There are generally two approaches to acquiring new skills and abilities. One is through strength, the other is through technique (deliberately leaving out mobility for the sake of this discussion). Generally both are required to varying degrees dependent on the particular skill. We’re going to discuss persistence a bit here. Strength and technique have wildly varying levels of persistence.
In college I was a bit of a “muscle it” gymnast. I didn’t have the extensive gymnastics backgrounds of most of my competitors and my technique was lacking in many areas. I discovered that if I got strong enough I could muscle my way through some fairly difficult skills. This allowed me to compete to some degree, but was a pretty ineffective approach to the sport in the long run.
You see this in many individuals in our gym. Some are able to just get through skills and workouts on strength alone. I can be frustrating to watch someone handle loads you simply can’t, even when their technique is poor in comparison. Rest assured, a focus on technique, in the long run is the best option.
It has been concluded that it takes about three years for an untrained individual to reach their genetic maximal strength. This is assuming a dedicated focus on purely strength training. Also, there are some indications that once this “maximum” is reached, continued strength training continues to lead to strength gains, though these gains are small. Now, if we took this individual that has attained maximal strength and took them off strength training we are going to see atrophy. Their strength gains will ebb in time. In most cases they won’t reach the same minimum strength state they were in before they started strength training, indicating there is some permanence in the strength, but they will loose a great deal of that strength. In order to regain the strength they will need to repeat the strength training process. The next time around it will come back faster than it was to build it in the first place, but a big piece of this permanence is neurological, not physiological.
With technique there really isn’t any “maximal” state. With most skills refinement can be continued for years. Personally there are some gymnastics elements that I can perform with more technical accuracy now than I did when I was in college. This comes out of just having more years of practicing the skills, and a better understanding of the mechanics. So lets for the sake of this discussion look at a 3 year period. If we take someone through a rigorous technical training program for 3 years on some skill or set of skills we would see dramatic increases in ability in that area. If we then removed them from the skill set and tested them a significant time later their technique would be a bit “rusty”, but they would maintain a high degree of competency in that skill. We see this all the time when new people come into the gym which is why we want to know their sport background clear back to when they were a child. These skill sets are maintained for decades in some cases.
This is why we stress technical proficiency so much. Particularly in how we train children. If we are able to develop solid mechanics in a young athlete it doesn’t matter if they walk away from sport for a long time, those movements will aid them for the rest of their lives.
This isn’t to say strength isn’t important. If it wasn’t important we wouldn’t work on it so darned much. It is just to clarify the differences in persistence. Now, when you have an athlete that has both a high degree of strength, and technical proficiency is when you have a champion.