Strength: You're Doing It Wrong! Exercise Solutions

The canvas we’ll be working with today encompasses a number of pertinent topics within the landscape of getting stronger and becoming a more structurally sound human being; common training fallacies, pervasive myths, and foolproof strength training principles will all be covered as we move forward together.

On a daily basis - and, fortunately for you reading - I’m exposed to an extremely broad palette of individual scenarios within the respective realms of strength development and human movement, as I have the utmost pleasure of working as a strength and conditioning coach within the walls of SAPT, one of the Washington D.C. area’s finest breeding grounds and incubators for maximizing human movement capacity and enhancing athletic potential.

SAPT training day

Be it teaching young athletes how to perform a proper jump or lunge pattern for the first time in their lives, helping a college baseball player learn to harness and produce power in his hips, facilitating the process of desk jockeys reducing the very knee or back pain symptoms that their doctors told them would never go away, showing young Padawans and Jedi’s-in-training how to construct and wield their first lightsaber, assisting a veteran lifter in adding an extra ten pounds to his or her max deadlift; each and every night I walk away with at least a modicum of new insight on how to help people feel, look, and move better. (And apparently, the ability to produce the longest run-on sentence ever seen on this website.)

I’ve written thousands of programs (literally), and overseen at least three times as many training sessions within the walls of SAPT. Given this, I’ve been able to observe what works, what doesn’t work (as much as I don’t want to admit when I’m wrong!), and collect an ever-growing pile of data. I’ve also had the luxury of being able to test and experiment with countless strength training strategies and modes on people of all ages, training goals, and genetic constitutions.

Essentially, I’m a researcher as much as I am a strength coach, and each and every one of my findings, successes, and failures within the SAPT Lab propels me one step closer to unlocking the gateway to untapped human movement and strength potential.

Since "I'd like/I need to become stronger" is one of my favorite goals to help people with, and given that improving one’s general strength is often (at the least) half of the solution to improved athletic performance, pain reduction, general sense of well-being, increased ninja status, and yes, looking better; that’s where we will spend our time together today.

To guide today’s discussion, I’d like to touch on a few of the common myths and fallacies surrounding the notion of “strength training” that tend to proliferate throughout the interwebz and many public gyms. Hopefully, I’ll be able to help you dispel a few of the fundamental errors many tend to make when embarking on the road of getting stronger, and to provide you a few central philosophies that can guide and direct you in successful training for years to come.

“You’re Doing It Wrong” #1 – Maxing Out Too Frequently

There’s a big difference between maxing out and training your max. The former should be reserved for a few select times in the year, while the latter should be employed on a regular basis. The former will invariably lead to stalled progress and becoming weaker, while the latter will lead to surefire progress and actually getting stronger.

sean healy deadlift

Knowledge Bomb: You don’t need to max out regularly to make your max go up!

Oftentimes, well-intentioned people become so caught up in the “if I’m not moving forward, then I must be moving backward” mentality that they feel they need to max out every single week during their barbell lifts. It’s one thing to make weekly incremental improvements in your assistance work  – for example, adding an extra chain weight to your back for a set of pushups, or using ten more pounds for a lunge variation – but pushing the limits of the “big lifts” on a regular basis will lead to frustration and fatigue at best, and missed lifts or injury at worst.

This isn't to say one should live in trepidation of performing anything over 90% of their max, but there's something to be said for treating strength as a skill and not as something to be trifled with. It's obviously okay to train around 90% from time to time, but understand there's an immense difference between 90-95% loading parameters, and 100%; the difference in neurological output and mental strain is unreal, not to mention the recovery time.

While I hope it goes without saying that this is imperative for the recreational “Joe or Jane” lifter who is training for fitness and general wellness, seeking to become stronger while remaining injury free,  it’s also extremely important for the competitive athlete who has a plethora of competing demands outside the gym walls.

Since an athlete is regularly practicing skill work, sprinting, and competing, the strength coach has to carefully construct their resistance training program so that it still develops their strength and power while yet not interfering with the countless other demands (physical and mental) they undergo outside of the training facility.

Believe me, I understand and respect the drive to get better each day. But “getting better” isn’t necessarily synonymous with banging your head, repeatedly against a brick wall in workout after workout. Just because you may be using submaximal loads – honing technique and working on rate of force development – doesn’t mean you’ll fail to get stronger simply because you aren’t regularly pushing the literal limits of your body. In fact, you’ll be pleasantly surprised to find you’ll end up where you want to be much faster this way. 

Dan John and Pavel said it best: "'Coax' the 80% poundage up, instead of forcing the 100%. This is the patient approach of the professional."

There's a reason the strongest individuals in the world rarely (if ever) miss lifts and only go for TRUE maxes on a select few times per year. It simply works!

"You’re Doing It Wrong" #2 – Pigeonholing Yourself Into What a “Main” Movement Is

Just because you may not be prioritizing a powerlift (barbell squat, bench press, deadlift) or Olympic lift (power clean, snatch), in your training doesn’t mean you still can’t build muscle and get stronger.

Don’t get me wrong, the powerlifts and O-lifts are phenomenal from an efficiency standpoint - you can pack on large amounts of muscle, strength, and power while keeping your exercise quiver relatively small – but remember that many individuals, you perhaps included, simply may not be in a place where it’d be prudent to perform one or all of these lifts on a regular basis. This could be because of structural changes (i.e. femoroacetabular impingement, reactive bony changes on the acromion, etc.) immobility, poor stability, or anthropometry concerns.

Have some sort of structural pathology going with your hips? Unable to maintain a good mechanical position while squatting, due to poor stability and/or mobility? Try subbing out all barbell squatting exercise variations for a unilateral exercise, such as a barbell stepback lunge with a front squat grip:

This way you receive all the benefits of axial loading, can garner plenty of strength and stability benefits, while yet satiating your palate for placing a loaded bar on top of you.

Have an insanely long torso and short legs, so you find conventional deadlifting problematic? Try pulling Sumo-style or using the trap bar.

(Note: As I noted in this article, you can find a deadlift variation to suite ANY body-type, age, or ability level)

Shoulder bothering you? Perhaps it's time to take a mini break from barbell pressing (it's okay, the earth will continue to revolve on its axis). Become really proficient with landmine presses and dumbbell bench presses with a neutral grip:

Experiencing low back pain, and bent-over barbell rows are giving you trouble? No worries, you can still pack on plenty of muscle and strength using a dumbbell row alternative or seated row to tide yourself over.

Back pain so severe that any sort of bilateral squat or deadlift is irking it currently? Get some work done with heavy sled pushing!

The possibilities are nearly endless. Many times it’s not worth it to fall into the bravado that surrounds the various barbell lifts if one (or a few) of them don’t fit well with you. Find what exercise* works for YOU to use as a strength exercise and as a gauge for measuring progress.

Well, I’m already at well-over 1,000 words, so I’m going to cut it here for today. Stay tuned for Part 2 in which we’ll continue where we left off!

*Except for the leg press.