Maximum Strength aka Old Man Strength

“Yeah, but you have Old Man Strength,” the young soldier said.

We were wrapping up another day of work conducting a low-key data collection mission in Salah ad Din province, Iraq and the soldiers were planning on getting a bite to eat then hitting the gym at thier small outpost.

The soldiers of Battle Company of 1-28 Infantry were very competitive in the gym posting their best lifts on a marker board.

“What do you bench Mr. Johannes?” one of them asked.

I honestly do not know my maximum single repetition on any lift, but I told them I had bench pressed 300 pounds for 10 reps.

There was a moment of silence, then came the comment about Old Man Strength.

I had never heard the term before.  “Dude, I’m only 37.  What is ‘Old Man Strength’?”

As he explained it, Old Man Strength is the “ability to put your mind into it.”

A couple other soldiers chuckled, but the young man was actually right on target.


In his book Extreme Fear, Jeff Wise discusses the effect of the brain’s reaction to stimuli on strength and athletic performance.

Wise cites the research by Vladimir Zatsiorsky on three different types of strength--Absolute, Maximal and Competitive Maximum.

Absolute Strength is the total mechanical strength of a person, the force a person should be able to apply.

According to Zatsiorsky’s research humans can rarely apply all that force.  A novice weight lifter can apply 65%, an experience athlete can apply 80%.  This lesser number is called Maximal Strength.

But, in competitive situations Maximal Strength can be increased by as much as 12%--hence the term Competitive Maximum.

The increase in competition is thought to be related to the Yerkes-Dodson Curve.

The increased mental arousal by a competition produces increased physical performance in some people and only to a point.

If the pressure of competition is too much, the arousal goes to far along the curve and performance decreases.  But if a person is at or near the top of the curve, they can approach the force of Absolute Strength.

As I spent more time around the soldiers of Battle Company I learned that the term Old Man Strength made its first appearance while practicing Army Combatives, a form of mixed martial arts.

Everytime the soldiers sparred, an older Platoon Sergeant, when matched against younger soldiers of equal size and skill, always won.  This Sergeant smoked, didn’t do much PT but could summon a reserve of power--Old Man Strength.

His experience in the Army and in multiple combat tours put him in the sweet spot of the Yerkes-Dodson Curve in a competitive situation.  Just being older and more experienced gave him an edge.

But there is another component to increased Maximal Strength that gives the old man the edge.


Deep in the brain is an area that works behind the scenes called the ventral striatum.

The ventral striatum is a part of the brain that works at the subconscious level and plays a role in muscle memory--the firing of the muscles in the correct sequence to execute a task.

As I type this I am totally unaware of the need to find individual keys--the complex actions taking place are so well rehearsed from years of typing that they work on auto-pilot.

The same thing applies to weight lifting in the gym.

Two weeks ago I moved up to 140 pound dumbbells for incline bench press.  My first attempts at handling those huge dumbbells must have looked absurd--it sure felt absurd.

Lifting 140 pound dumbbells is an athletic movement that requires a lot of balance and coordination as well as raw strength.

Now on my second week with them, I look much smoother.

Over the course of the two weeks I may have an ounce or two of extra muscle to help move the weight, but mostly the ventral striatum and other parts of my brain had been at work refining how my muscles will work in sequence.

I did not have to consciously think about how I was going to balance the weight--in fact it felt very smooth and easier than I expected.  Well, not EASY, the struggle was with the weight of the dumbbells not their awkward size.

Over the years I have performed thousands of repetitions in the gym involving the muscles used in an incline bench press--pecs, delts, triceps.  Every repetition has helped refine the performance leading to an improved Maximal Strength.  The more repetitions, the more powerful the effort of the muscles--giving the old man the advantage again.

Combine the the fact that I was being recorded on a Flip camera for a little boost on the Yerkes-Dodson Curve and I beat my effort from the previous week handily.

The old Platoon Sergeant sparring with younger soldiers may have only been at a certain level of combatives skill according to the Army, but over the years had more practice grappling so his reactions were more automatic.

In your own exercise regime you are probably not contemplating 140 pound dumbbells or mixed martial arts sparring with young soldiers--but the performance advantages of Old Man Strength can be engineered to your advantage.

A slightly competitive environment can improve your performance and long term progress.  For strength trainers the exrta boost along the curve could add extra intensity to a workout which can speed up progress in increasing muscle tone and size.

The extra repetitions induced by the curve give the ventral striatum more to work with further enhancing your training.

And that is the secret of Old Man Strength.

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