Getting Strong in the Real World

We love the idea of being strong. Men love being strong. Women love strong men. Some women love being strong themselves. But what does this really mean? How do you recognise ‘strong’ when you see it? Is it bulging muscles and a six-pack or is it being able to scoop up three grandchildren with one arm? The one certainly doesn’t guarantee the other.

One thing a lot of people seem to agree on, whatever their definition of strength is that the gym is a great place to gain what they’re looking for.

I would disagree.

The obvious thing that anybody with eyes in their head will quickly notice is that gyms are filled with machines. The machines purport to get you fit and strong, one muscle at a time. Each is designed to isolate individual muscles and exercise them separately from the surrounding ones.

Take, for example, the leg extension machine. This is a bench over which your leg hangs. The leg is then extended until it is straight whilst overcoming the inertia posed by the weight resisting this movement. It only really works one muscle: the Rectus Femoris. Yet at the front of your upper leg alone there are six different muscles, and each must work together in unison to be effective in any real-life task or sport. So in fact the exact circumstances that this machine contrives to produce – where one muscle stands alone to do all the work – don’t exist anywhere else.

Typically, the result of training on a machine is the targeted muscle becomes filled with additional fluids, making it look bigger and stronger – though increases in actual strength are often minimal. When this happens, you are, for a brief moment, a bodybuilder.

Now this might not sound too bad a compromise for the ease of using a nice machine. But here’s the thing. This sort of exercise is totally unnatural. There is nothing else you will ever do in your life where your leg operates in this way. There is never another time out in the real world when you will ever do anything like this again.

Movement in general involves moving or carrying objects or the body along some prescribed, non-linear route. (Think back to the days of hunting and gathering.) To do this we must coordinate all the muscles of the body together at the same time, balancing ourselves whilst creating the force necessary to make the intended movement and, with practice, showing grace, efficiency and great posture.

 Isn’t it ironic that people go to the gym to get mobile again when all the machines are static and fixed to the floor. There’s little genuine movement to be seen at all!

 In any real life movement our body works as a whole. Almost all of the other muscles contribute to assist balance and support the whole body for every movement we make. Machines, however, isolate muscles and fix our joints in space apart from the one being worked. In doing so, they produce a response which does not improve anything other than the quality of ‘puffiness’ that the targeted muscle exhibits, and a marginally–elevated ability to perform just that one exercise.

Think of muscle isolation exercises like training a regiment of soldiers individually on a distance learning package, and expecting them to march in time on pass out day.

If you’ve ever wondered how after a 12-week gym programme you still find it just as hard to lift the shopping out of the boot, here’s your answer: you’ve hardly improved the strength of any whole groups of muscles at all – and there’s been no improvement in the synchronisation of the muscle groups involved in this whole body lifting task. Strength is just as much about improved co-ordination as it is about genuine muscle growth. The swollen muscle effect may look very impressive, but is little more than a vanity project.

In this sort of restricted environment no real ‘learning’ happens, not to mention no real engagement with the environment. Our gym user knows the machine will work exactly as it did last time and that there is no need to be fully present in mind and body in the same way that a hunter-gatherer must fully engage with the task at hand, whilst simultaneously keeping awareness open for threats at all times.

So, why are gyms filled with machines if they aren’t much use to most of us? It’s simple really; the reason is that is the best way to justify the prices they charge. They give you something very obvious to see when you show up and, if you believe that using such machines is the only useful way to exercise, it reinforces the idea that you can’t possibly get fit anywhere else. After all, where would you put all the machines that are needed?


Here are some better measurements of strength:

  • How far can you crawl on your hands and feet with your whole body two inches off the ground? (No! – Not with you bum stuck in the air…Down, down!)
  • Can you pull yourself up onto a branch from a straight-arm dead hang position? (The challenge ends when your hips are higher than the branch or when you’re sitting on it.)
  • Can you balance of on a railing on one foot, squat all the way down onto your haunches so that one leg dangles as low as possible, and then stand right up again?
  • Can you standing long-jump 6 feet? Find a muddy ditch for motivational purposes and to keep it real.
  • Can you flip up into a handstand a complete a few press-ups? (You can lean you feet against a wall if you need to cheat a bit but your feet must be directly above your head.)

Now some – especially gym goers – will moan: “These strength challenges aren’t fair. They rely on other factors like balance, coordination, flexibility and practice.”

Welcome to the real world, my friend! In real life, there’s no such thing as pure strength divorced from any context, skill or other attributes. Let’s stop kidding ourselves that we can isolate quantities, practice just those, and then represent ourselves as an all-round capable, fit human. Humans are generalists, not specialists. At least you’d better learn to be, if you want to get through life with the maximum amount of ease, safety and enjoyment.

Let’s refocus the world’s attention on Movement. Let’s keep things in the real world where big muscles and the strength to squat 400lbs is less useful than being able to vault over a gate.

Movement is life, whereas strength is only a quality of movement, a supporting aspect that makes it possible, like mobility, balance and stability. In other words, movement includes strength, but it’s bigger than it.  By focusing on movement we still get stronger but we do it without limiting our horizons and our potential.