I remember when I first started working with Bret back in 2009. I’d never hired a coach before, nor had I followed a proper program—or even learned how to lift correctly.
My programming previously relied on a notebook and a round-robin approach to machines and dumbbells.
Oh, these machines work your back. Let’s do all of those. I know lunges, squats, leg extension, and leg press work the legs. Let’s do all of them today. ALL OF THEM!!!
Once Bret put me on a program and told me stop doing all the things all the time, my body responded quickly. Oh, so quickly. It was glorious!
I was hungry for more.
That lasted a good 18 months and then I stalled out. Big time. I pushed through attempting heavier lifts even though my body was warning me against them. Soon I was in a cycle of injury, recovery, slowing re-introducing the gym, and kaput again.
I was stuck. I was angry.
All my hard work seemed fruitless as I foresaw my destiny to only be so strong; to only carry so much muscle.
Those women in the gym who were pulling hundreds of pounds? The ones with coconut shoulders and quads with enviable seams down the front and sides?
They were genetic freaks.
I knew it.
It wasn’t in my stars to go big.
Or was it?
The funny thing about what we term ‘progressive overload’, or the principle that our muscles experience overload when put under stress greater than normal, is we pin in our mind that progress=more weight.
It feels good in the beginning to add another 5-10 pounds to the bar every week. But that honeymoon only last so long, because… well, I don’t think I need to explain that to you.
So, why in our heads to we get stuck on the idea that progress means more weight?
And if we aren’t adding more weight then we are sucking at life and everyone is better than us and we will never, ever be strong, beautiful superhero women that can single-handedly fight villains with one arm tied behind our backs?
It’s because we don’t appreciate how much our bodies have changed already.
You’ve already gone from zero to hero, my friend.
And just like all superheroes, there comes a point in time when you need to work on refinement. That refinement comes in many, many forms outside of ‘just add weight to the bar’.
Work Smart, and Hard, but Also Smart
When we get so fixated on getting strong, we are missing other key elements like technique and mechanical tension.
We all like to think we are bad asses in the gym. We can look around and cringe at the very sight of poor technique. Sometimes we find ourselves coaching others from a distance (in our heads, of course. No one likes a know-it-all).
But, when was the last time we had a discerning eye watching over us?
If you’ve been lifting for a long time, it’s likely in your best interest to hire a technique coach. You may be the bee’s knees when it comes to owning the barbell, but having a pair of eyes scrutinize your movement will shed light on why you are stuck more than anything else.
Coaches have coaches. Coaches up their game with coaches as they get better at lifting. We have multiple coaches to work with us on technique, to write programs, to tell us what the heck to eat.
Most often people do not hire coaches because A) they think they don’t need one or B) it’s not in their budget.
Think of hiring a coach as an investment in yourself. It’s in your budget, you just have to let go of all the other B.S. that is draining your bank account.
The second crucial element that is often overlooked is mechanical tension. If you follow Brad Schoenfeld, you know the importance of mechanical tension for maximum hypertrophy.
We’ve been tricked into thinking that more is more when it comes to mechanical tension, which likely stems from the bodybuilder community with the mantra of doing all the things for long periods of time.
However, studies have shown that we may have a volume threshold where once we surpass it, the extra work isn’t warranted. This article by Schoenfeld discusses volume in detail.
A good rule is to use block periodization programming or have a mix of low rep and higher rep in a given workout.
Take a look at your workouts and see what variety you have built into your programming. When was the last time you took a break from the 1-5 rep range? Are you mixing rep ranges in your plan? Have you scaled back to drop the overall volume and just focus solely on, say, 4 sets of 3 with 3-4 exercises?
Strength gains are all about strategy and sometimes it’s up to you to determine what your next strategy should be. You know your body better than anyone.
If you aren’t taking notes, then you aren’t going to grow. Pay attention to your training and learn how your body responds, when it stops responding, and when it tells you to chill out.
Just Get Out
A common conversation I have regarding strength plateaus goes something like this:
Me: So tell me a bit about your approach to lifting?
Her: Oh, man. I’ve been going ovaries-out for, I dunno, the past two, three years.
Me: And by ovaries-out, what exactly does that entail?
Her: I push for PRs pretty much every week. I feel stuck. Some weeks I lift less than I did the week before. I feel broken.
Me: When is the last time you took a break?
Her: Br-ee-ak. Brac-e. Burrrr. I’m sorry? What was that word you said?
Me: Break: An interruption of continuity.
Okay, you get the point. We think that progress means killing it day in and day out, but in reality we need to treat our bodies like temples.
If you hammer away at a block of coal you may miss the diamond inside. Sometimes you need to step away from the gym for a full on, bona fide break.
And by break, I don’t mean cutting down to 3 workouts from 5 or lifting with a lighter load.
I mean do not pass GO, do not collect your $200-break.
Stop going to the gym.
This doesn’t mean you sit around in a hammock eating ice cream for a week. Though you could do that. To each her own.
Stepping away from the gym can help reset your mind and your body.
We are good at doing this in other life aspect. How many times have we been stuck on a project or unable to resolve a personal conflict?
We’ve all learned that staying up all night arguing about why is it so hard to put down the toilet seat because my ass is wet again gets us nowhere fast.
We take a break, recharge, gather our thoughts and talk it out like rational humans.
Do that with your training as well.
It’s so common to worry about what we are going to lose when we take breaks. But you didn’t build your temple overnight. We are talking months and even years of diligent, hard, sweat-induced work that you poured into the gym.
Are you going to lose that in a single week? In a single month?
Give yourself credit when credit is due. You’ve put in the hours and, just like your job, you’ve earned a training vacation.
Go out and enjoy life. Find a hobby. Try a class, frolic on the beach like a giddy five-year old.
When you come back, that PR will be waiting for you.