Sunday, January 11, 2015

The Top Ten Considerations in Strength Training - Part 3: Physical Considerations

By Andrew McGunagle

[Originally published on Shredded By Science]

In the first two installments of this series I covered a few of the key technical and mental considerations of the strength training process. If you missed those two parts, please go back and read them now. Proper technique and a particular frame of mind can take care of a slew of potential training issues before they arise, so it is in your best interest to give those matters their due. Having said that, building your strength and enhancing your physique obviously requires you to consider your body and how it responds to exercise. So, without further ado, let’s examine the final four points in this series - the physical considerations...

7) Specificity: Do the lifts! If you want to become stronger in the powerlifts, then you’ve got to squat, bench, and deadlift. If you want to become a better weightlifter, then you need to snatch and clean and jerk. If you want to be able to one-arm overhead press a big weight and do some heavy chin-ups, then do those lifts. These are the points that are made most often when it comes to specificity in strength training, and for good reason. Putting together an intelligent progression for the lifts you want to build and doing those lifts consistently for a long time will - as long as a few other undeniable requisites are in place - enable you to achieve great results. However, there are a few other points about specificity I’d like to touch on.

If doing the lifts you want to build will best build those lifts, then what’s the value of all the other stuff in helping your towards your goals? Well, in many cases the answer is: not much - jumping rope probably won’t help you bench press more weight. Nevertheless, if you break down the lifts you focus on into a set of required qualities and pinpoint your weaknesses, then you can choose general exercises that specifically address those weaknesses. Pick exercises that target muscle groups that could benefit from being bigger, and select protocols that will enable you to maximize hypertrophy in those areas. Identify where you’re weakest within the range of motion of a particular exercise, and do assistance exercises that improve your ability to produce force at those joint angles.

8) Practice: In order to maximize the neural effects of your training, you’ve got to consistently train the same movement patterns. If your set-up isn’t systematized and the execution of your lifts varies wildly, then you’ll end up missing out on a large chunk of the potential benefits of improved coordination. Essentially, you won’t be as strong as you could have been if you had simply done more perfect reps rather than loads of sloppy ones.

Consistent technique regardless of the load, distractions, and fatigue takes time, study, thought, and practice. You need to understand each element of your set-up and each phase of your execution, and you must learn to problem-solve under a variety of conditions. When I was first learning how to lift, I was often frustrated by how much my performance would fluctuate for particular lifts. One week I’d feel rock-solid on the bench, and the next week I’d be a shaky mess lifting less weight for fewer reps. How could I adhere to the principles of progressive overload with these inconsistency issues? When I finally pruned away all of the extra movements from my set-up for each lift and standardized my positions, I found that increasing my strength became a much more straightforward process.

9) Hypertrophy: You must identify underdeveloped muscle groups and, in the alleged words of Dmitry Klokov, "f--- with" them. Volume, fatigue, and a calorie surplus enable you to build muscle, and building more muscle is the most important adaptation for long-term success in the iron game. Your current structure only has so much strength potential and, while the inter- and intra-muscular coordination benefits of specificity and practice will certainly build your lifts, filling out your frame will ultimately enable you to reach a higher peak.

If you have specific strength goals such as, say, bench pressing 150 kilos, then look at how big and how heavy the average individual with your height and structure that can bench that much is. If you’re skinny and lanky compared to those lifters, then it’s reasonable to assume you’ll need to build yourself up to their standard to achieve similar performances. Don’t point to the genetic anomalies that naturally possess amazing relative strength - pinpoint the average physique that has achieved the numbers you desire, and pick up your fork and get to work.  

10) General Development: While specificity reigns supreme for building up particular lifts, that progress can only be sustained with a solid foundation of general development.  Ironing out front to back and right to left asymmetries, taking care of lagging muscle groups, attending to neglected or missing ranges of motion with SMR, mobility, and movement, and improving general work capacity are oft-forgotten requisites that ward off potential issues.

I understand this contradicts some of the points I made about specificity, but I want you to keep in mind that general work needs to be tailored to your specific goals. You shouldn’t be training for a triathlon if all you want to do is lift heavier weights - you need to do things that are reasonable and will positively impact your ability to perform your main lifts safely and sustainably. Think about improving your ability to easily adopt and “own” the positions you need to achieve, and spend some time in positions you don’t train to ensure your body doesn’t start to lock up.

You can get away with a narrow approach for quite some time, but your musculoskeletal health will ultimately suffer if you do not posses the ability to complete a variety of physical challenges more or less successfully. Plus, this general training will break up the monotony of doing the same lifts over and over, and I’ve noticed it can also improve mood and motivation. If you’re stuck in a lifting rut, expand your movement repertoire at the beginning of your next training cycle, then gradually pare things down as you work towards a peak. This is what successful lifters have been doing for decades, and it would be wise to follow suit.

Thanks for reading!    

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