#22 – The Decline & Failure of The Conventional Strength Approach (Redefining Strength)

March 11, 2024 by VAHVA Fitness

Eero and Samuli discuss the concept of strength and how our holistic concept of strength differs from the linear and quantified concept of mainstream strength training.

Is Your Definition of Strength Really Helpful?

Last year Vahva Fitness released 20 podcasts and many videos covering a range of topics but there was a lot of confusion, especially regarding Indian clubs and ancient equipment/training methods.


We focused a lot on our
Iron King Method, and many of you asked ‘why are you bringing this up?’

iron king method

It was clear that most of the people with questions hadn’t used these tools, and if you haven’t trained with them, it’s impossible to truly understand their benefits.


In fitness, direct experience is crucial. You can read a hundred books about running marathons but still have no real understanding of what it’s like to run one.


Strength training is the same. It's an art that requires practice. It's not something you can fully grasp just by thinking about it; learning comes from doing.


We want to address these points of confusion. 


In this article, we will cover:

  • Four critical things you need to know about fitness
  • The difference between mainstream strength and Vahva Fitness strength
  • Why comparisons are useless when it comes to strength training
  • Why your definition of progress matters most.

But before we get started, it's important to note that Samuli plays a significant role at Vahva Fitness. The wisdom and knowledge shared isn’t coming from Eero alone!

4 Critical Things You Need to Know About Strength & Fitness

1. The False Assumption You May Be Making

We have the same background as most of our viewers, listeners, and readers. A history of traditional strength training, calisthenics, barbells, gyms, and all the usual suspects.

The modern way of training was our introduction to fitness, and we are very familiar with it.
A lot of the comments we received in response to our videos regarding ancient methods seemed to suggest that modern training is the best thing ever developed.

The barbell is seen as the biggest and best thing in fitness history. To suggest the use of a steel mace as an alternative was ridiculed, like suggesting using a horse and cart instead of a car.

This misses the point that development in training equipment isn’t linear.

The Indian clubs are a great example of this. People see it as a gimmick for the shoulders, but if you use even moderately heavy clubs, you will see that it’s great for the chest, traps, lats, biceps, triceps, forearms, core – everything.

They are also hugely beneficial for the wrists, which is a growing problem area as people become more deskbound.

The fundamental equipment we’re using, the human body, is the same as it was thousands of years ago. It could even be argued that today the general state of the human body has declined (considering general levels of testosterone etc.) [1]

It’s because of this that we made a conscious effort to learn these ancient training methods, and having done this we can see that modern training methods have declined and aren’t as well-rounded as they could be.

We’ve applied these training systems for over a decade. We’re not just hippies who like to try new things. We are analyzing the human body as we train, and we constantly adjust.

It’s from this place of trial and error that we aim to teach other people. The next thing to be aware of relates to how the fitness industry thinks about strength.

2. The Problems with Conventional Thinking and Linear Strength Training

The fitness scene is very dogmatic. ‘The Big Five’ (Deadlifts, squats, pull-ups, bench press, military press) are considered the gold standard of strength training, and most things outside of these standards are not worth investigating.

If it’s not going to make you massive, or able to lift huge weights, it’s seen as useless.
Imagine there is a hallway with a thousand doors, and you close all the doors available and only go through the door to the gym.

That’s effectively what people are doing when they say that no equipment besides a dumbbell or a barbell can teach them anything. People are becoming too quick to judge.

They have developed a very close-minded idea of what strength is, and they are closing themselves off from real information, real knowledge, real athleticism, and real strength.

We know this personally, as we both followed this path for a long time.

Before we embraced a new way of training, Samuli got his deadlifts up to 180 kg (400 lb), and he was completing chin-ups with an extra 50 kg (110 lb) weight.

Eero was doing strict overhead presses with a 44 kg (95 lb) kettlebell, and muscle-ups with an extra 25 kg (55 lb) weight.

Because of the thinking of the modern fitness industry, and our exposure to the mainstream fitness scene, we were conditioned to ignore any nonlinear training methods.

We had become obsessed with linear patterns of lifting but nonlinear approaches are far more powerful, which we’ll talk about now.

3. The Power of Nonlinear Strength Training

ancient qigong grandmaster jiang yu shan

When compared to dumbbells and barbells, Indian clubs, animal movements, mace training, and even qigong are very holistic and multifaceted training practices.

Qigong has so much depth and application that it’s very hard to comprehend in the modern mind. It is a complete system of health, and it is virtually unlimited in its application.

We were lucky enough to go in-depth with Grandmaster Jiang Yu Shan in Taiwan to create multiple courses with their foundations built upon qigong. These practices involve lots of flowing movements and nonlinear patterns.

It forces your brain to work with your body the whole time. Similarly, animal movements embrace circular movements and complex patterns of movement, and your brain struggles to keep up.

This is building strength of another kind, but the gains may not show up linearly in the form of increased weight in the given exercise similar to a bench press.

With Indian club swinging, your brain is again forced to contend with nonlinear patterns where the movements are often circular and flow with the kinetic chain of your body.

When you don’t understand the equipment, you see the club swing and don’t understand how it can activate your lats or your pecs, but when actually swing the clubs, you can feel it and understand it directly.

Leverage is an intellectual explanation of how and why clubs are an effective method of training, but the real explanation comes from the direct experience in your body as you do the exercises.

Your mind wrestles with the pattern, but the more you practice the easier it gets. Slowly, your mind gets stronger, and your body makes the movement pattern with ease.

4. An Open Mind is a Strong Mind

You don’t truly know push-ups are effective until you’ve done lots of them and felt the burn. People need to bring this open-mindedness to alternative methods of training as well.

When you practice these techniques, you experience the benefits first hand. The equipment is in your hands and you get the feedback from it. You feel the burn.

To stay open-minded is an act of strength. The expression gets thrown around a lot but it’s fundamentally important to train the mind as well as the body.

Indian clubs have been used as a strength training tool for thousands of years. There is an artistry and beauty in these ancient methods.

Because these tools are designed to be used in a nonlinear way, there is no limit to how you can use them. The strength of your mind will grow alongside your body. We are aiming to create a more holistic definition of strength. And it makes all the difference. Here’s why. 

The Difference in Definition Matters

When it comes to the definition of strength: “the ability to exert force” is straight forward but how it’s applied to the entire body and physical performance is a a different story.


MMA fighters have incredible strength. Their range of motion, pliability, agility, and speed are all highly developed. These are a function of their strength. You can consider it a symptom of their strength.

At the beginning of Samuli’s MMA journey, he was flatfooted, despite having lots of strength in his legs. When he started training his lower body differently, targeting his feet and ankles, he became faster, more agile and more dexterous.

This didn’t come about because he aimed to increase his muscle strength in conventional lifts such as the back squat, it happened because he targeted the entire lower body, including joints, tendons, and ligaments.

If he’d focused on deadlifts and squats, he’d likely have become stiffer or wasted a lot of energy with diminishing returns. Your mobility, dexterity, agility, and even your speed is a function of your strength.

So, let’s talk about strength and how we at Vahva Fitness view it compared to the mainstream.

Mainstream Strength (Linear Strength, Quantitative Approach)

leg press quads squat athlete 20xx

Weight-based training is skill-based training and the ability to improve a lift isn’t a good metric for measuring overall strength. The view that ‘strength is a skill’ exists in mainstream thinking among some of the leaders of conventional strength training.

You can read our famous article "Skill Vs. Strength Training" here.

The mainstream strength idea is extremely narrow: how much weight can you move from A to B? The heavier that weight is, the stronger you are.

Typically, if you want to measure the overall strength of a person, you combine 5-10 different lifts and apply the same thinking. The total of their deadlift, bench press, squat, military press and back row gives you a comprehensive picture of how strong that person is.

In mainstream training, the body is a tool to move the weight. This carries a huge risk of injury as you can easily fail to engage the body properly.

An easily observed example is the lateral shoulder raise. Go to any gym and you can see countless examples of people swinging their arms and raising the trapezius, instead of only activating the lateral deltoid head that is supposed to do the work.

The focus is on the outcome and the form matters less. When you’re training this way, your goal is lifting the weight, rather than developing the body.

When you’re focused on lifting the weight, rather than developing the body, you risk putting more unnecessary stress and tension on the body and reduce the amount of stimulus you want for actually developing the body.

Let's look at traditional strongmen as an example: they are functional in their training, but in our opinion their lower body is not well developed. They are often stiff and lack strength and mobility in all joint articulations of the hip, although they can lift incredibly heavy weights.

And we are talking about elite powerlifters and strongmen. Many powerlifters, bodybuilders, and strongmen destroy their joints and have way poorer performance. 

What we are interested in is developing the entire body, from the muscles to the tendons, and everything in between.

We want to heal the body and build it to its fullest potential safely, so we advocate a more holistic, nonlinear approach to training.

Vahva Fitness Strength (Nonlinear Strength, Quality Based Approach)

the anatomy of lizard movement

The Vahva Fitness idea of strength is much broader, more complete and more holistic. It contains the entire functionality of the body.

Holistic strength training is about full body development, not just about how much you can lift or other simplistic indicators of performance.

It prioritizes comprehensive body development and personal progress through linear & nonlinear training methods with a focus on quality of movement and developing a deep mind-muscle connection. 

It’s about the entire system as a whole, the sum of all the parts. We are more interested in the quality of our training, rather than the quantity of weights, sets, or reps.

How it stimulates the body, develops joint articulation, and strengthens tendons and muscles are the most important aspects for us. These benefits are hard to quantify with numbers, but you can feel it. Not all gains are linear.

In our approach, the tools and weights serve the body, which is the opposite of how the mainstream approach works where the body is often sacrificed for the sake of lifting more.

We are trying to raise awareness for alternative training methods, to show they exist and to show how they can be used. We also want to show that, in many cases, they can be better than modern training methods.

A huge part of the problem in the definition of strength is that it often comes from external comparison. A strongman is "stronger" than a powerlifter, but a powerlifter is stronger than a bodybuilder, but a bodybuilder is stronger than a jogger, and it goes on forever.

Every person has the same set of muscles and tendons. And for each individual, these have a certain potential that is unique to the person.

You can’t develop muscle strength forever. You will inevitably hit a maximum point, and that is the potential for each individual. We consider you strong when every muscle in your body is well-developed to its potential.

This comparison is the problem. The body you are in is the point. When you are comparing your strength with another person, you’ll always find someone who lifts more or who is bigger, faster, etc.

But if you are strong within your own capacity and potential, then you are strong. Everyone has different genetics, muscle fiber types, etc. Strength has so much to do with genetics, and it has to be developed to reach potential, but it’s still capped physiologically.

Linear strength has a ‘ceiling’, and a single muscle has its limits but our approach to development is limitless.

Real strength is discovered through training that forgets all about comparison and only focuses on developing your complete body. Of course, your mind develops too, since there is no separation.

Nonlinear strength can develop endlessly. With animal movements, Indian Clubs and qigong you can always do more and it’s adding a new dimension to your strength.

It happens regularly that we hear from customers with a long background in fitness who find their ego being crushed by the precise training method utilized in our Athlete 20XX Method.

People often come from a very mainstream strength training background (with painful joints and muscular imbalances) and when they begin precision training, they realize that the mind-muscle connection for specific muscle groups is very weak.

Activating the single muscle group shows how weak the mind-muscle connection is, and it helps people see how weak the individual components are.

The mind is one of the biggest lifters when you approach training with a nonlinear method, and one of the first things it needs to overcome is the habit of comparison.

Why Comparisons Fail In Fitness

What’s the best test of strength?

Being super strong in lifts doesn’t mean you’re strong, and lifting less doesn’t mean that you’re weak. Is there an ultimate test of strength? Is it fighting? CrossFit? Or sports?

When you are fighting, you have no idea what your opponent can lift, but the second you start wrestling you know whether he is strong or not. You can feel it.

Hand-to-hand fighting measures a lot of abilities: agility, mobility, maximal strength, strength endurance, cardio, power/force production, there’s a lot of things coming into play.

When strongmen and powerlifters try to move into boxing or MMA, they lose weight and become more well-rounded. The drop in weight and the change in their training is necessary to thrive in these sports.

Of course, those big lifts and all the strongman training will have benefits, but the focus moves towards athleticism, multifaceted strength and endurance as they start to develop true holistic strength.

When we consider what is high level lower body strength, we look at a soccer player's lower-body development as far superior to a strongman or a powerlifter.

The toes, ankles, calves, quads, hamstrings, and the entire hip region are fully developed and super-functional.

For example, Cristiano Ronaldo has far more complete lower-body strength when compared to a tyre-flipping strongman, but the strongman can lift a lot more heavier weights.

If you took Ronaldo and put him next to the tyre-flipping strongman, from the physical appearance someone might say the big guy is stronger as well. Yet, in reality half of the strongman's lower body is not developed to its full potential. 

And similarly, the strongman can certainly move far more weight than a professional fighter could, but if it went to a fight, the big guy would get dominated in wrestling by a lot smaller guy. Again, we see another strength as superior.

Comparison simply can’t measure strength effectively. Let’s apply this now to equipment.

What’s the best piece of equipment?

indian-clubs-2x

We continue to use dumbbells and barbells. We try not to hold a black-and-white way of thinking about fitness.

Every tool has benefits and drawbacks; they’re built for specific purposes.

The idea that the barbell is the best, or the most efficient, is so prominent – the best and most efficient for what? The barbell has great applications in Olympic lifting, just like bodyweight training has great applications for gymnastics.

If you’re talking about Olympic lifts, sure, that’s what they’re built for. But training is a lot broader than simply the Olympic lifts or the big five.

For example, the round sandbag is a much better tool for martial arts and many sports. It develops hip engagement, full body grip strength, rotational strength, as well as spinal stability.

The dumbbell is an incredible tool for fixing the body and targeting particularly specific muscle groups. However, for developing functionality and high-level strength, they don’t come close to Indian Clubs.

Indian Clubs and steel maces have great applications, but they hardly enter the discussion today although this has started to change in the recent years. We have particularly popularized this style of training with our unique Iron King Method.

With Indian Clubs, steel maces or the round sandbag, of course we have access to numbers for measurements.

But increasing the numbers isn’t the goal or the motivation. We are looking for development in overall strength, and this is felt rather than measured.

What’s important is the information that you have about the tool that you’re using. You need to ask yourself: what is this tool efficient for, and what are my goals? You need to have an idea of what you are progressing towards.

How you define progress, not how you measure it, is how you can really improve your strength.

What’s your definition of progress?

You can make progress without ANY weight or equipment; the question is all about ‘how do you define progress?’

People want to quantify and measure, rather than feeling and observing. You will know when you progress. You can feel it.

After Samuli focused his training on developing his ankles, while running he realized that his entire running style had changed.

Then his MMA training improved as well because of the strength developed in the ankles and he received compliments from his coach. And that’s how you see the progress.

It isn’t quantitative, it’s directly experienced. What more can you ask for?

These things can sometimes be externally obvious. After heavy steel mace training Eero’s forearms just exploded and it was clear to see, but the numbers are hard to quantify.

As long as you feel the difference, what else do you need? The progress is there to be felt and experienced, not quantified and measured!

Hopefully this clarifies things from the Vahva Fitness perspective. If you have questions or comments, feel free to add them below.

Stay Strong!

References:
[1] A Population-Level Decline in Serum Testosterone Levels in American Men


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samuli jyrkinen

About the author 

Samuli Jyrkinen

Samuli is the ninja behind the scenes (photography, videography, websites, program platforms and more). He has been training religiously for over a decade and has a firm grasp of physical and mental fitness. You will find our story here.

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