Sunday, February 28, 2010

On Max Strength

In one of my previous entries, I said that as far as the average, and above-average, strength trainers, Bodyweight is every bit the equal of weight lifting. Although I've spent almost three years blogging about the benefits of BW training, I will concede this point: for pure Max Strength, I doubt that BW is equal to weight training. I have no problem admitting that. I'd be hard-pressed to come up with a push-up that could equal doing a 600 lbs bench press for max strength development.

Occasionally, there are athletes whose complete mastery of one aspect of physicality wow us to the point of declaring them some variation of the greatest or the strongest athlete alive. Still, Max Strength, the ability to lift humongous amounts of weights will never fail to fascinate us all to no end. It'll force our ass into our respective workout locations in the hopes of capturing even a fraction of that kind of greatness. It's the reason why we admire bears, bulls, and diesel engines. Max strength will always be the gold standard of measuring physical greatness.

So, why train with Bodyweight if it doesn't get us to that gold standard?

Simple: that rabid, myopic focus on max strength as the only standard kind of sucks. Our bodies have lots of different ways of overcoming resistance. We have different ways of creating power. We're made to move in a lot of different ways. So, keeping all of the emphasis on just being able to lift the biggest shit off the ground doesn't make a lot of sense.

Fitness loves to specialize, when you really look closely. Many of the athletic achievements that we adore so much are the result of a person doing one thing with remarkable success. When you get right down to it, however, they're just playing. Others who need their body for real life stuff other than for games scoff at body-gamers. My dad has always been fond of looking at Bodybuilders and asking how much dirt they could shovel. How well could some powerlifters do hiking the Grand Canyon?

In my opinion, the body is at its best when it's an SUV: capable of doing lots of stuff with relative ease. It should be a more general-purpose vehicle. I'm not going to deny that some people will always excel at some tasks better than the other but it should have some general competence in a lot of different things. Training to lift hundreds of pounds often times runs counter to that mission.

Besides, it's not like you can't get milk a lot of max strength benefits out of Bodweight. You just have to avoid the falling into the conventional groove of only doing BW for more reps. Take this elevated one-arm push-up here:

How many people could do this push-up for 20 reps each arm? According to research (that I trust) and personal experience (mine and others), that's the drop-off point for getting max strength benefits out of an exercise. After that, it's a strength-endurance exercise. The fact is, many people could work at this for a while before it loses max strength benefit. So, even if it's second to weight training in this category, it's still a very strong one.


Anonymous said...

thank you for a well thought out post. you've made me really reflect on why I now focus only bodyweight strictly. truthfully, I don't miss lifting weights anymore cos I have more stamina & flexibility compared to only max strength & endurance. thank you.

Anonymous said...

Speaking of which, do you have any tips for working up to a 1 arm pushup?

Anonymous said...

Hey, nice article and I agree with your outlook that max strength can be worked and improved upon until 20 reps or so is reached, and then the exercise becomes strength-endurance in which case if you are looking to improve max strength you need to add more weight, resistance or counter leverage.

As for the question the commenter posted: "Do you have any tips for working up to a 1 arm push up" - YES!

Assuming you can currently rep out a few sets of 20 push ups....

Start working on your Diamond/Close grip push ups. Train those until you can rep out 20 or so, then progress onto "assisted" one arm push ups.

These are one arm push ups but with one arm on the floor and the other resting on something to your side, perhaps a basketball or a bed frame, skirting board or something similar.

Train these up to 20 or so reps and you should be able to perform a one arm push up in no time.

It is important to progress to this exercise otherwise you might end up doing out-of-form one arm push ups, the type with the legs a mile apart and some dodgy angles throughout the body - which a child can do - make sure your one arm push ups are the SAME as your normal or even close grip push ups only with one arm of course.

Also - check out Pavel Tsatuloines information about power breathing and body muscle tensing. I learned a lot from this man and he isn't a liar.

Remember: APPLIED knowledge is power. Knowledge without application is nothing. (Bruce Lee).

Feel free to get in contact if you need anymore help - I have a blog you will be able to message me at:


Props to the OP for the post - found it ranking top of Google and I liked the post. Keep it up, and also feel free to contact me as a fellow strength and fitness practitioner and writer.