Strengths based practice – Verbs and Powerlifting meet social work.


As a solution focused social worker, I am interested in supporting sustainable positive change.

However precisely what activity (in the broadest sense) do we offer as professionals to achieve this. 

To describe our activity we use a set of transitive verbs (a verb that requires a direct object to implement an action) that have barely crawled out of the wishy washy swamp – Support, Refer, Talk, Visit, Advise, Signpost, Engage…………………….

Oh the insipid horror………………………

Our profession is distinct from say teaching that has its own patron saint Bloom of the verb, who passed down from education paradise the demonstrable language of, Analyse, Memorize, Classify, Measure, and Recall (amongst a list of dozens). Teachers plan lessons with activities that achieve Blooms outcomes. For example, if the lesson plan says the learners need to memorise and then recall the formula, that is explicitly what they must do.  In social work our verbs fall short, what does support look like, how can we say X (support, engagement etc) has happened or not, how much variation in practice between workers should we tolerate?  Social workers seem to do far less planning than teachers for their core activities, but then we do far more writing up of outcomes and case notes.

One cynical interpretation here is that we can only justify our roles within chaotic settings with a large dollop of hindsight.  Walk in a room and most of us would recognize when “teaching” was taking place, but I would defy most none professionally qualified to identify a social work session from observing its activity. It would look 90 % similar to the activity of the housing worker, the therapist, the probation worker or the mental health nurse.

Fit for practice, how can  the world of strength training help Social work.

Allow me to introduce the gruff, acerbic Texan Mark Rippertoe or Rip for short.

Rippertoe is an author, gym owner, podcaster, and ex powerlifter. His books offer the definitive guide to barbell or weight training. There are no flabby terms. Each element is articulated precisely and scientifically. For example, his opus work Starting Strength (basic barbell training) takes 66 pages to describe the mechanics of the squat, his empirical approach echoes Betrand Russel’s 360 page effort on showing how 1 + 2 = 3.  Russel and Rippertoe’s approach is to build an encompassing method that rests on precisely defined key terms, which allows for a successive accumulation of confidence for the trainee.

Betrand Russel

Two terms that Rippertoe defines and differentiates (thanks Bloom) are Training and Exercise.   Exercise is the verb that happens when you walk into a gym or lace up your trainers with no plan in mind, no time limit, no body part focus. Exercise’s only goal is to Exercise.

Training is a verb that happens only when it is planned in advance, through progressive overload. Through the performing of effective exercises the athlete gets faster, stronger or more powerful (whichever is their specific and defined target). 

Any improvements that are achieved through exercise (even if performed with significant effort and intensity) will be short lived and will quickly plateau. Most runners are not getting faster most folk in the gym are not getting stronger as they are only exercising.

As social workers our activity is so ill defined, we suffer a risk of “exercising” with our clients due to very little planning, a low willingness to tackle resistance and no forensic measuring of outcomes.  This malaise is linked to repeated referrals, disguised compliance, high levels of staff turnover and a lack of public and professional confidence.  The families we work with will mostly only experience short term change as there has been no depth to the work, no professional triangulation of the issues. Families have been ‘Visited’ and little more.   Being explicit, children or vulnerable adults are not made safe by being ‘Visited’ but by the resultant safeguarding actions, ringing the police, physically removing the risk and asking the revealing question.  This “exercising” offers only a corporate cloak of risk management. Serious case reviews often focus on the bean counting – how many visits? In what time period? They focus less on the modality of the intervention or its efficacy.

Canadian psychiatrist Eric Berne, aka the god father of transactional analysis, offers up the term of “pass-timing” to describe the discussion of activities without any meaningful actions or purpose. Pass-timing can be a meandering discussion of the weather or past events that serves little direction or purpose to either side of a relationship with this shielding them from the experience of true intimacy and honesty. As social workers on visits we must be aware of the proportion of our time we spend going over past events, discussing minor matters, or in idle conversation with the families we help.

As social work practitioners we perhaps have more freedom than any other profession to direct an intervention a certain way. This freedom can lead to “exercising or passtiming” or it can lead to tremendous insights and breakthroughs through creative practice. This creative practice may seem like some ephemeral fire that we can catch just for a brief moment in a session, however it is only available to those who have done the hard yards of learning, being mentored and getting it wrong. Just like an amazing feature of strength (like the picture at the opening of this article) quality social work practice only comes after a series of planned and measurable steps where the complexity and depth increase incrementally.

To sum up, social work activity, just like walking into a gym, will not be productive unless it is planned for. And significant positive results require many ingredients –

Clarity on the activity and its purpose

Access to a mentor (shortcutting mastery)

Some form of measurement (or how can you say progress has been made)

Any pass-timing should be done mindfully and not as a means to avoid the harder more demanding and rewarding actions.

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