (it's a whole article unto itself), but remember strength is a skill, so each lift has a skill component to it.
With technical deficiencies addressed, we can start to grease the groove. This means performing pull ups throughout the day, but never reaching muscular fatigue. In this way, you are training the nervous system in that motor pattern and it will adapt by becoming more efficient.
So if you can perform a max set of 6 or 7 reps, you might do a set of 3 in the morning, rest 10 minutes, and perform another set.
When lunch time rolls around, you might do the same. Right after dinner you might perform one set.
Again, you are ingraining this motor pattern into your nervous system and an adaptation will occur. After a few weeks, you can retest your pull ups (testing is the time to go all out) and reset your baseline.
Now Go Practice!
Now that you have a basic understanding of strength as a skill, you can apply it to any lift.
Remember, save fatigue for competition, practice good technique, train often.
If you can apply these principles to your training, you will start to see benefits very quickly.