Originally published on June 26, 2011
Bench press, bench press, bench press. I’m amazed at how many bench press warriors I come across. No, I’m not talking about the guys who just love to bench press and like to see those numbers go up, but they try to keep their training balanced. I’m talking about people who only train upper body and actually consider bench press (and curls) to be a good measure of “strength”.
Now, I have said on numerous occasions that strength has many different definitions for many different people. But diplomacy can turn into hypocrisy after a while. There have to be at least some benchmarks (pardon the pun). Some objective measures that we can always turn to and say…that there is strong. Well, one very general benchmark of mine is that having bodily strength should help keep you healthy and injury free during everyday common activities.
I do NOT mean in the currently fashionable “corrective exercise” way. I don’t even really mean the functional fitness way since the best way to function is to do the thing you wish to function well at, with other training being supportive to that goal. No, I mean, if you take the trouble to get strong then you should be able to do activities that require muscular strength without blowing out your back or pulling something.
To be more blunt and more specific, if you want to claim to me you train for strength, then you should at least be able to help your buddy move his furniture without “straining yourself.” I don’t mean you’re superman and can block bullets with your eyeballs. Strength training doesn’t make you bulletproof. I mean you are at least moderately prepared for a good days physical labor. Which is an accomplishment in itself this day and age! Can I get an amen?
So somebody made a comment to me the other day that is pretty much the epitome of the bench press warrior and a classic example of how people misunderstand the mechanics of carrying heavy stuff.
“I can curl my weight, and bench twice it… I could care less how my legs look. I have no need in real life to be able to leg press massive amounts of weight…I’m fine if my legs can carry the weight my arms can lift”.
Now the day I say anything about leg press and how a guy’s legs look is, well, not a warm day in hell, if you catch my drift. But who among you thinks that carrying stuff is all about your arms and legs? There are not many reasonably healthy people with arms that can support more than their legs can carry. This in itself is hardly a “goal”.
Most of us strength people, when we talk about “lower body work” it is a term of convenience. We aren’t really “working the quads and hams”. We know that our legs are rarely a limiting factor in getting a weight up. Rarely. Not never but rarely. But what about everyday people and so on and so on and scooby dooby doo?
We usually think of our body in one of two ways: either as a collection of parts or as “all of a piece”. Which version we choose tends to depend on what task we are involved in. For instance, for a bodybuilder, the body suddenly becomes a collection of parts. For a dancer, it is suddenly all of a piece.
Biomechanics, however, sees the body as a system composed of various segments. I don’t need to tell you that those segments are all connected. So…yeah, there are parts in between the legs and arms. And those parts are part of the system that is carrying the heavy thing around.
Center of Gravity and Lifting/Carrying
Any system has something called a center of gravity (CG or COG). Although gravity, of course, acts downwards on all of the body’s segments its effect is as if all that downward force were concentrated at a single point. There are more technical definitions than that, but trust me, unless you already know about such things, they will not help you understand this any better. The important thing to know is that a body’s weight is balanced in all directions around this point.
The CG of an object determines its behavior because it is as if all of its masses concentrate at that area. when you pick up or carry something very heavy that center of gravity is altered slightly. The body must be able to stabilize itself to be able to support the weight without tipping over. To be stable means to maintain the center of gravity over the base of support. So this entails the trunk being able to alter and maintain an adjustment in a position that allows the center of gravity to be “re-balanced”.
When you carry a box full of books you lean back slightly. Now you understand why. The muscular system that does this is the so-called “core” musculature. It doesn’t matter how much you can curl or bench press if you cannot stabilize the load. It is not about having big legs. Or leg pressing a lot…which most anybody can do, really.
The other day I was carrying a huge window air conditioner. The weight of one of those is very off center. The side where the compressor is being much heavier than the other side. At first, I grabbed it with the heavy side away from my body. Felt like it weighed a ton. Duh. I turned it around. Suddenly its a peanut.
You see, the heavy side of the A/C being carried forward of my body by about two feet caused my center of gravity to be shifted heavily forward. Actually, I should not say “my” center of gravity but the center of gravity of the “system” I was a part of. My body was the stable base for this system and it had to work much harder to balance a load that was carried in front of me. When I turned the A/C around so that the heavy side was against my body, the center of gravity was shifted closer to the base thus making a more stable system. And that’s why it was easier to carry. It still weighed the same.
In fact, while many people are looking for tips on proper lifting technique or how to lift heavy objects safely, little attention is paid to the basic weight distribution of the object. Assessing the object to be lifted and finding the best orientation so that it is less ‘awkward’ when you lift it will be the safest way. The least awkward way tends to be the way that upsets your equilibrium the least, meaning that the bulk of the mass should be as close you your COG as possible.
Proper Lifting Techniques?
I’ve always been a naturally strong person for my size and I’ve always lifted weights, albeit with periods of stagnation. I wasn’t always the strongest I could be because I did not always know what I was doing. However, I have held several jobs that required me to lift many very large and very heavy objects on a daily basis. I’ve never been hurt doing this. In fact, the only time I have ever injured my lower back was not due to heavy lifting but to a day of ill-advised repetitive motion involving my novice handling of a 16-pound maul.
During those times when I spent my days lifting large heavy boxes (and I mean LARGE) I paid no attention to lifting technique. I did pay attention to what I mentioned above, the weight distribution of the object, since I also had to carry these boxes around. However, I just lifted them in whatever way was convenient, including lifting them off the back of a big truck and lowering them down to a cart. So, why didn’t I get hurt? After all, if you don’t “lift properly” you are guaranteed to injure yourself, right? Well, wrong. You see, despite all the information out there about proper lifting techniques and how you should “use your knees” and “keep your back straight” these behaviors or the lack thereof are not actually predictive of injury. However, your overall fitness IS! When it comes to heavy lifting, your fitness also involves your overall muscular strength. So, in other words, strength training can protect you from injury be preparing you for lifting heavy object despite, yes, despite HOW you lift them. Now, to be clear, I am not advising that you do not pay attention to safe lifting procedures if you have to move around heavy things, but I am saying that you are less likely to get injured if you engage in some type of strength training or at least resistance training involving free weights.
Training yourself in proper lifting techniques because you have to carry heavy objects at work will not take the place of actual muscular strength and stability and no matter how perfect your lifting technique, it won’t help you carry the object around safely.
As I said, all lifting and carrying is dependent upon you being able to stabilize the COG. Lifting weights prepares you for this. And when I say lifting weights I mean lifting heavy things from a standing position so that your stability is actually challenged. You may have heard people say that things like the leg press do not make you strong. Well, now you know why. All that quad strength cannot be expressed in anything resembling a realistic way if you cannot stabilize a heavy load. And if you fail to stabilize a load…you will “fail” to lift it, either through outright failure or through injury. The same thing goes for the bench press.
Strength is Not Just in Your Arms and Legs, Not Even Your Glutes!
However although there must be some objective definition of strength, I am not really talking about what strength training, and strength itself, is or is not. I am talking about the attitude that suggests strength resides in one’s arms and legs. Remember, we are talking about a whole system of moving parts here. No matter how strong your arms and legs are, their force must be effectively transferred through the rest of that system. So, strength is related to the task at hand.
While strong arms and shoulders from bench pressing help you bench press more, they will not help you carry a heavy window air conditioner around comfortably. Certainly, strong arms and a good grip will help, but all that grunting and panting is not usually caused by someone’s arms giving out!
The Best Way to Get Stronger At a Lift Is to Practice That Lift
And while strong legs from the leg press will help you leg press more, they will not help you squat more or carry a heavy load around on your shoulders. So here we get to another thing about strength. It is specific. What you should see emerging here is that the best way to get “stronger” at a certain lift is to practice that lift. Everything else related to training for that lift is entirely secondary to that. There is nothing that is essential but the lift itself. Specifically training your glutes, as is a current trend, will NOT transfer directly to heavy lifting and carrying. Not to the deadlift, either.
I may be surprising some readers here. We’ve heard so much about the importance of core stability work, after all. Am I saying that even this is secondary? Yes. Although some have over-reacted to the over-reaction about core work, I am not against it. Supposing we are talking about the non-injured trainee, however, core stability is part of the baseline fitness that prepares you to be able to train those heavy lifts. They, therefore, are a part of maintaining the general physical system that is needed to train aggressively for maximal strength. But the lift is the most important part of training the stability needed to do the lift!
The greatest strength effect of any weight lifting exercise will be towards that exercise itself. It just so happens that certain lifts carry over to helping your buddy move his furniture more than others and if you believe there is such a thing as “real world” strength then basic kinesiology should tell you that those exercises that involve exerting muscular force from a standing position are superior in this regard.