Strength: You're Doing it Wrong! Part 2

In the first installment of this series, we dived into a couple of the fundamental errors many folks tend to make while on the quest to become stronger. In case you missed it (shame on you), you can check it out with the link provided above; otherwise, let's get right to it and pick up where we left off!

"You're Doing It Wrong" #3 - Overkill

In case you're wondering what overkill looks like within the context of a strength and conditioning program, Dan John once gave a fantastic illustration of it: "If jumping off a box helps my vertical, then jumping off of a building will help that much more." 

People often make the mistake of taking an idea, or something that may be good either in moderation or a specific context, and carrying it to the extreme:

- "I've heard that focused periods of training with loads of 90%+ will augment my one-rep max, so I'll employ them all the time, every day." - "Since a few sets here and there of isolated bicep curls may develop connective tissue quality of the biceps tendons, I'll do thirty sets a week!" - "Strong lifters use bands for accommodating resistance, so I should use them, too." - "Three sets of heavy squats will make me stronger, so doing twelve heavy sets must have four times the effect."

Here's a tip. Always do the least required - be it intensity, volume, or using "secret powerful" methods - to incite the desired adaptation. This way, you can save the higher intensities, volumes, etc. for later in your training when they become essential for continued improvement. (Note: I discussed this in further detail, via the concept of the minimum effective dose, HERE.)

"You're Doing It Wrong" #4 - Sacrificing Form for Weight on the Bar

Putting it another way: sacrificing form to stroke your ego.

How many times do you see "that guy" deadlifting with a rounded back, squatting with the knees wobbling all over the place, or bench pressing with the bar bouncing off his chest like a trampoline?

Sure, sometimes it can be a simple lack of education - he (or she) hasn't been coached correctly on the ability to perform fundamental human movement. But other times, and this is more often the case (at least with males), is that people don't wish to take the time - and by extension refuse to exercise patience and discipline - to learn the various movements correctly. They don't care that adding fifty more pounds to the bar causes complete breakdown in form, as long as it means they can satisfy their egos by lifting fifty more pounds.

Dr. Kelly Starrett summed this up quite nicely: "Sacrificing good form will cannibalize your potential benefits."

Be it training to get stronger, run faster, jump higher, or simply improve your quality of life, lifting with poor form does absolutely nothing for you. Well, other than eventually showing up on your doorstep to exact payment by means of pain or injury.

(Note: for those of you who think one can't lift any appreciable weight with good form, check out the video below with Jeremy Frey.)

You can do pushups with your low back sagging toward the floor and your elbows flared, deadlift with a flexed (or hyperextended) lumbar spine, bench with your shoulders protruding forward, squat with the knees collapsing, overhead press with all sorts of compensation patterns, until one can't. 

Who cares who is around you or who may be watching. Recognize that you are in this for life, that a lot of small improvements add up to quite a bit, and that greatness isn't achieved in a day. Exercise the patience and discipline of a true professional.

"You're Doing It Wrong" #5 - Adding Too Many "Finishers"

Confession: I have a slight masochist streak in me, which loves to push my body to the brink of destruction on occasion. And I think it's evident that quite a few others do, as well, which is why sports such as CrossFit are so popular.

However, constantly pushing our body's limits - either as the training session itself, or as a "finisher" at the end of the strength training - will undoubtedly hinder strength gains.

You can only chase so many goals at one time, and it's easy to fall into the "I want it all! Now!" trap.  More strength, more endurance, more flexibility, more hypertrophy, etc. Attempting to achieve all these things, concurrently, is akin riding multiple horses with one saddle: rarely does it end well. 

Using myself as an example: back when I discovered the "wonderful" world of metabolic circuits and Tabatas, I'd throw them in at the end of every strength training session thinking that it would automatically turn me into a lean, mean, fighting machine. My primarily goal was strength improvements (I was following a powerlifting-centric program at the time) but me, in all my intelligent greatness, thought it'd be wise to throw in crazy finishes at the end of each session to improve my work capacity and keep body fat at bay.

Did I become pretty decent at doing a lot of squat thrust + tuck jumps in a short period of time? Sure....but to what end? Did I get stronger throughout the course of the program? Not so much.

At least, not nearly as much as I could have had I not committed such wanton foolery at the end of each strength training session. Our bodies can only handle so many competing demands; you can only get so far by trying to simultaneously train for both strength and the anaerobic lactic system.

Keep the goal.....well, keep the goal, the goal! If your goal is strength, then your actions should reflect this. 20-rep deadlifts in a circuit, for time, is not strength training.

I'm not poo-pooing on those who enjoy circuit training or want to add a "metabolic boost" to each training session. To each their own. But I do feel many miss the mark when it comes to choosing a goal and seeing it to the end. If you want to get better at circuit training, then do circuit training. But if you want to get stronger, then, well, do things that will make you stronger, and focus on those things alone.

Now, just because strength may be your primary goal, this doesn't necessitate you allowing yourself to fall so far by the wayside that you become winded from climbing a small flight of stairs. In fact, smart cardiovascular activity will only aid you in your quest to carry, push, and pull heavy objects. Just follow these rules with any conditioning you do:

  1. If you're worried about increased bodyfat levels, do your due diligence in the kitchen. A rule we use with our athletes at SAPT is that training should NEVER be used to make up for irresponsibility in the kitchen.
  2. Don't be an idiot.
  3. If you do need to develop your work capacity, go about it in an intelligent manner. Monitor your heart rate, employ joint-friendly modalities, and track your strength gains to ensure you're still moving in the right direction.

Examples for the Strength Enthusiast

- For some examples of joint-friendly conditioning options, check out the series I put together HERE and HERE.

Hill sprints are another great option.

- Todd Bumgardner also put together a solid article at T-Nation, A Practical Guide to GPP, in which he lays out some good options, along with providing advice on when to put focused periods of GPP (general physical preparedness) into your program.

- Tim Henriques wrote a great article, Cardio for Strength Athletes, that discuss and provides awesome guidelines for....well, I think the title is self-explanatory.

"You're Doing It Wrong" #6 - Training at Too High of a Percentage Relative to Your One-Rep Maximum

I tell you truly, it really is incredible how strong one can become by lifting with submaximal loads. While yes, there certainly are times to push it and incorporate periods of lifting close to your max, there's much to be said for maintaining solid bar speed and keeping the load low(ish) in training.

Yes, I am biased, as I work predominantly with athletes and I'm always seeking ways to make them stronger and faster with minimal risk of injury, but many successful powerlifters have (successfully) utilized this approach, as well.

Two quick examples of student-athletes at SAPT. Here is Carson, now at UVA and competing in powerlifting, who we helped take his deadlift max from 410lbs to 445lbs, never using loads higher than 365lbs in training!

And here is Red Dowdell (now playing Division I baseball at VMI) who trained at SAPT in-season during his senior year of baseball. I kid you not, we never had him lift anything higher than 275lbs during his in-season training, and yet he was able to pull 405lbs post-season. (His previous best was 325lbs.)

That's a 35lb and 80lb improvement, all accomplished while using loads well less than 90% of what they were actually capable of doing in training.

It's amazing what you can accomplish by ceasing to obsess over weight liftedin training as your sole benchmark for improvement, rather than improving rate of force development, honing technique, and judiciously manipulating frequency, volume, and other training variables to make yourself stronger and more powerful.

And the stronger you become, the more imperative it becomes to astutely plan and cycle periods of higher loading, given that your nervous system is more efficient and you recruit more higher-threshold motor units than you did as a beginner. While a beginner may be able to get away with regularly training close to their max, stronger individuals become absolutely fried from doing this too regularly. What may be 90% for a 700lb deadlifter (630lbs), will have a much different impact/effect on the human animal than 90% for a 200lb deadlifter (180lbs).

"You're Doing It Wrong" #7 - Failing to Train with Purpose

Even though, in the points outlined above, I touched on concepts of good form, not going too heavy, and never doing more than is required, this doesn't mean that you can expect to become stronger without training with conviction, purpose, and intent to succeed.

Those who constantly check their cell phones for texts and Facebook or Twitter updates, and those who converse with others while the bar is on their back, will always see sub-par results compared to those who train with some freaking purpose.

Don't just go through the motions! Put the magazine down, grab the bar as tight as humanly possible, and move it like you mean it!

When you walk on to your respective training grounds - be it your garage, a commercial gym, or an awesome performance institute like SAPT - let go of everything that was plaguing you outside the facility walls. Traffic, girlfriend/boyfriend problems, co-workers driving you nuts, celebrity news tempting you to read the magazine on the shelf, it all doesn't matter.

Focus on the task at hand, and then be amazed as you reach new heights.