Strength - A Welshwoman's Reflections in the Heart of Russia

I'm having lunch as I type this, on a clear, chilly Monday in St. Petersburg. I've just about finished working on all the requirements I have to pass before the day's out for me here at the university, and my planner's already littered with other things I'll have to take care of throughout the coming week. It's enough to make me heave, all these things that have to be done, but at least there's practice to look forward to later.

Practice. When I speak to my new Russian friends, that's the word I use in place of Workout or Training. When people ask me what I do on Monday, Wednesday and Friday evenings, that's what I say. Practice. "For what?", they ask. "For strength." There's a word you hear get thrown around a lot in these circles. But what does strength mean? Does it only pertain to physical, bodily strength? Is it a state of mind - a zone you slip into when you focus so intensely you develop a uni-brow? What does it mean to be strong?

I can push myself up on one arm very slowly and squat down on one leg all the way until my hamstrings touch my calves. Consider that strong? Perhaps, but I also know someone who can pull herself up with one arm, and with her thumb on that arm free - a tactical, one-hand pull-up. I can't do that, but she can't squat like I can. What're we to make of this then? Who's stronger, a power-lifter or a strongman?

I remember reading Dragon Door's The Naked Warrior. It defined strength as the ability to generate force under certain conditions. So it varies, making strength a skill more than anything else - something you develop, as opposed to something that occurs naturally. It is for that same reason that although I coach a friend through a progressive calisthenics program I put together for her (I received PCC certification in 2012, and RKC certification in 2013) to help her conquer her lack of self-confidence and to help her get into combat sports, I never told her that her heavier build may make things a little more difficult for her, or that genetics make up a small factor in building strength. I just kept telling her, "do this", and pushed her until she did. Not going to mention her name, but she stands at 5'2 and used to weigh 140 lbs. She could barely touch her toes when we met last January after I had just moved here from Wrexham. It's March now, and she can drop and dish out 20 perfect push-ups while staying fresh, and up to three sets of twenty ***-to-floor squats. She's only 128 lbs now. The burpees and squat thrusts must have helped. I'm thinking of introducing her to the kettle bell this summer.

Last week I borrowed the Harai Goshi from my old Judo days and used it to throw my partner over and made her tap with an arm lock, yet last Friday I almost cried after I nearly lost my scholarship over red tape. That partner of mine has trouble with ground submissions, but her cardio work is excellent, and she can breeze through sandbag training like it's nobody's business.

My point? Strength is a skill, and everyone can develop it. You just have to work. There's no quick fix to benching twice your body weight, chinning yourself up ten times on each arm, or even just learning how to step onto the mats without getting the jitters. At one of Mikhail Ryabko's seminars I attended, he said that "to do a lot of presses, you must do a lot of presses". Overly simplistic perhaps, but it's true, and very reflective of the Russian way of doing things, as opposed to the Welsh life I lived back in the UK. You want to get good at Karate? Practice and drill until you throw up. Trying to show that wooden dummy who's boss but can't because of your painful knuckles? Then spend more time with it. Strength is a skill; a pursuit. It's simple, and the key word is Progression. You must progress. You must improve.

If I define my now fitter friend as strong, then I'll also have to define strength as an attitude, and that I will do, thank you very much. It's interesting that somehow attitudes are patterned by a combination of programmed/conditioned reaction to stimuli (self-education), education, and partially genetics. The last two bits you may not be able to effect right away, but the first one's a definite avenue we can pursue. Want to learn how to keep going through the forms even though your joints and muscles are starting to ache? Or what if your joints and muscles don't even hurt, but your mind's screaming for you to stop? Don't even think about it. See that boundary you've drawn for yourself - telling yourself that that's where you end? I want you to cross it, and kick up dust over and around it. Now set a new one. Rinse, repeat.

We martial artists and athletes often like to draw lines between the definitions of things like strength, endurance, cardio, and even technique. While for convenience I also do the same, philosophically, as a student, engineer, Sambo-ist, former Judoka, as an instructor or even as a person, I blur the line. They're all things that can be learned, internalized and used to reprogram your head with - to wash out bad habits and replace them with new, healthier ones that make you a better person. I like this holistic approach to strength. It's a facet that must be learned, accompanied by an attitude and gusto that hold it up and keep it there.

When you started your journey down this Spartan road, dear reader, like everyone else on this forum and myself, you unconsciously promised yourself that you were going to work to earn the stripes and the skills. Do that, and you'll learn what strength is. As a strength&conditioning instructor, I hold you to your word. If you ever find yourself wondering why you keep going, why you started, or why you should never shortchange yourself in practice, why you should keep at it even though it seems your martial art has failed you in a scuffle you may have had, or last time's sparring didn't work out for you, remember: If I want to be strong, I have to learn to be strong. I must also progress, because even if I'm not as strong as I'd like to be now, if I progress, I'll get there eventually.

And I promise you, even if in objectivity you never arrive at that superhuman level we all fantasize about, so long as you keep practicing, honing your skills, techniques and developing your mind along with your body, you'll come pretty close. I swear on this.

Key Points:
  • Strength is a skill, and highly context-based.
  • If you want to get strong, acquire the tools, commit, and progress.
  • Strength is cyclical. If you plateau, take a step back and leap forward.
  • Strength is also an attitude. Know that strength must be backed by endurance, focus and discipline.
  • If you want to do a lot of presses, you must do a lot of presses.

Power to you, Martialtalk.

Ally, Shai Hulud
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