Are You Strong Enough?
I had an epiphany during a conversation with one of our members the other day after one of her many trips to physical therapy. When I asked her what she was doing in PT, she said exercises to strengthen her knee. I bet that I have a dozen conversations a month that are eerily similar to this one (although the body parts may differ) but this particular time I had a revelation: “You belong to a gym and you are paying more money to perform strength training somewhere else!?!”. This particular member is very representative of our membership as a whole – energetic, enthusiastic and extremely active. She takes Afterburn 3 to 4 times a week and enjoys 1 to 2 days of doubles tennis along with riding her bike and taking long walks. Also like many of our members, years of activity have caused the injuries to start piling up. The most obvious behavior she shares with the rest of our members? No Strength Training!
I have noticed that there appear to be two main reasons why people avoid strength training. The first is that women think they are going to look like men. Well, I have news for you girls, unless you are taking anabolic steroids and are willing to dedicate several hours a day to lifting heavy weights, it’s not going to happen. The overwhelming majority of you just don’t have the right hormone profile for that to be a concern. The other reason people give is that classes are just more fun. I get it. There’s the music and people and energy – it’s like a party! Hey, vacation is a lot more fun than working but you can’t take a trip without putting in time at the office. Personally, I think the biggest problem is that most people don’t really understand what we mean when we say “Strength Training”. They think it means doing a bunch of single-joint, isolation exercises like a bodybuilder or lifting massive amounts of weight. So maybe we need to talk about what “strength” actually is.
From the moment you were born you started to use basic, fundamental human movement patterns. Things like crawling, squatting, hip hinging, stepping, pushing, pulling, etc. These are what we call Functional Movements. As we age and suffer injuries or sit at desks all day or perform the same movements repeatedly for hours on end (pronounced “Jogging” or “Spinning”) we start to lose our ability to perform these basic movements. Noted Physical Therapists Grey Cook and Lee Burton (founders of the Functional Movement Screen) place individuals’ movements into one of four categories:
- Functional, no pain
- Functional, pain
- Non-Functional, no pain
- Non-Functional, pain
The majority of the folks that come to the gym fall into category 3. That is, they have no injury but they are poor movers. The problem is that one of the main causes of injury is a lack of good functional movement. Poor movement patterns lead to compensation. Repeated compensation over time eventually leads to acute and chronic overuse injuries. This is where strength training comes in!
Now, I spent many years working in Physical Therapy as an Athletic Trainer and more than most I realize it’s value. Some of the brightest people I know are PT’s. Many have been and continue to be my friends and mentors. I think Physical Therapy is an extremely important part of the rehabilitation process. But I think what is happening with strength training (or lack thereof) is a microcosm of the healthcare system as a whole. As a nation we continue to be mostly reactive instead of proactive when it comes to our health. Certainly we are a much more educated society in terms of eating organic foods, avoiding pesticides, the dangers of smoking, etc. However, many people fail to realize that the reason a lot of injuries occur in the first place is a lack of strength, and so we set-up this continuous cycle of exercise participation, injury and rehabilitation.
One thing I learned from legendary coach Vern Gambetta many years ago is “Postural alignment and stability is the key to all training”. Essentially, can you perform a movement while maintaining perfect posture? If not, then you lack either the proper mobility (range of motion) or stability (strength) to be successful in that movement. So how do we improve? We strengthen functional movements by training for the appropriate amount of stability and mobility! That doesn’t necessarily mean you have to lift something heavy. Instead, what you need to do is improve your movement patterns first . When movement quality is good, then we can start to add an external load and progress at an appropriate rate. I promise you that if you would spend just two days a week improving your foundational movements through strength training, you would need a lot less rehab.