Why is strength important?

Strength is a critical skill when sailing.

Strength is a critical skill when sailing.

From The Archives - I’m going back through the old blog and reposting some of the best articles.

I’m sailing. I’m a sailor. I sail. I just let the boat do the work, that was my secret.

Actually, sailing a boat is pretty hard work. Pictured above is my friend Roberto working with his crew, Pete and Mark, getting the dingy ready for a dive. You may have met Roberto last summer when he was at the gym helping us build the cubbies and shelves. Every year Roberto charters a boat and invites friends on a working "vacation". We've gone twice (on our first trip, we took advantage of him being the captain of the boat so he could marry us) and are hoping to go again sometime.

That's about as dressed up as I ever get.

That's about as dressed up as I ever get.

Roberto has been spending the last couple of years working on a book that will be the definitive couch-to-sailing instructional guide. It's going to be something that allows you to safely charter and sail your own boat with your own crew of friends starting from scratch. We were invited to write the chapter on strength (I've always wanted to say "I wrote the book on strength"). Roberto understands the need to be strong on a boat, so it's an important part of his book.

Why be strong on the boat? Safety is the big reason - especially in bad weather. You need to maneuver the boat, move around the boat, and do that without falling into the water. Being strong makes that much easier. I noticed that on our second trip with Roberto, I was stronger and working on the boat was a lot easier. I felt more in control - I was at the helm in 12-foot waves while others were losing their breakfast over the side.

Being strong also helps you have more fun. There's lots to do to get a boat underway and you have to work hard just to get to your dive/snorkeling/swimming spot. You want to be able to work quickly so you can anchor and have fun, but you also want to have the energy left to have fun.

We've decided to reproduce the introduction the strength chapter of Roberto's book below. After writing it, I thought it was a great general purpose introduction on why you should be strong, and why strength training is the most important thing you can do to improve the quality of your life.

Why is strength important?

We assume that you recognize the need to be fit when sailing a boat. But what does it really mean to be fit? Commonly, there are ten dimensions used when measuring fitness: endurance, stamina, strength, flexibility, power, speed, coordination, agility, balance, accuracy. All sports and activities have a different combination of the importance of each dimension (e.g., balance is pretty important on a boat). Specific skill practice will train the most important movements for your sport or activity, but to really progress beyond an beginner level, you need to be strong. Strength is the most important skill for everything. After specific skill work, your training should be centered around progressively increasing the force production of your muscles: getting stronger.

Looking at each of the dimensions of fitness below, we can show how getting stronger will progress you along all of those dimensions, and make you more fit overall.

Endurance is arguably the least affected by getting stronger. Endurance is the ability of the cardiovascular system to efficiently deliver oxygen to the body over a long time. However, if you've trained around people on a smart strength program, you will notice that they are breathing pretty hard after a heavy set of squats. Heavy strength work affects the cardiovascular system. In fact, most of the long-duration endurance that you see in sports like long distance running or cycling are biochemical adaptations that anyone can train, even if you are bigger and stronger than the typical participant in those sports.

Stamina is the ability for your muscles to apply submaximal forces for a long time. Imagine standing and working on a boat all day. If the force required for you to stand up and move around the boat all day is 10% of your total strength, you can do that for a long time before your muscles fatigue and you have to stop. But if you are stronger the relative strength to do the same jobs drops. If the same jobs require only 5% of your total strength you can go longer than you could before, increasing your stamina.

Flexibility is your ability to move your joints through their full range motion. Outside of very rare cases of extreme tightness there is no need to stretch beyond your regular range of motion. In the best case, by stretching, you are mis-allocating your training time for something that doesn’t really help you, and in the worst case you’re risking injury. Over stretched muscles can easily get injured, and they don’t work as well holding your joints in place. Proper strength training through the full range of motion (e.g., full range of motion squats) will ensure sufficient flexibility simply by going through the motions, and you’ll get stronger too.

Power is defined as force✕distance/time. That is, it’s the amount of force you can generate on demand. All else being equal, getting stronger will increase your ability to apply force, which makes you more powerful. Generally, how quickly you can turn on force, like jumping, is determined by your genetics. That is, no amount of training will make you more explosive. But by getting stronger you can easily increase the magnitude of your explosiveness. Your genetics determine how quickly you can move your muscles, but if that movement actually has more force behind it, you have increased your power output.

Speed is your ability to cover distance quickly. Think of running: to go faster you can apply more force to the ground, or you can move your legs faster. It turns out that everyone has a natural stride and it’s nearly impossible to have a dramatic effect in speeding up or slowing down your stride. So the only way reliably and consistently to go faster is to apply more force to the ground for each step. Getting stronger will make you faster. We have had great success with elite marathon runners by giving them a very simple strength training program to supplement their sport specific program.

We group Coordination, Agility, and Accuracy together because they all relate to your ability to control your strength. Coordination is about turning muscles on and off at the right time, agility is about the expression of coordination quickly, and accuracy is about how well you can reproduce that control. In the context of sailing, imagine running to the bow to grab a line and throwing it around a post when docking. You are using your coordination and agility to maneuver quickly across the boat (while it’s rocking) and then you need to be accurate to get the line out to the dock. If you are at the limits of your strength doing that maneuver, there will be more potential for error and you won’t be able to reproduce hitting your target with confidence. By being stronger, each of these movements is not hard for your muscles to reproduce regularly.

Balance is your ability to not fall down. There’s nothing really special about balance. Balance is simply your ability to keep your center of mass over your base of support, that is, you need to be strong enough to move your body weight (and whatever you’re carrying) so that it’s always over your feet. In the absence of inner ear problems, people fall down because they’re not strong enough to remain standing. On a rocking boat, you'll need to constantly be moving your center of mass over your feet, and you'll need to do it over a larger range of motion than on dry land. Being stronger will make your balance much better.

How do you get strong?

Well, you'll need to read the book for that...or just follow our programming. Since we believe strength is the core to everything we put a huge focus on it.

Michael Deskevich