There’s a difference between gym strength and real world strength.  Dan John shares a story of lifting in his bedroom as a teenager and celebrating his first 500lb deadlift.  He made such a racket that his pudgy, 50 year old construction worker uncle who’d never trained a day in his life came up to see what all the fuss was about.  When Dan pointed to the loaded barbell he’d just successfully pulled from the floor, his uncle, without training, without technique, without a warm up, bent over and lifted it off the floor. 

Real world strength is something you see in farmers, construction workers and other people who have done manual labour their whole lives.  Their muscles, joints and tendons have developed over years of continuous daily effort.  You may train 8 hours a week but they work 8 hours a day.  But there’s more to it than that.

Barbells are built to optimize the amount of weight you can lift.  They are designed for efficiency, to keep the barbell close to your midline to minimize the strain on the supporting tissues.  Weightlifting is a skill.  Technique matters.  But real world objects are not barbell shaped and cannot always be lifted in the frontal plane along the line of least effort.  In the real world, work often requires objects to be moved away from the midline and every millimetre that load travels away from your body dramatically increases the strain on all the supporting fibres, joints, muscles and tendons forced to bear that load.  In response to this stress the body lays down thicker layers of supportive collagen making you more resilient and capable of bearing greater loads.

It takes time and reps.  Real world strength is not built quickly.  It is earned. 

I love lifting.  I love the technical lifts.  But too often, strength competitors like myself injure themselves moving loads they haven’t earned the right to lift.  You may have the technique but have you developed the joint and tendon strength to bear that load?  Do you have the grip strength, the core strength and the strength in all the little stabilizer muscles to keep you safe if the bar path on your new record breaking lift goes slightly awry? 

Dan’s uncle didn’t need lifters, knee sleeves, a belt or straps to pull 500lbs off the floor.  He’d developed the supporting strength in his body the long, hard way.  But you and I do not have the time to take an 8-hour per day manual labour job for several decades.  Does that mean we’re forever doomed to wrap our bodies in athletic tape, neoprene and leather if we wish to continue our pursuit of strength in the gym?  Or are we destined to break our dainty, white collar bodies on the rocky shores of the dream of strength?

Maybe not.  Dan John points out how sometimes our efficiencies get in the way of progress.  Old time strongmen got crazy strong and hefted massive barbells all without the use of a rack.  If they wanted to throw a barbell around they had to first get it up off the floor.  What if you too had to pick the barbell off the floor for every set of the upcoming shoulder press workout?  Surely you are strong enough to power clean your shoulder press 3 rep max so the lack of a rack shouldn’t compromise your performance.  You’ll get at least 7 power cleans in that workout in addition to the 21 shoulder presses.  So you’ll get just a bit more overall full body training without having to put in any extra time.  Multiply this by 200 workouts a year and you’ll have made some real strength gains!   

In fact, Dan John has said that he believes one of the reasons dumbbell training is so effective might simply be the fact that unlike a barbell you cannot rack dumbbells but must bend down and pick them up off the floor every set.  And if you’ve ever tried picking heavy dumbbells off the floor you know that they are much harder to lift than a barbell of the same weight because….wait for it….they cannot be lifted in as efficient a path as the barbell.  Dumbbells won’t track close to your midline along that frontal plane quite as well as the barbell which was designed to do precisely that.  Clean and jerking two dumbbells is not nearly as easy as clean and jerking a barbell.

Do you see where I’m going with this?  I love the pursuit of strength.  I want to be able to lift big weights.  And I want my body to be resilient.  I know I need to earn the right to move heavy loads by first developing the grip strength, core strength, fascial strength, tendon strength and joint strength to support my technical skill.  After reading Dan John’s 40 Years With a Whistle I stopped using racks and barbells for every workout.  Our dumbbells go up to 80lbs so any WOD with a load under 160lbs I’ve used dumbbells instead of barbells.  It has sucked.  It is so much harder.  The lifts are much less efficient.  My small, weak hands get so fatigued.  My core stabilizers struggle.   I often cannot do the RX’d weight even though on a barbell it would be quite easy for me.

It’s been 2 months now.  Not long enough I suspect, to see much difference though my body has been feeling more solid.  Resilient.  Like all the small stabilizers are lending support that before was lacking.

And then came the dumbbell lunge/farmer’s carry WOD.  It was a grind just like any other morning.  I’ve always struggled with farmer’s carries.  There’s not much you can do here except grind it out.  Technique and finesse cannot save you, it is just real world strength and grunt work.  I gritted my way through it as one does.  I finished at 41:04.  Respectable.  Not tremendous.  Just happy to get it done.  But when I entered my score into the system I discovered that we had done the same workout 5 years ago in 2016 when I finished at 50:55.  Check that math.  It is almost 10 minutes difference or 2 minutes per year elapsed!  It is the first measurable evidence suggesting that all my gruelling dumbbell work is beginning to pay off in the form of some real world strength. 

I do not have 8 hours a day to spend in manual labour, and I’ve gone nearly half a century without doing daily labour so I may never earn the kind of strength Dan John’s uncle displayed.  But in the gym I have discovered a shortcut to producing some much desired strength gains to help me earn a significant level up in performance.  It’s about choosing the path of most resistance, of picking the harder training tool instead of the easier one.  I don’t have time for extra training, instead I am making each training session harder and more effective.  I’ll know I’m on my way when I can lift those 80lb dumbbells with ease.  When that day arrives I’ll excitedly go out and purchase a pair of 90’s.

Friday WOD
Trade in your face mask for knee pads and get outside and play.  Today is all grit and grunt work.  Pick up some heavy dumbbells and get to work.  If you are at home kettlebells will work or a big rock or a heavily packed backpack.  You want something totalling 60-90lbs for this one.  That’s hefty!

Warm Up
3 mins:
10 Reverse Lunges
10 DB Russian Swings

4 Rounds 
50m DB Lunge
350m DB Farmer’s Carry