Are You Too Strong?
Answer the question. Are you too strong? If you are like 99.9% of the population, your answer to this question will be "no." The other 0.1% of the population is misinformed, stupid, or crazy. Like most of us, you probably think you need to be stronger. A few of you may think you are "strong enough" (whatever that means).
But how is it possible to be too strong?
Let me put this into context for you. As usual, the trouble started with Rippetoe. He just republished an article at the SS website on Bad Advice about lifting from doctors, which usually takes the following form:
THOU SHALT USE LIGHT WEIGHT FOR HIGH REPS.
We've had plenty to say about that: about why it does not make people as strong, why it does not increase strength as quickly, why it is inefficient or even counterproductive for novices, and why it is sometimes actually injurious (especially in the Masters population). And in August, we painstakingly deconstructed the latest installment in the canon which claims to support this prescription, the hopelessly flawed paper by Morton et al.
Nevertheless, and in spite of the simple and inescapable fact that the strongest people in the world use heavy loading at low volumes to get stronger, Rip's article was predictably another poke at the hornet's nest. It brought out the same hoary arguments we've had to refute over and over again: hi-rep/low weight works just as well for strength (it doesn't); it's safer (it isn't); it's supported by the literature (it isn't, and the literature is hopelessly flawed on this point).
And now we've run into a new one: that this approach will get you strong enough, but not too strong. Because, you see, you don't want to be too strong. Being too strong is bad.
Which puts an important question: How strong is too strong?
Allow me to propose an unnecessarily pedagogical analogy. Let's say you are the hereditary ruler of some little dogshit kingdom somewhere in the darkest Balkans or central Europe, ca. 1500. You are surrounded by other petty little kingdoms, baronies, principalities, bishoprics, and duchies. Some of these states are friends, some are enemies. Some are trading partners, some are little more than pirate states. It's actually not good to be the king. This is not a nice time or place. Foreign and civil war is endemic. Borders shift constantly. Just last year the Margrave of Turdmania got strung up by his ankles and roasted by the Duke of Wichita, who called it a "barbecue."
In your perilous times (as in all others) the stronger realms are harder to break--harder to invade, harder to blockade, harder to intimidate. Robust principalities endure; weak ones are gobbled up. So, Your Highness--how strong is too strong? The average prince will reply that there is no such thing as too strong. He wants his realm to be as strong and as stable as it can be. And he's right.
The truly brilliant prince, on the other hand, will reply that we have asked the wrong question. He agrees there is no such thing as too strong, too rich, too stable, too happy. No state ever collapsed because it was too strong or too rich.
The question isn't how strong is too strong, but rather, what are the costs and risks of getting stronger?
Let's say your little kingdom is strong and stable, but you'd like it to be stronger, Because War. Border raids and the Duke of Wichita's barbecues and the Turks and all that. But to get significantly stronger, and as quickly as you'd like, you'd have to raise taxes to the point that the peasants or even your vassals would revolt, you'd have to conscript more of your population than would be good for the economy or civil order, and you'd have to seize strategic terrain from your neighbors--a decision that carries a high risk of catastrophe.
It's not that you're too strong already--you can't be too strong. It's that you're already just about as strong as you can be, given the political, material and economic realities of your situation, and getting stronger comes at too high a price and too much risk for too little gain. Naturally, you will continue look for ways to increase your strength on the margins and maximize your advantages, and you will certainly work hard to avoid losing strength. But a big gain in strength just isn't in the cards for you.
Now, if you are a novice athlete, the rather pedantic, overwrought, and incongruous analogy above is entirely irrelevant to you. Not only are you not too strong, you are not strong enough. In fact, you are weak. (Sorry. You are.)
You are a novice precisely because you are operating far from your genetic potential for strength--which, I remind you, is the most fundamental of physical fitness attributes. Moreover, because you are a novice, large and rapid increases in strength come at little cost and virtually no risk. They take hard work, but they are simple to achieve, and cost you only some time and the money needed to buy some extra beef, chicken and protein shakes.
If you are an intermediate athlete, the fractured fairy tale above is still entirely irrelevant to you. You are no longer weak, but you sure as hell are not "too strong" (because there's no such thing), and whether you're "strong enough" is a deeply metaphysical question that only you can answer (but you're not). Moreover, unlike our frustrated ruler, you can still get stronger, although not as quickly as when you were first putting your little empire together as a novice prince. The increases come more slowly and with a greater investment in time and complexity of training, but still at very low risk. You can still get stronger with fairly mundane training and nutritional manipulations. And that's good, because stronger is better.
Our example of the prince who is not too strong but can only get stronger at a very high cost and risk applies to you only if you are an advanced or elite athlete--in other words, if you are already training and performing at the competitive extremes of human ability and very close to your genetic potential. You aren't too strong (because, again, there's just no such thing), but the costs and risks of getting stronger are substantial. It's not the strength that's potentially unhealthy, it's what's entailed in getting that strength.
If you are reading this, your chances of being in the position of the athlete just described are only slightly higher than your chances of finding yourself confronted with the problem of how to make your little 16th century Balkan principality stronger than it is. It's just not going to materialize for the vast majority of us.
Are you "strong enough?" Only you can answer that (you're not).
Are you too strong? No such thing.