Physical Alchemy: Basic Strength Training
 Dave Wardman

People utilize many different strength training methods for a lot of different reasons and goals.  This article is mainly concerned with how Basic Strength Training is used within the Physical Alchemy method.  This is a general ‘strategic’ outline, it will not be concerned with specifics in terms of programming parameters and such details (that will be later). 

Strength training is a strong (somatic) medicine for our bodily un-aware culture. Not many people view it as such, but my observation and research over the passed decade and a bit (the last 7 years in particular) have lead me to view this as being very much the case.   It is more than just ‘getting stronger’, ‘bulking up’ or ‘getting ripped’; and so on. 

When used well it can have a very powerfully positive effect upon the bodymind.  When abused, it can have an equally powerful, inverse effect.  The mistake is in the viewing of physical training as just ‘going to the gym/getting fit’; and as being somehow separate and unrelated to the totality of ones’ life, more generally.

Putting on muscle, getting fit or losing body fat is no problem (having an aesthetic or fitness primary objective); is often great, in fact – it is just somewhat wasteful of something that can do this (easily) and much more (physical cultivation primary objective); if you are skillful in the implementation and programming.   

Many of the common primary goals people have for their use of strength training are not primary objectives for Physical Alchemy: aesthetics; performance (in sport or physical activity and/or towards advanced strength work); fitness (general).  

[ Further see also ‘Dynamic Health‘ and ‘Demonstrating Strength vs Building Strength‘ by Steve Maxwell ]

Basic Strength Training from a Physical Cultivation perspective

Basic Strength Training in the Physical Alchemy method is largely for structural (correcting imbalances of strength, contraction coordination and activation); constitutional (using methods to improve health in preference to fitness or performance – unless there is a good reason to preference differently) and fundamental (providing the base strength levels and patterns needed to work on higher level complex movements) benefits.

Two of these categories (Structural and Constitutional) fall into health cultivation and longevity (both quality of movement and vitality into old age; and length of lifespan).  For people who are not performance based athletes, these two aspects can make up the bulk of the ‘why and what’ to train for.
The illusion that athletes (because they visually appear as fit/muscular specimens of humanity, and fit certain cultural ideals) are healthy is something that needs to be stated.  Performance passed a certain level is depleting upon the vitality of the body (except, apparently, in swimmers  – where it confers added lifespan.  That tidbit I picked up off Steve Maxwell, and it is interesting to contemplate the mechanisms behind this..) 

Fundamental strength work facilitates quality of movement learning and adaptation in chosen complex movement patterns (movement arts, martial arts, sport, games, play); as well as providing resilience/injury proofing and reducing physical demands of some activities.  This can also be explained in reverse; if you lack basic strength-awareness (generally and/or in specific key areas and patterns) your body will find a dysfunctional way to complete the movement pattern you are asking it to learn. Various injuries, dysfunction and tissue damage result. You see this all the time; it is almost the rule, rather than the exception to it (sadly). 

Using strength work in harmonious combination with the practice of complex movement patterns (movement arts), soft body skills and flexibility work is the primary goal at Physical Alchemy.  The emphasis here is on basic.  Many of the strength exercises popular at the moment have a moderate to high degree of strength-skill attached to them, and their transferability quotient is debatable (and IS debated, endlessly, across the Internet).

[*] Diminishing Returns 
This raises the concept of Diminishing Returns.  At what point does the amount of time-energy put into Basic Strength Training reach a point of diminishing returns in relation to health and skill increase in chosen complex movement patterns (i.e resources could be siphoned off into more skill training for the chosen complex movement art)?

There are many factors to this question: the individual’s constitutional and genetic-biological makeup; the training age of the person; the complex movement pattern(s) being studied; the totality of stressors (physical; mental-emotional; environmental; viral; economic; temporal; etc) effecting the bodymind; the attributes already present (where they are with strength, flexibility and agility); whether the person is emotionally dependent on physical training; and on and on. 

IF strength training is not an end in itself for the person (and it can be, which is what I would call ‘Advanced’ or ‘Specialized’ strength training); how much energy should you devote to it to maximize gains in terms of health and foundational aspects to aid other movement studies?

My answer.. you don’t need so much, if you are doing it skillfully (balancing weakness; strengthening basic patterns; programming to aid the other movement activities).  Then again, strength training is fun in and of itself – so I can see why people specialize in it (which is no problem; unless it is a problem).  Problems creep in when people try to specialize at strength work at the same time as working on multiple complex movement patterns/arts (and working a day job; and having a relationship; etc)…

Classic signs of this occurring are the symptoms of over-training manifesting in the bodymind of the trainee.  And I must say I totally understand how this occurs, and have done this myself, when I was younger.   Strength training can be really fun and rewarding – especially when you start to get how it works well (training age and skill increases); it is mood-enhancing, confidence increasing – you get the increased somatic feeling of strength (the altered body-image from training) etc.. Also, complex movement patterns are great fun… so you end up in the gym 3-5 times a week; training for martial arts or whatever is 3 nights a week (sometimes more), and nobody’s paying you to work out (unless you’re lucky!) so you need a job; etc.

The body, more or less, takes all these stress as combined.  The view that the whole of your life situation is somehow separate from your training is the downfall of many.  The Stress of Life (as Hans Selye put it) is digested whole. 

For some decent information on over-training, there is a section in Science of Sports Training on this that goes into much more detail than normal (Science of Sports Training – Thomas Kurz) – especially in regards to the differences between basedowic and addisonic overtraining; and strategies to overcome these.   I did a brief overview of these ‘yin and yang’ types of over-training HERE.

Expanding the Structural, Constitutional and Fundamental factors a bit more: 

[*]  Structural
This refers to the use of strength training methods (in combination with Soft Body Skills (Flexibility; Stretching; Deep Physical Relaxation; RollStretch; etc) within a Spatial medicine (Structural Integration/Osteopathic/Daoist fusion) approach the the structural health of the bodymind.

One of the major things I seek to do with basic strength training is balance any imbalances in the soft tissues of the body (muscles, fascia, nerves): Left-Right; Back-Front; Upper-Lower; Rotational and Spiral Patterns. 

In the Physical Alchemy method we utilize both classical-reductionist (especially Janda’s work) and more pattern-based (Anatomy Trains/Myofascial Meridian; Chinese Meridian-organ channels and a few other perspectives) anatomy in the application and theory.

Using a combination of reductionist isolation work with integrative work is a useful thing to do, IMHO.  Some muscular structures appear to perform a ‘keystone’ function and confer wide benefits upon the organism from their awakening (sensory awareness), strengthening and activation.  

There is a fair bit out now about this type of thing.. I really like(d) Tom Myers  (Anatomy Trains (KMI) & Fascial Fitness) take on this, in his Spatial Medicine concept – mentioned above (there was a great article on the old AT site, but it no longer works..alas).

Ido’s (Portal) facebook page had a great little diagram (See HERE) showing:  Isolation –> Integration –> Improvisation.  This is a great way to look at it.

This aspect concerns, not just range of movement available (and other quantitative physical measurements), but also the texture, tone-responsiveness and ‘health’ of the soft tissues of the body.

What we are after is Optimal Responsive Tonus – a myofascial (soft-tissue) matrix that has lines of tension balanced; is relaxed when at rest (reduced ‘parasitic tension’ in the body), and is neurally responsive (so that you can leap into action at any given time and from any given posture – then return to rest). 

[*] Constitutional
As I said, I utilize basic strength sessions in a Spatial Medicine way, as well as (more conventionally) for hormonal (neuro-endocrine) health; health of the fluid systems (taken generally to all fluid systems – and the prevention of stagnation in these systems – not just the heavily focused upon (and obviously important!) arterial and venous systems; but the lymph and cerebrospinal fluid too (what does strength and movement work do to the CSF, anyway?!); interactions and movements within organ-systems; lean muscle mass and the (re)-ignition of the Radical Plasticity of the body.

Training is a stress on the body. By intelligently programming our training in various ways we can (hopefully) force adaptation in a desired direction via supercompensation (if adequate food; rest; rejuvenation; etc..).  If we focus on purely numbers (making ‘x’ reps) or competition, we often lose awareness and quality for sake of quantity and ‘glory’.  Training should make the body adapt in a favorable direction in terms of health.  Performing thousands (tens of thousands..) of repetitions of faulty, low quality repetitions is giving the brain a lot a poor quality ‘neural-movement food’ to digest.

[*]  Fundamental
Many people are far too weak.  Too weak for the activities they undertake. Too weak for the activities of daily life, in some cases.  What I mean by this is they have to compensate in a posturally poor, mal-adapted way to a given movement; due to lack of strength and/or poor basic locomotion and movement patterns.

Many of these people want to go out and take on complex movement patterns that are beyond their current capacity.  This is where basic strength training comes in, and it is one of the best uses for basic strength training (and you’ll likely put on some lean muscle mass, too).

Basic Strength Training is just this; the basic strength attributes to lay the foundation for complex movement patterns (even simple movement patterns!).  It provides:

• Basic Strength and Lean Muscle Mass
• Basic Human Movement Patterns 
• Sensory-motor Basics:  Contraction (muscular) awareness; activation pattern and sequencing; basic muscle group and movement pattern awareness.  

Other common primary goals for strength training not emphasized in the Physical Alchemy method. 

[*]  Aesthetics
Whilst having this as primary outcome for training can have a certain narcissism to it, the isolation work and seeking a balanced symmetry in musculature is not without some merit (I refer here more to the golden age of bodybuilding).

As mentioned above, certain specific activation-hypertrophy-strengthening of key ‘asleep’ muscles groups can be a wonderous thing – if brought to life by re-intergration into larger, more global movement patterns.  Common spots for this are:  forearm and hand muscles; feet and foreleg; neck training; deep anterior spine muscles; glutes; and a few other areas.

Aesthetics should flow out of correct Basic Strength Training in a Physical Cultivation configuration (and a certain degree of non-attachment present in this).

[*]  Performance
Just to things clear, the Physical Alchemy method of Basic Strength Training is not about pure performance enhancement (especially competition training for sports), but is the use of strength work within a physical cultivation parameter.

Performance will definitely improve (to a point) from training to improve the Structural, Consitutional and Fundamental aspects mentioned above – but at the higher levels performance will eat in to your health.

And there is no problem with this if your passion in life is to perform at a competition level in whatever movement activity you chose (some activities being less effecting of health; some more).  We all gotta go sometime; no point living to 100 having never really lived with aliveness.

There are many examples of great people who burned quick and bright, and positively influence thousands (or millions) with their legacy (on of my favorites being Bruce Lee (of course)).  [ See Kit Laughlins blog HERE for more insights on this ]

I have a preference for certain modes of training (as do most trainers).  I will steer clear of too much ‘one true way’ methodology, in terms of ‘best’ methods.  I personally love minimalist training because it is practical, fun and has an ‘agile-lifestyle’ vibe about it.  It’s also effective for my non-elite performance physical cultivation training framework – and easy to give to people to do at home (without them spending a mint on equipment that gathers dust in the corner).  
I utilize largely exercises from the Monkey Gym Syllabus (which I helped create); the methods of Steve Maxwell; Stretch Therapy methods; physical conditioning methods from martial arts (especially Chinese and South East Asian martial arts) and various other exercises I have created.  
Exercise is a large part body-weight; with some kettle-bell lifts (especially the strength-stretch and multi-plane movements: TGU; Side press; Windmill; etc) and gymnastic holds; some clubs and band work, too.  I have nothing against other methods (barbell; strongman; etc), I just do not personally specialize in them and would rather refine what I already do.  
As I have been mentioning throughout this piece; the strength work is kept basic in Physical Alchemy, so that there is high remaining energy to work on complex movement patterns from movement arts – because these are much more fun; offer higher level benefits and are more life-enhancing in my opinion.

* Ok; so maybe the Farnese-Hercules image at the top is not ‘Basic’ strength training – but it is a great statue.