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Strong Does Not Necessarily Equal Tough

January 24, 2011 01:27 PM

Author of Movement: Functional Movement Systems

In 1984 I started college and said goodbye to a football career. I was coming off of two ankle fractures and knew my chances to play ball and get respectable grades for PT school were not complementary. It was then, as a college freshman, I first found the weight room.

We didn’t have a legitimate weight room at high school and instead, most of us worked jobs around our rural community where strong and tough went hand and hand. When I arrived at college and became part of the weight room scene, I observed all the fussiness and culture associated with just lifting some weight. I noticed the rigid routines, the gadgets, the notebooks and the 400 mirror checks per workout. This was a new language, with a lifting etiquette, and we had to know our numbers: Dude, how much can you bench?

I wondered how much of this was science and how much was the lifting culture. The guys I grew up with were easily as strong with half the work and without the social gathering to discuss it. My unpopular philosophy to get some work done and get out meant I really did not fit in.

The following year, I was validated by a 10-minute segment of a goofy movie—the movie was Rocky IV. Watch the clip and then read on… just do it!


Yes, I know the soundtrack is totally ’80s and, yes, I’m that old, but don’t miss the point because I’m going to make one.

You just watched a video of two guys training, both expending physical energy. One was in a stable and modifiable environment, and the other had to adapt and work around natural limitations. One was having his workout brought to him, while one was just looking to work. Rocky’s work looked like hard fun and Drago’s work looked like some kind of exercise lab rat.

Part of why I like the clip is because I’m an outdoors guy and I always work harder out of doors, but this does not mean I don’t like the gym. I just feel a deeper and subtler message, a message that says we can engineer strength, but maybe not toughness, tenacity, adaptability and functionality. Those things need to grow naturally from correct doses of stress. The message says when we try to micromanage and control our workouts—when we try to microscopically isolate focus—we actually give up some degree of function and adaptability. A workout should be an obstacle that becomes manageable through hard work, movement learning, proper technique and physical adaptation… then we move onto another obstacles.

I often see people doing awkward or unnatural movements and exercise variations just to make things harder. Some are proud of how hard they can make a goofy exercise. They demonstrate a dumbbell front raise with the thumb pointed down as they awkwardly shrug the shoulder and contort the neck and face. Why would you lift that? Or how about a weighted squat on an unstable surface—what’s that all about? I guess the front raise thing is supposed to isolate the rotator cuff, but learning to push, pull and press correctly creates an integrated and stable shoulder, and thus the need to isolate the cuff using supplemental exercises never presents itself. The guys I grew up with did not know what a rotator cuff was, and never lifted with an intentional mechanical disadvantage. They knew how to manage weight, use leverage and work efficiently—injury-free.

The point is not to make things unnecessarily hard; it’s to make really hard stuff become easier, safer and more manageable, and then move to something harder. Somehow squatting weight on an unstable surface does not seem that smart or necessary. Balancing on an unstable surface is a great way to train balance reactions, and squatting with weight is a great way to get strong, but combining the activities only reduces the benefit of each in an artificial attempt to be functional. You can’t fool nature; nature knows it’s a stupid exercise. Instead of trying to make our fluffy exercises harder with awkward angles and bad lines, we should pick some hard exercises that are time-honored and technically sound, and learn the art of making them easy.

When I first learned kettlebell training, my team of instructors did not obsess on making the work harder—it was naturally hard. We instead learned how to make a large amount of weight seem manageable. Our instructors spoke of fatigue management and preached alignment, pressurization and proper technique. They demonstrated how to tap into more efficient tension and competent movement patterns. No one ever spoke of calorie burning, muscle hypertrophy or a cool way to make something harder in order to smoke oneself. This work was naturally hard and in this environment the fat-to-muscle ratio took care of itself without being the subject of conversation.

No mirrors were used throughout the entire RKC experience. One might wonder, has this weird tribe of RKC athletes discovered that we don’t need permission from a reflection to get stronger?

Maybe real functional training is the ability to adapt and tolerate various forms of work and naturally become more efficient. The work you do should create body knowledge, movement awareness, and over time maybe it even produces some toughness. The obvious goal of exercise is to learn the movement in front of you, but the deep goal is to learn to use your own body with its abilities and limits. When I train and rehabilitate athletes, military operators, firefighters and regular Joes, I design the work to produce and reinforce smart minds and tougher, more functional bodies. The strength seems to take care of itself.

Nice workout, Rocky, and thanks RKC.

Author’s note: The same year Rocky IV came out, the band Dire Straits hit number 5 with Money for Nothing. Please don’t look at the four songs that charted above it. I think Aerosmith was in rehab that year.

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