Learn the subtle difference between skill vs. strength training. Almost everyone is doing skill training - not proper strength training!
Skill vs. strength training is one of the biggest misconceptions in the mainstream fitness. This includes the general fitness, powerlifting and many who are into bodyweight fitness.
The big misunderstanding is not knowing the difference between these two because it’s far from obvious to anyone.
Only some top level strength coaches and very few fitness experts understand the difference. For us this was one of the hardest things to realize.
When people are trying to lift heavy or when they are focused on performing a bodyweight skill, they are primarily developing skill rather than actual strength.
This article aims to explain the difference as clear as possible. Once you understand the difference, your whole training may change from ego-lifting to real-lifting.
For example, focusing on heavy chin ups or heavy bench press is skill work. A lot of the handstand training and practicing different movement skills such as one arm chin ups, levers and other skills are skill work. Not strength training.
Even easier exercises such as push ups can be considered skill work if you are focusing primarily on repetitions and not the quality of your every single repetition.
Examples of skill training:
People generally think that their skill training is strength training. The confusion comes from the fact that many of these movements require strength and they will build strength - but strength is built only as a side product.
The number 1 thing you will get from prioritizing externalities such as weight, repetitions or the hardest progression, is the skill itself. This is why the crossover to other activities is poor because real strength isn't built properly.
When you are trying to lift the heaviest you can lift (or close), you are mainly learning how to use your body mechanics to lift the heaviest you can lift. You are primarily learning how to lift, not how to develop the body.
The same goes for the different movements skills: when you are practicing handstand push ups, you are practicing how to manipulate your center of mass among many other things.
What is the problem with skill training if it does build strength - you will get both right?
Kind of. Skill training comes at a great cost if it is your priority and it is for a lot of people. Not many has the concept of proper strength training.
Obviously skill training produces results: there are countless people who build their bodies through skill training.
The thing is that it does work well in the beginning but soon it becomes just maintenance or downhill from there.
People get great results for the first 1-3 years and then they will hit a wall. They start talking about hitting their “natural limit” when in reality half of their bodies are still undeveloped (they just don't know it).
They keep doing what they have been doing and their progress is small or nonexistent. They try to break through the plateau with different intensity and volume tactics without realizing that the training quality is the problem.
Soon chronic joint pain starts to appear (if it hasn't already appeared) which doesn't go away. The person still continues to do the same patterns with slight changes while hoping for different results.
For the next years they will either make bad progress or no progress at all. As a result, many people get discouraged and either quit altogether or move onto something else. There are exceptions to the rule but the exceptions don't make the rule.
With proper strength training, you will make progress almost forever without hurting the body - the body and joints will only get stronger the more you do it.
Skill training itself is not bad or wrong but prioritizing it over real strength training is what causes the problems.
The Main Problem with Skill Training
You will mainly build strength in the prime mover muscles of the body.
Since your goal is to perform a skill as well as possible or lift the heaviest you can lift, your body will find the most economical way to do this. This means that you will be utilizing your strongest muscle groups to perform the task.
Countless problems with this one.
Since you are using the strongest muscle groups to complete the task, the weaker muscles get neglected and over time this leads to bad imbalances and weaknesses in the body. This will eventually lead to poor health (posture) and injuries.
Your body will get stuck in the same movement patterns unless you do lots of different variations of the same exercise. A small change in the angle can make a big difference in how much you can lift because the muscles are activated differently.
If you always lift heavy, focus solely on repetitions and try to do the hardest exercise available, your body will always fall into the same lines and patterns to perform the task. This will lead to over-emphasis of certain muscles and negligence of others.
When you focus on skill training, it’s by nature focused on external criteria. It’s always about a certain weight, a high number of repetitions or a certain form of the skill.
Your body will find the best way to complete the task and although the form can have some standards, it’s never as good as it could be.
For example, when we did the “light vs. heavy” video and article, we received lots of comments similar to “not true, you can lift heavy with a good form”.
In practice, this never happens. There is always either momentum, manipulating the body mechanics or manipulating your own center of mass to complete the task. All of this takes away from the muscles you want to develop with the exercise.
Even if the form would be pretty good, the focus is still not there and this focus is what actually matters the most. The form doesn't fix everything if the only thing you care about is moving the weight and not contracting the muscles.
Sure it's possible to front squat with the full range of motion (which we consider low standards for the front squat), but the engagement can still be bad and there may be many problems in the stability of the hips and knees.
If you lift unconsciously without paying attention to what the exercise is doing, the body will naturally fall into the most economical patterns to complete the task at hand.
Another big problem with skill training is that in the long run your body will be optimized for the skills you are focusing on. This will come at the cost of posture and joint health.
For example, if you always do deadlifts with heavy weights and use the form most people use where their upper back is rounded, over time you will develop a kyphosis and your posture will get worse.
The person may be able to lift heavier and think he/she is getting stronger but the person’s posture just keeps getting worse and the person is actually getting worse as a whole.
Training is not automatically good for the body - it’s only good for the body when it’s done properly.
Why Skills Are Not Good Standards of Strength
The reason why people want to lift the heaviest they can lift or do the most impressive skill/stunt is because they want to show others how strong they are.
People think the skill or the heavy lift is the good standard to judge someone's physical prowess. Skill requires a high amount of strength = the person must be strong? The answer is maybe.
The reason why you shouldn’t consider any skill a standard of strength is because there are no universal criteria for everyone.
What I mean is that everyone is different and everyone is naturally good at different things.
Here are some good examples. How good you can get at certain skills is not just about hard work and smart work. These are surely a big part of it but only one part of it.
How good you can get at any skill whether it’s bench press, bodyweight levers or explosive jumps, depends on the person’s individual genetic makeup.
Basically, the person’s height, weight, body composition, muscle fiber type and other genetic factors will determine your potential in any skill you choose to focus on.
It’s not a secret that gymnastics is mainly a short man’s sport. Nothing wrong with this but the skills that are part of gymnastics (planches, levers, bodyweight stunts) are optimized for people who aren’t tall and bottom-heavy.
There are exceptions who are taller than the average but height was never the only factor - it was just one of the contributing factors to how good you can get. Exceptions don't create the rule!
Moreover, these different bodyweight skills become easier the bigger your upper body is and the harder the more developed your hips and legs are. This is basic physics.
The same goes for sports like powerlifting. In powerlifting, the weight of your own bodyweight is a massive advantage in deadlifting and squatting heavy.
This is because the lifted weight will be a smaller percentage of your bodyweight and you can manipulate the weight of your bodyweight to move the barbell (deadlift and squat).
The heavier you are, the easier it will be to perform deadlifts but the harder it will be to perform pull ups or any bodyweight skills.
In bench press, if you have short arms the better you will be at it. The powerlifters also arch their backs to decrease the range of motion and learn to use momentum and hip drive to press more weight. This is obviously a refined skill.
In squats, if your legs are relatively stiff and inflexible, the heavier you will be able to squat because your lack of flexibility prevents you from squatting all the way down and once you squat up, the stretch reflex will actually help you come up.
In handstand push ups, the common way is to manipulate the center of mass with the spine. This will directly take resistance off the shoulders and help a lot.
And how about using training equipment? Using weight equipment in powerlifting or weightlifting can increase the weight you can lift by 25 to 100 lbs (National Strength & Conditioning Association). 25 to 100 lbs!
There is an infinite amount of examples like this.
If you hear someone being able to lift X amount of weight or do the X level of skill, you have to take into account the person’s genetic makeup, body composition, form and the equipment that is used.
All of these exercises mentioned above are not skill movements by default. It's all about HOW the exercise is used, not the exercise itself. It's the focus that counts.
Deadlifts are an excellent strength exercise when done right but if you focus on lifting the most you can, it becomes a skill movement. Likewise, a wall handstand can be used for strength training if you do them right.
The bottom line is that the most well-rounded and strongest man or woman in the world would not be able to perform certain gymnastic skills if he/she wasn’t the optimal body type for the sport.
In fact, there are incredibly strong individuals who suck at pull ups, bench press and all gymnastic skills. Yet, they are stronger than many who are good at bodyweight skills.
Examples? Khabib Nurmagomedov is a Russian wrestler and MMA fighter who cannot do pull ups or push ups very well but still manhandles everyone (even opponents who can do one arm chin ups and heavy deadlifts - Edson Barboza).
How do you know someone is strong? Typically the people at the top of their game are strong and you can see it from how they perform and look. They have a different kind of aura and thickness to their physique. It's almost impossible to quantify.
When people see Lebron James in person, they think "he is a superhuman" because of how impressive he looks despite the fact that he is not even close to the size of a modern bodybuilder.
At the same time, some bodybuilders can be incredibly jacked and not even look that impressive. It's the overall quality and functionality of your physique, not just the size or skills that you possess.
So Should I Just GIVE UP?
No. Understanding this is freeing because you will realize that you shouldn’t need to compete with anyone because the odds can be either with you or completely against you.
The person who can lift the heaviest is certainly strong but he/she is also optimized for the task. Someone who cannot do the same thing is not necessarily weaker!
The problem in fitness is that people (mostly men) judge others and themselves based on skills they can do and the weight they can lift. As we saw earlier, this is a massively rigged game by nature.
The answer is to focus on you and not to compare yourself to others. Just do you. Everyone is on different stages in their fitness with different bodies.
It’s actually fine to focus on skills but the skills should always come on top of your foundational strength training and they shouldn’t be the standard for comparison.
Skills are something extra to pursue once your body has been taken care of first.
The foundational strength training will prioritize health, posture and overall performance. Once these are in order, the skill development is not only easier to pursue but you don’t need to sacrifice anything for the sake of skills.
What a lot of people are doing is that they are prioritizing skill training and only adding “accessory work” and secondary mobility training to take care of the body so they can continue to pursue skills without completely wrecking the body.
This is the wrong approach because the training is still dysfunctional - just not as dysfunctional as it could be. All of this is bandage. Moreover, the accessory work is often still done in the skill training fashion which kind of defeats the purpose.
We don't want to discourage people to pursue their sport, we just want to show a better long term alternative that prioritizes health and posture.
If you want to reach high level gymnastic feats, we would recommend getting the advice from experienced gymnastic coaches - not from calisthenics bros (for these reasons).
Top Athletes Focus on Building their Structure
The purpose of proper strength training is to build up your structure in the most balanced way. Building up your structure is the thing that universally transfers to almost everything you do.
A person with a well-rounded strong body will be capable and proficient at almost any activity the person chooses to focus on. This is what we would call a real athletic physique (universally strong and adaptable).
If a person like this decides to focus on different skills, the skill development is fast because the person already has the structure for it. This is why some people progress fast and some people very slow. It's about your foundation and where you start.
The best athletes in the world can quickly learn almost anything and you hear about this over and over again. Proper strength training can do this for you.
Skill vs. strength training is hard to understand because what you see is often the end product.
People see gymnasts doing amazing levers and iron crosses so the obvious conclusion is to think that the gymnasts are strong because of these skills. The same applies to weightlifters and athletes.
The reality is not like this.
If you were to observe what the pro gymnasts are doing, a great portion of their day-to-day training is proper strength training. And these are top athletes who already got great structural balance - beginners need to spend more time on preparatory work.
The same goes for bodybuilders, powerlifters and other people at the top of their game. It's mainly the amateurs who spread the bad knowledge. The vast majority of top people's strength training is about building up their structure.
You rarely see pro athletes lifting heavy, instead they do plenty of different basic exercises and stability movements with light resistance.
Just think about it: you are not going to develop power by punching alone. You have to build up your entire structure to be able to punch harder. You have to add layers to your structure and become stronger as a whole.
Athletes know what they are doing and they pay $1000-$100,000s for good coaches. Yet there are people on the internet who think they know better and comment to actual strength coaches that athletes should "just do deadlifts bro!".
The UFC heavyweight champion of the world Stipe Miocic says that he never lifts heavy because “it’s a fight, not a lifting competition”.
If you see athletes posting impressive lifts on social media, a large reason is that content like that gets views and respect from the audience. Lifting heavy is fun sometimes - it's just not the priority!
Skills are Built on Top of Your Structure
The reason top level athletes focus on proper strength training is because they understand that the skills of their sport are largely limited by the strength of their body structure.
In other words, you will hit a wall very quickly and will not bust through it without destroying the body unless you start building up your structure.
The reason people experience plateaus and get stuck in skill development is that they have maxed out the skill component from the structure of their body.
Skill development is fast and that’s why people love it (it creates an illusion of progress and strength development) but it’s the real strength training that actually allows you to develop different skills to the highest level in the long run.
When you try to push the limits of your skill training without having a strong foundational structure, that’s when you start to experience joint pain and start creating imbalances. Your body is not ready to handle the demands of the skill.
To actually learn the highest levels of skills and become the strongest you can be, the strength training that strengthens your structure is what will allow you to do that.
Alright. What is Real Strength Training?
When it comes to strength training, every top coach and trainer has their own system and methodology but many of the underlining principles are the same.
We call our training universal strength training because it applies to every body type, every age and every human being regardless of their height, weight, gender or genetic makeup. It doesn’t break the body - it fixes and strengthens the body.
How? Because the training is not optimized for certain skills - it’s optimized for the human body. This kind of training has the best crossover to other activities. You will literally develop strength that is the most transferable to everything else.
Although everyone is naturally good at different things, our bodies for the most part still work the same way and consist of the exact same muscles, joint articulations and everything else.
Proper strength training is designed to strengthen the structure of the body. It focuses directly on the body - not on trying to meet some arbitrary external criteria set by someone else (skill training).
For example, yoga, movement training and mobility training are good forms of training because the purpose is to directly take care of the body. There is skill involved but the primary focus is on strengthening the body itself.
No one really cares about how long you can hold most yoga poses. There are no competitions for how many steps of animal walks you can do. These don’t matter - what matters is the stimulus you get from the movements and how it strengthens the body.
Proper strength training as we do in Athlete 20XX is similar. Everything is about pure joint articulations. We aren’t focusing on weight as anything else but a tool (the amount of weight is often the minimum to get the best stimulus).
The same goes for repetitions - you need repetitions but the goal is not to do as many repetitions as possible by sacrificing the form unless you are focusing on something other than strength such as conditioning.
While skill training strengthens the body indirectly (and in a poor way), proper strength training strengthens the body and different attributes (such as mobility, power, stability etc.) directly and in the most effective and efficient way.
Just think about it, what is your primary goal with training: 1. is it to learn different skills or 2. to develop the body for health and strength?
If your primary goal is to get strong, functional and powerful - you should primarily focus on developing your body - not skills. Skills can be added on top of your foundational strength training.
How proper strength training actually happens is the hardest part because it requires real expertise and experience. It cannot be learned from a book.
We consider movement training one of the pillars of training because the body will not be fully developed without quadrupedal movement patterns. Yoga has similar benefits but in a softer way.
Proper strength training similar to Athlete 20XX gets more technical and sophisticated. The reason for this is because the purpose of strength training is to eliminate the skill component and maximize the stimulus of the exercise.
This takes more focus and mindfulness than just throwing the weights around hoping for a result. It's a real skill that needs to be learned.
However, just by learning the proper principles and methodology, you will have a way to strengthen the body for life and have a body that is ready for any challenge without sacrificing well-being and health.
Train hard, stay safe.
Nice article thank you, I think fitness is getting valued by the number of likes you have on a You tube video! Thanks for putting it into perspective. We need to stop comparing ourselves to others.
Thank you Eero! The very best of explanations and I really like your description: Universal Strength Training!
Thank you Mike!
Thank you for writing an even more detailed article about this topic, very insightful.
Nowadays i do most of my skill training more like actual strength training, i care less about the highest progressions and more about the actual training effect.
While i do also train more difficult progressions of a skill, i actually spend more time to really master the basics.
For example, many people will completely abandon the planche lean after they can barely hold a tuck planche, but especially when you get stronger in more difficult positions the basics become even more valuable because you can really concentrate on perfect form and a good mind muscle connection to get a great training stimulus.
But that is only possible if you have enough experience and knowledge already, so someone who is more advanced can actually get much more out of the basics than a beginner.
I think one of the most important things with bodyweight training, or fitness in general, is to make the basic exercises as hard as possible instead of just doing the hardest exercises in the easiest way. Of course you also need to train all aspects of your body in a balanced way.
Thank you Chris. That is indeed true that the more advanced you are, the more you can get out of simple movements, simply because good form requires understanding. The good thing about “internet calisthenics” is that everyone can learn but the bad part is that most people try to learn by themselves.
It’s just an experience thing – everyone does the same mistakes in the beginning (I did as well, which was a mistake in retrospect) unless they have a coach/trainer.
One of the most insightful articles of strength training I have ever read and this phenomena explains so many fitness myths and problems that exist out there. Great stuff!
Considering perhaps this caveat: are you sure that everything you do is not skill training? Movement training for sure is skill work as well right? Doing crab walks and bear walks expertly requires the muscles to fire in connection to each other just as a proper form of deadlift does.
I’e done two decades of martial arts and am familiar with this phenomena as well. The art produces a skill-set that is larger than say a deadlift-squat-bench will produce but it is still a skillset nonetheless. Long time training can produce overuse injuries and detrimental development on joints.
Perhaps the good training effect is then a result of practicing myriad of skills simultaneously that do not force the body for corruptive development that is result of training narrowly.
Thank you for the great comment PH!
Everything is indeed basically a skill but what we treat as skill training is something that’s primary purpose is something external like pressing X amount of weight.
What we consider as proper strength training is training that focuses directly on the body – cares only about the stimulus that is created to the muscles and not the external criteria. When this is the focus, the weight often drops down a lot (it doesn’t matter) to maximize the engagement of the exercise.
The reason this matters because as we pointed out in the article, when you focus on the external criteria, the stimulus is no longer the priority and as a result people use a wide variety of different techniques and body mechanics to do the skill that always decreases – not increases – the stimulus of the target muscles.
To do proper strength training you actually need to develop a set of different techniques and principles to train the body properly (stabilization, mind-muscle connection etc.). The versatility of the exercise selection matters but these strength training techniques matter the most.
Yes, the reason why this article resonated with me was the fact that so many things seem to be in line with your theory.
The details are just so difficult to dictate: the people who are already strong practice weightlifting and probably get lot stronger but as you said it sounds very reasonable that it is a side product of the motor pattern skill development. Some strength trainers actually propose practicing strength as a skill, thus very quickly advancing in some spesific lifts. The transfer from the ability to that lift to other areas of physical activity is the question and there are not too many answers of that question flying around. At least, not answers that seem to make sense or are proven.
Naturally there are patterns that have more carryover: ie. deadlift probably gives more than a tricep extension for sure. But for someone like me, very unathletic, yet a long-time practitioner of martial arts the question of what to practice for all-around fitness and injury prevention is an interesting one. I’ve done some bodyweight/kettlebell training in the past and just recently started to practice some animal movements (through inspiration from you).
If you do not focus on external measurements, how do you assess progress in your training programs? Is it through a mastery of more difficult exercises or just a holistic self-assessment?
All exercises are good for different purposes. The focus just needs to be on strengthening the body (good form, control, pure movement) and not on trying to lift the most possible.
Progress happens by holistic self-assessment and feeling. The fact that the “progress” is very easy to quantify with weights or bodyweight progressions is the big problem. Everything becomes kind of autistic because people start to focus on the external metric and not the real thing.
In sports, martial arts, yoga, dance and other physical activities you just do the practice and rarely quantify it. Later, you feel that you are better than before because you can move better and you feel stronger and lighter. It should be the same for training.
Indeed, your premise sounds wonderful.
Considering the fact that I just listened a Tim Ferris’s podcast with Charles Poliquin where he (a master strength trainer of Olympic athletes) talked about the transfer of deadlift and pull up strength towards wrestling.
From that I got an impression that we know so little about how auxiliary training transfers to sport performance. And there are so many disagreements as well. Some argue that the transfer is poor at best and you are better off training your sport, others state that weight training offers large benefits.
I think you guys have a great position with your approach.
We studied Charles Poliquin a lot back in the day and he is the top expert in the science of training but lacking in the “artistic” qualitative aspect of training.
How we see it is that bad training will make an athlete worse but good training will make the athlete better.
For beginners, ANY physical activity is good and produces results but the more advanced the trainee becomes, the more precise and targeted the training has to evolve.
When we do precision training, we know precisely what we are targeting and what we want to achieve from every single repetition of the exercise.
When it comes to top level athletes, the trainer or the athlete has to know EXACTLY what he/she is doing and what needs to be strengthened, otherwise the training will be counterproductive.
That is exactly what I meant. If the top-level guys in the field of exercise do not really understand the big picture there is lots of room for innovative people like you to leave your mark in the world of fitness.
Thanks a lot!
Yes, that’s why I gave up weight lifting (squats, cleans etc.) in favor of Qigong and bagua exercises. Noticed the same thing you’re talking about: skill training, as you rightly call it, certainly tends to develop the muscles that already are more powerful :(.
I realized that gradually, but there can be no mistake about it.