This Sunday, I’ll have the honor of coaching/speaking at Greg Robin’s Optimizing the Big 3 seminar at Cressey Sports Performance. Greg is a tremendous coach, lifter and mentor. He’s made a huge impact on my coaching career and I can confidently say that had he not taken me under his wing, I wouldn’t be half the coach I am today.
During our staff in-service this week, Greg presented on strength training theory and it got me thinking – what really separates great lifters from just the good ones?
You could go in lots of directions with an answer. I am not a great lifter yet, so I’m constantly thinking about how to get there and putting those thoughts into action. And I want to help others become great lifters, which is why I created this website.
Based on what I’ve learned from Greg and my own experience under the bar, I think it ultimately comes down to three things. Before you tear your hair out over-analyzing your own training, ask yourself, what am I doing to become great at these three things?
Maybe it’s obvious, but great lifters have great technique. They’ve mastered their craft because they’ve spent enough time and energy cultivating their lifting technique so that they can focus more on getting stronger, not fixing technique errors.
My sister Alex and I attended one of Dan Green’s seminars earlier this year and he made a really interesting point. He said that technique dictates your strength potential first and foremost. If your technique sucks, it doesn’t matter how much muscle you have, how hard you train or how many drugs you take. At a certain point, you will no longer be able to outrun shitty technique.
Dan told a story about his squat. Early in his lifting career, his gains started to stall. He could steadily squat 500 or 600 pounds, but his chest always seemed to cave and he would fall forward when he tried to squat heavier. He knew that to eventually squat 700 or even 800 pounds, he had to change his technique. It didn’t matter how strong his legs or back got. He couldn’t outrun his current technique flaws.
I’ve certainly experienced this. I wrote a lengthy post about how much I’ve struggled with deadlift technique. I pulled my first 500-pound deadlift in 2010. That’s five years ago. My current PR is 555. That’s an average gain of 11 pounds per year. There’s no doubt in my mind that my progress would have been faster had I fixed my technique sooner.
Since working with Greg on technique, I’ve finally started to make progress on my form and can keep my technique together with heavier weight.
And ever notice how so many great lifters make heavy-ass weights look fast and easy? And when they do miss, they don’t miss ugly? That’s because when your technique is dialed in, you only miss lifts because of strength. Not because your technique sucks.
So how do you improve technique? Here’s a list:
- Practice (duh). Every session is a chance to practice (we’re talkin’ ’bout practice) perfect form, so don’t sleepwalk through your reps – even your warmup reps.
- Pick assistance exercises that take away leverages to force you to overcome your weaknesses. No bullshit board presses, reverse bands or other ego-stroking nonsense here. For example, if you miss your deadlifts off the floor, don’t pull against bands to “help with your speed”. Instead, make the initial pull harder. Dan Green uses low block pulls to improve tension and get faster off the floor.
- Hire a coach. I did. Lots of coaches and great lifters do too. If coaches need coaches, so do you.
2. WORK CAPACITY
Work capacity is a phrase that gets thrown around a lot in the fitness world, but what does it really mean? In terms of lifting for maximal strength, it means the ability to do more volume in a given session.
The more volume you can do, the better you’ll get. That’s more reps, which means more technique practice. That’s more tonnage (total pounds lifted, i.e. 100 pounds for 3 sets of 10 reps equals 3,000 pounds of tonnage), which is another way to add progressive overload besides just more weight on the bar.
It also means better recovery from set to set and workout to workout. The more recovered you are, the fresher you are for each set, which means less technique breakdown and less chance for injury. It means you can train more frequently, which means more… you guessed it – PRACTICE.
How do you improve work capacity? A few ideas:
- Technique (Again? Yes, again.) – the better your technique is, the less banged up you’ll get because you’ll have less stress on your joints from lousy positioning.
- Conditioning – A larger aerobic base means more recovery because all recovery is aerobic in nature. (A side note: your conditioning shouldn’t detract from your recovery, which means Prowler suicides aren’t the best idea. For better conditioning ideas, read this article by fellow CSP coach Miguel Aragoncillo).
- Breathe – If you don’t know how to breathe properly (hint: you probably don’t), you’re essentially in “fight or flight” mode all the time and you’ll struggle to recover. Watch this video to understand why breathing is so damn important:
Great lifters know how to lift with intent. What the hell is intent? It’s lifting every single rep of every single set like you were attempting a 1-rep max.
You see, one thing that separates truly elite strength athletes from the rest is their ability to tap into fast-twitch muscle fibers as fast as possible. We’ve all heard of fast-twitch and slow-twitch muscle fibers, but few people understand how they work.
Muscle fibers are recruited (i.e. called upon by the nervous system to produce force) by size, from smallest to largest. This is called the Size Principle. Slow-twitch muscles, which have lots of endurance but aren’t very big or strong, are recruited first. Then, we call upon fast-twitch muscles, which are big and strong but fatigue quickly. This makes sense, because we only recruit our fast-twitch fibers when we need them. Imagine if we skipped right to our fast-twitch fibers to write a letter – we’d get tired after one sentence (and probably break the pen in half).
Muscle fiber recruitment is dependent on one main factor: effort. Believe it or not, it has nothing to do with heavy weights. It doesn’t have much to do with speed of movement either, which is a common misconception. As you can see in the above graph, when performing an MVC (maximal voluntary contraction, i.e. squeezing a muscle as hard as possible – nothing to do with heavy weight or a fast movement), small fibers get recruited first, followed by big fibers, which then get tired and get “un-recruited” only to leave the small fibers left. Hence why force production doesn’t just stop suddenly when you lift to failure – it falls off gradually.
The bottom line is if you don’t try hard, you won’t recruit many muscle fibers. There’s only one way to guarantee maximal recruitment of all our muscle fibers: lift until failure (i.e. you can’t move the weight any more). But there’s another way to make sure you’re at least getting to the fast-twitch fibers: lift really hard and really fast (or at least try to be fast).
Great lifters know how to apply max effort to every rep. This is why speed work is almost redundant at times. Speed work, or the dynamic effort method, means training with submaximal weight and moving it as fast as possible (typically done with 60-70% of 1RM for sets of 1-3 reps). But for elite lifters, the entire warmup is speed work! Everything moves fast!
This is why the better lifter you are, the more you get out of submaximal training. I repeat, better lifters don’t have to lift as heavy all the time because they lift with the tremendous intent required to lift heavy.
I am a HUGE believer in submaximal training, which means spending the majority of your training lifting less than 90% of your max. In fact, when I had the best bench press training cycle of my lifting career and went from 315 to 350, I spent nearly all my training between 70-80% of my max. But every single rep was lifted with intent. I lifted every weight, no matter how light, with the force needed to move my 1RM.
How do you improve intent? Just do it. It’s not about speed work, bands, chains or plyos. Lift every weight like you want to kill it. Focus. Do it. It’s simple.
GOOD, BETTER, BEST
So to review, here are three things that separate great lifters from good ones:
- Technique: you’ll stay healthier, miss fewer attempts and be able to spend more time getting strong, not fixing errors.
- Work Capacity: you’ll have better recovery, meaning you can accumulate more volume and get stronger faster.
- Intent: you’ll tap into your fast-twitch fibers more quickly and produce more force.