During my short-lived powerlifting career, my focus shrank to the pursuit of numbers that told me how strong I was. A scrap of paper on my fridge reminded me daily—as if I needed reminding—that I needed to bench press my bodyweight, and squat and deadlift 200 pounds before the year was over. Were those things good for me? Would they serve any higher purpose? It didn’t matter. I wanted to be strong, and nothing else could get in the way.
After meeting these improbable goals at the cost of my health (problems still plague me more than two years later), I had to learn to shift gears. But I still didn’t have an answer to the question: How do I know if I’m strong? I wanted a gold standard. To see if there is such a thing, I asked personal trainers, doctors, and strength and conditioning specialists. Everyone agreed on one thing: If you’re asking how strong you are, you’re asking the wrong question.
Strength: What Is It Good For?
People like numbers. We love being able to say “I lost 4 pounds last week,” or “My mile time dropped by 10 seconds.” So it’s understandable that it can be addictive to chase heavier weights and faster times. The thought process is: If you really believe in fitness, shouldn’t you try to lift more weight?
David Dellanave, a fitness coach and owner of the gym, The Movement Minneapolis, doesn’t care how much you can lift. He just wants to know if you can get up off the floor. A recent study found that people’s ability to get up from the floor with no support from their hands was an accurate predictor of fitness—and even mortality de Brito LB, Ricardo DR, de Araújo DS, et al. Ability to sit and rise from the floor as a predictor of all-cause mortality. [http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23242910] European Journal of Preventative Cardiology. 2012 Dec 13;21(7):892-898.. As morbid as it might sound, avoiding early death is one of the most important reasons to make health and fitness a priority.
“If you can squat 800 pounds, but you can’t get off the ground without using your hands,” Dellanave says, “then maybe you’re not really that strong.”
Even fitness enthusiasts, who take a more holistic approach to their health and wellbeing, can fall into the trap of chasing numbers. Fitness coach Khaled Allen found himself obsessing over numbers and times when he started doing CrossFit. “I got injured a lot,” he says. “Then I started thinking: What do I really want to be doing here?” For Allen, it meant developing the strength to support the things he enjoyed, like martial arts, parkour, and running.
Is Your Body Ready to Add on the Iron?
If a quest for lifting huge amounts of weights isn’t desirable, is there at least a baseline that average Joes and Janes should strive for?
Rather than focus on how much iron you can add on, Dellanave and Allen say they focus on bodyweight benchmarks, like pull-ups, squats, deadlifts, and running a mile in under 10 minutes.
Nick Sarantis, the sports performance program coordinator at Baptist Health Sports Medicine in Louisville, Kentucky, says he's also not in a hurry to load up the barbells for his clients. “Before we pick up a weight at all, we need to beat the environment that has beaten us down,” he says. “A two year old has a perfect squat. We lose that ability because of the chair we sit in and car we drive.”
To test if someone is ready to add on weight, Sarantis has people perform a simple exercise: an overhead squat with an unloaded PVC pipe. This range of motion tests joints—hip mobility, knee stability—and core strength.
Lou Schuler, a journalist and strength and conditioning specialist, is also wary of playing the numbers game while pumping iron. “Given how little we know about all this, why not tell people to do what they like, but try to do a lot of it?” he says. “For the average person, the ideal level of aerobic fitness is probably a little more than they have now. The ideal amount of strength or muscle mass? A little more. Fat? A little less. Total activity? A little more.”
Too Much of a Good Thing
When it comes to strength and conditioning, it makes sense that people want to focus on the things that come most naturally. If you’re already hyper-flexible, practice yoga. If you’re predisposed to quickly growing muscle mass, go into powerlifting. If you have a high aerobic capacity, play endurance sports. But too much of a good thing can turn into injuries. “They all get hurt because they take a natural advantage and turn it into something unnatural,” Schuler says.
In our quest to get stronger, we ignore signs from our bodies that tell us we’re pushing the limits too much. “Though you can get stronger in the weight room, you can get hurt in the weight room,” says Paul McKee, a sports medicine doctor. He was the physician who tended to me through a discectomy, stress fracture, janky knees, and even rhabdomyolysis, all while I was trying to get stronger.
My focus on getting stronger, not better, is emblematic of a larger problem in society, says Sarantis at Baptist Health Sports Medicine. “We live in a society of chronic aches and pains,” he says. “Working out is a great start, but if you’re not doing it right, it’s going to do way more harm. The term 'no pain no gain' is crap.”
Why Work Out at All?
Hearing the endless stories of people pushing the limits of their bodies only to end up injured—and experiencing a series of debilitating injuries myself—it seems like it would be wise to steer clear of the gym (and exercising all together). But that kind of thinking and behavior is just as extreme as the people who overexert themselves at the gym in the first place.
When talking to these fitness experts, it became clear that having good, achievable fitness routines all begins with a healthy mantra. That mantra isn’t the same for everyone.
For Sarantis at Baptist Health Sports medicine, it’s “we’re working out to feel better.” Dellanave, at The Movement Minneapolis, says his mantra is “the only thing that should matter is where you are right now and what you want to do.” For Dr. McKee, it’s “no two people are the same. You have to compare yourself to yourself.”
Schuler, the journalist and strength and conditioning specialist, focuses on the many positives impacts that exercising can have on everyday life. It improves immunity, reduces chronic disease, aches and pains, and makes you feel better about yourself. “What do you actually achieve?” he asks. “I don’t think it matters.”
This article was originally produced as part of 75toGo, a project to publish research-intensive health and fitness stories for twentysomethings looking to create good practices and habits for the decades ahead.