Strength Is a Skill — Strength Is Liberating

When one of the athletes I’m training insists on using poor form to complete a movement, I ask him or her, “What are you practicing?”

The excuses are plentiful:

  • “I’m not getting a hard enough workout if I practice double unders, so I switched to single unders.”
  • “I’m not good at fully extending my hips in the Olympic lifts, so I don’t.”
  • “But if I round just a little I can deadlift an extra ten pounds!”

Strength is not a democracy. You don’t get to bargain your way into health. In the pursuit of strength, you only have two options:

  1. Strength as a skill.
  2. Pain as a skill.

If you practice badly, pain will find you. Not in pain yet? Keep doing what you’re doing badly. It’s not if, but when pain will happen. If you do things right, and patiently, you will get stronger. You will feel better and move well. And you won’t be in pain.

There are no other options. I did it all wrong for just over three decades. But StrongFirst set me straight with one of their central tenets: strength is a skill.

My Previous Reality: Training Always Hurts

In eighth grade, I was nearing six feet tall and 190lbs, on my way to six and a half feet and 260 by the time I topped out in high school. But my mind did not fit my frame. I was quiet and shy, not at all aggressive. I like to read and take things apart. I wrote poetry, rode my bike, and generally kept to myself. But due to my size, I received a lot of pressure to play sports. Football, basketball, and track mainly. I had some fun with the people I met in these activities, but I was never exceptional. I was barely average.

Greg Woods Strength Is a Skill
I was told to look tough in my football uniform, but I obviously look terrified.

It wasn’t that I didn’t want to be strong. I did. Everyone does, in some vague way. We want it, but we don’t plan for it — much less work for it. Despite my size, I did not pursue strength. Because the most enduring thing I got from all that training I’d done was one simple reality: it hurt. All of it.

For thirty years, I can’t recall enjoying a single rep of resistance training. After high school sports, I tried many things. Nautilus machines in isolation. Every variation of elliptical. Heavy-and-hard free weights. Jogging.

Everything hurt.

Painful Training and the Precipice of Burnout

As a former fat kid, I was never going to stop exercising entirely. But my usual pattern was to fall in love with some form of training that hurt less than usual, then do it until that training started to hurt too much, too. I biked like crazy until my back stayed sore all the time. I ran until my knees, feet, and hips were creaky, inflamed, and giving out on me.

Then I fell in love with CrossFit, thinking I’d found the magic bullet in such varied training. And yet, despite my focus on doing things well and right, I always had this terrifying feeling I was right on the edge of a precipice.

“No pain, no gain,” the “inspirational” memes and t-shirts say. And when I told people I hurt, the response was always something akin to, “You think it’s bad now — just wait until you’re forty!”

I did not want to be the kind of person who gave up and started thinking like that. That determination drove me to leave my former career and become a trainer at age thirty. It was the best career move I’ve ever made. Yet four years in, I was on the verge of burning out. I haven’t told anybody this before, but the StrongFirst Level I was supposed to be my last certification.

I was filled with self-doubt. Tired. Sick of pain and discomfort and all the little nagging aches that come with training regularly for years. I was debating going back to a day job. But I’d already paid for this StrongFirst thing in Atlanta. Might as well go.

Strength is a skill
Second from the right, at the StrongFirst Level I Certification.

A Life-Changing Eye-Opener from StrongFirst

I am not exceptional when it comes to CrossFit. But, for a CrossFitter, I like to think I am exceptional when it comes to attention to detail and form. So I may have been over-confident going into the SFG Level I. Get-ups in particular are one of my favorite movements. So when we started discussing those, I’m pretty sure I smirked. Until we started.

I did a get-up and got back to the bottom to discover four or five faces looking down at me. Disapprovingly. Several of the nearby coaches had come over during the course of my first get-up to discuss how badly I’d performed the movement. My poor ego lay in tatters at their feet by the time they were done with me.

StrongFirst Get-Up Greg Woods
I thought I had a great get-up, until I learned how to do one right.

That wasn’t the only blow to my ego that weekend. When they described the Beast Tamer Challenge with a line of candidates nearby, I looked at Jody Beasley and my thinking went something like, “He looks fit enough, but he’s also kind of a slim guy. I wonder if he’ll actually be able to… oh, wait, he’s done already.” He made it look easy. And just because I am bigger and have more hair didn’t mean a thing. That guy’s stronger than me.

There is competitiveness with a StrongFirst mindset, but it’s within the shared boundaries of quality. This is what I’d been searching for: the challenge of precision. Not mere physicality. Strength as a skill.

Suddenly, I was there. I was back. All the way back to when I first fell in love with lifting and also later, when I fell in love with coaching. I was falling in love with StrongFirst. By the time my Team Leader, Delaine Ross, started to tell everyone how finding StrongFirst was exactly like her discovering her field full of bee people (ask her sometime), I’d come to understand, too. This was my tribe. These were my people.

All this time I’d been hurting from strength training wasn’t because I wasn’t physically capable. But I’d been treating strength all wrong. I’d treated it like a commodity, a product you purchased with pain. StrongFirst made me see it with new eyes. Strength as a skill. Something you practice deliberately and for your whole life, like art.

StrongFirst Empowers on Many Levels

Something else stuck with me that weekend, too. I had never in my life been among people who so strongly advocated for those in attendance to start their own businesses. One of my new friends from that weekend, Jason Borden, asked a question about pursuing his own thing and was all but shook by the shoulders with enthusiasm to go off and start his own business. And you know what? He did. PJ Olsen, another attendee that weekend, started pushing her business, Music City Kettlebell. It was all so cool to see.

On the drive home at the end of the weekend, I couldn’t get the idea out of my head. I had to do my own thing. I’d been on the verge of departing the industry, and suddenly as a newly minted SFG, here I was thinking of taking a bigger dive into fitness than I ever had. And the reason why would become my own personal motto: strength is liberating. That also became the slogan of my new business, Structure Strength and Conditioning.

The Real Strength of StrongFirst

In the months since my initial StrongFirst experience, I have completely overhauled my training. I’m enjoying not just every workout, but every rep. My swings and snatches have tightened up. Pull-ups, a movement I used to make excuses over all the time (“I weigh about 235 — not really built for pull-ups”), have become a pleasure and have improved into a controlled, deliberate, and strong movement.


Best of all, no more pain. I love it all.

Unless you are practicing strength as a skill, then you’re actually practicing pain as a skill. It’s possible to get fit and be in pain, but gaining strength at the expense of quality and stability is exchanging one prison for another. Instead, your pursuit should be total perfection of movement.

That SFG Level I Certification weekend made me strong. It taught me to move slowly, deliberately, and with purpose. Now, one of the first things I tell each new client is that strength is a skill. So treat it like any other skill: with patience and practice. Reaching your goals doesn’t have to hurt.

Oh, and one more thing: a considerable portion of my training has now been focused on attaining the Beast Tamer. I’m comin’ for you, Jody.

Greg Woods
Greg Woods is a strength and movement-focused personal trainer and endurance coach. He believes all humans should be knowledgeable about and train in as many modalities as they can, as evidenced by his many and varied certifications including: SFG II, MovNat, Z-Health, CrossFit (with specialty courses in endurance and gymnastics), USAW, and NASM. His special interests include mobilization for heavy lifters, corrective exercise, neurological training, run form, and convincing people they can do more than they thought possible.

After 2000+ hours coaching CrossFit, Greg has been broadening his horizons with ever more kettlebell training, gymnastics, and natural movement – specifically focusing on these principles in his own personal training company started in 2015: Structure Strength and Conditioning.

He also recently opened a small gym, Legitimate Movement, in Durham, NC with his good friend Kevin Perrone.

In his spare time, Greg Woods writes fiction and loves to travel
Greg Woods on Facebook

5 thoughts on “Strength Is a Skill — Strength Is Liberating

  • Thank you for sharing your personal and professional levels of StrongFirst journey. I totally appreciate it.

  • Excellent. “Everything hurts”… Been there. Quit practicing karate after 15 years of constant pain, broken bones, concussions, knee surgery, surgery to repair nerve damage. Started running more, red lined all the time, thrashed myself until another torn meniscus. Walking and hiking eventually made me feel somewhat repaired. Then five years of crossfit. Loved it, but it fit in too well with my no pain, no gain mentality. I knew Greg Glassman said “long slow on-ramp to fitness” but I didn’t think that applied to me. I never really listened to anyone, just followed my own piss poor programming from my poorly mentored ignorant youth. I found myself sitting at home, broken, depressed and getting less fit everyday. Found Pavel. Perhaps there’s still hope for a very stupid old man.
    If your fiction is as good as your non-fiction I’d like to read that too…

    Best wishes for your coaching career, great article.

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