The Difference Between Lifts, Exercises, and Feats of Strength

Understanding the difference between lifts, feats, and exercises will simplify your life and make it easier to reach your goals.

The Definition of a Lift

A “lift” is something a lot of people compete in. The barbell squat, bench press, and deadlift. The snatch and jerk, kettlebell and barbell. The pull-up.

A lift is a goal. One makes a plan to improve it and uses all means available—practice of the lift proper plus various assistance exercises. And the plan revolves around the competition schedule. One has to perform on a given date, against other competitors and in front of spectators. Otherwise it is not a lift.

Lifts vs. Feats of Strength
Mary Miller, about to stand up with 315 at the Tactical Strength Challenge—this is a lift.

The Definition of Feats of Strength

A “feat” is also a challenging goal. But for one reason or another, feats are not contested. Sometimes they are too tough to find many competitors, such as the one-arm chin. Others could be pointless and goofy, such as juggling oranges and texting while riding a unicycle. Or an event is competitive, yet it has not gained enough steam among the public, such as speed rope climbing.

Is closing a heavy-duty gripper a feat or a lift? There are grip competitions, but they are far in between. I once had a conversation about Iron Mind’s #3 gripper with Louie Simmons. I was pleased to have closed it with a parallel set. Louie was not impressed. People would have been closing it left and right, he argued, if more folks were doing it. He had a point there.

Lifts vs. Feats of Strength
Josh Halbert, SFG II, SFB—a one-arm chin is a feat of strength.

We have no doubt Dr. Michael Hartle, Master SFG is world-class strong, as he broke an American bench press record—a highly contested event. If he boasted the biggest barbell military press in America, he would have certainly been strong, having accomplished such a “feat,” but we would have had no way of knowing if it was world-class. Strict heavy military presses are not fashionable these days, so there are not enough people to compare one’s performance to. Statistically insignificant. Had Doc owned the biggest overhead press in the nation in 1960, when it was “the” test of strength, then it would have been a “world-class lift.”

The Definition of Exercise

Whereas a “lift” and a “feat” represent the end, an exercise is only the means. Many powerlifters do machine rows to improve the stability in the bench press and make themselves more linked up in the deadlift. They walk over to the machine, load it up with whatever plates are handy, get pumped up without bothering to count reps, and go home. It would never occur to them to go heavy or psych up for these. Because the phrase “How many wheels can you row on the Hammer, bro?” is not something you will ever hear.

Should you decide to pronounce the row a feat and pursue your 1RM, you will undoubtedly win the [totally uncontested] title of the King of the Row. Reminds me of the Russian joke about an outlaw named “Unbeatable Boris.” He was not unbeatable because no one could beat him, but because no one bothered.

Still, the King of the Row is in a much better place than your typical guy or gal at the gym. The latter just does random stuff, slightly motivated by a vague goal of “getting in shape.” As they say, if you do not know where you are going, any road will get you there. And apple and pear also happen to be shapes.

Pavel Tsatsouline
Pavel Tsatsouline is the CEO of StrongFirst, Inc.

11 thoughts on “The Difference Between Lifts, Exercises, and Feats of Strength

  • There are strong individuals out there that are practicing one arm pull ups consistently. Does a feat, at some point, become the means,exercise, to more to greater feats or will it always remain a feat? Maybe the movement will define the meaning both?

    The muscle up(muscle-out) can potentially be considered now a lift with, the new found popularity of, the competition “Street Workout”

  • So picking up a prison governor and running with him and knocking out a cow would be considered feats? Not me, prisoner Charles Bronson! 🙂

  • Excellent both as a way to self-audit and as a buyer’s guide to training systems. I’m guessing muscle-ups are a worthwhile feat but a mediocre exercise?

    • I think – it depends. For a gymnasts it will be just exercise. For many regular guy it is a feat. When you reach that feat, then it will be exercise.

    • Matt, too many muscle-outs are rough on the shoulders. Better keep increasing your pullup and dip strength and occasionally practice muscle-outs, just to keep the groove.

      I would not put the MO in either the lift or the feat category. Rather a useful life skill.

  • So really, only do exercises that will help accomplish the feat(s) we are pursuing. And for many feats, the ultimate test is found when we lift?

    • John, no, you still need a foundation of general strength. But beyond those basics you should focus.

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