The secret to being strong is no secret at all

by Ryan Wagner

At what seems like regular intervals I am reminded that just about everyone has at least one health and fitness challenge that they are trying to overcome.

And most recently, I had two personal trainers admit to me that they – the super fit – were having fitness related challenges. The aches and pains that so many of us constantly fight against.

So, it got me thinking on a rather holistic level, what is the secret to being strong?

Actually, hold on a sec, let’s back up a little…

Fitness as a spectrum

What I like to tell people is that you can think of your health and fitness as being a point on a spectrum. Call it the Fitness Spectrum. On the left hand side you have “Less Fit” and as you move to the right you have “Very Fit.” And everyone can point to where they think they are on this scale.

And you’d be surprised to learn that most people undermine their level of fitness. That is, those that may have the six pack and big shoulders are probably going to give themselves plenty of room on the right. As you get stronger and stronger you tend to establish new goals and you become ever more nit-picky about your body.

On the other hand, there are those that may need to lose a few pounds. And just like the amateur bodybuilding crowd, these folks are often too hard on themselves. Consequently, they are going to mark themselves on the fitness spectrum way over to the left.

I like the concept of using an imaginary spectrum of fitness for two reasons.

  1. It gets you thinking about where you stand. And hopefully with some reflection, you’ll adjust your mark on the scale after realizing that you’re better off than you thought you were. Therefore, it’s a motivator.
  2. The scale is a visual reminder of your room to grow. That you can keep progressing in incremental steps to become a stronger version of yourself.

The Fitness Spectrum is indeed a very useful tool. But there is another tool out there. One that be used as a motivator (in my opinion) and also as a brake pedal for times when you may need to throttle back on your training intensity.

The evil cousin of the Fitness Spectrum…

Let’s call it the Dysfunction Scale. Similar to the Fitness Spectrum, it has two polarities – Good Movement and Dysfunctional Movement.

But unlike the Fitness Spectrum, not everyone can point to where they land on the scale.

Now back to my story about the personal trainers I was chatting with.

Within the span of a week, these two experienced trainers explained to me that they had some relatively serious injuries they were trying to rehabilitate. And both of them knew that they had some issues going on, but instead of taking a step back and rehabilitating, they continued to lift and exercise as if nothing was wrong. Then their situation worsened.

And bear in mind that these two people are very fit and probably look great naked. You wouldn’t expect them to be nursing injuries that may take a couple months, if not much longer, to rehabilitate.

And this is where the Dysfunction Scale can be a useful tool. In that it forces us to take an objective look at our bodies and how they move. And if you know that you have something screwy going on, hopefully this scale (even if it’s only a mental tool) can help you to throttle back a bit and listen more to your body.

And it’s this theme of listening to your body that I want to emphasize.

If anything, it’s the super-fit that are at risk of hurting themselves more so than the casual lifter and/or moderately deconditioned athlete. Because it’s the fitness enthusiasts that are constantly pushing the envelope and trying to get stronger, faster, more cut, etc.

Your body is a Ferrari

Fact is, your body is super high performing…when it’s super high performing.

You’re not made of glass, but then again you are.

Here’s what I mean by this contradiction:

You can, and probably have, put your body through its own little version of hell. Maybe you made poor diet choices for a number of years, maybe you even continue to do so. But the human body is supremely adaptable.

Or, perhaps you have been deadlifting with sloppy form for the last couple years. Maybe you were chasing higher and higher PRs without any consideration as to what that extreme load was doing to your misaligned joints. And it’s very possible that you are strong enough to endure this abuse (especially if you’re in your 20s).

So, that’s what I mean when I say you’re not made of glass. That our bodies are pretty damn strong. In many instances, they will take a lot of abuse and the wear and tear that comes along with this mistreatment may be so subtle that you won’t even notice it.

But now let’s talk about how you are made of glass.

The example I like to provide is a nasty skiing wreck. But since we are coming into summer here in the Colorado mountains, let’s hang up the skis for the season and consider a mountain biking example. Let’s say you have a rough tumble. Nothing too serious, but the kind of fall that when you get up off the ground you do a quick check to make sure you’re alright. No broken bones – because like we said earlier, you’re not made of glass – but the next morning you’re still a little sore.

If you’re a chiropractor you probably know where I’m going with this little story.

When you begin to really take a close look at your body’s movement and you do nuanced assessments like stepping onto two separate scales to check just how much of your bodyweight is going through each foot, it becomes clear that maintaining good movement is relatively difficult.

That mountain biking wreck may have done more damage than you think. For instance, maybe you landed on your chest (ouch) and before rolling out of it, you put you pec minor through an intense stretch – to the point that you tore it a little bit.

If you weren’t paying attention and being cognizant of how your body feels, you may have just hit the gym like normal and put that pectoral muscle through even more stress. The tear progressed in intensity and now inflammation is out of control. Synergistic muscles take over to share some of the load and now your shoulder is on its way to being thrown out of whack.

If it sounds like I’m using Murphy’s Law to my benefit here, I’m not. Because similar things have happened to me and I have had to rehabilitate myself from these minor little things that then turned into big things.

The big secret to staying strong?

So, what’s this secret to staying strong?

It’s listening to your body. I mean really listening.

I stumbled across an article recently in Esquire Magazine, an interview with Jason Statham.

When asked to explain his workout program, he said that it varies day to day depending on how he’s feeling. For instance, if he’s feeling really high energy, then that day’s fitness routine may encompass cardio or heavy weight training. And if he’s feeling a little sluggish or otherwise not so psyched for a workout, that day may be more mobility based or encompass light martial arts training.

But the key here is that he’s listening to how his body is feeling and he’s reacting appropriately.

By the way, Statham is 47 years old and could clearly kick my ass. I think it is safe to say he is doing something right.

Another good example comes from strength coach Steve Maxwell. He said that each day when he wakes up, he measures his heart rate. And if his BPM is 5 or 10 beats above what is normal for him, then that day will be a very light training day. He takes an elevated heart rate as an early warning sign of overtraining.

Similar to Statham, he is another very fit guy who is letting his body dictate his training program, not his training journal.

But there is a clear distinction to be made as we talk about letting your body tell you how it’s feeling. It’s one thing to feel a little worn out and therefore take a day off from training or intentionally dampening the intensity, it’s an entirely different thing to be straight up lazy.

Wrap up

I’ll be the first to admit that listening to your body is obvious advice and almost a little clique. But in reality, it’s far too easy to allow your ego to overrule what your body is telling you. And fitness is all about playing the long game. You build your summer body in the winter, and you lay the foundation for that 405 pound pull six months prior to loading four plates on the barbell.

And in order to stay strong, get strong, move better, or continue to move better for years to come – you have to do what the best in the business do – listen to how your body feels.

In the world of fitness, the hardest thing to do is often to take a step back.

But if you do, you’ll learn that your subsequent steps forward will be your most confident and purposeful yet.

By Ryan Wagner

What do you think? Am I full of it? Or is this worthwhile advice? Let me know in the comments below.

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