If you’re asking how strong you are, you’re asking the wrong question.

Guest post by Dana McMahan

Image from page 103 of "Tensing exercises" (1913)Hi, I’m Dana and I’m a number chaser. The siren call of heavier, always heavier weights transformed me, making me better – at everything – than I’d ever been, and brought me crashing lower than I’d have dreamed possible. More than once. I fell in love with lifting weights, then fell into the trap of never being strong enough. With each goal I met and surpassed under the bar, I aimed ever higher. I was strong – so, so strong – but in my mind, not strong enough. Because there was always more; the possibilities were infinite.

After crashing and burning – first wrecking my back and landing in the hospital for surgery, and less than a year later working my way into a spectacularly frightening case of rhabdomyolysis – the quest was over. There would be no ‘how much stronger can I get?’

After wallowing in self-pity for a while I decided to dig into what exactly strong means, anyway, and how we can know when we’re strong. I hoped to find some measure of strength that would tell me I was still strong, even though I could only do a fraction of the (dangerous and foolish) things I’d done at the height of my strength.

I researched a story for the website 75togo.com, reaching out to a number of experts who could define strength for me. And in no uncertain terms I learned that my quest had been a futile one. None of the experts could agree on a universal standard of strength, and they challenged the very nature of my question. I’ve never been so glad to learn I was wrong.

The full piece is here. I hope you’ll read it. But here were my most important takeaways.

Can you stand up from a seated position on the floor without using your hands? (I immediately got on the floor to try it.) This measure is actually one that is an “incredibly accurate” predictor of mortality. Which reminded me – isn’t the whole point of exercising to, you know, take care of yourself?

Barbells were never meant to be an end unto themselves. How useful is it in the real world to lie on a bench and raise a weight above your chest?

If you work within your limits, your limits expand. I pushed my limits constantly, and my body responded by breaking down constantly. Unfortunately, until now I didn’t have a trainer who would rein me in. For the first time in my fitness life, I’m working well within my limits (I’m not saying it’s easy, mentally, but I’m physically far better off for it).

And a favorite new line: It’s about the pursuit of fitness. My pursuit was always higher numbers. When I think about it this way, I think of the awesomely fun things I’ve gotten to do, and still want to do. Getting strong did let me do things like learn to white water raft, go rock climbing, and try mountain biking. I still harbor dreams of boxing, and there are so many other sports still to try. By trading an endless quest for strength for the pursuit of fitness I can [what an idea!] have fun, feel better, and live healthier.


Read the full story, with expert insights from

  • Khaled Allen: Holistic health and fitness coach
  • David Dellanave: lifter, coach, and owner of The Movement Minneapolis
  • Dr. Paul McKee: Sports medicine doctor, team physician for University of Louisville football and baseball
  • Sarah Peterson: Personal trainer, yoga instructor and USMC veteran
  • Nick Sarantis: sports performance program coordinator for Baptist Sports Medicine, Louisville
  • Lou Schuler: award-winning journalist, certified strength and conditioning specialist, a contributing editor to Men’s Health magazine, and author or coauthor of many books, including The New Rules of Lifting