13 Apr A Burning Question: How Strong is Strong Enough?
How strong is strong enough?
This is a burning question I’ve thought a lot about.
Actually, I’ve been obsessed with this question.
Obviously, I’m a big believer in the power of physical strength to optimize our performance and help us achieve the specific goals we want.
There’s no question in my mind about the benefits of strength, but how strong do we need to become?
One simple reason we need strength is because we lose strength and muscle mass after the age of 25 or so.
My personal belief is that we need to do everything we can to prevent this from happening, otherwise our health and functional performance will deteriorate over time.
Here’s a name for you.
Jack understood the concept to stay strong, muscular, mobile, and healthy for as long as humanely possible, until he passed at the age of 96.
Strength isn’t the only physical quality we need, though.
There are many other important qualities such as:
- endurance and conditioning
- flexibility and mobility
- cardiovascular health
- movement skills (coordination, balance, motor control)
But, here’s the thing.
Strength training helps all of these physical attributes, at some level.
Strength is the foundational component.
Then we get back to the question, how strong is strong enough?
Well, it depends.
First, It depends on goals.
It also depends on understanding the benefits of strength and how far you want to take it.
After giving this serious thought, here’s my answer to this question.
We are all essentially in 1 of 3 levels of strength.
These are the 3 “big buckets” or categories, as I see it.
There is some “overlap” between the levels, but basically there are 3 major areas of strength.
The 3 levels are Foundational Strength, Aggressive Strength, and Super Strength.
Let me explain.
Understand while there could be some overlap, there will be one level that’s dominant.
And, we can move up or down levels, in accordance to our current training goals.
That would be dependent on periodized training plans (on season/off season programming, for example)
Here are the 3 levels.
LEVEL 1: FOUNDATIONAL STRENGTH.
Foundational strength is the minimum level everyone should all strive for.
It’s general strength training.
Some may have no desire to go beyond this level.
The majority of people who engage in regular exercise training are found here.
It’s the basic strength we get from resistance training.
It’s “foundational” and has no age limits or restrictions.
This is the strength we gain, as opposed to not exercising at all, where strength would progressively decline.
It’s at this level that the individual many not desire “serious” strength training, they just want to get fit, look good, and feel good.
A person here is not training to be superhuman, but they know they need some form of strength training in their fitness equation.
In other words, they seek to get stronger because it’s part of the program, but not in an overly aggressive way.
Here are some examples of those that are found in this level:
- Recreational exercisers
- Endurance athletes
- Certain athletes, not needing high levels of strength
- Generalists (does a lot of different things to be “generally” fit)
- Most Fat Loss programming
- CrossFitters (*Depending on programming)
- Bodybuilders (*Depending on programming)
- And, many broad based strength and conditioning programs
People at this level may do the typical “3 sets of 10” of an exercise at a “medium” weight.
They go to the gym a few times a week, engage in strength training, and they feel better.
Strength training helps them achieve the “general” goals.
Preventing weakness and de-conditioning are huge benefits of this level of foundational strength.
Other benefits are general improvement in performance, looking better, and feeling better.
Not bad by any means.
But, as I said, it’s the minimum threshold we should strive for.
It’s a generalized approach and a traditional approach to strength.
But, getting seriously strong and heavy duty training isn’t part of this level.
That’s the difference.
Again, people here are maintaining or improving strength, they’re not losing it.
Foundational strength is a baseline and a foundation.
It contributes to the big picture for the individual’s goals.
That leads us to the next level.
LEVEL 2: AGGRESSIVE STRENGTH.
This is where they take strength training much more seriously.
The level of specialization in the areas of strength become more dominant.
No longer are they “generalists” at this level because they begin to focus more on the strength qualities.
This is the “next level” of strength and performance.
Numbers are more objective and specific.
In simple terms, people here are training more aggressively for the purpose of getting stronger.
They want to be stronger and better understand the value of strength.
In today’s world, I believe there are more fitness enthusiasts moving towards this level, as people are understanding the importance of getting stronger (and if you’re reading this, you’re probably one of them).
Aggressive strength may be training with barbells, heavy kettlebells, advanced bodyweight and gymnastics type movements, and even “hardcore” bodybuilding types of programming.
Explosive strength, strength endurance, speed strength are some examples of strength here.
Athletes here are working on power, speed, and skill development.
Some specific examples here are:
- Contact sports athletes
- Competitive CrossFit Athletes
- People with specific strength goals
- “Off Season” Weightlifting and Powerlifting
- Certain Bodybuilding Programs
- Training for advanced fitness certifications (SFG/SFL for example)
- Track and Field athletes (season dependent)
- Other athletes requiring higher levels of strength/power
It’s training with rep schemes of 3-5 reps with heavy weights, focusing on the skill of strength.
Skills are developed, performance increases, and more specific programming progressions evolve.
People here are pushing and testing their limits.
Consistency, hard training, program planning, periodization, and progressive overload are some of the principles involved at this level.
The athlete may be training for an athletic event, higher level certification, or simply to attain a specific objective goal or set of goals.
There is a greater drive, desire, and motivation at this level to become stronger, beyond foundational strength.
Finally, there is…
LEVEL 3: SUPER STRENGTH.
This is a level where peak strength and performance is desired or attained.
This is a level where the individual intentionally seeks maximum performance and the highest levels of strength.
Remember, there are many different qualities of strength.
Qualities of strength include:
- Limit or maximum strength
- Strength endurance
- Speed strength
- Strength speed
- Explosive strength
Professional strength athletes, amateur strength athletes, and anyone competing in strength or power related events will be at this level because they are training specifically to reach their strength performance potential.
You don’t necessarily have to be a competitor to be at this level.
However, most will seek to achieve the level of ‘super strength’ because they either want to compete or want to accomplish a clearly defined objective performance goal.
Super Strength is training at a very high level to move as close as possible toward the individual’s potential strength level.
In other words, it’s training exclusively to be as strong and/or explosive as you can, plain and simple.
Examples at this level could include:
- Explosive strength (Olympic weightlifting)
- Maximum strength (powerlifting or strong man)
- Speed, acceleration, explosiveness (football)
- Speed strength and explosiveness (track and field, season dependent)
- Other strength/power specific sports and athletics
Agin, this is the highest level of specialized strength training to achieve the highest level of a specific performance.
The Bottom Line?
Now that you know the 3 levels of strength, how does this help you?
This goes back to the opening question, how strong is strong enough?
If you engage in strength training, you should be able to answer this question.
It’s important to understand where you are now and where you want to be.
Because my goal is to help more people get better results, it’s important to understand the levels of strength and know how strong is strong enough.
Personally, I lived in “foundational strength” for many years, just plugging along.
I also stayed in the “plateau” until I better understood the value of taking my strength and performance to a higher level.
Again, people will benefit from all levels.
But, we need to understand where we are and what we’re trying to achieve, that’s what is important.
As you and I experience our own personal journeys, we’ll be able to answer the question, “how strong is strong enough?”
It’s simple and useful to understand these 3 levels.
LEVEL ONE: FOUNDATIONAL STRENGTH (General strength training)
LEVEL TWO: AGGRESSIVE STRENGTH (More aggressive focus on strength training)
LEVEL THREE: SUPER STRENGTH (The highest level of emphasis on the qualities of strength)
What level is most appropriate for you right now?
It goes back to being clear on your current primary training purpose.
I need to mention this again, as it’s an important point.
It is very likely for you to transition up or down between the levels, depending on the current goals and training cycles.
For example, I recently went from a level 3 (competition) to a level 1, based on a shift in my training goals.
Soon, I’ll transition back to level 2, then level 3 again.
How strong is strong enough?
It all depends on the current goals.
Understanding this should help with short term and long term planning.
Thanks for reading and I hope it was helpful for you to be able to understand and answer this important question.
Scott Iardella writes about strength training methods to optimize health and performance. If you enjoyed this article, join his list by subscribing below.
Andy BryanPosted at 14:14h, 14 April
Love the new format! My current strength goal is to achieve Dan John’s “Expected” strength standards, which include a bodyweight squat and bench press, five pull ups, and a 1.5 X bodyweight deadlift. Where, in your opinion, do these standards fall within the context of the three levels you discuss in this post?
Thanks, and keep up the great work.
ScottPosted at 21:27h, 14 April
Thanks for the compliments.
Good question. I think that would fit between Level 1 and Level 2.
If I had to pick I’d say it favors level 2 because there is a specific strength objective and more focus on the goal of strength. Sometimes it’s very clear, but sometimes there is an “overlap” as I mentioned.
Thanks again and best success in getting to your goals! You will.