General Strength Versus Maximal Strength

by Robert Maxwell

Recently I decided to enter my first powerlifting competition. It's a small meet happening sometime in Spring in the city of North Bay, Ontario. A friend of mine suggested it, and although it took a while, the idea of joining a strength competition has grown on me. If you're not exactly sure what powerlifting involves, it's a contest of three barbell lifts: the squat, bench press and deadlift. The idea is to lift as much weight as possible in all three for a single repetition. The decision to compete has given me new focus and drive to train harder than ever before, and become the strongest I've ever been. I realize competing isn't for everyone, even among us weight lifting enthusiasts. There are a many reasons for this, some of which I'll be discussing in this article. I believe there's an important line to be drawn between training for general strength and health, and training to be the very strongest you can be in a few select movements. That line is what I'll be drawing here, in the form of the following points. Lest any of my powerlifting readers get mad at me, I'm not trying to say one type of training is better than the other. I'm simply pointing out important things to consider for anyone who picks up a loaded barbell regularly.


General Strength Training is Healthier

High performance powerlifters are experts at their sport, and know more about the technique and execution of the major barbell lifts than most average joes ever will. Despite this wealth of knowledge on the safe and smart use of barbells and weight plates, most powerlifters I know are first to admit that if you can't stand the idea of injury, you shouldn't get serious about the sport. Well known strength coach and author Mark Rippetoe has said that as a serious and dedicated lifter, "it's not if you get hurt – it's when." If you've been reading this website for long, you might be confused. "Aren't you the guy who's constantly preaching barbell training as a way to avoid injury? Now you're saying  it causes it?" Not exactly. What I'm saying is that if you spend many years training very hard with the goal of becoming as strong as your genetics allow, you will have to deal with injury. It's just part of the deal. Even if you're doing everything right, there's only so long you can push your body past its limits before something goes pop. As long as you're smart about it, you can train around many injuries. If you do have one serious enough to partially or fully prevent training for a while, you'll recover and come back eventually, as long as your love for strength runs deep enough. Getting hurt is as inevitable for those who want to reach their personal strength summit as a bit of frostbite is for mountaineers who attempt to scale Everest. General strength trainees, on the other hand, can safely worry far less about getting hurt lifting, as long as they've been coached on correct and safe technique, and don't attempt to lift weights they can't handle. Simply training for strength isn't about lifting the most weight possible. It's about staving off weakness, unnecessary injury, and premature death.


Maximal Strength Training is More Exciting

Speaking from personal experience, once you've been bitten and bitten hard by the iron bug, it's very difficult to remain satisfied with the strength levels you've achieved. Setting new strength goals satiates you for a while, as you train hard to reach them. But once they're behind you, the new numbers representing your ability to resist gravity quickly lose their lustre, and you begin fantasizing about the next milestone, then the next. This is how elite powerlifters get so strong, and the journey from goal to goal can be terribly exciting and addicting. There's nothing quite like the feeling of hitting a personal record on the squat, bench or deadlift, moving an amount of weight that would make non-lifters shake their heads and grimace if they saw you. Training for general strength doesn't usually have this kind of excitement. The reason boils down to passion. Most powerlifters begin as regular gym lifters interested in strength. Eventually they realize this isn't enough anymore, so they take their training to the next level, and somehow or other, the idea of competing is born. If your only reason for picking up a barbell is health and not getting put in a home when you're old due to weak bones and frequent falls, chances are you don't have the kind of passion for strength and lifting needed to constantly push yourself and unlock your body's true potential. This is fine. Powerlifting certainly isn't for everyone. Just know that your training likely won't be very exciting if you don't find the idea of strength exciting.



That's it. Two main ideas. Training for maximal strength is exciting and fulfilling, but very hard on the body. The reality is that while humans are meant to be strong, we're not really designed to make expanding our strength to its genetic limits a lifelong pursuit. Yet for us who love strength, giving up this sort of training is like giving up breathing. We couldn't do it and have our happiness remain intact. I know I couldn't. On the other hand, the vast majority of average gym goers aren't interested in maximizing gains. Most of you reading this probably fall into this category. If you train at all, you do it for reasons of health and quality of life. Good on you. You're doing something constructive for your body and mind, which is more than many folks can say. You're lifting reasonable weights and keeping weakness at bay. This is extremely beneficial. For powerlifters, the trick is staying healthy despite the huge strain we're placing on our bodies through our sport. Nothing wrong with this, either, as long as it's done intelligently. General training is a life enhancement. Maximal training is a passion-fueled sacrifice. Think carefully about which journey is for you.


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