Are There Different Kinds of Strength? (I Found Out the Hard Way…)

OK, we know that strength is the fountain of youth.

Stronger muscles, stronger bones, increased resistance to dysfunction and disease.

(Not to mention a whole slew of other hidden benefits)

But here’s the problem:

There’s this idea floating around that there are different kinds of strength.

And it seems plausible enough, right?

I mean, how else would you explain how a slender Japanese woman that couldn’t even overhead press an empty bar…

…can do yoga poses that appear to defy the laws of physics?

While on the other hand,  we’ve got a guy that can overhead press 0.8x bodyweight…

…but couldn’t even do a headstand without the yoga instructor holding his feet.

(Man, was I embarrassed)

So, are we really looking at different kinds of strength?

Nope.

How do I know?

Because I’ve had first-hand experience of getting “stronger” while becoming measurably weaker.

Here’s what I’m talking about…

Face, Meet Floor

A little while back, I did “The Iceman” Wim Hof’s online course.

That was focused mainly on breathing exercises, meditation and gradual exposure to the cold  – think 10-minute showers in 37° F (3 °C) water.

(I know, I know)

But it also included some basic yoga poses like the one I’m doing in the photo at the top of the article.

And I’ll be 100-% honest with you – the first time I tried it, my face slammed into the floor pretty much instantly.

If you're going to face-plant the floor, do it on tatami Click To Tweet

Frustratingly, that went on day after day, for longer than I want to remember!

And it really started to freak me out.

It seemed like there was no way in hell that I was capable of doing it.

Even though I was way stronger than people who were…

…wasn’t I?

Hell, I even started to think that there might be some truth in that “different kind of strength” thing after all.

But then something really weird happened…

Becoming Weaker Makes You Stronger?

Now, around that same time, I’d started training for my first marathon.

That was my main focus, and my strength took a real hammering as a result.

(More fatigue, less rest, being in a caloric deficit and stuff like that)

And according to my training log, my overhead press and bench press strength dropped by something like 10-15% in just a few months.

I was still putting in as much effort as ever in the gym and doing everything I knew to maximize workout performance.

But the reality was that my upper body simply wasn’t able to produce as much force as before.

So, 6-8 weeks into the Wim Hof course, I was measurably weaker than when I started.

No question about it.

But get this:

After sticking with it, I was now able to do that “impossible” pose EASILY…

…and could hold it for a minute or more.

So, did becoming weaker really make me stronger?

(Even though that makes no sense at all)

What the hell was going on here?

Well, we can find the answer in the first few seconds of this video where 275-lb man-mountain…

Alexey Voevoda arm wrestles 3 guys (at the same time)

So, what did you notice?

(Apart from the fact that he’s one insanely strong and powerful dude)

He can produce maximal strength even when his arm is in the most awkward positions imaginable

And that’s the “secret”.

Ultimately, it all boils down to this:

Your nervous system won’t allow your body to produce high levels of force in positions that it’s unadapted or unaccustomed to

Think of it like the speed restrictors that Japanese auto manufacturers put on cars sold in the domestic market here in Japan.

Sure, your Nissan GT-R might have the power and gearing to hit 197 mph flat out, but its electronic brain limits it to just 112 mph.

So, when you first try some challenging new movement, your nervous system freaks out.

“Are you insane? There’s no way I’m going to let you do this!”

End result?

You have access to only a small percentage of the total strength capability you actually possess.

But as your nervous system gets accustomed to the movement, it’s happy to free up greater amounts of your potential.

So you can do things that make it appear like you’re getting stronger…

…even though you could be getting weaker.

Here’s how that works:

Let’s say the amount of force needed to hold that pose was x.

(Hey, cut me a little slack, I used to be an engineer, OK?)

Now, at the beginning let’s say I had the physical potential to produce a force of 1.5x

…but that pose freaked out my nervous system so much that it only allowed me to produce, say, 50% of its potential in that position.

End result?

0.75x force produced

x force required to hold pose

Face, meet floor

Now, a few weeks later, I had the potential to produce only 1.35x (as my strength had dropped by ~10%)

But my nervous system was now accustomed to that pose, and was happy to produce, say, 80% of its potential in that position.

And, as 80% of 1.35is well over the strength required to hold the pose…

…it was easy.

Even though there was no question that I was measurably weaker!

Different Kinds of Strength: The Bottom Line

The reality is your body’s always looking out for you and doesn’t want you to get hurt.

So it won’t allow you to produce maximal strength in a range of motion that you’re unadapted or unaccustomed to.

That’s why it’s possible for a less-strong person to produce more force than a physically stronger person.

And how about the extreme case, where you’re capable of massive force production in the most awkward positions?

Well, that’s where the Alexey Voevodas of this world live.

As do gymnasts who can do stuff like this:

Just take a look at this guy’s arms and shoulders…

…and then think about why women gymnasts don’t participate in this event.

The upshot is there’s no such thing as “different kinds of strength”.

After all, force production is force production.

Sure, it is possible to be strong yet appear weak…

…or to be weak yet appear strong.

That’s largely down to how hard your nervous system is applying the brakes in that particular situation.

Becoming able to do that yoga pose ultimately came down to conditioning my nervous system to calm the hell down.

But only after some serious face time with tatami :)

– Tim

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