By Jordan Feigenbaum MS, CSCS, HFS, USAW Club Coach
Recently I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about lifting weights and the physical changes resulting from a steady diet of squats, presses, and pulls. I know, I know, it’s shocking right? What’s really been on my brain, however, is how America’s media outlets have given many, if not all, severe body image issues. Women and men alike seem to want to be waif thin or lean, athletic, and toned rather desiring to be strong, powerful, and capable. These ideals died with the ghosts of meathead’s past and somewhere Jesus wept.
When exactly in history did this ideology become so prevalent? In order for a woman to feel good about her figure, and by this I mean really good, she needs to be a size 4 or less and have arms the diameter of fettuccine. A man, by contrast, must look part Abercrombie model and part marathoner, lest someone proclaim that he is muscle-bound. Have we really come so far from the days of Marilyn Monroe and Katharine Hepburn? Do men really not aspire (even a little) to be like Arnold, Columbo, or Zane?
My thoughts on the matter are simple: we’ve been conditioned to believe that there is a perfect ideal for each sex that we’re to aspire towards that’s been defined by the media, societal pressures, and other factions. Let me be crystal clear, the idea that you (or I) am supposed to look a certain way to fit into the current conventional definitions of health or wellness is just plain ridiculous, and it’s costing us our quality of life.
If I were to poll ten thousand people and ask them point-blank, “Are you happy with your body’s current shape, size, and composition?” I can safely assume that 9,995 would answer “No” followed by innumerable rationalizations. Could it be that this current ideal body-type is actually unattainable? Is there something in our society’s psyche that prevents us from being content with our physical morphology for even a moment, lest we be considered a slacker or lazy? What if I told you that what we fundamentally value, as a society, with regards to health and wellness, are impeding our attainment of true fitness?
Sometimes for fun I like to cruise YouTube for weightlifting videos from recent (and not so recent) Olympic weightlifting contests. To me, the most physically impressive attempts to watch are the male superheavyweights (SHW), 105kg (231lbs) and up, to see how much athleticism and strength they can display. When I watch clips of Hossein Rezazadeh clean and jerk 263.5kg (580lbs) or the late Vasily Alekseyev strict press 503lbs overhead I am awed by their strength and the work ethic it took to get there. Interestingly, when I peruse the comments on these videos the first things I inevitably see are posters calling this elite athletes “fat” and “disgusting”. Nothing is said about their performance, they are competitive athletes after all, but the entire focus is about their physique. Why are people so obsessed with body image and weight?
As a male in a notably male-dominated field, strength and conditioning, I can’t help but feel sympathetic towards females looking to get into legitimate training. A female who gets into lifting weights is cautioned against too big and bulky and advised to stick to lighter weights and high reps. Moreover, whenever a female hits a legitimately heavy personal record (PR….not Puerto Rico) like a 200+lb squat, for instance, their expert friends clamor with judgments and remarks about how they wouldn’t want to do that. Meanwhile, they keep running on the hamster wheel or wearing out the elliptical, not looking any different then they did last year. What the rest of this article is about is the idea of being Old Country Strong. As a throwback to the previous generations it’s high time we do something about our weak society. No longer will we feel overwhelmed by challenges, but rather we’ll embrace the obstacles that are presented to us. After all, a heavy set of 20 squats will prepare you mentally for any line at the DMV, any meeting with your boss, and any amount of work you need to knock out. A heavy pull from the floor requires that you have the mental toughness to overcome a “sticky” situation at work and a completing that last set of sprints up the hill demands the kind of work ethic that only the cream of the crop in the business world exude. The generation who lived through the Great Depression and World Wars didn’t feel entitled to a job or even a meal; they knew that hard work was part of the equation to receive such “niceties”. By becoming Old Country Strong we can shift the paradigm in our society and we’re not going to get there by trying to emulate the airbrushed models that we’re constantly bombarded with either. Nope. The only way to get there is through consistently showing up and putting in the work, period.
So what is Old Country Strong all about? It’s about being capable, of anything, being strong, coordinated, powerful, and FIT. Fit doesn’t mean, nor has it ever meant, being skinny, thin, or good at Zumba Tone. Nope, fitness is a blend of equal parts strength, conditioning, and a large capacity or motor to complete the task at hand. Body morphology will be determined in the kitchen, but the fact remains that we still have to build the engine. Let’s outline how to build the engine while giving you some firepower for that haters you’re sure to encounter.
As you might have guessed, strength training is very important. Of all the basic elements of physical fitness, strength is the most important and here’s why. Strength, or ability to overcome a resistance, is so general that training it develops all other facets of physical fitness including endurance, flexibility, coordination, power, etc. To prove that strength development applies to endurance let’s use cycling as an example. A pedal stroke requires force turn the cranks on the bike, and we can safely say that this force is some submaximal percentage of the rider’s maximal force production- for this example we’ll say it’s 45% of the total leg force that the rider can muster. This means that every time the rider “pedals” the bike forward he or she is using 45% of their total force capacity, or strength, to turn the cranks. Moreover, the rider must maintain this force production to keep moving forward at whatever pace this force produces. During a dead sprint or climb up a steep grade, the rider increases their force output to the pedals, as both of these challenges require extra force to maintain or increase the rider’s speed, let’s say that in order to increase the rider’s speed from 18mph to 22mph the rider must now use 75% of their maximal force production. This is not sustainable for long periods of time because it is too close to their maximal force output, and thus is more fatiguing than their cruising pace’s force requirements, 45%. If we can coerce the rider to squat and he or she can do 135lbs for 3 sets of 5 reps on their first session, then after 6 weeks of training the squat (and other movements) their squat will likely be closer to 185lbs for 3 sets of 5 reps., the rider got stronger. It still requires the same amount of force to ride at the 18mph but this is now a LOWER percentage of the rider’s maximal force output, because they got stronger. The rider can now maintain their prior pace for longer or ride at a faster pace for the same period of time because they’ve gotten stronger. This same analogy can be applied to running, swimming, rowing, etc. “But what if the athlete gains muscular weight, wouldn’t that increase the force requirements?” Right you are, however, to the degree that the athlete might gain muscular weight (a few pounds over a long time) their strength will be developed in spades comparatively. Besides strength development DOES NOT REQUIRE BODY WEIGHT GAIN, as strength is developed by the nervous system (brain, nerves, etc.) and any muscle mass acquisition is likely mitigated by excess body fat loss if the trainee actually pays attention in the kitchen.
Strength training also increases flexibility. I’m not sure where the notion came about that everybody needs to be so flexible as to be able to do the splits and perform contortionist acts but the fact is that people need only to be as flexible as their life, or sport, demands. I know of no quicker way to develop mobility in the lower body than to perform a loaded barbell squat. The movement itself requires full range of motion articulation in the hips, knees, and ankles while the soft tissue of the muscles, joint capsules, etc. are loaded. No amount of static stretching will result in the same tissue qualities as a loaded movement, especially since the joints and their surrounding soft tissues are not actually moving through their natural range of motion during the oft-prescribed stretches. Sure there are movement deficiencies that might need remedial attention in some folks, but the idea that stretching by itself outside of proper training results in any significant morphological changes in the way the body moves is foolish.
Coordination is also developed by strength training in that each movement requires a certain motor pattern, or firing of muscles in a sequential fashion, in order to complete the lift successfully. Most people without any formal training cannot activate a very significant amount of their muscles, and furthermore, they cannot do this in any coordinated manner. By training movements like the squat, deadlift, press, row, and chin the trainee will learn to use their muscles in very general patterns. This carries over to more nuanced movements wonderfully since once you are able to recruit muscles to a greater degree you can devise ways to actually accomplish tasks that you might be unfamiliar with.
Finally, strength training develops power quickly, which is useful for athletic endeavors. Power literally refers to a force being displayed quickly. When you see an athlete jump, punch, kick, or sprint you’re witnessing them showcase their power. You might intuit that the stronger someone is the more power they will be able to display, which is correct to a point. Power, in its purest sense, will always go up when someone gets stronger. As a trainee’s deadlift increases their power clean will go up, given proper technique training. Who has a larger power clean, the athlete with a 200lb deadlift or a 500lb deadlift? While the relationship is certainly not linear, as power expression has a large genetic component, it certainly doesn’t harm the athlete to get stronger. Like Rip says, “All things being equal, the stronger athlete always wins.”
Above- Klokov just hanging out….
Klokov snatching 197kg (434.5lbs)
All this background information should lead you to the conclusion that in order to be proficient in all physical fitness qualities you must be strong. I know of no better way to get strong than to perform the classic barbell lifts; the squat, deadlift, presses, chins, rows, and Olympic lifts, in a manner that results in progressive overload over time. What this means is that week-in and week-out (or monthly for advanced trainees) weight needs to be added to the bar and more stimulus needs to be applied to the trainee. By doing so you will maximize your strength potential and be well suited to any other activity that you fancy. The caveat with this is that it’s just bloody hard work. After the novice phase where everything is easy and each lift goes up despite other confounding factors like lack of sleep, food, excess conditioning work, etc. strength training demands that a trainee starts paying attention to these other things. Unfortunately, the ideology that is all too prevalent in today’s society discourages the acquisition of big-time strength, and instead rewards those who’d rather aspire to be skinny, weak, and fragile.
While I’m certainly guilty of having aspirations of a certain body image, I can say without reservation that it has not left me in the skinny, weak, or fragile category. Because I understand strength training’s effect on the physiology of the human body I realize that without this style of training I’d never get anywhere at all. Even if your ideal body image is different than mine, we still require the same training with only a few exceptions. Want to be really lean, conditioned, and look like an athlete? You need strength training. How about being toned (God I hate that word) and fit? You need strength training. Finally, do you desire to be the best version of you this world has ever seen? You need strength training.
You see, there is no such thing as firmer or tone-er, only leaner or fatter. You can’t lengthen muscles and you certainly can’t just lose fat in your derrière. Muscles are firm when there’s less body fat covering them compared to the amount of muscle mass that’s present. If you have either bigger muscles or lower levels of body fat you’re muscle will be more firm and taut (like a tiger) when you touch them. Muscle tone, or tonus more correctly, refers to the nerve innervation of the muscle by your nervous system. In the absence of a neurological deficit your muscle’s tone remains unchanged, only your body fat or composition can change. Finally, you can’t just lose body fat in one area of the body unless you suck it out with a cannula during your liposuction procedure. The point of all this is to say, you must get strong to develop your muscles and you must eat and condition yourself according to your own body image goals or wants.
The beautiful thing about strength training with females is that it does not develop big and bulky muscles, quite the contrary. You see there are only two different types of muscular growth that occur in the human body, myofibrillar and sarcoplasmic hypertrophy. Strength training typically revolves around 1-5 sets of 1-5 reps which is prime real estate for myofibrillar hypertrophy. This style of hypertrophy slightly increases the size of the muscle fibers as they adapt to the stress and damage caused from lifting heavy (relative) weights. This muscle mass gained from this style of training does not result in large, bulky muscles but rather just a slight increase in the density of the muscles that you already have. Therefore, if firm and toned is what you’re after- you guessed it- you need strength training. Sarcoplasmic hypertrophy, on the other hand, requires high reps, moderate weights, and incomplete rest periods, to inflict damage in the muscles to a great degree while also increasing the release of certain cellular waste products into the blood stream. These waste products, or metabolites, initiate a cascade of inflammatory repair signals and a concomitant hormonal response that results in growth of muscle tissue and the non-contractile elements around the muscle. This is why bodybuilders have larger muscles than strength athletes like powerlifters, Olympic weightlifters, and strongman competitors.
Myofibrillar vs Sarcoplasmic hypertrophy. I don’t know about “useless” muscle mass, but you get the picture.
The type of training greatly influences the morphological changes in your muscles. Finally, large amounts of muscle mass cannot be developed in the absence of testosterone, the predominant male sex steroid. This is why it’s easier for men to accrue muscle mass than women, if they can at all. Women lack the machinery, testes and their Leydig cells, to pump out significant amounts of testosterone, especially in the amount required for big and bulky muscles. Women certainly do produce some testosterone from the adrenal (on top of the kidneys) glands, but this amount pales in comparison to their male counterparts. Whenever you see a woman with hyooooge muscles do not be fooled, they have taken specific steps (and chemicals) to achieve this look. Finally, do not buy into the idea that doing lots of reps with low weights will result in long, lean, and firm muscles. This is exactly what a typical bodybuilder’s program looks like- high volume (sets and reps), moderate to low weight, and short rest periods. Why would you train like a bodybuilder whose goal is to grow the maximal amount of muscle mass when you yourself don’t want to grow big muscles? Similarly, if you actually want to grow significant amounts of muscle mass to either facilitate more strength gains or for physique aspirations, then sticking only in the 1-5 rep range is also foolish. While some level of muscle mass can occur with this training style, especially if the weights used are very, very heavy or the trainee is living chemically enhanced, there is a reason that top strength athletes do some higher rep training in their programs as well, because they want to develop additional muscle mass and more reps is how to do it.
Natural female figure competitor (left) versus chemically enhanced female bodybuilder (right).
The bottom line is that strength is paramount for any goal one might have. Body image wise, however, the key to your success or failure is your conditioning and nutrition. By adjusting these two variables you can achieve anything you desire. On the other hand, I’d like you to wrap your head around the idea that you’re great just the way you are, really. Even if you slack off on the nutrition and conditioning, if you strength train you’re doing the best thing for your physical and mental well-being. It just comes down to if you’re motivated enough to stick with a conditioning and nutritional protocol in order to achieve the body composition you want. If not, no big deal, just get strong and have fun when you train! No other type of training will account for dietary or conditioning indiscretions anyway, so you might as well make yourself useful if you’re going to go to the gym.
Hopefully now you’re motivated to get Old Country Strong and maybe I’ve piqued your interest in changing your nutrition and conditioning program so that you can optimize your body composition while training appropriately. What follows is what I consider the least intrusive way to implement conditioning and a sound nutritional program into one’s daily life. Here we go (cue Bud Light commercial).
The proper conditioning level is highly variable for each individual and it depends on his or her needs (athletic, activities of daily life, etc.) and body composition goals. While I’ve recommended high frequency low-intensity cardio (walking, cycling, etc.) in previous articles that focused on leaning out big time, I’m going to buck the trend with these recommendations. Assuming you’re actually pursuing Old Country Strength and aren’t massively calorie restricted then we will be best served by employing a few bouts of high-intensity interval training each week.
I don’t particularly care when these are done in the training week, as it’s largely a matter of personal preference. Two days out of the week do an interval session on a bike, treadmill, track, rower, airdyne, jump rope, etc. in the following manner:
- 5 minute warm up
- 30 second sprint (go all-out ish, if you’re running go at 85% or so as until you’re used to sprinting you run the risk of injury until your muscles adapt)
- 1:30 easy effort
- Repeat 10 times
- 5 minute cool down
One day per week go out and do a long distance effort like a 5k run, 10k row, 1-hour walk, 20-mile bike ride, etc. This is chicken soup for the heart!
Nutritionally speaking, there are many protocols I’ve written about but I’m going to pare it down to 5 easy-to-follow steps:
- Eat single ingredient foods. More than one ingredient on the list? Skip it.
- Eat 3-4 times per day with 3 hours between meals (minimum) or 5 hours maximum.
- Have protein in every meal that’s about the size of your fist.
- Eat a serving of carbohydrates before and after your training session and skip the fat at these two meals.
- Alter your fat and carbohydrates in the remaining two meals based on your goals and progress. If you want to lean out, start pulling out the carbs first in these meals followed by the fat. If you want to pack on the muscle start adding carbs and fats to these meals and/or throw down a post-workout shake of whey protein isolate + waxy maize (20g pro: 60g waxy maize).
Well there you have it, you’re guide to Old Country Strong. I hope you enjoyed reading and I’d love to hear your thoughts. Stay strong out there and get under the bar!