Despite the myriad programs floating around the internet. Despite the claim by “experts” who know how to apply a vast quiver of “fixes” to your problem. Even despite my own declaration of vociferous reading and knowledge. There are only three ways to get strong(er). Get ready for a long article though because it takes a lot of background to understand it.
Physics of Weightlifting
In order to understand these “three methods” you have to understand a little about physics. Don’t worry I won’t bore you too much but it’s important to understand if you want to get stronger. The working definition of strength (in CrossFit anyway) is “the successful application of power to an object.” As CrossFit regularly argues, everything requires a definition. Allow me to elaborate:
“The successful application” means moving something from a specified point A to a specified Point B.
I.e, a deadlift’s point A = the ground and point B = full extension of the hip.
(Force x Distance) / Time
“To an object” means whatever the heck it is you’re moving.
Now that that’s out of the way let’s focus on the meat of this article: “Power.” Power in physical terms is VERY simple. It boils down to three very obvious questions. How much did you move? How far did you move it? And how fast did it move? The more those three go up. The more “powerful” you are. Wait a minute. You mean there are three questions when it comes to determining power? And there are three methods to getting stronger? Indeed! You deductive reader, you. Read on to satisfy your inquisitive mind.
How do we know about these ways?
Well aside from simple physics, the answer is really simple: Soviets (or as they are now known Russians.) I know we may have had our differences for a number of decades. But considering I was born near the very end of the cold war and harbor absolutely zero ill will toward “ze russians;” I’ll be the first to admit those guys knew how to workout.
Although I fundamentally, phillosophically and all around abhor the concept of socialsm, god DAMN did it do wonders for training. Let’s put this in perspective. You’re talking about a diverse, motivated and talented group of individuals under the same a rigourous training process that was monitored to insane detail. Talk about an ideal training environment for wading through what truly worked and what didn’t.
I’ll skip the boring part and distill what they learned. The ONLY three ways to train strength are through three methods: the maximum effort method, the dynamic efffort method, and the repetitive effort method. Whether you realize it or not, you always performing one of those methods. The question is: are you performing them correctly?
The Maximum Effort Method
The maximum effort method is fairly self explanatory. It requires you to lift the maximum amount of weight possible. In other words, it satisfies the “Force” side of the equation. Or rather, it answers the question “How much are you moving?”
From a biomechanical perspective, the maximum effort method deals specifically with the “intermuscular coorindation.” I don’t mean coordination in terms of can you throw a baseball. I mean coordination in terms of the firing sequence of your muscles. While squatting may seem like a pretty straight forward movement (“uhh stand the weight up dummy”) it actually requires an unbelievably complex symphony of movement from an extremely large and complex variety of muscles (like… a symphony).
A great squat is like a great band, everything firing/playing in perfect synchrony with perfect timing and rhythm. Not unlike a beginner band (or a beginner squatter) sometimes that synchrony is off and things don’t go well and it looks/sounds terrible. Lifting maximum weights helps get the muscles to fire together in order to produce the most effective force.
CrossFit became one of the biggest proponents and quite frankly popularized the idea of maximum effort lifting. It was (and still is) extremely common to see an entire day’s workout to consist of building to 5, 3 rep maximum deadlifts. But in the words of Louis Simmons, “everything works, but nothing works forever” it was only a matter of time till exposure to the Maximum Effort Method experienced diminishing returns. So what was next?
The Dynamic Effort Method
The dynamic effort method can be really difficult to comprehend for most beginner to intermediate lifters (and despite your insistence if you aren’t currently training with the dynamic effort method you are not beyond an intermediate lifter). The best way to understand the dynamic effort method is by way of a simple analogy.
Imagine I wanted you to try to break a window from 10 feet away with a variety of balls (after all throwing a ball is just another example of creating power, right?). The first ball I gave you is a 20lb bowling ball. Despite your best effort, it’s simply too heavy to generate enough speed to break the window. The next ball is a wiffle ball. Despite the fact that it’s much much lighter, it’s simply not heavy enough to generate enough force to break through the glass. Finally, I give you a baseball. Assuming you aren’t Jason Khalipa and have actually know how to throw a baseball; it should be perfect. Why? Because it’s the right combination of heavy and light to generate enough power to break the window. Enter: the dynamic effort method.
The dynamic effort method is all about generating enough speed with the right amount of weight. Too much weight and you’re throwing a bowling ball. Too little and you’re hurling a wiffle ball. The dynamic effort method is that sweet spot of the baseball. It’s all about reducing the amount of “time” (refer back to our power equation above by increasing the rate of force development. Or in other words, how quickly can you recruit a bunch of muscles all at once. Unlike “intermusclar co-orindation” (or the maximum effort method) it’s all about intramuscular coordination or how many muscle fibers can you recruit quickly. Make no mistake, it’s equally important as the maximum effort method.
Louis Simmons, of Westside Barbell fame, was really the first American to popularize this very Soviet concept. In fact, he even replaced one of his barbell club’s maximum effort days with a dynamic effort day because of it’s efficacy (and it’s ability to reduce the number of training related injuries). Starting around 2010, CrossFit.com started publishing “strength days” that looked like 2-2-2-2-2-2-2-2-2-2-2-2 (or 12 sets of 2) instead of the usual 3-3-3-3-3 around the same time they started relying on Louis and Westside to coach their Powerlifting SME courses. Undoubtedly, these two were not unrelated and the introduction or this 12×2 method started CrossFitters thinking more about speed than necessarily lifting for maximum whenever.
But despite CrossFit.com’s evolution toward dynamic effort there is still one VERY important method left over and kinda brings the CrossFit methodology full circle…
The Repetitive Effort Method
Think of the Repetitive Effort Method as basically, The Bodybuilding Method. Yeah, that’s right, bodybuilding. High sets, high reps, heavy weights. Make fun of their sport all you want, but you’ll have to admit that bodybuilders are freaking strong. This method is often associated with hypertrophy or the growth of the muscle itself. Larger muscles tend to be stronger muscles because their mechanical advantage at the joint is greater. Referring back to our power equation at the top, the Repetition Method is mostly concerned with the “distance” (aka repetitions) you’re moving an object.
The effectiveness of the Repetitive Effort method is fairly simple to understand. If you consider that the large lifts (squats, deadlifts, presses, snatch, clean and jerk, etc) rely on chains of muscles, you’re bound to have a weak link in that chain. If you just keep tugging on the chain as a whole, it will keep breaking in the exact same spot. It stands to reason that if you take time to strengthen that individual link in the chain, the chain as a whole will get stronger.
The Repetitive Effort method can take the form of lots of different sets and rep schemes. As with the dynamic effort and max effort, the intention is the most important aspect, not the actual work done. Simmons recommends, “use the repetition method to failure, never in the classical lifts, but rather with special exercises and so forth. I prefer to do repetitions for time, not bothering to count reps, in a slow tempo.”
As of yet, CrossFit.com doesn’t seem to use much of the repetition effort method for it’s strength portions and to most it may seem counterintuitive considering CrossFit’s mockery of the “Globo Gym” world where bodybuilding is popular. However, it’s pretty easy to make the argument that almost every metcon could easily be construed as repetitive effort. In fact I think it’s pretty easy to make the argument that all CrossFit did was to take classic assistance work like KB Swings, Front Squats, Overhead Presses, and make them more fun and interesting. The addition of intensity to the work has taken a lot of classic ideas of Repetition or Assistance work and turned them on their head emphasizing once again that it’s not the “secret sauce programming” that’s what’s important, it’s the effort and intention.
As I mentioned in the beginning of this article, it’s often times easy to get lost in all the varieties of “programs” with their magnificent claims of effectiveness. But when you boil it all down they really all fit into these categories. Which one is most important? Which one should you do? How many? Simple: whichever one you’re not doing or whichever one you seem to struggle with the most. Don’t fall into gimmicks, fads or “know it all” experts with fantastic claims. Do what you suck at, and do it as hard as possible. According to Louis Simmons, “People make a mistake thinking that there is only one method of training. In fact, there are many, and they must coexist in a continuous chain of proven methods.”
So if your goal is to get stronger, look at which method you’re not doing and do it more.