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The 1 Reason You Aren’t Getting Stronger

The stress, recovery, adaptation process requires a little something extra.

by
Mark Rippetoe

Bio

February 14, 2014 - 12:04 pm
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The application of stress, the recovery from that stress, and the subsequent adaptation that results from the process is the central organizing principle of everything that has to do with physical improvement. From physical and occupational therapy to preparation for the Olympic Games, the stress/recovery/adaptation cycle is not just a good idea, it’s the law.

It is May 15, and you decide that this year you are going to get a suntan — a glorious, beautiful, tropical suntan. So you decide to catch some rays outside at lunchtime. You lie on your back for 15 minutes and flip over to lie on your belly for 15 minutes. Then you come in and eat lunch, and go back to work. That night, your skin is a little pink, so the next day you just eat lunch, but the following day you’re back outside for your 15 minutes-per-side sunbath.

You are faithful to your schedule, spending 30 minutes outside every day that week. At the end of the week, you have turned a more pleasant shade of brown, and — heartened by your results — resolve to maintain your schedule for the rest of the month.

The critical question: what color is your skin at the end of the month?

If you ask a hundred people this question, ninety five will tell you that it will be really, really dark. But in fact it will be exactly the same color it was at the end of the first week. Why would it be any darker?

“Stress” is that which causes a perturbation of the steady state of a system — in this case, your physiology. If the stress is mild, it causes no response. It doesn’t disrupt the situation enough to be noticed. If the stress is too great, it can kill you. This is what happens when you fall off a building or get mauled by a bear.

Top Rated Comments   
Many weak folks share this opinion...

8 weeks ago
8 weeks ago Link To Comment
I look forward to these articles. I can't wait until you delve deeper into training.

Just curious Mark, outside of working with barbells, what advice would you give to someone that can't afford a gym membership? Any specific body weight exercises you think are good?
8 weeks ago
8 weeks ago Link To Comment
All Comments   (61)
All Comments   (61)
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Mark, at my age, my eyes aren't what they used to be, and so I value being able to adjust font sizes inherent in reading eBooks. I've got your Kindle version of SS, but I really, really want your latest PPST for the training info for seniors (I'm pushing 68). Any chance of a Kindle version of that book any time soon? Please?
8 weeks ago
8 weeks ago Link To Comment
Great series of articles here Mark.

What are your thoughts on neck strengthening or methods rather?

If possible, would a trap bar be a better option than a straight bar for deadlifts? In that the weight is kept closer to body like you would lift a heavy object outside of the gym.

I know you don't advocate machines. Wouldn't being able to increase or decrease the load as you go through the range of motion to closely match the momentary strength at that point impose a an even greater potential level of stress to adapt against?
8 weeks ago
8 weeks ago Link To Comment
1. Neck strengthening is only necessary as a specific training emphasis for football players. The neck receives enough isometric work in the normal course of barbell training to get much stronger.

2. A trap bar is a bad idea because it is not stable against the thighs at the top. Its mechanics are really that of a squat, not a pull, and you're already squatting anyway.

3. That was Arthur Jones's contention. What is wrong with having the mechanics of a movement vary through the ROM? I see no argument for doing contrived isolation exercises that do not strengthen the movement patterns normal to skeletal mechanics simply because an isolated ROM displays a differential force curve.
8 weeks ago
8 weeks ago Link To Comment
Thank you for the detailed answers Sir.

Regarding point number 3. So if I'm understanding you correctly: Even certain common compound exercises like pulldowns, rows, chest presses, are somewhat isolatory in that they uninvolve the whole body unlike lifting something heavy outside of the gym? Also, most things one would lift outside of the gym would not get progressively heavier or lighter as you lift it? When we lift something heavy outside of the gym, it's all about getting the object to most leverage friendly position.
8 weeks ago
8 weeks ago Link To Comment
What a surprise! Nice to see an article on PJ by Mark Rippetoe!

Thanks Mark and I am very glad to see you here. I purchased your book, Starting Strength, long ago and loved the program. It helped me change my life via lifting weights with a huge focus on proper form. I want to express my sincerest THANKS for doing what you do.
8 weeks ago
8 weeks ago Link To Comment
http://pjmedia.com/lifestyle/2014/02/14/the-1-reason-you-arent-getting-stronger/?singlepage=true&show-at-

fustain, when and where in this article does Mark say he wants people big and bulky? Where did you read anything about a tennis player winning a muscle contest?

Let me sum the article up for you: increasing an athlete's overall strength will carry over to help improve performance in specific sporting activities. Nowhere did it say you must bulk up to do so. Nowhere did it reference fast or slow twitch fibers. Stop confusing bodybuilding, powerlifting, bulking (all very specific sports/activities) with increasing general strength.
8 weeks ago
8 weeks ago Link To Comment
Mark said this: "If you get stronger, you run better, throw better, dance better, do everything better".

I interpret "stronger" to mean: "how much weight can you lift".

Now if you don't have the minimal strength to lift up your arm, you won't be throwing many balls, so in that limited sense, what he said is very true.

But.

As I have observed a number of times, when you look at the world's top athletes, there are a number of sports at which the very best are also not the "strongest" as defined above.

Mr. Rippertoe can certainly lift more weight than Roger Federer but neither he nor anyone with his body type will ever beat Roger at tennis.

On the other hand if what was meant by strong is that "the guy that runs furthest" or "the guy that throws furthest" is the "strongest", then there really isn't any information there. It's a tautology.

In fairness, it may be that there is a much more encompassing view of the word "strength" here. It's why I've tried to be relatively precise about what I meant.

But so far the only helpful information I've gotten from anybody is that I'm ignorant. Well, I already knew that.
8 weeks ago
8 weeks ago Link To Comment
Arthur Jones was a short-sighted fool who made billions of dollars selling the biggest distraction from productive training that has ever been invented.
8 weeks ago
8 weeks ago Link To Comment
Love to be a fool, short-sighted or not, making billions selling whatever foolish things to fellow fools.
8 weeks ago
8 weeks ago Link To Comment
Really? He may have been incorrect in his application of theory *and the jury is still out on that one. The pursuit of the truth is never short-sighted.
8 weeks ago
8 weeks ago Link To Comment
Jogging is garbage. As a D1 college athlete, strength training kept me injury free. I was strong and athletic. I could run a single mile nearly as just as fast as the track guys and out sprint them in shorter distances. The moment I dumped strength training for running and bodyweight exercises (Considered more tactical/applicable) chronic overuse injuries developed and I lost strength. Wish I discovered Mr. Riptoe's articles years ago.
8 weeks ago
8 weeks ago Link To Comment
Most of the article makes sense. I would part where he says that the stronger you are the harder you can throw.

True to an extent. If you're bed ridden, a little strength may help you throw a little harder, but if you look at tennis players and baseball pitchers, these are not muscle bound guys.

I think there is a point at which the bulky muscle you build by lifting heavy weights gets in the way of a variety of physical endeavors.
8 weeks ago
8 weeks ago Link To Comment
Tennis players do not throw balls.
8 weeks ago
8 weeks ago Link To Comment
Lifting heavy weights in and of themselves do not create "bulky" muscles. The misapplication of "hormone therapy" creates puffy muscles.

Weight is the stressor mechanism that signals your muscles to adapt. Getting stronger does not hurt any endevour.
8 weeks ago
8 weeks ago Link To Comment
When you lift heavier weights, the fast twitch muscles are engaged and they get larger.

If you have a sufficient amount of slow twitch fibers, you don't need supplements to get significantly larger muscles.
8 weeks ago
8 weeks ago Link To Comment
Negative bro. Start with Body by Science and go through the papers cited in the notes on page 249-275.

I will agree that body building relies on the pillars of genetics and hormone therapy. Strength however is universal as it is one of the genetic traits for survival and prosperity.
8 weeks ago
8 weeks ago Link To Comment
Bingo...

Dr. McGuff breaks it down perfectly
8 weeks ago
8 weeks ago Link To Comment
It has occurred to me that we may be disagreeing on the meaning of terms.

To me "strength" is about lifting heavy weights with few reps. People that do it a lot get large. Powerlifters are thick people. I have never seen a competitive powerlifter you would call "slender". Bodybuilding is, of course, a different matter, but they also have very large muscles.

I would call a long distance runner or a tennis player "fit", but not necessarily "strong".

And it's still my understanding that slow twitch muscles do not swell in response to exercise. But fast twitch fibers do. If you are objecting that you cannot get large enough to be a bodybuilder without chemical help, maybe so.

But I know plenty of people (that I'm pretty sure on not juicing in any way) that can get noticeably larger pretty quick by just lifting heavy weights. I don't see that this is controversial even.

If you include what I call "fit" within your definition of "strong", then maybe we don't have much of a disagreement.
8 weeks ago
8 weeks ago Link To Comment
"I would call a long distance runner or a tennis player "fit", but not necessarily "strong"."

If you ain't strong, you ain't fit. Strength is the foundation of fitness.

As a former cross country runner, I greatly admire endurance athletes' work ethic and dedication to their sport, but neglecting strength is counterproductive for long term health and fitness.
8 weeks ago
8 weeks ago Link To Comment
I don't believe I said that.

I'm a big fan of strength and as I age I intend to make lifting weights a bigger part of my athletic regimen because I recognize that loss of strength is a big part of what makes aging so unpleasant.

But.

Training to be a powerlifter is not what you want to do to get max performance in a variety of sports. All of the competitive tennis players I know that have hit the weights intensely to specifically make their muscles larger have seriously damaged their tennis.

Very specific kinds of weight training have become quite popular on the pro circuit and I'm sure some strength training is part of this. But none of those guys or girls are doing the kind of training that a powerlifter would do.

If pure strength were the be all and the end all of athletic activity, all the top athletes would look the same. Large muscles and thick bodies.

But they don't.
8 weeks ago
8 weeks ago Link To Comment
"Training to be a powerlifter is not what you want to do to get max performance in a variety of sports."

"If pure strength were the be all and the end all of athletic activity..."

At no point did I state that "pure strength is the end all [whatever that means] of athletic activity".

In fact, I DID state that "It's entirely possible to be strong AND well rounded. You just have to train properly."

I also provided you with examples of athletes that are exceptionally strong, fast, quick, agile AND have exceptional endurance.

Apparently you ignored that evidence, so here it is again.

1/2 marathon row.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3Jzw5zK6DMA

Triathlon.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nTF3oTlZysE

Strength training through power lifting is the FOUNDATION - note that word... FOUNDATION - of a good training program.

What is a FOUNDATION? It's a solid base on which one builds. It is not the "end all" of anything. It is the beginning.
8 weeks ago
8 weeks ago Link To Comment
Look, I'm not trying to pick a fight here.

It sounds to me like we pretty much agree then.

The original point I made was that it is not clear to me that the stronger you are the harder you can throw. By that I meant stronger in the powerlifter sense.

As near as I can tell, you are not disagreeing with that statement.
8 weeks ago
8 weeks ago Link To Comment
Many weak folks share this opinion...

8 weeks ago
8 weeks ago Link To Comment
"I think there is a point at which the bulky muscle you build by lifting heavy weights gets in the way of a variety of physical endeavors."

If you ever reach that point, let me know. I've been lifting heavy for years, and I'm not even close.

I wrote about that misconception - and provided examples of exceptionally strong athletes who are also quick, fast and agile - here.

http://snowgoosechronicles.blogspot.com/2013/11/keeping-men-weak.html#.Uv-bRfldX-s
8 weeks ago
8 weeks ago Link To Comment
One of my tennis buddies was a doctor and a weightlifter. After a weightlifting session he couldn't hit the broad side of a barn for a week. Used to drive him crazy. Suggested he read up on the differences between fast and slow twitch muscles. As a consequence, he changed his routine to lift less often and then used lighter weights and more reps. His tennis game improved substantively.

The examples you show are of sprint activities that are fast twitch driven. It is not at all surprising that those guys are good at those things.

Try and get those guys to cross-country ski 10 kilometers at competitive speeds and then hit 5 targets with a rifle. Those bodies, while perfectly suited for the athletic activities they have trained for, would be useless at biathlon. It's a different kind of activity that is all about your slow twitch muscles.

People with large percentages of fast twitch fibers, like your examples, will never and can never be good at endurance activities. And those long distance runners can lift weights all they want and they don't get much bigger. Because the fibers that grow in response to weight training are fast twitch fibers and long distance runners don't have many.
8 weeks ago
8 weeks ago Link To Comment
"People with large percentages of fast twitch fibers, like your examples, will never and can never be good at endurance activities."

Oh, really? The competition I referenced included a 1/2 marathon row. The winner of that event took 2nd overall.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3Jzw5zK6DMA

In 2012, the competition included a triathlon.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nTF3oTlZysE

It's entirely possible to be strong AND well rounded. You just have to train properly.
8 weeks ago
8 weeks ago Link To Comment
Fustian labors under an incomplete grasp of the relevant muscle physiology.
8 weeks ago
8 weeks ago Link To Comment
That may well be, but I have a lifetime of playing competitive tennis and I have never seen a competitive tennis player with a body type like yours.

Yet I have no doubt at all that you are significantly "stronger".

It seems pretty clear to me that different sports require different types of training and that training to be a powerlifter, while great for that sport, is not so useful for distance running, biathlon, or tennis.

I should say that I have not had the opportunity to read any of your stuff besides this article, and maybe I'm just not understanding your position here.
8 weeks ago
8 weeks ago Link To Comment
There are quite a few things here that you fail to understand. The way powerlifters train, for example, and the differences between that (which I do not advocate and which was not mentioned in the article, but which may be more enjoyable to refute) and the type of productive strength training that all athletes, including tennis players, should do to become better athletes.
8 weeks ago
8 weeks ago Link To Comment
No doubt there are many things here that I do not understand, and I very much apologize if I have misrepresented your position.

While I'm pretty old now, I have been a competitive tennis player all my life and a pet peeve has been watching people use weight training to screw up their tennis games.

So.

Let me ask what strength training you recommend for tennis players?

I have always assumed that the precision required by tennis forces players to try to play smoothly so that they stay within their slow twitch motor units. Once you recruit the larger fast twitch motor units you lose the control necessary for consistent play. It's why you never just "hit it as hard as you can". Same is true in golf.

If this is true (and I don't know that it is), it would explain why excessive training of fast twitch motor units would be problematic and why my strongest friends are uniformly not that great at tennis.

I recognize this is not my area, and I would appreciate any insight into this problem you can give me. I've been trying to understand what I have observed and experienced for a long time. I'm genuinely interested.
8 weeks ago
8 weeks ago Link To Comment
You don't understand the physiology of the spectrum of fiber types and their relationship to performance, because you keep repeating things that are just not correct, like the "Once you recruit the larger fast twitch motor units you lose the control necessary for consistent play" thing. A board post is not going to clarify this for you. If you are genuinely interested, you need to read some hard physiology, and Brooks and Fahey would be the best place to start.
8 weeks ago
8 weeks ago Link To Comment
At this time I'm not $150 interested, but thanks for the recommendation anyway.
8 weeks ago
8 weeks ago Link To Comment
Perhaps my books are more within your price range, since they are not graduate textbooks. But they can help you understand this material if you're $25 interested instead of $150.
8 weeks ago
8 weeks ago Link To Comment
I am given to understand that my lack of knowledge around the subject of physiology is so complete that I doubt I have the background to benefit from your book at this time.

But thanks for the recommendation!
8 weeks ago
8 weeks ago Link To Comment
To get "bulky" muscle - I hate that phrase - you have to eat like a frickin' horse. Tennis players are in very good shape and I'm assuming are very strong functionally. Outside of pitchers, MOST position players are in good shape and fairly big guys.
8 weeks ago
8 weeks ago Link To Comment
But they tend not to be "weight lifter" strong. In the case of tennis players there are two issues. The first is that it is largely an endurance sport. Lugging around engorged fast twitch muscles won't work.

The other issue is that "control" of the athletic activity is largely a function of the slow twitch muscles. Bulk up your fast twitch muscles and you can't hit the broad side of a barn.

There is more than one kind of athletic ability and they require different kinds of muscles and different training. As a general rule, tennis players do not lift heavy weights with few reps.

A pro tennis player will never win a muscle contest, nor will one of those guys be particularly good at tennis.

When was the last time you saw a big, bulky really strong guy win a marathon?

8 weeks ago
8 weeks ago Link To Comment
as a small consideration...
force=massXacceleration. force is the component that people need to seek in order to get big. there is something to said for lowering the amount of weight and improving the speed component, on occassion. beyond just training muscles, you are training a reflex action. much easier to find that reflex with speed and more reps.
8 weeks ago
8 weeks ago Link To Comment
Exactly,
If you want big muscles then high mass low speed reps are the way to go. If you want functional strength then low mass high speed reps are the way to go.
I do various functional speed drills as a distance runner outside of my actual running. For the legs it involves various range of motion, skipping and plyometrics using by body as the weight. They are all done at or faster than my turnover rate for racing. I don't have massive muscles but I am functionally very strong.
8 weeks ago
8 weeks ago Link To Comment
I'm with you. for me, the only test of strength I can legitimately perform is against myself. a guy with a 5 foot wingspan is almost always going to outperform the guy with the 6 foot span, on bench.

the only number I care about is calculated max output, using five or fewer reps, versus body weight. yes, you can increase your bench by gaining weight, but if your gains/increased body weight ratio is lower than your current ratio, you need to reconsider what you are doing.

imho, if you want BIG muscles, don't just make your cells bigger, get them to divide and and have that increased 'population' get bigger. would love an alternative to swimming laps for promoting upper body cell division, but for now, it will do.
8 weeks ago
8 weeks ago Link To Comment
in my mind, the ideal goals...
1 to 1 on press. 1.5 to 1 on bench. 2 to 1 squat. 3 to 1 dealift.

not a final destination, but I know if I get there, I won't have problems pushing past it. at these numbers, it is just a matter of how much I want to eat.
8 weeks ago
8 weeks ago Link To Comment
Mark,

Your book doesn't seem to mention dumbbells anywhere, and they're not in the index. Any reason you don't use them?
8 weeks ago
8 weeks ago Link To Comment
That's because the book is Basic Barbell Training. It's about barbells. I use dumbbells occasionally.
8 weeks ago
8 weeks ago Link To Comment
have your book. it is awesome.
8 weeks ago
8 weeks ago Link To Comment
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