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Are We Using Strength Training Wrong?

sandbag training

My favorite people to follow and learn from aren’t those that tell me what to do, but challenge me to think about what I am doing. There are probably too many names to mention of great people that inspire me this way and some day I’ll get to thank them all. However, recently I was really made to think by two coaches and it gave me a different way to look at strength training. 

It started as legendary Strength Coach, Mike Boyle, started having more and more conversations about bilateral deficits. If you don’t know what that is it is, “The bilateral limb deficit (BLD) phenomenon is the difference in maximal or near maximal force generating capacity of muscles when they are contracted alone or in combination with the contralateral muscles. A deficit occurs when the summed unilateral force is greater than the bilateral force. The BLD has been observed by a number of researchers in both upper and lower limbs, in isometric and in dynamic contractions. The underlying cause of the deficit remains unknown. One possible explanation is that the deficit occurs due to differences in antagonist muscle coactivation between unilateral and bilateral contractions.”

strength training

Okay, was that still not helpful? Basically it is when we take the forces the legs can create individually in unilateral movements versus what they create together in bilateral movements. Why does this exist? Coach Boyle has an interesting theory that might be hard to argue, “Another potential explanation is much simpler. The brain does not like bilateral exercise. Numerous studies have shown that opposite hemispheres of the brain control movement ( in another words the right side of the brain controls the left side of the body). This is the natural way that the body works. Attempts at simultaneous bilateral contraction is in effect neurologically confusing. In other words the body wants to work one side at a time and, does it more efficiently.” 

If we were purely symmetrical creatures there wouldn’t be a bilateral deficit, would there? Then he spoke about how our nervous system doesn’t like bilateral movement. Wow, that’s super weird right? However, if we think about sport, other than Powerlifting and Olympic lifting, I have a hard time thinking of a sport with a lot of bilateral actions. Even something like blocking in football has the arms moving in different ways, they aren’t locked in together. 

Then I was listening to Dr. Jennifer Marcello speak (who has worked with the San Diego Padres and now works with the Minnesota Twins) about the hip complex. She made similar statements. With have a dominant leg and arm and our brain isn’t even symmetrical in the jobs it does from side to side.

strength training 

This made me think back to the history of fitness. You know the one that says everything has done before but no one can tell you what was actually done? Most of the lifting of weights through history was done with independent moving weights and many different stances. Even the first Olympic lifting competitions were based around dumbbell lifts, not barbells. 

It seems that this only changed in the 1920’s and 30’s as the barbell started to take its modern form and we saw a shift in how strength training was perceived. Which is a bit mind boggling when you sit down and think about it in the time of humanity we have only been lifting like “this” for less than 100 years! 

Even though we have more science today than ever about the body, maybe we are asking the wrong questions about strength training. What do I mean? For example, we know that most injuries occur during deceleration of motion, yet, we rarely measure the deceleration forces acting upon a body during many different exercises. We know this is a REALLY important part of things like plyometric training, but we rarely discuss it during strength training. There is a ton of discussion around force production, but not much about force resistance. Heck, just as the Golden State Warriors about why deceleration strength is so important for injury prevention!

Maybe HOW we look at science actually has hurt how we look at strength training. It would be nice to wrap up the idea that more force production equals greater real world strength. However, in many studies we know that isn’t the case (I posted one HERE the other blog post). 

If you start thinking about how we know how the body wants to move, how our nervous system wants to operate, then maybe we should change how we think about strength training. In DVRT I thought we were on to something with the unique way we created our strength training system. While we appreciate the role load can play, we realize that strength is many elements not JUST weight. 

We started manipulating various levels of stability to focus on how well we could not just lift a weight in different environments, but how well we could keep the connections to our kinetic chains. What we may have underestimated is that our progressions of changing body and holding position would actually be tapping into our bodies nervous system better and better. That we were actually creating exercises that worked with how the body wanted to work, not how we wanted to be in just the gym. 

Doing small things in our strength training like using our Sprinter Stance is often underrated, but an easy and powerful way to move to these concepts. Since the Sprinter Stance can be used for almost every movement pattern we have tons of options in how we can use it to train the whole body while making our strength training smarter. 

Progressing to more unilateral based drills like our emphasis on step-ups, lunges, and our deadlift matrixes are another way to see how we are thinking about all aspects of strength training and taking into account how our body is designed to function. 

Using many of the half kneeling positions is not only a great way to teach how to start lunging or the principles of pressing, but it actually may be one of the preferred ways to bring all these concepts of strength training together. After all, I’ve seen lifters that get strong in half kneeling have no problem with more bilateral exercises and I’ve seen people who promote “just using the basics” be weak as sin in half kneeling. Makes you begin to wonder if we have been looking and asking the wrong questions about strength training. 

We should combine the old and the new, but we should be looking for common threads not black and white answers. Using what we have done for centuries with the science we are learning more and more about may provide us not only the future of strength training, but the ability to produce superior results. Isn’t that ultimately what it is about?

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