In our great pursuit to get as strong as possible on the squat, bench and deadlift, we often come up against roadblocks along the way. There are times where our lifts seem to be flying up at a nice pace, and there are other times where progress becomes incredibly slow to the point where we barely notice it. This is all normal, because unfortunately, the more experienced you get at lifting heavy shit, the harder it becomes to make progress! However, you still should be making tangible progress over time. If you’re not, here are a few pitfalls and mistakes that I myself have been guilty of, and see other people commit, that may be holding your strength gains back:
You’re not increasing your volume over time
Einstein once said that the definition of insanity is ‘Doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results’, and this couldn’t be more apt when talking about strength training. Too often I see people trying to make progress by running the same training programs that they’ve been doing for 2/3 years, and expect to see the same strength gains that they got back then. This just isn’t the case. Our bodies are very resilient to the beatings they receive from strength training, and are going to adapt to a given stimulus over time. In order to keep driving progress forward, you’re just going to have to increase the amount of total volume you do across a training week (Volume = sets x reps x weight). I learnt this the hard way a couple of years ago when I was doing Stronglifts 5×5. My squat and bench press were still slowly progressing, however my deadlift was completely stagnant. I realised that this was because the original Stronglifts template has a grand total of 1 working set per week on the deadlift, a training stimulus that just wasn’t nearly enough to force my body into making an adaptation. I increased my deadlift volume, and it started to get stronger. This is why elite Powerlifters and Weightlifters train so frequently and with insane amount of volumes – they’re not doing it because its hardcore and badass, they’re doing it out of necessity! The stronger you get, the more of a time commitment you must make to continue to get stronger. Put simply, if you’re struggling to increase a lift, do it more!
You’re not choosing assistance exercises wisely
Another thing that I have previously overlooked is the importance of accessory movements to address weak areas or sticking points in my lifts. For example, my deadlift lockout sucked, and although I could get max effort attempts off the floor, I couldn’t get the bar past my knee due to a number of muscular strength issues. So I began to incorporate pause deadlifts, rack pulls, and lots of upper back work into my training, and sure enough, my lockout strength began to get better. Similarly, I had a weak bench press lockout. This was a clear tricep weakness, so I began focusing on the close grip bench press. Eventually, my lockout began to feel much stronger, and I am now able to grind out maximal weights with ease. Accessory movements are very individual, and it’s imperative that you find out what your weak points are, as they may be massively hindering your strength potential. There are literally hundreds of good accessory exercises that you have at your disposal, so find out what your weaknesses are, and then implement appropriate accessory lifts into your training program to address them.
You’re testing strength too often and not building it
Far too often I see people consistently testing their strength by either trying to max out too often, or just trying to always hit PB’s with a given weight. There is a time and a place for this kind of training, but it shouldn’t take up the bulk of your training volume. The majority of your work on the big 3 lifts should be accumulating volume whilst staying shy of muscle failure (leaving 1-2 reps in the tank). The reason for this is that training to complete failure immediately puts you in a highly fatigued state, and as a result, this affects the amount of volume you can then handle for the rest of the session. For example, if I was squatting with 160kg, and on the first set I went all the way to failure and got 8 reps, the next set I may only be able to get 6 reps, then the set after that I may only get 4-5 reps. However, if I stayed shy of failure and performed sets of 5, I may be able to perform 5 sets of 5 until I finally hit failure. That’s a total of 25 working reps with 160kg, as oppose to about 18/19 reps if I had immediately trained to failure. Which approach do you think is going to give me more progress long term?
In addition, staying away from failure allows more of your working reps to be much more technically proficient. As you approach muscular failure, technique will inevitably break down, and all you’ll be doing is teaching your body poor motor patterns. The best way to ingrain efficient motor patterns to perform the lift as perfectly as possible, as much as you can, which can be achieved from staying away from complete failure.
“The best technique is the best because it allows you to most efficiently express your strength. Don’t become complacent in allowing technical flaws to limit your potential” – Chad Wesley Smith
Furthermore, there’s nothing that kills your confidence like consistently missing lifts! If you go through a full 8 weeks of training without missing a lift, imagine the confidence you’ll possess going into training sessions where you are truly testing your strength – the idea of missing a lift is unlikely to enter your head, because making lifts is all you’ve experienced. It’s all you know. Coming away from a set thinking ‘I definitely had 2 more reps in the tank’ is a great feeling, and does wonders for your confidence. Testing your strength is very important to gauge progress, but I would only advise doing so every 6-8 weeks, you’ll make much more progress this way!
I hope these three tips allow you to critically analyse your current training, and perhaps make some alterations based on the ideas discussed. Since I’ve been more intelligent with the way I’ve structured my training programs, the results I have seen have been unparalleled, and I believe that you will be the same!