Specific goals are very important when lifting weights as something beyond a general means of being fit and moving your body around. I sometimes suffer from excessive goal shifting, but I don’t stray too far from the main principle of getting stronger and trying to add muscle without becoming a lardass.
What typically drives me to make changes are either boredom or a gnawing sense that I’m not optimizing my time. I’m wired for efficiency so I can’t handle wastefulness, whether it’s in my personal life, professional life, or certainly in my strength training. In other words, I will not stand balancing myself on a Bosu Ball and throw a weighted beach ball from overhead to the floor repeatedly, a thing I witnessed in the gym this morning. I stick to the big lifts in all their variations and try to make progress. What I do with my training can be described more accurately as tinker, rather than wholesale changes.
If I let the scientific method by my guide, at least conceptually, I make real progress. Unfortunately, I suffer from all the same biases everyone else does, and I can be prone to hero worship or romanticizing an idea. So if I admire a person’s attitude or style, I may emulate them and use confirmation bias to discard evidence that may be showing me I’ve been led astray. In the strength world, this can lead to subpar results or worse, injuries. To paraphrase Richard Feynman, “if it disagrees with experiment, it’s wrong. It doesn’t matter how beautiful the guess is, it doesn’t matter how smart the person is who made the guess, or what his name is….If it disagrees with experiment, it’s wrong. That’s all there is to it.”
So to make progress with my training, I must make a guess (hopefully an educated one) at what the best means to progress would be, and then experiment on myself and monitor results. It’s that simple. If I don’t make progress, my guess sucked. It’s not that I’m not aggressive enough, or don’t have the proper mental attitude. It means my methodology sucks. There are known principles that are fairly well established by experiment and observation, like the SAID principle (specific adaptation to imposed demands) and the principle of overload. The body will adapt to specific demands placed upon it. If you squat, your body will adapt to the squat. It won’t adapt to swimming from doing squats. If you always use the same amount of resistance to squat against, and always use the same amount of total volume of squats, there is no further adaptation necessary and no progress will be made. So first, I must decide what I want to get better at, and then devise a means to accomplish progress through overload.
I’ve tried pretty much every popular strength “program” in the marketplace, with varying degrees of success. Without question I’ve stuck with some well beyond what observations would have suggested. In other words, I fell in love with the guess and stuck with it even when experiment showed me it was wrong. Tsk, tsk. Such is the folly of being human. No one ever accused us of being too rational.
The two things I tinker with the most are how to organize the various lifts I want to perform, and the manner in which I will make progress, i.e. how will I use the overload principle? So far, experiment has shown that what may be the simplest means of applying overload is the most effective. Just add a little weight to the bar every time. It’s called linear progression, and many strength gurus don’t apply it in their “programs,” because if they did, they wouldn’t have a program to sell.
There will come a time when you can’t just keep adding weight to the bar. Your body hasn’t adapted to that demand, or perhaps (unlikely) you’ve reached the genetic potential of your strength. What I’ve been doing is setting a rep range goal and “resetting” when I can’t hit it. For example, I’ll choose to use 5 reps as my minimum goal. Every time I perform the lift, I’ll add a little more weight than the last time I did it and hit as many reps as I can before my technique goes to shit. If it’s more than 5, great. Rock on. Add more weight next time. I only got 4? Decision time: Do I reset, or try that weight again next time to be sure I can’t get 5. I could have had a bad day.
I reset by taking 90% of the weight I failed to get 5 reps with and starting over. So for example, today after warm up sets, I put 122.5 lbs on the bar for strict overhead press and did my first working set. I got 5 solid reps. I didn’t go for 6 because I knew there was a high degree of likelihood I either wouldn’t get it, or I’d be grinding away at it with form breakdown. So next time I do overhead press, I’ll put 125 on the bar and go for broke again. If I get 3 or 4, I’ll reset for the following bout and come in at 112.5 lbs for as many as I can get, which will likely be well more than 5.
The other considerations I toy around with (and that everyone must) is volume and frequency. How often should one squat, and how many squats shall one do per session? Big questions with no definitive answers. Here’s what I’ve found:
Doing a big lift once a week doesn’t work for me. If I only squat once a week for example, I almost feel as if my body has forgotten how. The mechanics don’t feel smooth, and it takes a while to warm up to where I feel solid in my technique. I’ve actually done daily squatting to try the opposite extreme and it was a lot of fun and I did make progress and my technique felt like second nature. But it’s hard to fit everything else I want to do into a schedule of squatting 5 or 6 times a week. I had decent success with squatting 3 times each week, but it was still difficult to get the other lifts in with enough frequency to match. I’ve tried full body training by basically picking one press, one squat and one pull each workout and training every other day. This worked well except for trying to add more volume to the session.
So you can see what I mean about experimenting. Make what is hopefully an intelligent guess, make a run of it, and see what results you get. I’m fairly well sold on linear progression as a means to overload, but the best way to organize the various lifts into a weekly schedule along with the right frequency and volume remains an ongoing trial. For now, frequency is upper body one day, lower body the next, and take a day off when I feel like it. As for volume, I seek the epitome of efficiency: maximum recoverable volume. More work generally means more results, but not if you can’t recover from the amount of work. I like the concept of fatigue as a measure of when to end the sets. As an example of how I apply fatigue, I’ll go back to this morning’s overhead press. After the first working set at 122.5 x 5 reps, I took 95% of 122.5 and used that for my remaining sets. I kept doing sets until I couldn’t get 5 reps, which equates to 5% fatigue in the lift if you will. I certainly could have just kept doing sets with the initial 122.5, but you can see how I get more volume in by dropping the weight a bit and matching the reps from the initial set. If I had just done sets with 122.5, chances are I wouldn’t have gotten 5 on my second set, and certainly not on any additional sets. So again, doing more work is generally better than doing less. By dropping the weight after the initial set, I get a lot more total volume in.
There are programs out there that have you use a third set as a “max rep” set. So in my example, I would have done multiple sets of overhead press before I went for my 122.5 lb max rep set. This makes no sense in light of the little bit of objective data that exists in this field. The first set is the most important set, so logically, one should go for a max rep type set when you’re fresh, not fatigued from prior sets that would best be described as heavy warm ups. I want my fatigue to come from productive training, not from warm up sets. My warm ups are light, with the intent of warming my muscles, joints and connective tissue to get ready for the main lift. I do very few reps as I increase the weights (sometimes just singles) and hit that first important set warm but not tired.
This entry is significantly longer than I envisioned it would be when I started writing it to have something to do, so I’ll end it here and go make coffee. Maybe take a shower. Peace out.