I never spend much time on strength training blogs and forums because the comments can drive my crazy. Since I’ve been on Facebook I’ve seen more of these discussions and they still boggle me. This week somebody posted what I think is a simple question:
“3 different lifters, bench press in 3 different rep ranges. 369×5, 334×9, 341×8. Which performance do you consider the strongest and why?”
To me the answer jumps off the page. Not so to the others who made comments. I want to make it clear that I do not think the commenters were dumb. They all sounded like they were experienced in strength training and probably pretty serious power lifters.
The comments that followed were ones like this:
“341×8 might equal out to be around 369×5 as far rep to weight ratio.”
“Anything over 6 reps is very good I think.”
“Strength = ability to exert force usually in a short duration or singular instance. 369×5 most closely represents that.”
“I know via a rep max calculator which one is highest.”
“If you were talking about a huge difference in reps range,sets and weights this would be even more hard to qualify because individual physiological differences.”
Because people brought up individual factors the the questioner added:
“Here are the athletes heights and weights. Weights are right and the height would be within an inch or two. 5″7 – 285lb (369×5) 5″10 – 310lbs (341×8) 6″1 330lbs (334×9)”
Then the comments continued.
“I’m gonna go with the tall guy, since your fishing for an answer.”
This is the point where I found the discussion and added what I foolishly thought would be the point that would settle the argument. (Haha.)
Me: “Impossible to calculate without knowing the time each lifter took to do the lifts. Once you know the time it’s not an opinion who is stronger, it’s a mathematical fact.”
But the conversation continued in this vein:
“Height alone is not the full determinant. Along with size of muscle bellies, points of insertion effecting leverage, length of arms, legs, torso are gross factors.”
I tried again:
Me: “Isaac Newton could have answered this in 1687. Weight x distance / time. Case closed. :-)” Adding the smiley face to try to show that I wasn’t being a jerk about it but that this was essentially a physics question, not a medical question. (Which is admittedly a lot to ask a smiley face to convey.)
But they persisted. “If you’re talking about whose muscles are producing more force, it gets more complicated. The answer to that one depends on so many factors you could turn an answer into a 10 page report. Arm length, rib cage depth, grip width (relative to distance between elbows), back angle/arch, individual musculoskeletal geometry (tendon attachments, muscle belly length, etc.), speed of movement and the resulting duration of the set, turnaround performance, etc.”
My frustration begins to show:
Me: “You guys are killing me. Suppose the question was: 3 guys run 100 meters, one guy does it in 10 sec, one does it in 9.5, one does it in 9.0 seconds. Who is fastest? Would you talk about muscle insertion points, force creation and runner’s height? If you want to know who is strongest you multiply weight and distance and divide by time. This is exactly why strength training today is not a science – nobody takes objective measurements.”
Then an astonishing reply came:
“The 100m dash isn’t necessarily objective either, it just measures how long it takes someone to run 100m, not speed.”
“The only way to take objective, scientific, empirical measurements for comparison of two human beings is if they are exactly the same AND subject them to the exact same test, and since no one is the same you can not make a fair comparison of people and call it science. That’s why we compare freight trains to freight trains, and dragsters to dragsters.”
(Completely missing the point that I was comparing human bench pressers to human bench pressers. And adding the condition, apparently, that only clones can be used to get certainty.)
Me: “How long it takes someone to run a specific distance is the definition of speed. The definition! If you don’t think the guy who runs 100m in the least time is the fastest I don’t think I can convince you of anything. So I’ll stop trying.”
The ‘stop trying’ part is my self-preservation mode kicking in. I’ve had so many years of these debates that I just walk away now. When a guy says the time it takes to cover a distance does not measure the speed I might as well stop talking. This is the same reason my wife changes the channel when I start ranting at the TV during an infomercial of some goofy, rip-off fitness product that will sell more units in a week that I will in a year. Changing the channel is an anti-hypertensive.
I shared this train wreck with you because it beautifully illustrates the problems with modern strength training. I don’t see this crap in any sport that uses measurement. When the runners cross the 100-meter line in the Olympics they hang the gold medal on the guy with the lowest time. They don’t listen to the other runner who says, “Wait, his legs are longer than mine so he only took 63 steps but I took 67 steps so really my legs were moving faster than his. Plus, these MRI’s show my muscle attachment points are lower on my femur so the force I created was actually higher. So I really should be branded the fastest, strongest and best runner of 100 meters.” Ain’t gonna happen.
Strength Training CAN be Measured!
Every aspect of strength training can be objectively measured; momentary intensity, sustained intensity over any period of time, distance a weight is moved, power generated, work done. All of it can be measured to decimal places. Yet strength training alone sits in the muddy waters of mixed premises and muddled thinking. Year after year.
How many personal trainers will stumble over my comments and think “Hey, using time to measure rate of output might be a good tool. I’ll take a stopwatch to the gym tomorrow and start timing my clients.” Not many. Have you seen many people timing their sets? Have you seen trainers doing it? I haven’t. But they will still crow the same well-worn dogma about “high intensity” strength training without ever measuring that intensity once over a lifetime career. Sad. Sad. Sad.
If I were a conspiracy theorist – and I’m not – I’d wonder if all this muddled strength training talk is deliberate to keep people coming back and buying more magazines, books, supplements, drugs, training systems, exercise gadgets, home machines, personal training sessions, gym memberships, boot camps, . . . naw.