Defining Strength

February 24, 2021

Guest Post by CA trainer Keith Oelschlaeger, MS, CSCS

This piece is not diving into the philosophy of strength. We are literally going to look at the definition of strength! The intention is to help you think about what physical strength is and what your objective of strength training can be or should be. Yes, you can just simply search for the definition of “physical strength” on the internet. Let me save you the trouble and provide that definition here:

“The quality or state of being strong; bodily or muscular power.” (as provided by via Google search)

If you did the same simple search I did, you’ll find that there is another definition:

“Power of resisting force, strain, wear, etc.” (also provided by via Google search)

Now what does that mean for you? It should go to show you what you are really trying to accomplish when you strength train. With this definition in mind, it will help you understand the overall objective of general strength training. Yet, I feel this dictionary definition isn’t as practical as it may appear. Here is how I define strength after educating myself and learning from people who are smarter than me over a period of almost two decades:

“Strength is the threshold for injury and subsequently the ability to deliver, absorb, and manipulate force while resisting gravity” (how I learned to define strength)

I am not a physicist, but I do know that gravity plays a part in literally everything that we do everyday for our entire lives on earth. This is especially apparent when lifting weights. 

The ability to deliver, absorb or manipulate force are things like jumping higher, punching harder, squatting more weight, sticking a landing, pushing an oncoming opponent to one side or another, redirecting a moving object, etc. That is all well and good, but it’s the threshold for injury that is the biggest part of this definition.

The threshold for injury is the amount of stress required for a tissue to fail and any stress below the threshold will not result in any real harm. For example, when you strain a muscle, that means the muscle tissue could not handle any more stress at that point. So as a result, it fails and tears apart at varying degrees depending on the amount of stress. These injuries are interrelated with time. 

There is acute injury where an extreme amount of stress occurs all at once in a short period of time. This would be like quickly hitting your toe on the coffee table, and it hurts all day. Also, there are chronic injuries where a smaller amount of stress is prevalent over a longer period of time. This would look like sitting at a desk with poor posture for eight hours a day for years on end and developing back problems. I will put forth my fantastic artistic abilities (sarcasm!) and provide a drawing of a simple graphical representation of this phenomenon below (not drawn to scale obviously):

As you can see, the threshold for an injury to occur is a relationship between the amount of stress with the amount of time. As stress increases, the amount of time required for an injury to occur is decreased. When the amount of stress decreases, the amount of time for an injury to occur is increased. So, when you’re strength training what you’re really doing is increasing your body’s threshold for injury (assuming adaptation does occur). 

Strength training is a combination of specific stress and time to make the body adapt to withstand more force with no injury occurrence (or to a lesser degree). When you are lifting weights, using cables/bands, or using selectorized machines, you are putting stress on your body for a limited period of time. With proper rest and recovery, your body can heal itself and grow to adapt to a new homeostasis (which is why training should be somewhat consistent) and that is the adaptation.

So if I were to draw another masterpiece (there’s that sarcasm again) illustrating this improvement it would look like this:

As you can see, strength training is the process of increasing your threshold for injury. Now there are ways you can target one end of the threshold over another. Training lighter weight for more reps with less rest in between sets would improve strength endurance. Strength endurance would be the threshold at the lower stress and longer time end of this graph. Training heavier weight for less reps with more rest in between sets would improve the opposite. So training heavier would help your body resist more acute injuries (or at least help you bounce back faster), and training more endurance would help your body resist more chronic injuries over longer time periods.

However, the body never operates in black and white so while you may be training heavy you are in fact training a little bit of endurance. If you are training for endurance you are also training a little bit on the other side of the graph as well. It is a matter of what type of strength do you want/need to emphasize more. 

I would be remiss if I didn’t say that this piece is a very broad summary of a much more complex topic. There are many factors that go into strength development and injury resistance. As stated in the beginning, this piece is looking at how to define what physical strength really is. Hopefully, this helps guide your thought process when thinking about strength training and why you do it.

Get stronger with CA

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