The Difference between Lifting Big and Getting Strong

I had a brief interaction with a guy a couple of weeks ago that reminded me of one of the most important parts of strength and performance coaching/training. This is something that you’ll hear me harp on fairly regularly as I think it’s one of the most important keys to developing strength. As athletes, the real key is to get strong, not to lift big weights.

A buddy of mine needed some work done on his garage and he enlisted a handful of friends to assist. One of his friends had a side business as a general contractor. In addition to being the only one of us, that knew what he was doing (thank goodness he was there!). He was also a huge guy.

Over the course of the day, the conversation got around to what we did for a living and my overall build. He, like most people who ask strength questions, asked me how much I benched. After a bit of prying, I gave him the numbers and he seemed pretty shocked. Throughout the rest of the day he kind of kept coming back to it and asking questions about how one would go about benching that much, etc. For the record, in the world of powerlifting I’m a pretty shitty bencher, but compared to a non-lifter or general gym rat I suppose I have decent numbers.

Now like I said, this guy is a big ol’boy. Like 6′2″-3″, 250+, and fairly lean. He works down on the coast putting navel pylons in and doing heavy dockwork. He’s also strong as all get out. But, judging by his questions, he doesn’t lift weights and isn’t a particularly accomplished bencher. I have no doubt that I could train this guy, based on his overall natural ability and build, to be a better bench presser than I am in a fraction of the time it took me to develop my current lifts.

Why? Because bench pressing big weights is a skill. You need to have the foundation to support that big bench press: Strong lats, pecs, triceps, etc, but if that’s in place then it’s a matter of learning how to bench press. I have no doubt that this guy is already strong as hell in those muscle groups and just needs to spend some time learning how to handle a big bench press.

And what good is that big bench press on the football field or wrestling mat? Pretty much zero.

That’s my point. As an athlete or somebody that’s focused on being “real world strong,” it’s important to not get too caught up in the numbers. The key instead is to look at what those lifts develop and to improve in them. This isn’t an excuse to stop trying to lift bigger and bigger weights, just do it with some direction beyond “bigger weights”.

If I teach an athlete every trick in the book to build a great bench press but in the process actually make them weaker in the “pushing” muscles I’ve in effect created a worse athlete. However, if they’re weak in the pushing muscles in general, and we develop their strength to increase their bench press from 185 lbs to 285 lbs, then chances are we’ve improved the athlete. Do you see the difference?

Some things to keep in mind when you’re programming exercises in order to get as strong as possible:

1. Is this exercise going to make one of my weak areas strong? Like a chain, you’re only as strong as your weakest link. Find your weak spots and make them strong.

2. Is this exercise going to give me the best development for my real goals? When I do direct triceps work my bench press goes up. This is a goal of mine, so direct tricep work matters. If I were a soccer player then direct tricep work would probably still make my bench press go up. The question as a soccer player is do I need to develop my bench press to a higher level than it is now? The answer is no.

The important part of training is not to get caught up in the training. Keep an eye on your goals and remember that the track, weight room, sandbags, kettlebells, or whatever aren’t an event in and of themselves (unless that’s your sport). They’re simply the means by which you stimulate the organism (you) to develop into the perfect athlete for your real sport, be it on the pitch or just the sport of life.