So, you are getting some good progress at the gym. Your bench press is going up, you are growing some thick biceps and you got a six pack going on. People at work are commenting on your solid gains and you are proud of your efforts. One day, the hot chick living across the road asks you if you can help her out moving the furniture in her house, she promises to buy you a few beers and you accept gladly (you’d probably accept even if she didn’t offer beer, I know I would!). You start moving furniture like He-Man and then encounter yourself with the toughest furniture to be moved: the 3-seat sofa. You try to lift it so as to “hug” and man-handle it and find that you can’t. You even have trouble merely lifting it a couple inches off the floor. Hot neighbour chick doesn’t look too impressed and gives you the promised beers, in an act of pity, while she calls some other gym guy she knows.
Game over, dude.
It turns out you don’t have transferable strength. Also known as “functional” strength or “real” strength, transferable strength is the type of strength which has a direct carryover to daily activities. While in previous articles I have talked about the importance of “specificity” (practising a skill/drill/movement/lift to get better at it), it would be nuts to be practising how to move sofas while also practising to lift heavy grocery bags and trying to get better at, say, arm wrestling. Unless you have all the time in the world, you are limited to practising and improving your strength in a gym like the rest of us mortals, and it is here that transferable strength can be developed effectively and enormously. Unfortunately, weight training programs these days focus too much on muscle-building and not enough on strength, much less transferable strength.
Transferable strength is developed by working your body in unison and using the pelvis structure as the hub of whole body strength. The pelvis acts as the meeting point of the upper and lower body and it is here where the mid-section and posterior chain muscles (lower back, glutes and hamstrings) connect. You see, the pelvis structure allow for the implementing of the most powerful and strongest movements in existence yet your average modern-day gym dude hardly uses his pelvis structure at all. By using your pelvis as the point of reference for applying whole body strength, you can lift tremendous amounts of weights and it does come as a sort of paradox that most present day weight training programs encourage pampering this area and not strengthening it.
Weight training should be regarded in a hollistic whole body manner for optimal strength development
It is thus that I have come up with the 5 most useful gym lifts to develop transferable strength which will be very helpful in your daily life and will get you out of the worst of scenarios requiring the use of whole body strength (think from having to defend yourself in a bar fight to carrying heavy luggage to winning spontaneous arm-wrestling matches while downing tequila shots like it is business). The beauty of these 5 exercises is that you do not need anything else other than a barbell/dumbbell and enough plates to go ahead, so anyone with access to a decent gym can improve their transferable strength and, by default, their ability to perform physically in daily life.
The power clean
This exercise is the most effective lift to build explosiveness and power. It has been a standard athletic-testing exercise for decades and has been used plenty in training programs for sports that call on strength and athletic prowess such as football, rugby or hockey. I have dedicated an entire article to the power clean but, in a nutsell, the exercise has you lifting the barbell from the floor to your shoulders in one explosive motion. I have personally found this lift to have immense carryover to my daily life and everyone I have coached this lift to has also found great benefit (from athletes to general gym-goers).
You want to be lifting 1.25x of your body weight to start reaping its transferable strength carryover. So, if you weight 200lbs, you want to be power cleaning 250lbs before you see a notable benefit. Once you start power cleaning 1.5x bodyweight and more, you will become a beast best not be messed around with. If you apply my tutorial fully and dedicate your efforts to it, you can be power cleaning 1.25x bodyweight in a year’s time. So don’t waste time and get on with it.
Lastly, your grip should not be your weakest link with the power clean, and, if you find your grip actually limiting how much you can pull off the floow in the power clean, then read these 3 hand grip exercises to build a strong grip.
The Clean & Press
This lift was once part of the Olympic weightlifting exercise schedule. Up until the 60’s, everyone would clean & press barbells and dumbbells whether they were Olympic weightlifters, bodybuilders or fitness enthusiasts. The lift got lost in obscurity due to the increased popularity of the bench press in the 70’s and it is rare nowadays to see anyone doing a proper Clean & Press. The lift mimicks the motion of putting a weight from the floor to overhead with the arms fully extended and places great emphasis on mid-section, shoulder and back strength to succeed in doing it. Think about it, back in the day when we lived in caves and had to run away from predators or enemies, one of the options to escaping was by climbing or lifting oneself to higher heights. While you, as a healthy and fit caveman, could do so easily, your children and the mother of your children weren’t as capable as yourself. Our manly ancestors would have to lift overhead their offsprings to allow them to escape danger and they would need a conditioned mid-section to do so. Moreover, carrying food/items would also require constant moving things overhead so there is a reason why the pelvic structure is biologically programmed to have the strongest muscles in the body attaching to it.
With the Clean & Press, you power clean the barbell to your shoulders and then press the barbell overhead without jerking/using your legs. You want to be doing this lift with a minimum of 0.75x body weight before you start noticing transferable strength. Ideally you want to shoot for clean & pressing your body weight, while 1.25x and more is considered a feat of strength.
The deadlift is a raw display of strength. It calls upon the lower back, upper back, thighs and glutes (posterior chain muscles) and is a lift which can be overloaded with plenty of weight. The deadlift is a shortened version of the power clean in that the weight is only lifted as high as one can stand erect with. The barbell is grabbed as in a power clean but instead of taking it to your shoulders, you simply stand up with the weight hanging from your arms.
Starting position for the deadlift
Finishing position for the deadlift
With the deadlift, you want to be doing 2x body weight before you start seeing any benefits in transferable strength. Ideally, you want to be doing 2.5x or more, with 3x bodyweight being a strong number which should be sought after by those wanting to have great transferable strength.
The one arm snatch (dumbbell)
This lift will call upon those very useful hip thrusting muscles (which are very useful for bedroom activities, by the way!) and will instill on you a sense of whole body power. Snatching, for the record, refers to taking a barbell from the floor to overhead in one motion and a classic example is the Olympic snatch which is performed with two hands and a barbell. However, due to the complexity of the Olympic snatch and the fact that most gyms don’t allow you to do it, I recommend the one arm dumbbell snatch as a great alternative to developing whole body power.
Grab a dumbell placed on the floor with one hand and set up as you’d do for the power clean. Now explode up, again like in a power clean, but this time you want to take the dumbbell all the way overhead in one smooth motion. Lower the dumbbell to the floor and do the other hand.
Take the dumbbell from the floor to overhead in one single fluid motion
With the one arm dumbbell snatch you’d want to be doing 0.5x body weight to start digging into your transferable strength (you must do both hands to avoid developing imbalances). The goal of snatching 0.75x body weight is one to aim for as by then you will be able to pretty much swing overhead any daily objects!
The Turkish get up
This exercise is a lost treasure of strength that was used primarily by strongmen and wrestlers in the early decades of the 20th century. It is a lift that requires you to stand up with a dumbbell overhead… starting from the floor! You lay flat on the floor, face up, with the dumbbell pressed out with one arm and now all you have to do is stand up with the dumbbell held overhead at all times. The exercise is a killer for the mid-section and will teach you a new definition for coordination. To be able to handle heavy weights in this exercise, you need a very strong abdominal wall and lower back as well as solid shoulders, glutes and thighs. The lift is done with one arm and then the other arm follows, it is not done to target one arm only.
You should aim for 0.5x body weight to start seeing strong gains in transferable strength, while 0.75x body weight should be a number to shoot for in the long term. If you feel brave enough, working towards doing a Turkish get up with the same weight as your body weight will give you strength to spare in just about any requirements in your life.
The lift can also be done with a barbell or a kettlebell. Kettlebells are easier to do than dumbbells while barbells are more difficult. I can normally do about 10-15lbs more with a kettlebell than a dumbbell, whereas I can do 10-15lbs less with a barbell than a dumbbell.
These 5 lifts should be routinely done to achieve transferable strength. They are tough exercises and they need to be eased into as otherwise you can injure yourself. You should not use any lifting belts nor thick wraps (other than warming up ones) and you should always perform the exercises in a controlled manner. If you wish to start doing the lifts, give yourself a month to break into them, practicing technique with light weights until you feel confident to do the lifts with heavier weights. Moreover, at any given time, you want to have at least one of these exercises in your weight training program and you can even have the 5 of them in a same training program. In fact, your weight training program could solely consist of these 5 exercises and you would become a true illustration of transferable and real strength in no time; ready to move sofas, wrestle bears or carry grocery bags loaded with a year’s food budget.
That is it. Do the aforementioned 5 exercises and get ready to unleash your transferable strength!
All the best,