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It’s not ALWAYS about the total weight lifted

September 22, 2013

Tips for building better relative strength, using new & different methods of progression in your training and becoming an overall athletic weapon!

Did you know…there are more ways to become stronger apart from lifting heavy weights? Consistency in weight training is good, in fact it's essential for progress, but if you've been doing the same lifts for a long time and you have plateaued in your training overall, it might very well be time to switch things up, or even just add something new. When it comes to continued adaptation and gaining results, change (progression) is what is important in your program, not always lifting heavier.

This post is essentially geared towards more advanced lifters. If you are still a newby and have only been lifting weights for 6 months or less, even a year in some instances, I would be more concerned with building a good strength base first. Until you are hitting some pretty big numbers weights-wise, don’t worry too much about becoming more powerful and athletic yet. Focus on getting really strong in the basic lifts. Trust me when I say you will thank me later.

But back to the subject at hand, for those more intermediate-advanced lifters who may feel like you have been doing the exact same movements day in and day out--this post is for you. Maybe it’s time to get out of your comfort zone a little bit. Sure you may have had decent results while lifting the same weights and the same movements through the same range of motion at the same speed. But…seriously? Sometimes broadening your horizons can be a good thing.

Work on your relative strength rather than always focusing on absolute strength

Absolute strength is the type of strength people are usually most familiar with. Anyone who has spent any time in a gym has probably been asked, “What’s your deadlift?” Or “What do you bench?” These questions refer to absolute strength, or, the maximum amount of force that someone can exert, regardless of their body size or weight. This type of strength is best measured with 1-rep maximum calculations in different weight training movements (i.e. max bench, max squat, max clean). This is the type of strength most people are automatically trying to build.

Relative strength is a bit different; it’s the maximum amount of force that someone can exert in relation to their body size or weight. Relative strength is commonly measured with body weight exercises such as pushup and pullups. But the issue with only using these types of measurements (i.e. a max push up test) is that they are not always accurate as they sometimes measure muscular endurance as opposed to purely strength/power. For this reason, it is more accurate to use a measure of 1RM and then compare it on a scale of body weight.

Relative strength is a major component of jumping and sprinting ability and it is most important for weight class athletes, such as wrestlers and fighters, gymnasts, sprinters, as well as speed positions in sports. I personally think that unless you need a great deal of absolute strength for a particular sport (i.e. you are a powerlifter…although relative strength is also important in powerlifting), relative strength is superior. Relative strength is what determines how fast you can sprint, how high you can jump, and how agile you are. Basically it defines how athletic you are as a WHOLE.

Gymnasts have about the best relative strength (strength relative to their bodyweight, or pound-for-pound strength) of any sport; and the majority of it is built through the upper body. How do you build better relative strength? Include a lot more bodyweight movements in your training, specifically upper body movements, things like pull-ups, push ups, dips. If you are proficient with those, start challenging yourself with more difficult progressions, things like weighted-pull ups and dips, legless rope climbs, handstand push-ups, muscle ups, etc.

Train for power and explosiveness

Power is the strength quality that declines at the fastest rate as we age. A loss of power increases our risk of injury whenever we require any sudden reaction in order to save us from an accident. By starting to train for power (via jumps, Olympic lifts, sprints etc.), we can slow, or even reverse, this power decline that inevitably comes with age. Training for power and explosiveness makes you so much more athletic.

One way I increased my power and explosiveness drastically was introducing the Olympic lifts into my training. Apart from big gains in power and explosiveness, these lifts develop so much more. Because movement speed and technique dictate whether a lift is successful or not, they develop plenty of relative strength, coordination and agility. The coordination required to fluidly transition between joint angles demands flexibility as well as highly technical practice.

The Olympic lifts are very different than the usual lifts. You have to learn to master the timing of relaxing your body and then contracting your muscles in the right moment to deliver the explosive power at the right time. This challenges your mind and body in new ways; majorly increasing the mind-muscle connection and body-awareness. Can’t you tell I am a big fan?

Focusing on improving your technique

In addition to the above, part of getting stronger is improving exercise technique, so sometimes it’s a good idea to take some time away from chasing the weight on the bar in order to learn how to lift properly. Even if in some cases this means letting go of your ego and focusing on your technique with lighter weights for awhile. It will pay off in greater strength gains down the track.

Without using proper technique in lifts and movements, all you can rely on is your raw strength and power. With certain lifts and movements, strength will only take you so far. Learning proper technique will practically triple your power, and make you so much more efficient with your lifting.

Build more muscular endurance and increase your work capacity:

“It should be noted that cooperation between the cardiovascular & motor systems is important for improving work capacity, not only in endurance sports, but in all sports." -Yuri Verkoshansky (Russian strength training and plyometrics guru)

If you’ve been lifting weights for awhile now, and you have gotten pretty strong, it might be a good idea to start including some muscular endurance/work capacity training and conditioning into your regime. Even if you don’t have any endurance-related goals in mind, it’s still a good idea to work your different energy systems from time to time.

Being extremely strong and powerful doesn’t seem all that worth it to me if you can’t sustain that power when you really need it. Muscle endurance is developed when you are able to lift up to 70% of your one rep maximum, repeatedly (less weight and higher reps). In order to develop a muscle endurance routine, start by selecting a weight (up to 70% of max rep) that you can lift between 12-20 repetitions. Once you are able to lift that weight 20 times for 3 sets, increase the weight. You can also use your body weight with 12 reps or more per set to the point of muscular failure (see below for more on bodyweight exercises.)

Here’s something I read the other day:

“Athletes with a strong aerobic (work capacity) base recover energy significantly more quickly between efforts and sessions. They have a better developed “super-highway” of capillaries within the muscle to take lactic acid and metabolic waste out and to take the good stuff (oxygen, glucose, FFAs) in. They have improved insulin sensitivity and glucose transporter response that ensures that more of the energy taken in reaches the muscles. Furthermore, they have a better metabolic profile and use less glycogen in non-training related pursuits -- getting out of bed, climbing the stairs, walking to the mailbox -- it all adds up!” --Alan Couzens, MS (Sports Science)

Here's some more reading material on the subject of adding cardio and endurance training in your training, by Robertson Training Systems

You need long duration, low intensity cardio

Introduce strength exercises that challenge your mobility/flexibility and use a full range of motion.

If your goal is purely to put on size it’s sometimes helpful to use a limited range of motion on certain exercises. If you want to build better mobility and flexibility along with your strength you should start to train your muscles through their full range of motion so that you develop strength and flexibility simultaneously (flexibility without strength in that range is useless). This is important so you don’t become tight and “muscle bound” or loose and weak.

This is a huge and often overlooked aspect of strength training. And I am not talking about just doing your mobility drills or stretching. I’m talking about introducing strength training exercises that challenge your mobility at the same time as they are building strength. Some examples of these types of exercises are single limb exercises and (a personal favourite of mine!) overhead squats.

Here’s a good read on overhead squats: How to Master the Overhead Squat

Along similar lines, challenging your balance is a good way to progress in your lifting and strength. One way to do this is to move from a square stance to a narrow split stance, as in most lunge movements, and it becomes even more challenging when you go to a closer heel-to-toe position.

One of the most difficult progressions would be to perform single-leg exercises (single-leg squats or one-leg deadlifts) since you'll obviously have only one foot to provide the base of support. For upper body work, one way to change things up is to think about the multiple foot positions available for a push-up…feet close together, wide, staggered, or even changing your hands and foot position during the exercise.

Do more bodyweight movements

Let’s face it, lifting heavy weights day in, day out, is taxing on the body, particularly the joints. Bodyweight movements still deliver an awesome training effect, but give us the advantage of placing less stress on the joints. All heavy weight-bearing exercises place a degree of load on our spine. Even if you’re using perfect technique, your spine is still placed under a stress that it needs to recover from. Nobody truly knows what years of this consistent loading can do to a spine, but I think it’s safe to say that if we add in some bodyweight sessions every now and again, our spines will thank us in the long run.

The other benefit to bodyweight training is that you can progress them to make them almost infinitely harder. Take a look at this guy if you have any doubts in your mind that bodyweight exercises can be challenging and strength-building.

I used to scoff at bodyweight work, but I quickly realized that there is a certain amount of grace and control that is essential for advanced bodyweight skills that is lacking in more conventional forms of strength training. In many cases these types of movements are very different to say performing a squat or deadlift where you need to tighten and tense up your whole body before you begin. With many body weight moments and sports, the more tense and the heavier your body is, the heavier you feel when you need to move freely and gracefully. Like I said above when talking about the Olympic lifts, there are times when tense and tight is not what you need, and to be able to develop grace, control and agility WITH strength is a beautiful thing. It’s healthy for your body and mind as well.

Lessen your rest breaks between exercises:

Honest question: When was the last time you actually timed your rest breaks between exercises? I can bet most people don’t even bother.

For pure strength building, adhering to rest intervals is an important aspect in developing strength, but for increasing work capacity, building muscular endurance, improving general fitness and body composition, lessening your rest breaks can be a great idea! You might not even realize just how lazy you have become in your workouts until you start to actually time your rest breaks again.

Every minute-on-the-minute sets are a great way to become more accountable and focused on getting a certain amount of work done in a specific amount of time. These can be done with virtually any exercise. At the start of every minute, perform a certain number of reps for a total of minutes (10 minutes is a good starting point). This will massively drive up your work capacity and you can still use relatively heavy loads (I’ve done this type of training with 80% of my 1RM’s).

By holding yourself accountable to the clock and being honest with your rest breaks, you can actually increase the overall demand on your system while reducing the time you spend in the gym. Not too shabby of a deal if you ask me.

Take up a sport, add in some classes, or learn a new skill:

When is the last time you went swimming? Played tennis? Took an MMA class? Went to a gymnastics class? Gaining more absolute strength is a pretty straightforward thing to develop. Technique for a skill or a sport, on the other hand, has to be felt and it has to be developed through awareness and practice. It takes patience and a different kind of strength.

Having strong muscles doesn’t necessarily guarantee success in these types of things. Yes, absolute strength will definitely help out in everything, but you’ve also got to have skill when it comes to learning a sport. You need technique, accuracy, agility, coordination and timing. Like weight training, when you learn and master a skill, you become stronger mentally and physically, not always in the raw, absolute definition of the word, but stronger in other ways. Look at athletes and have a think about how strong they are. They might not be the biggest most jacked people on the planet. But as I’ve been saying all along, strength is relative. And that is pretty much the gist of this entire post.

Work under “changing resistance” from time to time:

Using a form of resistance that changes throughout the movement can make a big difference in the activity. Two examples of this would be using heavy chains or bands when performing free weight movements. With chains, as you lower the weight, more chain collects on the floor and less weight is applied to the bar. As you lift up, the chain comes off the floor and adds to the weight being lifted. Bands work in a similar way. They add resistance at the top of the lift and reduce resistance at the bottom.

Another form of “changing resistance” would be to train with an unstable load, such as sand bags. The weight shifts while moving the bags and this creates instability in the load that requires more work to simply stay vertical and not get crushed while trying to move the load. Working with kettlebells can have a similar effect when doing things like kettlebell snatches or clean and presses.

So, now that you’ve read this post you have no excuses to keep doing the same workout and movements month after month. Play around with different variables and mix things up a little. I know a lot of people who think all that matters is lifting heavier weights but sometimes it helps to look at the bigger picture in your training.

I don’t know about you, but to be perfectly honest, I find it MUCH easier to set up the squat rack or deadlift bar, put on my music, zone out, and do my heavy weights. Sure it’s not “easy”, but it’s comfortable and safe. That’s where I often ask myself, am I really being “badass” by lifting my heavy weights? Or would it be more beneficial and "badass" for me to get out of my comfort zone and learn a new skill? To not bitch out on the tough conditioning? To challenge my coordination? Would that benefit my body and mind more? Would it train me to be strong in different ways, to work on weaknesses that I may be lacking in? And while strength training and chasing the weight on that bar is awesome and extremely important to me, I regularly remind myself that it’s not only about the total weight lifted! There are many different ways to become a strong and athletic person.

What matters in the end is whether you are making progress overall, becoming a better person physically and mentally, and getting the results you want.



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