This article first appeared in Issue 2 of Fit Over Thirty Magazine. If you’d like to get the original digital copy of this magazine for free, click here and we’ll instantly invite you to join our Inner Circle as a Bronze Member. You will get access to over $685 of additional free training, as well as the original article.
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Everyday athlete’s train strength to improve quality of life, enhance performance in their chosen sport or sports, and to prevent injury. There is a significant difference between being gym strong and real world strong. Lasting results and athletic performance require you to put in the time and effort both in and out of the gym. There’s no getting away from it and there are no short cuts. Training for the sake of becoming stronger in the gym isn’t an option for us.
Back in the day, I used to engage in the same gym conversations: How much can you bench? What’s your deadlift? You squat how much? I thought the answers to these questions were what mattered to my own fitness and that of my clients. Here’s the secret: Those benchmarks don’t matter for everyday athletes. Thousands of studies attempt to answer the question of how strong athletes need to be. The common answer between them all is improving max strength has a positive effect on quality of life, athletic performance, and injury prevention.
Strength matters. There. I said it.
As mainstream media force feeds us a diet of high-intensity interval training (HIIT) and 19-year-old scantily clad influencers on Instagram post one sexy feat after another, the concept of what strength training really is has become blurred. Strength training doesn’t always turn you into a sweaty mess on the floor; it is far more complicated than that. Strength in its truest form is largely neurologic in nature, not metabolic. For humans to produce force, our nervous system activates a muscle or group of muscles to cause a contraction. Strength is the ability to recruit a large number of muscle fibers and produce as much tension throughout the body as possible.
In a strong body, the nervous system activates a large percentage of muscle fibers during a given contraction. In a weak body, even though the muscle itself may appear to be the same size, the nervous system is less able to activate as many muscle fibers and, therefore, less force is produced. This is the difference between real world strong and gym strong. I’m often asked how much strength is enough? The answer is no one really knows because it depends.
When discussing strength training, we need to understand two key terms: General Strength and Specific Strength. General Strength is not sport specific, though it is the base that supports Specific Strength training. It’s where 90% of everyday athletes should spend most of their training time. Specific Strength is sport specific, meaning it has a direct bearing on an athlete’s performance in a particular sport. Most everyday athletes over thirty like to think they’re elite athletes (don’t worry; I do too!) and skip General Strength training principles all together to follow Specific Strength training regimens, often to disastrous consequences. In other words, we like to run before we can walk.
The big problem here is that nobody really knows what General Strength standards really are. Nothing is clearly defined for us everyday athletes, and without standards that are easy to follow and applicable, we end up formulating our own standards. That’s where Strength Matters comes in.
The Everyday Athlete Score – Strength
Before we get into specifics, it’s important that you understand our logic and how we approach strength training. In Issue 1, I introduced you to The Strength Matters Model of Fitness and everyday athlete scoring system. As a reminder, this chart highlights the average global score of both men and women:
Though Issue 1 remarked on the low cardio score, the strength score is actually quite low as well. This is the global average of both men and women who have taken our General Strength assessments. As a rule of thumb, we look for scores of 75% and over in each area of the model before we even consider Specific Strength training. In all our years of coaching using this system, less than 5% of our members, everyday athletes over thirty just like you, have ever made it into Specific Strength work, or Layer 3 as we refer to it.
Let me introduce you to The Strength Matters Hierarchy of Athletic Development to show you where General Strength fits in:
Layer 1 is the foundation of the system. We need a base level of mobility, stability, balance, and coordination first. If we’re deficient in these areas, progress will be slow and the risk of injury heightened. This is where we assess your movement score.
Layer 2 is strength and aerobic capacity. Once we have our Layer 1 base, we start to build onto it with basic strength and aerobic capacity work. Layer 2 is where General Strength comes into play and is roughly scored.
Layer 3 is the sexy layer, and advanced athlete territory. It’s the layer everyone wants to jump to and includes power, speed, agility, and anaerobic work (HIIT) that contribute to Specific Strength. It’s also the layer that comes with the most risk. If you’re deficient in any of the components of Layer 1 and Layer 2, it will show up here. This means injury is more likely and peak athletic performance is hindered.
The Strength Matters Hierarchy of Athletic Development and the everyday athlete scoring system are vital tools for us to identify areas of weakness that need to be addressed and highlight the need to train our weaknesses. It’s a system that leaves nothing to chance. A system to help people reach maximum physical potential. A system to help everyday athletes reduce the risk and likelihood of injury. A system that knows exactly what your weaknesses are and tells us how you should train them.
How We Assess General Strength
Now that you understand our logic and system of training, let’s address strength directly. General Strength falls under Layer 2 of the Strength Matters Hierarchy along with aerobic capacity. Both components are divided further into sub layers – we refer to them as Layer 2.1 and Layer 2.2. If someone was to complete our entire system of assessments this is how it would look:
- Step 1: Health
- Step 2: Layer 1
- Step 3: Layer 2.1
- Step 4: Layer 2.2
- Step 5: Layer 3.1
- Step 6: Layer 3.2
Health to Layer 2.1 is completed by everyone. After Layer 2.1, you must earn the right to continue the process – it’s like a secret door to a new world of assessments on successful completion of each layer. In order to pass through Layers 2.2, 3.1, and 3.2, you must have scores over 75% in all four areas of fitness (Health, Movement, Strength, and Cardio). Everything must be in balance.
The Layer 2.1 strength assessments test basic strength, balance, mobility, and stability. They start by looking at the holy trinity of strength (grip, abs, and glutes) because a weak link in any of these three will result in poor results long term. We then progress to assessing single leg squat strength in combination with balance, mobility and stability – as highlighted by the Rear Foot Elevated Split Squat, the Airborne Lunge and Advanced Balance tests. If any of these aren’t completed, we know your body is lacking in lower body strength and doesn’t own mobility and stability. It then becomes clear we have some work to do to improve these areas.
The only test I feel needs explanation in Figure 3 is the advanced balance test. Quite simply, stand on one leg in shoes with laces and socks. Whilst standing on one foot, unlace the shoe, take the shoe and sock off, and put them both back on. Finish by lacing the shoe up without falling over or placing that foot on the floor at any point.
It’s a simple yes or no scoring system. Give it a go after reading this.
If any of these tests are a struggle, you don’t advance to Layer 2.2 and most certainly not to anything in Layer 3. Even though I know you want to sneak up there. Once you pass everything under health, movement, and Layer 2.1, you can proceed to Layer 2.2.
The Layer 2.2 strength assessments test the foundational skills of a General Strength training plan. We approach programming always with the mindset of training the seven human movements. Layer 2.2 strength assessments ensure that they are all covered. They are:
Layer 2.1 Strength Standards
|Area Tested||Strength Test||Standard|
|Applied Balance||Advanced Balance Test | Left||Yes/No|
|Advanced Balance Test | Right||Yes/No|
|Core and Glute Strength||Straight Arm Plank*||2 Minutes|
|Glute Bridge*||2 Minutes|
|Squat and Motor Control||Airborne Lunge | Left||8 Reps|
|Airborne Lunge | Right||8 Reps|
|Rear Elevated Split Squat | Left*||8 Reps|
|Rear Elevated Split Squat | Right*||8 Reps|
|Grip Strength||Bar Hang*||1 Minute|
*Indicates tested at bodyweight.
Layer 2.2 Strength Standards
|Locomotion||Box Crawl||5 minutes|
|75% Bodyweight Farmer Carry||90 seconds|
|Push||Push-Ups (one every 3 seconds)||Men: 25 reps | Women: 10 reps|
|Dips||Men: 10 reps | Women: 5 reps|
|Pull||Pull-Ups||Men: 6 reps | Women: 3 reps|
|Chin-Ups||Men: 6 reps | Women: 3 reps|
|Flexed Arm Hang||Men: 60 seconds | Women: 30 seconds|
|Hinge||Men: 1.5 x Bodyweight Deadlift**||5 reps|
|Women: 1.25 x Bodyweight Deadlift**||5 reps|
|Squat||75% Bodyweight Rear Elevated Split Squat | Left||8 reps|
|75% Bodyweight Rear Elevated Split Squat | Right||8 reps|
|Barbell Back Squat x Bodyweight**||5 reps|
|Rotate and Anti-Rotate||Turkish Get Up** Men ≤ 68kg @20kg, ≤ 100kg @24kg, > 100kg @28kg||5 reps|
|Turkish Get Up** Women ≤ 59kg @12kg, > 59kg @16kg||5 reps|
**Only prescribed to people with barbell and kettlebell competency
The standards listed above are what you need to do to get a perfect 100% strength score across the board. We do operate with a traffic light system (red, amber, green) with some of the tests, but explaining that is a little too complex for this article. I want to dive into our more absolute tests, or the ones that are a simple pass or fail, before progressing to Layer 3. They are:
- 75% Bodyweight Farmer Carry
- 75% Bodyweight Bulgarian Split Squat
- Box Crawl Test
The 75% Bodyweight Farmer Carry
This test is as simple as picking up two weights equaling 75% of your total bodyweight and walking for 90 seconds WITHOUT having to put the weight down or re-gripping at any point. This is one of the most important tests we do, and shows us whether or not you’re able to maintain alignment with integrity under load. Think of this test in terms of a car: If one component of a car must fail while driving, we would hope it’s the engine before the brakes.
In terms of your body, we would hope that the working muscle (the engine) fails before your postural stabilizers (the brakes). Working muscles without using postural stabilizers leads to poor alignment and poor stability, yet most people train their lifts more than their carries. Essentially, people never service their brakes! The ability to maintain integrity under load is more important than the ability to lift load. We need functional brakes before we fire up that engine. Less than 10% of people pass this test on the first attempt and usually take months of training to do so.
The 75% Rear Foot Elevated Split Squat (RFESS)
The test is completed by choosing two dumbbells or kettlebells equaling 75% of your bodyweight. You perform eight reps on your left side, rest one minute, then repeat on the other right side. There have been huge debates as to what type of squat improves athletic performance the best: Unilateral (single leg) or bilateral (both legs). I see the need for both but one thing I’ve learned from my years as a coach is the bar always wins. You can easily keep adding weight until you eventually break down, whether that be with the deadlift or squat. I’ve seen it time and time again with injuries from friends, peers, and colleagues who kept loading weight and not servicing their postural stabilizers (the brakes) first.
I’ve never seen anyone herniate a disk doing unilateral squat work. The RFESS develops balance, stability, and hip flexibility, along with strength. You can apply huge weights to your leg muscles with limited spinal compression. Since there’s a limit to just how much weight you can load, is has built-in safety measures. We see the RFESS as a gateway to heavier loads and barbell/kettlebell technique work that also provides the foundational single leg strength needed to excel at activities such as running. Similar to the farmer’s carry, we view this as a key milestone in the strength development of everyday people.
The Box Crawl Test
“If it looks right, it flies right.” I’m not sure where this quote comes from, but I first heard it from track and field speed coach Charlie Francis. It sums up the box crawl test nicely; you can see who’s going to pass or fail this test in a matter of seconds. All you need is your bodyweight, a timer, and an object on the floor. With your knees elevated, crawl around this object as many times as possible without pausing or placing your knees back down on the ground. The one caveat: You must change direction after every lap.
Box crawl test is one of the best tests I’ve ever seen for core, motor control, reflexive strength, and gait pattern. It will tell us everything about your coordination, core control, and shoulder stability whilst under load and fatigue. If there’s an issue here, just like farmer carry test, there’s a problem with your body’s brakes, and you know now how important the brakes are. Five minutes is a very long time for some but, in an ideal world, we’d like to see these times closer to 10 minutes.
Most of these assessments are achievable by everyday athletes with adequate training. There’s nothing elite about these numbers but they form the basis of good General Strength standards. Hitting these types of numbers will put you in good stead for the rest of your life, even if you have no desire to become an elite athlete.
If you do aspire to venture into the elite fields, it provides a solid starting point to make sure you have the basics in place before attempting anything more complex. Never skip the basics in strength training; I promise you it will save you from years of hurt and frustration, something. I’ve learned the hard way. There’s a reason why 51% is the average score across the globe.
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