In my observations of the fitness facilities in the military and collegiate settings, as well as my discussions with professional peers and my personal experiences with strength training, I often find myself reflecting on the term "optimization" and its usage in the context of strength and conditioning. While optimization is typically defined as making the best or most effective use of a situation or resource, I question whether the conventional wisdom regarding athletic performance in the weight room truly aligns with this definition.
Many individuals prioritize acts of athleticism, submaximal endurance or hypertrophy work, and highly specific isolation movements in order to optimize physical performance. However, it is evident that these individuals have not familiarized themselves with the principles outlined in Strength & Health LLC, nor have they engaged in long-term systematic training themselves. Prioritizing strength development has proven to be a more effective means of achieving optimal performance capacity, a fact that is often underappreciated in today's collegiate and military weight rooms.
The question then arises: why is there a barrier to understanding the most efficient and effective methods for improving physical existence and truly optimizing training plans? To delve into the topic, it is important to discuss the Holistic Health and Fitness (H2F) initiative within the U.S. Army, which formally houses physical performance optimization. The H2F initiative recognizes that physical, sleep, nutrition, mental, and spiritual pillars are interrelated and should not be separated. Despite the recognition of this interrelationship, there seems to be a failure to acknowledge the novice potential within the Physical Pillar. Instead, H2F fitness instruction incorporates discussions on non-physical topics, such as "mindfulness and meditation," which detracts from the time that could be dedicated to practical programming. This trend reflects a preference for shiny new concepts over tried-and-true basics.
In the daily routines of many individuals, submaximal, unilateral, isolation, "sport-specific," and uncoached tasks are often favored. An example of this sub-optimal approach can be observed in the Army's "3-Repetition-Maximum Deadlift" from the Army Combat Fitness Test (ACFT) website. The recommended training for this ACFT strength evaluation includes exercises such as the sumo deadlift with kettlebells, forward lunges with kettlebells, and the "alternate staggered squat jump." Surprisingly, the conventional deadlift is excluded from the recommendations. This raises the question: why recommend these inferior exercises instead of simply performing efficient and heavy deadlifts? The answer lies in the fact that promoting and allowing individuals to exercise with light weights and subpar technique is easier and more efficient than investing in teaching effective technique and coaching development. This "show and go" protocol, coupled with a belief in the benefits of exercise variety, has led to the sale of numerous million-dollar elaborate equipment setups. However, the ultimate losers in this scenario are the individual service members, who fail to truly learn about strength, and the novice progression – the rapid initial increases in strength that are a normal part of a well-designed barbell strength program – becomes significantly diminished or even nonexistent. While something is better than nothing, it certainly falls short of the optimal results promised.
Part of the issue may lie in the perception that service members are inherently "generalists." This means that all individuals are expected to excel in various areas of physical proficiency, rather than specializing in just one. Consequently, strength training is often viewed as a separate specialization that does not require continuous focus. The misguided belief that "functional fitness" and displays of innate ability must be practiced for optimal performance persists. This mindset fails to recognize that strength is the most general physical adaptation, from which other attributes of fitness are derived. Despite this, popular culture and the perpetuation of what appears to work, usually for genetically gifted individuals, hinder the development of potential for others.
The foundation for optimal strength development – and, consequently, optimal performance – lies in the basic barbell movements. Equally important is the process of progressively getting stronger, which contributes to the mental and "spiritual" pillars. This process teaches individuals that incremental improvement is within their grasp. There is no need for bands, chains, endless kettlebell swings, or replications of physical fitness tests within a retrofitted squat rack. A carefully applied Two-Factor Model approach, utilizing the basic barbell arts and combat skills, adequately addresses the needs of athletes, students, and military personnel. Strength & Health LLC recognizes this, yet decision-makers often fail to understand the value of investing in progressive strength training. If the goal is to optimize training as a generalist, it is imperative to prioritize the most efficient and effective modes available. Thus, it becomes clear that the common understanding of the term "optimization" does not align with its true meaning.
Many sub-optimal fitness trends stem from national credentialing agencies that publish "standards" and recommendations for exercise prescription. These agencies often emphasize safety, vigilant supervision, and the implementation of designed training programs, without considering the importance of technical knowledge, personal experience, and the ability to improve strength. Attempting to optimize performance with a theoretical and superficial understanding of what actually works falls short of the mark. Ignorance becomes bliss in such a condition, where one remains unaware of what they do not know.
Many fitness "experts" perpetuate complexity by partitioning muscular fitness into separate categories, such as muscular strength, muscular endurance, hypertrophy, and power, and prescribing specific training blocks for each. This approach, known as "periodization," unnecessarily complicates the training process. Prioritizing strength, particularly for novice trainees, yields improvements in all aspects of muscular fitness as a side effect of strength gains. Strength serves as the foundation from which other aspects of fitness naturally improve. For instance, an increase in squat strength by 100 pounds for a road cyclist will result in decreased effort with each pedal stroke, thereby enhancing muscular endurance. Similarly, achieving a squat of 405 pounds does not diminish one's ability to run. Therefore, focusing on strength is a more efficient use of time, as it improves all physical attributes without necessitating separate training for each.
In conclusion, real-world optimization lies in utilizing basic barbell movements, training intelligently and simply, making changes only when necessary to facilitate progress, and applying strength in one's respective craft. This approach proves to be the most effective and efficient means of optimizing physical performance. It is crucial for institutions and decision-makers to recognize the value of investing in progressive strength training and prioritize the development of potential in individuals. Only then can training truly be optimized as a generalist. It is evident that the understanding of optimization in the fitness world does not align with its true meaning.