Quantitative Measurements and Quality Evaluations in Strength Training: The Difference Between Numbers and Performance
Muscular strength can be measured in many different ways. In strength training, absent electronic equipment or mechanical strength gauges, strength is often measured via a person’s one rep maximum, the most weight the person can lift for one repetition of an exercise. What many trainees don’t realize, when looking for strength training information, is that a strength training measurement is only one part of a strength assessment or evaluation.
Strength Training Stats
My post on rest periods for strength training makes fun of that old bodybuilding forum question “what’s your stats?” You know the one when you ask any question and you always get the same response asking you your weight and how much you can squat, deadlift, and bench press? The idea is that the respondent is doing some quick and dirty calculations based on your “stats” and this will lead them to the correct answer to your particular question. In reality, they don’t know what the hell they are doing and are just trying to sound like they are about to give you ‘individualized’ answers.
What you may not realize, however, is the questions themselves are not really enough to give even seasoned professionals any indication of what you should do in your training. Just knowing how much someone weighs and how much they can squat and bench will not allow me to magically produce a training answer for them. The notion is absurd. But why?
Numbers, or Quantitative Measurements, are Only One Part of Programming for Strength Training
Well, “stats” are based on measurements. Measurements are quantitative. Quantitative measurements are only one small part of making an evaluation of a trainee in order to come up with a strength training or other training plan for them.
What many people claim is that how much someone can bench press, for instance, will give them an idea of that person’s “training age” and that they determine this by strength training charts that separate various weight ranges into beginner, intermediate, and advanced based on body weight. However, these charts say nothing of any one individual, that person’s particular strengths or weaknesses, or any injuries or history that may have affected their strength development. And, of course, it says nothing of how well they perform from a qualitative, rather than quantitative, standpoint.
Weight on the Bar Does Not Tell You Everything
Let me give you an easy example. When you see someone lift a very heavy barbell and you look at how many plates are on the bar, add the weight of the bar itself, and realize that they lifted 200lbs, you are making a measurement. But when you say, “Dude, good lift!” You are making an evaluation. The problem in strength training is that “quantity” has become, for many, the sole means by which evaluations are made! In other words, evaluations have become the simple act of measuring.
It may be that this person has been lifting 200lbs for a year now. It may be also, that a year ago this person could lift this for 5 reps in a row and that his or her amplitude and overall form was better. Maybe even the bar speed has decreased. So was it a “good lift”? If you are impressed by someone lifting 200lbs then it was a good lift. However, if you actually make an evaluation, it was not.
Strength Training Assessments or Evaluations are Always Qualitative
So we see that evaluations are based on a mixture of quantitative and qualitative data but that the resultant evaluations are always qualitative in themselves. When we make an evaluation we are not just looking at a number, such as weight on the bar. We are also placing a value on that number based on other performance criteria as well as how it relates to some mean base value.
How does this affect you, the strength trainee? Well, the problem is not the “stats” guys alone. And it is not the concept of quality alone. It is the inability of many trainers to understand how integrative performance really is.
Can You Progress?
The thing to remember is that your ability, in sheer numbers, tells you about your maximum ability right now, but it does not tell you about your ability to progress in the future. This is where an actual evaluation comes in. The moral is, then, if some guy on a forum or blog pretends to construct a program for you based on a few numbers you throw at him, he is actually doing you a disservice. By pretending to use measurements to construct a course of training while failing to perform any type of evaluation based on present performance and past history, he is probably setting you up for failure, if not injury. And in reality, of course, such individuals are usually only pulling out whatever their favorite one-size-fits-all training program is, or whatever type of thing they are personally into at the moment, or both. Many trainees might be better off training by feel than by following the advice of some deluded bodybuilding guru.
The fact that entire websites exist that are built upon one simple training program for all trainees almost boggles the mind. And yet, these sites and their programs are ten times more successful, in terms of ravenous fans and sheer traffic, than any site that honestly attempts to build a resource concerning strength and human performance. Some of the reasons for this success can be read in my article “Why Fitness, Diet, Bodybuilding, and Strength Training Programs Work.” I will go into more of my opinions on this in a later post.
For now, I will give a specific example of how failing to actually monitor performance versus just monitoring numbers sets us up for failure or injury, which of course is its own type of failure.
Many trainees are led to think, for example, that if they are able to make apparent progress then they must be fully recovered from an earlier workload. The idea is that more weight on the bar equals no fatigue. This is a simplistic and wholly ignorant idea and it does not describe adaptation and performance.
I speak of “apparent progress” often. If that leads you to believe that I mean something a bit different than “actual progress” then you are correct. Apparent progress is that which has a superficial appearance of progress but does not really represent a large and sustainable change in underlying fitness. In English, this means that a couple more pounds on the bar do not always mean that you have actually achieved any real long-term progress. Actual progress would also mean that performance has been MAINTAINED. People talk about form and technique all the time. They say, your form is going down the tubes and you need to work on technique. Many times, what they are really seeing is a decline in PERFORMANCE even when plates are being added to the bar.
Okay, so, numbers are only measurements. A full look at our training does not only consider numbers, the quantitative measures, but performance in terms of qualitative evaluations.
When it comes to maximum strength, your goal is more weight on the bar. So let me be clear that a bigger number is ultimately your goal. However, ever higher numbers alone are not the way to get there.
All that being said, I want to be abundantly clear on the point of this post, which is to underscore the difference between measurements and evaluations. In some circles, however, I have seen ideas that seem to indicate a complete disregard of measurements! Some have gone off the deep end and begun to think that strength training is all about quality, quantity be damned. Nothing of the sort.
I have seen trainees put all their training eggs into a basket that tells them if they could just master this one tiny technique tweak their numbers would sky-rocket. Except for grossly incorrect exercise technique, this is hardly ever the case. Rarely does one tiny tweak in technique equal to a bunch of new PR’s in the weight room. If you consider the bench press, you’ll find that the majority of articles on the subject, however, are concerned with “technique tips that will skyrocket your bench press.” The same is true to a lesser extent for all other exercises. Well, I may be bursting your bubble, but it probably ain’t gonna happen. At best, you’ll add a pound or two and then go back to your previous rate of progress.
In summary, then, our goal is to increase our numbers while maintaining performance over time. So that we can lift big heavy weights. But in order to lift big heavy weights, you have to lift a lot of big heavy weights!