How strong is strong enough?
The beauty of this question is that there is no universally correct answer. Your answer is entirely up to you.
Obviously, the answer is “as strong as humanly possible” for athletes competing in power lifting, Olympic lifting, and Strongman, and similar sports. The rest of us must weigh our answer and pursuit of PRs against many other worthy goals.
Avoid Heavy-Handed Focus
At face value, I want every single person that I encounter in the gym to get stronger (and I fully support them wanting this for themselves). However, there comes a point when pushing your strength training above all else will bring more detriment than good. Any pursuit, in fitness as in life, prioritized to exclusion or near exclusion will detract for other things. Single-minded, heavy-handed focus on strength development can not only cause you to develop imbalances and injuries, but it can also keep you from the work that might find and remedy them.
Most of us love the way that we train, otherwise we would not stick with it long-term. Perhaps your hobby is to be strong and get stronger. I would never to recommend discontinuing doing what you love, but understand that if you train like a competitive athlete or lifter you are bound to develop the myriad maladies that typically arise for them. Remember, the goal of sport is victory, not a holistically healthy existence into your golden years. Bigger-faster-stronger is not a sustainable life plan.
Stick to Your Guns
Ask yourself: What were your priorities when you walked into the gym for the first time?
Do these aims still define your journey or have you shifted focus?
There is no right or wrong reason to train. Most athletes enter the gym with goals such as:
- Lose weight and gain strength
- Develop a more capable body and a healthier lifestyle
- Feel better, look better, be better
I find that as they assimilate into the gym culture many athletes come to redefine many of their original goals. They come to evaluate their progress (and satisfaction with it) by things that they cared not for when they first came through the door.
This trend has a positive twist as coaches and more experienced athletes can help newer athletes refine their goals, value healthier changes than those they had hoped for, and temper potentially unrealistic expectations. But, this trend can also breed discontent if the gym culture completely co-opts an athlete’s goals for favor of its inbound value system.
Far too many athletes lose sight of their original goals and come to worship the number on the bar, their score on the board, or many other external measures of progress. These external markers present a simple and quantifiable tool to measure progress. If I add 10kg to a particular lift, I know I am stronger. Measuring progress like this though, is the easy way out. Over-prioritizing the number on the bar can give you tunnel vision, completely eliminating your focus on other (and more important) goals such as: how you feel, how you are moving, and how you are progressing toward your individual goals.
So, in a world steeped in the belief that stronger is always better, I again pose my question: How strong is strong enough?
Find Your Answer
I bet that when you first entered the gym your answer to this question did not include any specific numbers or lifts. Maybe you wanted to be able to lift your kids or grandkids. Maybe you wanted to be able to complete a 5k, 10k, or adventure race. Maybe you simply wanted to feel overall stronger in your daily life. Are you still measuring your progress by these original goals? Or have your replaced your goals with more quantifiable but less meaningful ones? Ask yourself what it would take to feel satisfied with your progress.
Continuing to pursue specific lifts or PRs will always bring a certain kind of progress. However, continually bashing your head against the inevitable ceiling of diminishing returns wastes energy and will-power best spent on other pursuits.
Pavel Tsatsouline classically recommends that a double-bodyweight back squat is plenty strong, and once achieved your efforts are best spent developing other aspects. I leave it even less prescriptive than that. We will all define our own answers to this question. Simply asking yourself “How strong is strong enough?” brings an awareness to your training that most athletes will never reach.
No matter what insights you arrive at, questioning the direction that you are so steadily marching will always make you a more focused, holistically-minded, and self-reliant athlete.