the joy of strength training


April 28th, 2013 at 7:54 pm

Improve your weight lifting

Gubernatric performing barbell back squat in rackI am often asked, ‘how do I improve X?’ where X is a movement or a desired quality in weight lifting, like squat depth, snatch technique or pressing strength.

Sometimes people are hoping I will reveal a secret ‘trick’ to improve their weight lifting that will solve the problem quickly and simply.

But all too often the answer is simply: do X more often. And be patient.

Let’s say you want to improve your squat depth. How often do you squat? Once a week? And you expect to improve by doing something for 30 minutes once every seven days?!

How about doing some kind of squat exercise every day? For six months?

Last year I desperately wanted to improve my jerk. I was trying different exercises but nothing was working particularly well.

So I ramped up the reps, doing 136 jerk variations a week. Finally, my jerk improved. It’s hard to do something 136 times a week and not get a bit better at it!

Very often, more is the answer. it’s not trendy in coaching circles to say this, as everyone wants to emphasis technical proficiency.

But in my experience we’ve gone too far in the direction of the ‘quest for perfect form’ and not far enough in the direction of ‘repeat 10,000 times’.

Note that I didn’t say I did 136 jerks, I did 136 jerk variations. You can do your ‘more’ in a structured way.

So here is my nuanced list of tactics to bring up a weakness:

1. Attack the problem from a few different angles. Use different tools. Even if what you want to improve is a specific movement, you can still change certain variables – from stance or grip width to number of reps or load. For example, to improve your pull up strength, try heavy bent over rows, weighted pull ups and wide grip pull ups.

2. Work on the weakness first in your workout. If you want to improve your squat, squat first. Give it your full energy and attention.

Kettlebell windmill3. No need to put the world on hold while you sort out your problem. Incorporate ‘weakness’ work into every session but don’t let it dominate. It’s easy to get frustrated and blow it out of proportion.

4. Do the movement more often. If you have a poor press, do more pressing. Press every workout if need be. Doesn’t have to be heavy every time. (I owe this advice to Dan John.)

5. Don’t get discouraged after 1 or 2 sessions. Be patient, give it time. Aim for 4-6 weeks to see noticeable improvement and up to months or years to achieve your goal in full. Does ‘years’ sound like a long time? How long have you been training? How long to you intend to keep on training? A few years ain’t nothing.

6. Check your technique – there may be a more efficient way of doing the movement. Be prepared for this to feel difficult or weak at first, until you adapt to the new method. Sometimes you have to go backwards to go forwards.

7. Focus on one weakness at a time. If you try to solve too many issues at once, you won’t be able to give enough time and attention to each.

8. Sometimes there is a psychological issue. Look inside yourself and be honest – is this physical or mental, or a bit of both?

9. Don’t give up! Never stop believing that you can improve.

When is ‘more’ not better?

Avoid doing exactly the same thing day in, day out. Work on the problem but try not to do exactly the same movement two days running as you may suffer from overuse or repetitive strain.

One suggestion is to tackle one problem per training cycle (e.g. 4 weeks) and pick 3-4 variations. Do each variation once per week.

The long term view

How long did it take me to get a really good rock bottom squat? About six years. And people want to achieve the same thing in six weeks!

I don’t blame them – ‘faster’ is what the fitness industry sells. But that’s not how your body works.

People don’t want to know about ‘six years’, they want to know about ’six weeks’.

Here is the truth about six weeks: you can make improvements in six weeks, for sure, especially if you employ the tactics I have listed above. But that’s not the same thing as turning a weakness into a strength – or at least no longer a weakness. That’s a long term game.

But the sooner you start, the sooner you’ll be there!

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  • 1

    And if anyone is interested in the 136 jerk variations, they are all explained here by my weightlifting coach:

    gubernatrix on April 28th, 2013
  • 2

    good to see you blogging again, and i just learned today that you work with UP london! amazing!
    i’ve started playing around with higher frequency lifting myself and got great gains from it.
    due to dan john (too!) and also chaos and pain blog which has been very inspiring.
    keep up the good work!

    eddie on April 29th, 2013
  • 3

    Cheers Eddie! Yes, I’ve been at UP for 1.5 years – time flies!

    gubernatrix on April 29th, 2013
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  • 6

    Great post! I love that no-nonsense attitude of yours!

    As far as I recall, Dan John himself makes his athletes go through all basic moves during the warm-up to a lifting session.

    His logic goes: “If it’s important, do it every day. If it’s not, don’t do it at all”. Of course, I feel, as you say, that you need to keep your ego in check and don’t let weakness work dominate all the time.

    Ellie on June 7th, 2013
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