the joy of strength training


November 18th, 2009 at 6:48 pm

On not making progress

in which our heroine muses upon her results and resolves to improve them

I’m just recently back from the World Drug Free Powerlifting Championships (sounds cool, huh?) in which I lifted more or less what I did at the Nationals seven months ago and ended up with a total which was 5kg less than in April.

So in seven months, my lifts haven’t improved – not on the day, not in competition. And so I muse upon why that might be.

Here are some of my favourite excuses, see if you recognise any of them.

“I’m two weeks away from a massive breakthrough!”

Yeah, just another week or two and I’d have had strength beyond my wildest dreams. I’ve had that feeling before – that great things are just around the corner, if I can only x, y or z. But it rarely happens. However, at least this time I have the chance to test the theory since my next meet is on 6th December, only a couple of training weeks away.

“I was away from the gym for too long”

Well I was, but I’ve still managed to fit in 3-4 months of training so I am not convinced that this really is the story. Maybe one of those little sub plots that peters out after a while.

“I have reached my genetic potential”

This the sort of thing that keeps me awake at night – what if I never lift any heavier? In truth, I don’t think that this is it for me, but I may have reached the First Great Plateau on Strength Mountain. This is where the easy gains cease, when you’ve reached your easy genetic potential. After this point, gains take a lot of hard work, effort and soul searching and you have to ask yourself whether you want to spend five months increasing your deadlift by 5kg. If you’re a competitive powerlifter, the answer is probably yes. But if you’re not, you might want to consider developing in another direction.

“I screwed up on the day”

I didn’t have my best ever day but I can hardly blame nerves or the lights or the bad eighties soundtrack (well, apart from Power of Love – who doesn’t like that?). There were some technique issues that needed fixing but I knew before the day of competition where my training had got me and I wasn’t expecting greatness – just maybe a weeny PR or two.

Do something else

So none of the excuses above really ring true for me. What is true, is that my programme didn’t work. There could be all kinds of reasons for that but ultimately it didn’t do the job it was supposed to do, which was to increase my powerlifting numbers.

I put together my programme, it was lovely, I was very fond of it. But I need to let it go. This is the great thing about doing a sport like powerlifting. Your programme either works or it doesn’t in terms of your sporting goal. If you are training for general health and fitness it is probably harder to tell what is working and what isn’t. I probably gained in other ways on my programme – I can feel it – but it didn’t make my numbers go up, which was the main aim.

“There is no perfect programme. If I could give one piece of fitness advice to most trainees it would be to stop doing what you are doing and try something else.”
– Dan John, Never Let Go

In fact, there are loads of things to try and this doesn’t just apply to powerlifting but to all kinds of strength training for a variety of goals. If your programme isn’t working, try some of these solutions:

1. Try something else

As the man said, do something else. If you don’t know what, buy his books for plenty of ideas. I tend to go on a combination of instinct and knowledge, but sometimes you just have to try stuff to know what it does in the first place. Not sure whether higher volume will work? Only way to find out is to try it and see. Think you need more max effort lifting or more assistance work? Do it for 4-6 weeks and see if your numbers go up.

2. Get some coaching

The best lifters rarely work alone. Everyone can benefit from some good coaching, and if things are not working for you and you are all out of ideas, share the problem with someone else. A good coach can tell you what’s really going on in your lift, suggest cues to fix problems, bring more discipline to your training and be brutally honest if necessary. Good coaching is something I’ve been missing and I will be trying to fix this.

3. If you haven’t done, find people who are better than you are and train with them

Being the strongest person in your gym is not a good receipe for progression, unless you are Andy Bolton. Working with or alongside people of a similar age, weight and perhaps the same sex, who are better than you is both inspiring and motivating. Sometimes you just need your ass kicked. One reason I like competitions is the kick up the butt I get from watching lighter women outlift me!

4. Get your recovery, nutrition and supplements sorted

This may or may not be the primary cause of any problem or plateau, but how many of us with real lives can honestly say we’ve got this stuff dialled 24/7? As far as I’m concerned my recovery can always be better. There’s always something I’m not doing, whether it’s getting enough sleep, stretching and foam rolling, rehabbing my shoulder, proper active recovery and so on.

5. Be positive but determined

Don’t ignore the fact that things aren’t working well but don’t be downhearted either. Most people in the gym are guilty of the former, and I’m usually guilty of the latter. Neither are particularly healthy. When you look back on 40 years of strength training, periods such as this are going to look like small blips, the basis of dinner table anecdotes (if all your guests are fellow lifters, otherwise just talk about house prices) or inspiration for future blog posts. What’s important is what you did next. Saddle up and keep moving forwards.

So the adventure continues and let’s hope it leads to a New Chapter in which our heroine manages to bust some PRs.


I’m adding this a day after I posted the original article because it occured to me over night that I am not telling the whole story and maybe a bit more context would be useful.

After my last meet in April, for which I was tired because I peaked too early, I felt completely knackered and jaded to the extent that I didn’t step into a gym for two and a half months afterwards but spent the early summer rock climbing, surfing and generally having a good time without any iron.

I wanted to avoid the same thing happening again, and it seems that I have. I don’t feel like I’ve been hit by a 10-tonne truck and I’m not jaded – so much so that I’m doing a strongman competition this weekend, something I would not have contemplated after my last meet.

I would also say that I was a better all round athlete now than I was in April. I’ve got stronger in some minor lifts, I’m more mobile, my squat technique is better. If you got points for style in powerlifting, I’d probably have done better this time round!

In other words, I’ve gained on my current programme in different ways and I’ve coped better with the training programme. So I am not suggesting throwing the baby out with the bathwater. What I’m struggling for is a way of training that can acheive the main goal and some of the sub goals too. For those of us who do this stuff as a hobby, this is a really difficult task – like trying to lose fat and gain muscle at the same time. So, a challenge to ponder for us all.

You might also like: Scenes from a powerlifting year

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  • 1

    Good post! It would be interesting to hear how you have been training and which changes you are planning as well.

    Jo on November 18th, 2009
  • 2

    I’m struggling with my lifts as well for a long time so don’t be afraid – it will come. It’s also part of the learning and experience, we have to believe, change, progress, struggle and win (I hope…) 🙂
    Take care

    Petr on November 19th, 2009
  • 3

    We were planning to come down to the WDFPC to watch/mingle but something else came up at the last minute. Think I’m glad I missed the cheesier bits of the 80s music!

    Sorry to hear you’re struggling with increasing your lifts – don’t be too hard on yourself but I really like your thoughts on how you can address the problem. In particular I totally agree with 2 and 3.

    I nearly always train with my partner who doubles as my coach. He sets my workouts (I would be too easy on myself), shouts cues, discusses problems I’m having in real-time after watching what I’m doing, and gives praise and verbal abuse in equal measure as needed.

    You don’t need to train with someone who is similar in age/weight/sex though. Training with him is motivation enough for me despite his different build and age.

    He lifts more than me but I’m still always aiming for the day when I WILL beat him and I always try to get a better rep total. If he completes all his reps then I have to as well. If he doesn’t quite complete all his reps then only an aneurysm will stop me from completing mine (maybe not quite, but you get the idea)! I would say you just need someone who has been lifting a bit longer than you, but not so much longer than you that they are completely out of your league – that should widen the pool of poeple to train with!

    Just a thought on your recovery point. Are you sure you’re eating enough? I’m really aware that when I’m eating (more than) plenty then my numbers drive up more easily. Now’s the season to perhaps try upping your calories, while we’re in thick winter jumpers and any accidental weight gain won’t be noticed.

    Ammi on November 19th, 2009
  • 4

    Progress every time or not, Its ALL GOOD ! Part of the learning curve.

    As Thomas Edison once said – “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”

    So now you’re one step closer to training utopia!

    Paul Rutherford on November 19th, 2009
  • 5

    @ Jo: I’ll try to do a follow up after the next cycle.

    @ Petr: Cheers, glad to hear from somebody in the same boat!

    @ Ammi: good thoughts on training, thank you. Also regarding your insight about eating, I am probably not eating enough as I’ve just been on my normal fat-loss-promoting diet! I will try upping the calories and see what difference that makes to my events over the next few weeks.

    @ Paul: lol, good quote. Congratulations on your medal the other day!

    gubernatrix on November 19th, 2009
  • 6

    Presumably you knew beforehand that you were not on for any gains at the latest contest? By which I mean that you would be able to tell from your training poundages?

    sumoman on November 20th, 2009
  • 7

    I’ve just noticed that you said that you didn’t really expect much gains and from your postscript it seems like you are trying to get strong at everything… I have that problem too.

    sumoman on November 20th, 2009
  • 8

    @ sumoman: I was aiming for PRs in the squat and the bench. Even 2.5kg extra is a PR.

    gubernatrix on November 20th, 2009
  • 9

    If your variation in strength per day is ±1¼% and you last competed at -1¼% and prior to that competed at +1¼% then you would need greater than a 2½% gain (2½ kg on a 100 kg lift) to ensure a new PR. Of course if your variation in strength per day is ±2½% then you would need greater than 5 kg gain on a 100 kg lift to ensure a new PR.

    sumoman on November 20th, 2009
  • 10

    Maybe we have our wires crossed or maybe (which is more likely) I just haven’t understood you, but I was planning to go for 102.5kg in the squat and 62.5kg in the bench which would be 2.5kg over my competition PRs and, I believe, do-able. But it doesn’t always go the way it should on meet day. One doesn’t always miss a lift through lack of pure strength, as any competitive powerlifter will tell you (and maybe you know that yourself).

    gubernatrix on November 24th, 2009
  • 11

    I was attempting to explain in scientifical terms that a mere ±1¼% variation in daily/weekly strength may have been enough to swamp a modest 2.5 kg gain on a 100 kg lift… modest gains are most prone to swamping. In a cycle such variations are less important because if you underperform one week there is always the next week. I was hoping that this calculation might cheer you up from any perceived ‘failure’.

    sumoman on November 25th, 2009
  • 12

    Gubes, how are you feeling now you’ve had a chance to reflect?

    What’s the training plan of action?

    Also, do you have any posts on staying focused over Xmas?

    Sajini on November 30th, 2009
  • 13

    Hi Sajini!
    I’m still reflecting – partly because I’ve got one more meet this year (next weekend), so the story of this cycle isn’t quite over yet. Need to stay focussed.

    I haven’t got any posts planned on staying focussed over Xmas but that’s a good idea for a post. You could also pose the question to Dan John in the Q&A.

    gubernatrix on November 30th, 2009
  • 14

    In case anyone is interested, I did get those PRs I was after in the end. I managed to fix the issues that were preventing me from getting them a couple of weeks beforehand.

    More on this process in a future post!

    gubernatrix on December 13th, 2009
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