Useful strength, what is it? It’s nice to be strong in the gym or at an exercise class, but are you strong in real life? Sometimes we forget that the whole reason we are training in a gym or exercise class is to make us strong and capable to do real things at work or at home, or in emergencies. Attending to pain and injuries is a big part of it. In fact for many people the best way to get stronger is to heal their injuries and restore function. That will let their natural, inherent strength express itself.
Today I noticed the big tent that my wife and son set up in our back yard has it’s lines anchored with huge hunks of iron that I got from one of my students who owns a foundry. One of these hunks weighs 115 pounds. My wife moved it by herself over 20 feet. Another chunk weighs 80 pounds. She never asked for help and she never mentioned the Herculean task. That is because for her it was not difficult. My 8 year old son also did not mention it because he is used to being around strong women. Not only my wife, but also my students and athletes.
Another time my wife found a broken cement bird bath some workers had dug up in our lower yard. She decided to make it into an aquarium for some frog eggs my son had found. She carried it up our long steep driveway wearing sandals and one of her fancy Skin Wars dresses, without breaking a sweat. I estimate it weighed about 90 pounds. No fuss. She did not have to wait for me to come home. She just did it.
This is what a number of my teachers and colleagues call “useful strength.” Enough strength to be useful. Does a person need to be as strong as my wife to be useful? No, but there is an amount of strength that gets you there, and lack of strength certainly limits your usefulness.
Last Sunday my wife and son and I went way out into the mountains to help some friends prepare their house for sale. It was all hard work. My task was especially brutal; digging out a huge old tree stump. Here is the great thing about living strong, resilient and injury free. I saw the stump and smiled. No doubts or feelings of dread. No wondering if my fragile back or my knees or my shoulders would be destroyed. No worrying if I would be sore the next day, or the next week!
I knew I was the obvious person for that task, even at age 56. A group of young men had spent a day scratching at the stump and had filled half a wheelbarrow full of dirt, and exposed a few roots. In 5 hours I filled three wheel barrows, cut the biggest roots through and dug a trench a person can stand in knee deep around the stump. A tractor with a heavy chain could not pull the stump out yet, but the task is downhill from here. I brought it to the appearance of possibility. Nobody is looking at the stump with dread anymore.
An advanced student of mine recently found his family and his house nearly buried under many feet of snow in the Western Sierras. All alone with his 4 year old son and very pregnant wife, he kept the road open as it were, by long sessions of shoveling by hand. There were several storms of several feet of snow over a week’s time. We all know plenty of people who can barely handle 5 minutes of snow shoveling, and often the person is laid up for days or weeks afterward with pain. Maybe that is you. My student felt barely a tingle of muscle soreness and was able to handle the workload of each storm with plenty of energy and no pain.
This student is an ex pro volleyball player with a small collection of injuries from that sport. None of these injuries re-surfaced during those days of brutal labor. He did say to himself about 3 hours into the first shoveling session, “I sure am glad I’m strong!” This thought occurred to him many times during that long week of storms.
This is how we should live our lives. Here is some good news; the right kind of physical practice gets you there. This is what we do at Form is Function. We have taken people who could barely move, who were in pain and fear all the time, and got them to where they have forgotten about their old injuries. We all deserve that chance.
We all know people whose accomplishments in the gym or exercise studio are impressive indeed, and yet those accomplishments often have no correlation with real world strength or ability. Maybe that is you. At FIF we do not get distracted by meaningless “gym strength” that does no good in real life. We are only satisfied by real world results.