How do you define strength?
I like the definition I wrote for thebeardreport.’s homepage: The physical and mental ability to resist opposition, withstand attack, and push forward; because it begins to describe different sides of strength. By this definition, strength is not only physical but also mental. It does not only work to oppose incoming forces but also to push forward toward what’s next.
There are three pillars of strength (physical, mental, and emotional). When I think of strength, three visualizations come into focus:
- I see myself at the bottom of a heavy squat; face red, veins popping, and straining every muscle in my body to overcome the resistance from the weight. This is my representation of physical strength.
- I see myself making tough decisions that help me to stay on my path and achieve rather than falling victim to less beneficial influences. This is my representation of mental strength.
- I see myself as a calm person in a room full of panic; evaluating the facts, assessing, and deciding the best path forward. This is my representation of emotional strength.
Beyond these three pillars strength breaks down further. Strength can be defined as rigid or flexible, and seen through the lens of specificity or generality.
You may think of rigid strength as something that is over-designed. Rigid strength accomplishes its tasks through brute force or mass alone. There is little nuance to rigid strength; it does not flex. What you see is what you get. Think about a time where your friends wanted to pull you out to a bar and there was no amount of convincing they could have done that resulted in you going. This is rigidity. No flex to be found here.
Flexible strength will ebb and flow with the dynamics of its environment. If rigid strength is strength by excess, you can think of flexible strength as being optimized for its environment. Think about trying to get work done while staying at your in-laws house. You will need to be flexible in when you work, where you work, and what type of distractions there may be. Rigidity will not work here, you must be flexible to accommodate the situation.
Specific strength can be seen similar to a machine: designed and optimized to perform a defined set of tasks. Specific strength excels within a defined set of parameters and is weaker in all ways outside of those parameters. Think of specific strength as involving a skill. Developing a skill introduces specificity to what is otherwise general strength.
General strength may be thought of along the lines of the old adage “jack of all trades, master of none” in which this strength can be applied to a number of circumstances as it is less specific. Think about moving heavy objects around your yard. You may need to push, lift, or pull depending on what needs to be moved. To complete these tasks you need to have general strength that can be applied in a number of ways.
Now think of yourself.
You are human. You grow. You change. You learn.
You adapt to many circumstances throughout life.
When considering all of the roles you fill as a person, it stands to reason that you need to be adaptable. You need to be able to apply the strength you gain in one area to other areas of your life if there is any hope of efficiency. Ultimate strength; therefore, is adaptable; it transcends specific definition. Strength is an idea, a feeling, a characteristic, and an attribute.
How do you gain adaptability?
Adaptability is gained with depth; and within depth there are three categories:
- Depth in understanding
- Depth in building
- Depth in application
This is where this article gets fun for me.
For purposes of discussion, let’s start with one of my favorite lifts – the squat. As a competitive powerlifter, the squat is a big deal. It is the first lift contested at a powerlifting meet and is all about commitment. Squatting a big weight requires you to be ok with putting your entire body under weights heavy enough to crush you. It requires focus, self-belief, and, maybe, a screw or two loose. But I digress.
Here’s the thing, though. I am not just a powerlifter – I do many other things. I have other hobbies that I like to do outside of the weightroom. I do not exist only to squat. I would like for the strength I build to be able to benefit me in other ways. In order to do this, I need adaptability. I develop that adaptability through understanding depth. Check it out:
1. Depth in understanding
The first part of building and developing squat strength is to understand what it takes to build a strong squat. The squat is a total body movement; you need a strong back, strong legs, and strong abs to support the weight. You need to understand the biomechanics of a squat to move your body efficiently. You need to understand how your body reacts to training loads. A big squat doesn’t happen overnight – you need to understand how to train the movement over a long period of time.
2. Depth in building
Once you have the understanding, you need to execute. You need to not only accumulate squat repetitions to build the squat but you also need to perform different accessory movements to build up different areas of your body. You may need to drill different movements to gain needed flexibility or teach your body how to use different muscles. Having a depth of training techniques at your disposal will help you build more strength faster by being able to identify and strengthen specific weaknesses.
If I stopped here, I would have everything I needed to build a strong squat. This would be a form of specific strength. Knowing nothing outside what I described above would make me very good at performing a squat, and with enough time under the bar, I would be a very proficient squatter. As I said earlier, though, I am a person that does more than squat. I want my training to perform in other ways that better my life as a whole.
With that, we move on to the third aspect of depth.
3. Depth in application
Understanding and executing different applications for strength built in the first two steps is what allows me to be adaptable.
In a physical sense, it is easy to see how a strong squat helps me in day-to-day life. Strong legs and a strong back help me when I go to move heavy boxes, I can pick up someone who has fallen over, I can support my motorcycle when I come to a red light, and being physically fit helps me to look good out by the pool (we all have a little vanity within us).
These different physical applications speak to the adaptability of strength built through training my squat. No longer am I turning into a machine that squats weight and squats weight only. All of a sudden, I understand how my training allows me to improve all these other parts of my life. I build a more capable human ready to tackle a range of roles and responsibilities that are required to live the life I want to live by being able to transfer skills and abilities from the weightroom to these other areas of my life.
As far as depth goes, this is still shallow.
As someone who has spent an unknown number of hours under the barbell, I have gained far more from the iron than a strong body. While I was working at building my lifts and appreciating all of the physical things that have been improved through strengthening my body, I have been building my mind as well.
It takes discipline to show up every day and put in the reps. It takes an ever-increasing drive to maintain high intensity through long workouts and training blocks. It takes self-reliance and confidence to approach weights that scare you while having the confidence that you will be the victor in this battle of man vs. steel.
You don’t lose this mental edge when you leave the gym if you understand what you are building and how to apply it. When you understand that you are developing discipline each time you walk into the weight room, you can then take that discipline and apply it out in your world to your work life and your home life.
The gains don’t stop at discipline and mental fortitude. When you push your body to do anything new you will sometimes fail. If you are pushing yourself hard in the gym, you will miss lifts. There will be training blocks that don’t result in personal best lifts. You can choose to be defeated by these situations and let your emotions best you when you aren’t performing; or, of course, you can let the iron teach you that this is all part of the process and that you will not always win in the short term. You can choose to remain objective and level headed and, ultimately, persevere. Emotional strength is flexed along with everything else in these situations and again, can be taken to all other areas of your life when you understand the depth of what you are doing.
This is Depth
Something as straightforward as squatting can develop skills that tie into the most core characteristics of an initiated individual. From that core, these skills are expressed in many ways across many disciplines of life. Again, this is only available to those that can recognize and build this type of depth.
And this discussion is centered around only one activity – working out. When you understand depth in its three disciplines, this can be taken to any activity you do.
When you see the larger picture and understand depth in this way, you are able to take the strength you build in one discipline and apply it across all other areas of your life. This is adaptability and it is what makes a person ultimately strong.
A big squat is strong, having a high IQ is strong, being able to navigate big emotions is strong, but none of this means anything if these skills don’t adapt.
If one of the pillars of strength should fall…
If one of the pillars of strength (physical, mental, emotional) should fall you begin to see how this affects depth, and therefore, adaptability. You become a commodity when you cannot adapt. You become more like a machine than a human; able to perform well in some areas, but not adaptable to all areas. Humans have many roles and enter into many different scenarios throughout their days, weeks, years, and lives. You need strength to succeed. To have ultimate strength, you need to adapt.
When you understand depth both as a concept and as part of what you do, you no longer think in silos. Your knowledge and abilities begin to flow together and support each other. They begin to build Integrity. The whole becomes greater than the sum of the parts.
This is strength. This is adaptability. This is why you need depth.
Yours in strength,
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