Beginning Training? Prioritize Your Strength.
Take Home Points:
- When you first start training you may have a number of fitness goals (fat loss, improving health markers, improving your physical skills, etc.)
- No matter your goals, your training doesn't have to be complex.
- Properly training your strength can help you improve all 10 physical skills (cardiovascular endurance, stamina, strength, flexibility, coordination, agility, balance, accuracy, power and speed).
- Strength training can also help improve body composition and normalize metabolic markers.
- Strength is foundational, so build it first.
If you haven't done so already, I highly recommend you read my previous article discussing the differences between exercise and training as this article discusses the topic of training - when individuals want to improve their fitness in measurable, goal-oriented ways.
When new clients reach out to me for a consultation on how they can reach their fitness goals, there are any number of specific things they would like to improve: body composition, blood markers for disease, balance, cardiovascular fitness, strength, agility and so on. In nearly every case, they expect me to put them on a complicated training program. However, what I actually do is place them on a novice linear progression strength training program such as the one detailed by Starting Strength. In the rest of this article I will explain why focusing your training on strength is the most productive way to begin your fitness journey.
The 10 Physical "Skills"
If we place body composition and blood markers aside for the time being (I will address them at the end), specific fitness improvements that clients generally want are encapsulated by the commonly circulated listing of 10 Physical Skills: cardiovascular/respiratory endurance, stamina, strength, flexibility, coordination, agility, balance, accuracy, power and speed. If we take a very general definition of the word skill, the ability to do something well or with expertise, then classifying each of these as skills works, but only superficially. For a deeper treatment of why, see the article by Mark Rippetoe entitled Two Factor Model of Sports Performance. In short, some of these "skills" must be improved by training, while others cannot be trained and must be practiced. In any event, the distinction does not detract from why strength should be focused on first. Below is a definition for each of these 10 physical skills:
Skills from Training:
Cardiovascular (Respiratory) Endurance: your body's ability to gather, process and deliver oxygen to its cells, tissues and organs.
Stamina: the ability of body systems to process, deliver, store, and utilize energy.
Strength: the ability produce/apply force.
Flexibility: the ability to maximize the range of motion at a given joint.
Cardiorespiratory endurance, stamina, strength, and flexibility are each developed through physiological and/or anatomical changes in the body. These must be trained for measurable improvement. That is, your body must, under stress, create or alter its tissues, cells, and cellular machinery for these factors to improve.
Skills from Practice
Coordination: the ability to combine multiple movement patterns into a single movement pattern.
Agility: the ability to minimize transition time from one movement to another.
Balance: the ability to control the placement of the body's center of gravity relative to its center of balance.
Accuracy: the ability to control movement in a given direction or at a given intensity.
Coordination, agility, balance and accuracy do not exclusively require new physiological and/or anatomical changes in the body. Instead, these factors can be improved through repetition so that the nervous system more efficiently executes motor patterns that are specific to your task of interest (e.g., jumping over a box, throwing a baseball, shooting an arrow, etc.).
Skills from Both Training & Practice
Power: the ability to apply force in a minimum amount of time.
Speed: the ability to minimize the time it takes to perform a repeated movement.
Both power and speed are hybrid skills in that they can be both trained and practiced.
The Biology of Strength
Now that the above terms have been defined, we need to understand that when we get stronger our muscles change. Increases in strength are achieved through an increase in the total number of contractile protein units in the muscle fibers as well as through increased recruitment of the number of muscle fibers comprising each muscle. If you are just beginning training, these changes fundamentally enhance your ability to improve all other skills.
Strength Improves Other Training Adaptations
Improved cardiorespiratory endurance is most easily understood as getting out of breath less easily and being able to catch your breath more quickly when doing activities that raise your heart rate (e.g., running, walking up stairs, sprinting, playing sports, etc.). Most people seek to improve this by doing some form of aerobic (running, cycling, swimming) or anaerobic (sprints, sled pushes) training. For this type of training the individual needs to perform the activity for a long time or for a short time with very high intensity. As these are all activities that require pushing your body against an external resistance such as the ground (running), a pedal (cycling), or water (swimming), the stronger you are, the longer and harder you will be able to perform these tasks.
In the case of stamina, you are trying to improve your ability to perform a task repeatedly. An example of this muscular endurance would be performing 50 push-ups in a row instead of failing after 2. Since your muscles are once again doing the work here, being stronger means that each repetition you do will be a much smaller percentage of your maximal strength. Said another way, the more submaximal a movement is, the more of those movements you will be able to complete before getting fatigued and/or failing.
Flexibility is also improved by strength in the sense that when you train for strength in a way that maximizes the muscle mass used and the range of motion being trained (i.e, with barbells), your body will slowly begin to adapt to these demands with increased range of motion around the specific joints being used. Certainly not every joint in your body will receive a stimulus to improve flexibility, but for someone new to training this is a great starting point.
Strength Improves Skill Acquisition from Practice
Coordination, agility, balance, and accuracy are often practiced without any consideration of strength. For someone who is reasonably strong, this makes sense in that their level of strength isn't holding them back. However, for someone who has never trained strength, improving these skills can be very inefficient. When you train for strength with barbells, you will start to develop coordination, agility, balance and accuracy as you need to control your body and a barbell over a fairly large range of motion with minimal to no external support and with variable starts, stops and speeds in between.
Further, for each of these skills you need to control your body in space with a muscular contraction against some form of resistance. Without a prior focus on strength training, each of these contractions will be closer to maximal. This can significantly detract from your coordination, agility, balance and accuracy. For example, try pulling a standard bowstring back for archery. This is nearly impossible for most children and a struggle for many adults. If you are struggling to perform a movement your coordination (pulling back the bow) will suffer. Similarly, your agility (repeatedly setting up the next arrow) and accuracy (consistently hitting the bullseye) will suffer. Similar arguments apply to virtually every other skill-based modality: shuttle runs, box jumps, ladder drills, swinging a bit to hit a baseball, swinging your leg to kick a soccer ball. To express the coordination, agility, balance, and accuracy manifest in these activities you must be able to generate an appropriate amount of force with the appropriate muscle groups.
Strength Helps Improve Body Composition and Health Markers.
Improving body composition and health markers are vast topics each beyond the scope of this article and each deserving their own detailed treatment. We will address them in more detail at a later date, but a few points are important to mention now.
The primary driver for improving body composition by fat mass reduction is nutrition - specifically calorie reduction. However, for those just starting out in training, all forms of training can potentially give an assist with this process. Aerobic exercise, anaerobic exercise, and strength training programs have all been indicated as viable approaches to assist in fat loss (PMIDs: 34822354, 34536199)
In terms of health markers, evidence indicates that by adjusting one's diet and by being more active, you can generate significant improvements in metabolic health. Therefore examining your diet and beginning a strength training program is a great start to improving health markers. For example, strength training activities have been associated with reductions in risk of many diseases (PMIDs: 35228201, 18595904). In addition, strength training has been indicated a possible way to reverse serious conditions such as high blood sugar levels in Type 2 Diabetics (PMID: 35273011).
There is certainly nothing wrong with wanting to develop the other 9 physical skills or having an eye towards improving body composition and metabolic health markers. However, for each of these cases we need our muscles to exert force and control our bodies. In short, strength is foundational, so build it first.