Saturday, May 7, 2016

Missing the BIG picture? - By R.J. Hicks

Serious strength training was first introduced to me at the age of 14. A group of football players from the neighborhood and I would go over to Coach Mike’s house, who was not only our coach but our mentor, to workout in his basement and backyard. The basement was small but not empty; a bench press and cable pull down were situated side by side and a reverse hyper machine was only steps away. The floor was lined with heavy dumbbells and various kettlebells. Squat stands and adjustable Olympic stands stood crowded in the corner. Outside was a rubber platform for heavy deadlifts, front squats, and Olympic lift variations. Just beyond the gated fence were huge tires and other seemingly odd lifting objects resting in the mangled, overgrown yard. The workouts were challenging and progressive, and every time we trained sets and reps were recorded. A sense of nervousness came over me every time I showed up to train. Between the competitive environment, the constant reassurance and fortitude among peers, and the moment of truth that came with weekly weigh ins and skin fold measures there existed no place to escape growth, development, or self criticism. I was scared. Fear of quitting, embarrassment in my performance, and of not being able to complete the workouts or not measuring up to the other athletes constantly engulfed my thoughts. For the first time in my life a new mentality began to take place. It was built on a newfound belief of self reliance and the acknowledgement that no matter what was thrown at me while at Coach Mike’s house, I could take the pain, the uncertainty, the criticism, and sacrifice needed to eventually succeed. Despite the rigorous atmosphere, each workout brought about a strong sense of accomplishment, confidence, and mental toughness. Everything I got out of that training carried over into my daily life as I learned not to be afraid of failure and how to battle adversity, both inside and outside the weight room. The key to our successful training, which took me a long time to realize, was looking to push the weight up every workout. Because of this, every day we left the gym a little stronger and motivated for the next workout.

I have always struggled with constant frustration on my journey to build strength as I have battled multiple obstacles and derailments. When I arrived at college, I believed my strength training was a failure, which was difficult because I had been training and working since I was 14 years old. I blamed the strength programs we were using to train and the need to drop weight for wrestling. Because of this misplaced blame, I thought I needed more advanced training methods. Therefore I over trained assuming it would allow me to gain strength quicker allowing me to catch up to those I was competing against. In the end, it did nothing besides slow my personal progress in addition to hurting me physically. It was upsetting and demoralizing knowing something I cared so much about and truly dedicated myself too did not give me the results I wanted. This disappointment only fueled me to want to know more. Many others in similar situations begin to over think training programs, attempting to find the perfect rep and set scheme while trying to discover the best combination of exercises with the perfect amount of rest in between them. It is when this occurs and we feel as if our training is failing, that we must revert back to basic training principles and simply look to add weight.

Variety, change, and muscle confusion are heavily emphasized as a foundation of many training programs. The desire to improve every physical aspect of the muscle groups and work every energy system at once keeps coaches preoccupied and sometimes distant from the goal of strength training. I see it in the weight room where coaches are training for better movements, balance, speed, or specific motor abilities all the while forgetting that the purpose of strength training is to build bigger and stronger muscles. It does not matter the type of strength training the athlete practices whether one is a power lifter, Olympic lifter, strongman competitor, college athlete, or fitness enthusiast, if he or she want to get stronger weight must be continually added. If an athlete is using 70 pounds for one arm dumbbell rows for 10 reps and progressively works their way up to 90 pounds for 10 reps, then the athlete has gotten stronger, it’s as simple as adding weight for the same number of reps. A training program with the goal of building strength needs to incorporate progressive resistance throughout its entirety.

I began to witness this ideology when I put this principle of strength training in the form of just adding weight to the forefront of priorities while I interned. Once I graduated college I took an internship where my beliefs and perceptions on strength training brought me back to very basic principles. My internship was at Excellence in Fitness, which is a high intensity strength training studio run by Joe Aben who is a long time client and friend of Bob Whelan. The coaches at Excellence in Fitness practice a simple system which included 9-12 exercises, usually one set each sometimes more, where strict form is demanded and every exercise is meticulously recorded. The training is challenging and always progressive because weight is added once the rep range was met. This addition of weight meant that improvement can be found within every workout. My first workout training in this way called for 7 exercises; leg press, hammer strength bench, pulldown, pendulum squat machine squat machine, nautilus shoulder press, seated row, and back extensions. As simple as it sounded I felt I physically got more out of each exercise. I felt my muscles actually working to their limits, being able to contract harder to generate more force in that workout then the hundreds I had performed before. Not only did I feel more productive in the workout, but now I had an easy tracking system to build the weight on each exercise in a practical approach. I realized that I had gotten caught up into the finer details of building maximal strength, reversal strength, strength speed, speed strength, sub maximal lifting, concurrent training and all other component of strength. I misplaced the basic principles we all learn from the start and that really focusing on a few exercises was more powerful then drawing up the most advanced workout. I felt firsthand how I could work very hard, without stressing over programming and waiting several weeks to test for validation of my new strength. Remember it is not the exercises or training methods which our most important to strength training, but the principles. Aben’s system is successful not because of how the program is written or even the exercise selection, but due to the fact he never lost sight of constantly adding poundage in a tractable manor which makes people stronger.

Although personally I train leaning more towards high intensity strength training principles, I believe that simply being able to add weight for the same amount of reps is one of the most efficient ways to get stronger. It’s simple; add weight, same reps, get stronger. Even though great merit exists in powerlifting based programs, Olympic lifts, high volume training and even high intensity training, all of these training methods have the potential to be just as ineffective as beneficial. The big picture here is that in order to get big and strong, the underlying principle for success in whatever training method an athlete or fitness enthusiast chooses is the ingenious concept of simply adding weight.

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