Coach Caleb’s Corner – Strength is a Skill


Coach Caleb’s Corner

Strength is a Skill

Strength is a skill.  Skills take practice.  Practice is training.  At Breakthrough Strength & Fitness we don’t do “workouts.”  We practice our skills; we train!

If you’ve visited the gym this week, you probably noticed that Kati wrote this little reminder of some of our guiding principles up on the board.  Why?  Well, because:

“The knowledge of some principles easily compensates for the ignorance of some facts.”

This quote by the philosopher Claude Helvetius was used in the late Professor Yuri Verkhoshansky’s last book.  The Professor’s work has been a great source of inspiration for much of the StrongFirst training methodology.  By adhering to a set of principles, StrongFirst instructors are well known for the ability to reverse engineer the feats of strength, endurance and movement performed by elite athletes, to break them down into their component parts so that they can be effectively practiced by almost anyone.

 Last weekend, Kati and I had the privilege to work as assistant instructors at the StrongFirst Lifter barbell instructor certification in Minneapolis.  Whenever we have the opportunity to reconnect with our instructor community, we always come away reinvigorated with the latest and greatest training techniques, tips and cues from the best in the business, and are anxious to share these tricks of the trade to help our Breakthrough gym members get results.  Although we seek out new and updated information all the time, we are constantly reminded that by simply adhering to our tried and true fundamental principles, we can easily avoid taking our members on “the scenic route” to reach their goals.

With the amount of FOMO (fear of missing out) that is perpetrated by the fitness industry, you’d think you need to run obstacle course races, compete in weightlifting and train like a Navy SEAL six days a week in order to get fit and strong.  You don’t.  By practicing a few skills that carry over to a large number of athletic endeavors, we can achieve amazing things and avoid wasting hours in the gym on junk training.  I know what you’re thinking.  Spill the beans.  What are these vital few skills that can do such much to help me improve?  You might even already suspect what I’m going to say, but I’ll say it anyway; tension is strength.


The skill of squeezing a muscle harder, generating more tension, is one of the keys to getting more strength without necessarily adding any size.  A muscle capable of more intense contractions performs better, and looks good naked too!  (I say this for those of you in the “firm and tone” camp who are wondering if this applies to you.  It does!)  By squeezing energy out of different muscles and channeling it to the prime movers for an exercise, we enable greater and safer expressions of strength in our training. This is called irradiation.  The most powerful neural generators of this tension are the abdominals, gluteus and grip muscles.  We like the look of firm abs and tight butts, but they also help us generate strength for almost any exercise!

Although the abs and glutes are key players, we would be remiss if we didn’t also emphasize the role of the lats in transferring force from the torso into the arms, keeping the shoulders safe and empowering crushing strength for the grip.  Dr. Michael Hartle, Chief Instructor of the StrongFirst Lifter training program, likes to remind us to fire the “GLAG;” a funny sounding acronym for Glutes, Lats, Abs and Grip.  The better you can fire your GLAG, the better an athlete you are!  How then do we get better at firing these muscles?

“One must achieve the ability to concentrate his mind on the muscles and take them under complete control.” (Eugen Sandow, the “father of modern bodybuilding”)

Practice.  I’m talking about mentally focused athletic drills or lifts in lower rep ranges, with a perceived rate of exertion of about seven out of ten for much of our skills training.  But Coach Caleb!  How can that be hard enough work to get big results? The benefits of lower repetition, moderate intensity practice are well documented in our StrongFirst training manuals.  Soviet researchers discovered that as their weightlifters became stronger using these protocols, the same degree of tension generated by their muscles was accompanied by lower electrical activity. In other words, it took less mental effort to lift the same weight!


“Imagery enhances the activation of every available motor unit.” (Dr. Stuart McGill, the foremost authority in the world on low back pain and rehab)

Furthermore, moderately intense stimulation of nerve cells commanding the muscles (motorneurons) increases the strength of synaptic connections, and such motor activity promotes the wrapping of nerves with myelin, a neural insulator.  This reduces any “leakage” of the nerve force, turning the wiring responsible for an exercise into a “superconductor.”  So, with practice, the same level of effort can produce harder muscle contractions.  Congratulations!  You just got stronger using the science of training, and you didn’t even have to become a sweaty mess to do it.  Although some of us might love the feel of that constant burn in our training, in actual fact we’re probably just performing a lot of junk repetitions that don’t do much to improve our skills.

Remember, we’re at the gym for a practice, not a workout.  Becoming a sweaty mess will happen often enough in some practices, don’t worry, but it is secondary to the improvement of our skills. I look forward to seeing everyone at the gym again soon for our next practice!



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