What comes first? Strength or Muscle?
There is a mental paradigm that exists in the fitness work, that Strength comes before muscle. Essentially meaning that to be muscular, you must strong.
This seems sensible, and I believed it myself for years. I taught exercise as a continuum of technique, then strength, then muscle.
It seemed to work okay, but it also created a lot of issues. The vast majority of clients struggle with technique, and frequently I had to regress movements because they plainly did not have the MUSCLE to do them. They lacked muscle, and what muscle they did have, they lacked coordination.
This presented a crack in the Strong first way of thinking. I’m preaching strength, but without muscle, no one is very strong.
Over a period of years, I came upon a rare “aha” moment after reading about infant development and motor development in children.
GRAVITY. Bodies have MUSCLE to move against gravity.
You cannot be strong without muscle. What people assess as “strength” is simply how much gravity we can resist.
The continuum then of technique, strength, size, it seemed a bit backwards suddenly,
I was fairly intimate with the world of powerlifting, and so often I saw lifters get severely injured, and struggle with technique. Their injuries and struggles almost always came down to a lack of MUSCLE. And simply by observation, the most muscular lifters were almost always the strongest, in any given weight class.
Additionally, whenever lifters talked about improving their technique, it almost always came down to changes in muscular coordination, and needing to improve the function of certain muscles. When they talked about technical issues, it was often about certain muscles not functioning how they should, and needing to improve how those muscles functioned and synergized with the overall movement.
No one seemed to account for this dissonance. How could it be strength preceded muscle, when in the absence of muscle strength did not exist? Why not consider technique as muscular coordination, and prioritize muscular development as the basis of strength?
And Why was I telling clients that strength came first, when in fact they all lacked strength due to having low lean body mass? No one is “strong” when they have no muscle
Additionally, so many benefits of exercise simply come from increased muscle mass. The more lean body mass you have, the healthier you are likely to be.
All this considered, I made a transition. I stopped emphasizing “strong first”, and told people “muscle first”. I didn’t say strength wasn’t important. I told them they’d get stronger as they gained more muscle.
When people struggled with the technique on compound exercises, I’d improve technique on the basis of muscular contribution. When I taught squat, bench, deadlift, I explained these movements maximized the leverage and defiance of muscle against gravity.
The result? EVERYONE got better results, and faster results. By taking a gravity and muscle first approach, human movement made far more sense to people. Now when I explain that there are foundational movements, it fits into a larger contextual picture.
Moving against gravity
Muscle is needed to move
There are foundational movements
Get muscular and practice those movements
I can explain the above on a whiteboard with stick figures and diagrams, within a few sessions people understand why its useful to break the body up into sections, why they struggle with certain activities, and getting “results” seems far more attainable. The previous standards of strength that seemed arbitrary now had some sense to them. And the definition of functional was more clear, how well can you defy gravity across these foundational movements?
Another breakthrough was the clarity it gave on “muscular balance”. No longer was this arcane, it had a clear criteria. Every kinetic chain requires contribution from each muscle in that chain. If someone struggled at a movement, what links on the chain were weak or dysfunctional=what muscles were weak and underdeveloped?
You could zoom in and take a muscle by muscle approach, and zoom out and take a movement approach. You could emphasize fission, emphasizing individual muscles, and then go fusion, emphasizing movements (credit to Amir Siddiqui for this philosophy).
This philosophy is flexible, inclusive, and it doest limit itself by adhering to any kind of strict dogma. It’s a “whole” philosophy that looks at the entire body and its relationship to the environment (gravity), and makes suggestions on the basis of that relationship.