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Aggression, Technique, and Strength: Use Them As Tools – Don’t Be A Tool


What do you think of when you hear the word aggression?  Is it anger?  Is it the drive of an ambitious career person or the annoying talkativeness of someone who won’t let you get a word in?  Are people who like to argue aggressive in the same way as someone that fights in the UFC?  Like so many words, aggression has many definitions.  The psychology of aggression is beyond my scope and knowledge, so I’m just going to discuss what I know of aggression and how it can be a useful tool–and how it will turn you into a tool if you’re not careful.

3 Definitions of Aggression From The Oxford English Dictionary (The Only Dictionary Worth Quoting)

  1. An unprovoked attack; the first attack in a quarrel; an assault, an inroad.
  2. The practice of setting upon any one; the making of an attack or assault.
  3. Hostile or destructive tendency or behaviour, held to arise from repressed feelings of inferiority, frustration or guilt. (Except in textbooks not clearly distinguishable from senses 1 or 2.) Also, feeling or energy displayed in asserting oneself, in showing drive or initiative; aggressiveness, assertiveness, forcefulness.

If you’ve ever seen a video online of someone doing something strong like lifting a weight, you’ve probably heard some heavy music in the background. I confess, my own weight-room playlist is predictable: lots of macho, sweating, screaming, pained men howling about how much It All Hurts.  Music that is aggressive.  Music that I love when the time is right even though I can’t really relate to it anymore.

I sort of wish it didn’t, because crazed aggression seems potentially at odds with the issue of technique. Everyone talks about technique being a requisite for great strength. Greater technique equals greater efficiency of movement in a lift. Corrections in technique can lead to instant gains, sometimes impressive gains, just through some tweaks.

Does perfect technique require perfect focus? I believe it does.  Mark Ripptoe’s excellent book Starting Strength has about 90 pages on the squat alone.  If you are to keep those 90 pages in mind while you’re under the bar, shouldn’t you be paying attention to what you’re doing?  In the hardstyle kettlebell system, you’re not supposed to do a single rep that you can’t do perfectly

But does working yourself into a raving fit just before a big lift improve your focus? Well…

…I’m not going to tell a guy who can bench a Harley that he should be paying more attention.  Results don’t lie, but that doesn’t mean that if you shaved your head and scowled more that you could bench even a tiny dirt bike.

In the great strength book Dinosaur Training, Brooks Kubik says he literally “growls at the bar” before he lifts it.  So has he lost focus during his foaming-at-the-mouth psyche-up routines?  He can lift more than I can, so I won’t try to answer that question.  Also, Brooks has really cool glasses.

Types of Aggression


Reactive aggression isn’t learned or planned. Have you ever hit your head on the corner of a cupboard? If you’re like me, you react with anger and slam the door before running off to try to get sympathy from someone. The anger flares, and it can heat up even more since there’s nothing to take that anger out on. The cupboard doesn’t care about your stinging head. But just because the anger/aggression is misplaced doesn’t mean it isn’t real. It feels real enough.

Dropped his banana


Proactive aggression is just what it sounds like: being aggressive on purpose. Proactive aggression can wear a lots of hats. Being purposefully aggressive usually has something to do with a goal. If you’re trying to climb the corporate ladder, your ambition might require you to behave “aggressively.” If you want to be the one who gets the bigger piece of the wishbone at Thanksgiving, you might have to snap your teeth and flex a little bit to get your brother to back off.

Proactive aggression can be a blend of assertiveness and ambition.  It can be negative or positive.  Backstabbing to get ahead at work is assertive, but it’s not a great habit.  The Alpha Male attitude can get you far by way of aggressive networking, charisma, and influence.  It can also be a huge disaster and give you an abysmal rating on the PR scale.

Back To The Definitions

I think the key to knowing how to control aggression and use it as a tool for good, rather than just looking like a big jerk, is to know your motivations for behaving aggressively (assertively, proactively, you can pick).  Here’s definition 3 one more time:

  • Hostile or destructive tendency or behaviour, held to arise from repressed feelings of inferiority, frustration or guilt.

The monkey who drops his banana isn’t howling because he’s repressing his feelings of inferiority, frustration, and guilt.  He’s mad because he wanted to eat that banana and now it’s floating down the river.  The abusive or toxic person who will do anything to get ahead or dominate another human isn’t doing it reactively, at least not at first. Anything can become a habit.  If you proactively behave like a douche and lash out on purpose just because it makes you feel powerful, that will become your default reaction and your douchey behavior will eventually be reflexive.

As with all other human qualities, and as with technique during kettlebell lifts, yoga sessions, or benching Harley’s, you must:

  • focus on what you’re doing
  • know why you’re doing it
  • reevaluate constantly to adapt
  • reevaluate constantly to ensure yourself that you’re making the progress you want and becoming who you want to be

Reactive aggression is not goal-oriented or caused by ego trouble.  Proactive aggression can help you reach your goals but needs to masked in appropriate behavior and humility.  Proactive aggression can be very useful if you can learn how to turn it on, and you are using good practices and technique. If you can foam at the mouth in the gym and not sacrifice technique, go for it.  If you can aggressively maneuver your way to the top of the corporate ladder without making enemies and alienating everyone around you, go for it.

If turning his hat around and snarling helped Sylvester Stallone out-armwrestle that giant guy in the pink shirt at the end of Over The Top, good for him.  Maybe I’ll try it.  If Ebenezer Scrooge got rich at the expense of his friends, family, humanity, and Public Relations ranking, I want no part of him in my life.

And again, I’m not going to tell Brooks Kubik he can’t bite the bar in half if that’s what does it for him.  Results don’t lie.  If that lady from the Harley video came and slapped me around before I went over to Gold’s, maybe I could finally nail that dainty 10 lb tricep kickback that I’ve been chasing for so long.

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  • Greg Fedderson May 4, 2009, 4:54 pm

    Great article! I am naturally a very laid back person(possibly even lazy) but when it is time to workout I go to war! Each exercise is an enemy to overcome. Not with the mindless agression of a beast, but with the calculated and sometimes restrained agression of a warrior. I find that a certain amount of agression can enhance my focus. I found that achieving the right state of mind during a work out is just a important as proper nutrition and sleep!

    • Josh Hanagarne May 4, 2009, 5:10 pm

      True, true, and true Greg. Don’t forget, I’ve seen you in action. While I have a hard time imagining you being lazy, I’ve definitely seen you in animal mode. It’s good to have a switch you can flip if you’re trying to get stronger, no doubt.