Fluid Strength – An argument for a new ‘Special Strength’
If Powerlifting is Pantera, then Fluid Strength is Queen.
Now that I have lost the 50% of you who hate my music taste, we can talk about strength training and sports performance. ‘Fluid Strength’ may seem like a soft title for strength training but in the world of sports performance, it is the new gold standard.
In coining this term I am attempting to explain a thought that has been jumbled in my head for the past 5 years. The thought is: Success in the squat, bench, and deadlift is inconsequential to preparing athletes. It isn’t even the clean or snatches that make them good. What is consequential is their movement prowess, ability to tolerate load in dynamic positions, and of course (first and foremost) superb sport-specific skills.
General strength is important, (There I said it, and can now be validated as a strength coach.) but it is not the overarching goal. Every strength coach has been through the phase of questioning strength. “Why aren’t the best guys in the weight room the best on-field?” “Is it really beneficial to push from a 500lb squat to a 600lb squat?” or “I need to get as strong as I can because I am a strength coach.” Whether that questioning was 12 years ago, or last semester, this article can help guide the field a bit more forward on the front of “How strong is strong enough?”
I know, the exercise science nerds will give me a bodyweight to 1 rep max ratio for the terms “strong enough.” I know that because that exercise science nerd is me. Still, I don’t quite buy into the idea of quantifying strength in this one specific technical model. I don’t need my athletes to be strong enough under a barbell, I need them to be strong enough to perform.
This is where the concept of special strengths comes into play. The easiest definition of special strength I could find was from the Juggernaut Training Systems article “Special Strength: Theory and Practice. The definition is simply “strength you can apply in your sport.” While we as humans, scientists, objective coaches, and evidence-based practitioners like to chop strength into these ratios and 1RMs, sports performance is simply not like this. Performance on the field does use these biomechanics and physiological capacities but they are not the focus. The focus is on technical skill, cognitive speed, and mastery of using what you have.
My background and foreground are in wrestling and combat sports. There has never been a better example of special strengths than with wrestlers. Bring a team of wrestlers into the weight room, and more likely than not form is horrific, and strength numbers are weak: Let a wrestler grab your wrist and *eff the numbers, that guy is strong. Wrestlers and many other dedicated athletes spend years finding out how to maximize their physical potential through sporting technique and movements. Therefore the gold standard for strength coaches must switch from “getting guys strong!” to “getting guys better at applying their strength to their sport.”
Growing from the strong enough conundrum above, as a coach, I went through a giant biomechanics paradox as well. We teach such clean rigid movement and biomechanics form in the weight room, but when wrestlers perform they break all of those rules. Not one mat return or reverse body lift happens with a neutral spine. So what am I teaching in the weight room, essentially I am wasting time teaching wrestlers to be powerlifters, rather than actually supporting their sports performance? Compound lifts should be the vehicle to sustainable strength and movement competency, not the goal.
[Side note: Cross-training in powerlifting and wrestling sounds awesome, and I am sure there is a benefit to this cross-training, however, it is not the best we can do. Similarly, a common shortfall in strength coaching is seeing this biomechanics paradox in sport and then scrapping all rigid techniques in the weight room. This is not the best we can do either. ]
So if I do not want to waste my time what is a better goal (principle) to train for, and how should I do that (method). The principle is fluid strength, which is a special strength that describes maintaining technical positions and being adaptable enough to portray strength as needed. Athletes do train this within their sport and a few examples include linemen fighting for leverage, the whole sport of wrestling, rugby players in a scrum, and of course grappling and cage wresting within MMA.
We should also be emphasizing this quality in our strength and conditioning sessions. Human vs. Human events seem to draw this out the best but resisted mobility exercises, isomeric holds in varying positions, and specific preparatory exercises. The movements will always vary based on context and sport, but I as well as Verkoshansky, and Bondrachuk will argue that this special strength is the ultimate priority in physical preparation.
[There is certainly a time and place for exclusively getting strong, or implementing compound lifts. My argument is not for their removal, but for doing them smarter and within a better system that prioritizes health and performance over the grind and heavy totals.]
Fluid strength is one way that I see sports movements like wrestlers “breaking biomechanical rules” complimenting strength training values. Moving from position to position bracing, adapting, and expressing strength to hold position or overwhelm your opponent is key. This strength quality expresses itself best in seemingly unorthodox exercises.
I have a few go to exercises to elicit this Fluid strength. That being said Landmines, Kettlebells, Heavy Sandbags, and Maces seem to be great implements to train this quality. One exercise I have used fairly regularly is offset suitcase deadlifts, where the athlete must stabilize uneven loads and perform with unsteady parameters. Two Upper body exercises that can be employed are Single Arm Dead bug Floor Press, and Wrestling Stance Banded Rows. These are only the tip of the iceberg in demonstrating Fluid Strength.
Similarly, we talked with Bo Sandoval on the Building a Fighter Podcast and he explained this concept as “Odd Strength” with heavy (1.5 to 2x bodyweight) kettlebell back squats. Turkish Get Ups and a plethora of other exercises can fit into this category.
Fluid strength gives the athlete the movement vocabulary to be strong regardless of the position that they find themselves in. It also offers resilience to many awkward positions and uneven loading which occurs primarily in sport. For these reasons and the whole argument above, Fluid Strength needs to become a new component in GPP, wellness, and even in camp preparation as MMA athletes make their approach into a fight.