Why is it so important that you honestly believe that regardless of age you can be twice as strong as you would be if you did not train at all? Why is it important to know that well into your fifties you can be stronger than when you were as a high school, and even college athlete? In addition to the obvious and well documented benefits of strength training by organizations such as The American Heart Association, there are two essential reasons:
First: Believing in your real potential allows for an unlimited progression of achievable goals. These goals are essential to the unending enthusiasm necessary to a lifetime of fitness. Can’t do one chin up? Make that a goal and make a plan to get there. Can’t bench press your bodyweight? Make a progressive series of goals and tick them off: 135 pounds for 10 repetitions; 200 pounds; 225 x 5; 300; 315; and on it goes endlessly.
The other end of believing in your real potential is that it takes away the excuses for accepting the sorry mean state of your age cohort. If you accept the fact that your ultimate strength potential at age 45 is only about 5% less than in your twenties; and if you know that at age 60 your ultimate strength potential is only about a third less than in your twenties; and if you see that strength training at age 80 will result on average of similar strength levels as you enjoyed in your twenties when you didn’t train, then you are really left with few reasons for not being strong well beyond where most people are already planted in the ground. All you are left with are the excuses for why you consciously made the decision to die at a much faster rate than you needed to.
Those of you who have followed this blog know that I do not have anything against standard, full-sevice fitness centers. Heck, that’s where I got started. However, as the months and years go by, there are just not enough people (it averages about 20%) that participate in the group classes offered as part of the standard membership package. With the trend toward TV screens and ear buds everywhere, the social aspect is diluted. The other 80% are just doing their own thing, in many cases largely oblivious to what is going on around them.
Take a look at this New York Times article. What sums up the big challenge facing commercial fitness centers? What seems to be limiting their membership to 15% of the US population? In a word, over time: boredom. Despite the valiant effort at social encouragement and reinforcement offered by the group classes, it is not enough for most people to just “exercise.” They need more direction, more context: that is, more intrinsic motivation than what they get out of exhortations to “just exercise more.” For most people, just getting tired and sweaty is not enough to carry the day through more than a few months, let alone year after year. I always told my kids that it makes it a lot easier to accomplish anything that is remotely challenging if you have a significant goal with which to measure your progress. The corollary of that is that if you have no goal; if you shoot at nothing, you are sure enough bound to hit it.
The second big reason for you to care about how strong you are, and to bother to objectively measure those strength levels, is that it is the most obvious and practical way of knowing whether or not any given exercise program is working for you. Unless you have truly reached your ultimate strength potential, if you are not regularly getting stronger, then you are doing something wrong. (Note: Unless you are an experienced professional or truly world-class athlete, it is not likely that you have ever been anywhere near your ultimate strength potential. In my experience, that takes at least eight to ten years doing everything right.)
In a lot of cases, people are not working out long enough, or, especially, hard enough to make consistent strength gains. They have to focus on more ambitious goals from month to month. On the other hand, there are a few people whom are so gung-ho that they will continue to train through real pain. I am not talking about the pain of fatigue that Vince Lombardi said makes cowards of us all. I am talking about continuing to push when you are showing clear signs of injury or staleness (lack of any real progress). Runners, for example, are infamous for training through shin splints, patellar tendonitis, plantar fasciitis, and all sorts of other overuse injuries.
One of my hard rules that I have used to discipline myself is that I will not continue to do whatever I’ve been doing if I have two disappointing workouts in a row. Everyone has a bad day from time to time. However, if a bad workout is followed by another where you might start experiencing little aches and pains; or the amount of weight lifted stays the same or even goes down, then it is time to back off for a while. If you keep pounding away doing the same thing and expecting things to eventually get moving again, you doom yourself to no progress and/or injury.