There are many variables that will make someone physically strong (or not), but for the sake of brevity I will stick to the three most important factors that determine someone’s strength. This will at least explain why some bodybuilders are remarkably strong but others are not. It will explain why some powerlifters are incredibly muscular while others less so, and it explains why olympic weightlifters can lift huge amounts of weight overhead even if they’re very small.
1 – Exerting force happens by contracting muscles. More muscle mass means more mass that can contract. That is the biggest reason that a bigger muscle is a stronger muscle. This explains why bodybuilders can be pretty strong even if they don’t train for strength at all.
2 – You have to be able to activate your muscle fibres. Your nerves activate muscle fibres to contract, and this neurological thing explains why people can be strong even if they have relatively little muscle mass.
3 – Your body needs to be efficient in movements. Neurological efficiency means that your body gets better and more efficient in a certain movement. Doing a movement often and consistently will teach your body to engrain the movement pattern. This is often referred to as specificity: you get better at what you do a lot. Perhaps you are extremely good at doing leg extensions, gymnastic exercises, leg curls and hip thrusts, but this does not automatically make you good at squats – Your body doesn’t know how to use all those muscles in tandem in a specific exercise. It is not efficient in that movement. This is how olympic weightlifters move so efficiently to lift enormous weights overhead, they spend years honing their technique and becoming more efficient in a very select few exercises.
There are many more factors that are at play here. For example,
How are you going to measure strength and compare who is stronger? Are we talking maximum strength here, like in a deadlift? Well then, what if you have long arms, which gives you an edge in the deadlift? That sorta skews the comparison a bit. Or are we talking about a power clean, where you need explosive power and more technical proficiency as well?
Are we going to test a weight that you can lift only once or a weight that you can lift 10 times? Then what about the energy systems in your body, that might be adapted to squat 100 kilos for 15 reps, but not 130 kilos for 1 rep?
What about the psychological aspects that are important when pushing your limits as you try to see how strong you are in a heavy squat or snatch?
You could write a whole book on the subject, but I hope this at least gives you an idea of why ‘more muscular’ does not always mean ‘stronger’, but it can definitely attribute to it.
“Having big muscles and no strength is the training equivalent of wearing a strap-on.” – Jim Wendler
I can’t even begin to count the number of times people have told me to ‘grow up’. I’ve always thought it was stupid. It made no sense to me that being playful would be immature. Honestly, I don’t even know when someone is ‘mature’ or not. The closest thing I can come up with would be ‘having traits that you attain through years of life experience’… Or something. Not all acquired traits are good things though, so I don’t really understand why people attribute so much value to ‘being mature’. It’s a hollow statement. The concept of constantly maturing and growing is more important than avoiding people’s disapproval for being playful.
The strangest thing about growing up might be that I realize more and more how much growing I want to do. I remember a conversation from when I was around 18, talking to someone who was around 24. I said something along the lines of being pretty mature and that I did not expect to change much in the years after that. She laughed and told me that she had said the same in the past, and that I would definitely change over the years. I laughed it off at the time, thinking to myself that “she just didn’t know me that well”. Of course I changed over the years in many ways. I read somewhere that as a general rule of thumb, people psychologically change a lot until they are somewhere around 35 years old. I don’t remember the source and if my memory serves me right, this statement was related to big events severely impacting someone psychologically. Regardless how accurate it is, it definitely sounds more logical than an 18 year old thinking “he’s there” despite the fact that he just left high school.
Here’s a fun example of learning and knowing a lot about something and still messing it up. I’m a bachelor of social work meaning that I have 4 years of psychology and social skills drilled into my head, but in my daily life I’m still the same person who makes stupid comments, gets misunderstood and more, just like anyone else. Just this saturday at a bar, I was talking to an old friend when his girlfriend came up to us. She told us how she got her ass grabbed and flipped out over it. My friend told her “Wow, you normally don’t get so worked up about something like this.” I responded with something along the lines of “Well, being easy in that sense can be a good thing.” What I tried to say was that it can be a great asset (pun not intended) not to get angry or worked up so easily. What she heard was more along the lines of “being easy and letting guys grope you can be a good thing” so she felt pretty insulted. I felt so stupid at that moment that I started tripping over my own words while trying to explain myself and apologize, something that hardly ever happens with me. There you go, years of training in knowing what to say and I mess up.
Sure, this was just a minor, stupid (and in hindsight hilarious) thing, but this thing happens to us all the time, in every aspect of our life even if we don’t (want to) realize it. I know perfectly well how calorie counting works when dieting, yet a while back I made the mistake of putting too much peanut butter on my sandwiches, resulting in so many extra calories that I remained stagnant in my fat loss progress. I wish I was exaggerating or joking but I’m not. I’m sure we all have things we think we know, but once we block out the idea that maybe, just maybe, we are mistaken or have to adjust our stance on something, we stop learning. We stop growing. We stop growing up. We set ourselves up for making the same mistake over and over. This could be in terms of sports performance, health, relationships with people, career or anything else. It’s easier to tell ourselves that we know exactly how things are than admitting that we need to grow or mature, but that’s not going to help us. Besides being a somewhat arbitrary trait, being mature or immature suddenly doesn’t seem that relevant anymore, or at the very least it’s infinitely less important than striving for constant growth.
So what’s more important? Possessing some arbitrarily defined traits and habits like being serious, not watching children’s cartoons and not making perverted jokes? Or having the realization that maturing is a constant process without a specific endpoint, that we don’t know everything and that we would do well to learn and grow?
“You can’t grow without burning. I don’t like to be too comfortable. I like to stay hungry.” – Arnold Schwarzenegger as Joe Santo
I believe everyone should have at least a basic degree of skill in self defense, for the obvious reason of defending oneself, a loved one or even a stranger, when in danger. In the Netherlands, in short, self defense is (by law) grounds for not being prosecuted for using violence. This generally happens when you have used the minimum amount of violence necessary to protect your body (physical violence), property (theft/damage) or virtue (rape).
Over the last few years, a lot of discussions have popped up everywhere about feminism, rape culture, patriarchal societies and so on. One common topic in these discussions is the rape of women, which is ridiculously prevalent in countries like India, but also a big problem in Western, developed (?) countries. In these discussions, you will occasionally find someone stressing the importance of self defense. An almost inevitable response is that of the critic, that telling a woman to take self defense classes is a type of victim blaming. After all, rape is always the rapist’s fault. Discussions about bullying or harassment in general sometimes go in this same direction.
I’m sure these critics also don’t insure their possessions against theft, because theft is always the thief’s fault.
Yes. Of course rape is the rapist’s fault. If someone claims that the victim is to blame, for example by saying that the victim asked for it by dressing provocatively, that someone is quite possibly a complete assnozzle and you are probably wasting your time giving this personany attention.
If the ‘victim’ instigated the ‘rape’, for example by saying something along the lines of “fuck my brains out, you manly stud!”, the ‘victim’ would not be a victim and the ‘rape’ would not be rape. It’s really not that complicated. Really.
The ridiculous “Self defense advice is victim blaming!” line is usually followed up with “It’s not the victim’s fault, we should educate people to stop raping!”. While true and most likely part of the solution, there is a big problem here. Education is not always enough to instigate change. Point in case: The number of fat dieticians. The number of people smoking. Oh, and the number of rapists too. While not based on solid numbers, my belief is that the number of rapists exceeds the amount of people that don’t know that rape is wrong. You could educate the whole world on rape (or attitudes towards women or whatever), decrease the amount of rapists to some extent (?) and there is still a risk, albeit smaller.
Does the story above mean that rape is a victim’s fault? No, and I have no idea why some people would think that. It is completely asinine to liken a recommendation for self defense to even insinuating that rape is ever a victim’s fault.
I do agree that a woman should be able to walk out in the streets at night without reasonable fear that something happens to her. I want kids to be able to hang out with other kids without the fear of being bullied. I want people to be able to do their jobs without them being harassed. But until I can safely assume that these things are the case, I will recommend self defense classes to people.
Next up, a more in-depth post about self defense where I discuss several martial arts and forms of self defense to help you pick.
“I don’t even call it violence when it’s in self defense. I call it intelligence.” – Malcolm X
I think everyone experiences this at some point. Maybe at a certain age. Maybe when you’ve had some sort of epiphany in your career, sport or relationship. Maybe it’s not such a big deal or maybe it gets you down completely. That typical “If only I’d known-” thing that occasionally pops up.
All we can do is apply what we’ve learned and teach others.
“Other people’s views and troubles can be contagious. Don’t sabotage yourself by unwittingly adopting negative, unproductive attitudes through your associations with others. The key is to keep company only with people who uplift you, whose presence calls forth your best.” – Epictetus. Mindsets are contagious. Don’t focus your attention on the naysayers. Surround yourself with people that help you up. Find a combination of inspirators and realists. Find someone who’s been where you are now. A coach, a role model or both. Along the way you will find people to inspire, people who will look up to you. Take them seriously and realize that you may mean the same to them as your coach/role model/inspiration means to you. Lastly, find other athletes/entrepeneurs/succesful people who are around or slightly above your level and train/learn with them. Some will say that sharing your goals and efforts with people will empower and motivate you through accountability. Others will claim that people who boast about their goals and efforts are less likely to succeed. Whichever works for you is fine, but I am under the impression that the former claim is based on people who share their plans with those who are supportive and the latter claim is based on people who share their plans with indifferent, pessimistic and cynical people. The latter can easily poison your mindset.
Repetition of words is incredibly powerful. Marketing experts know this and psychologists know this, yet it’s so easy to forget this when when we talk to ourselves in our heads. Telling yourself you are lazy, weak, ugly or stupid often enough will inevitably trigger something in your head that will make you believe it more and more. I’m not into the whole “Look into the mirror and tell yourself that you’re awesome” thing (although it seems to work for some), but simply focusing on achievements and goals rather than wallowing in self pity for any perceived flaw can go a long way.
For that same reason, considering people’s criticism and making it work for you yet not against you is incredibly important. I’ve written a more in-depth article on that here. Basically, you discard people’s unproductive bitching but take genuine criticism to heart to improve yourself.
Engaging in discussion can be an enormous waste of energy. Many people are more concerned with being heard than actually having a productive discussion. They don’t ‘listen’, they wait for their turn to speak. Or they just speak. Others are offended or get emotional too easily to have a productive discussion with. Be mindful of where you invest your energy.
You can take away the meaning of ‘sorry’ by following it up with ‘but-‘.
Consistency, focus and hard work are essential in anything where you want to achieve a lot, whether that’s strength training, career or something else. Don’t try to rely on luck since it can’t be measured or influenced. Don’t try to rely on “that trick that worked before”. Circumstances change, plans change, but consistency, focus and hard work will always be valuable assets in achieving your goals.
Adapting to your environment in terms of behavior or looks does not necessarily make you a faker nor does it make you an opportunist. Well, maybe a bit of an opportunist. Social interaction is a game that is played all the time, with or without your consent and you can’t really bend the rules. You can, however, learn to properly play the game while staying true to yourself.
“Momentum of continuous action fuels motivation, while procrastination kills motivation” No idea where I first read this. I’ve had this quote saved for a long time apparently. This point is best illustrated through examples.
Example 1: It’s Saturday morning. You wake up early, get dressed, drink a cup of coffee, head to the gym for a quick workout and go back home to shower and eat a good meal, all according to plan. You feel good about yourself for waking up early and training hard. You do a few small but important tasks you had planned. The tasks make you snowball into a productive groove, you feel even better and within no time, most of your to-do list is finished and it’s only lunch time.
Example 2: It’s Saturday morning. You sleep in. You drink a cup of coffee. You want to hit the gym but realize you have some small tasks to do for today. You browse Facebook for a few minutes while thinking what you should do first. Fuck, all those hot cleavage pictures of funny cats have taken half an hour of your time. You should probably get to those tasks, but you’re starting to get hungry. You eat. You start getting frustrated so the first task you started takes longer than it really should. You finish your first task around lunch and realize that you’re not sure if you’ll make it to the gym today. What a shitty day. Fuck it. I’ll go and do something fun. I still have Sunday to do the rest of my stuff. and try again tomorrow.
There you go. Momentum breeds momentum. Achievement breeds self confidence. These two principles reinforce each other.
Perceived shortcomings and failing to meet your own standards, promises and plans are great triggers for a depressed state of mind. Take your own words seriously and don’t take promises lightly. Otherwise you will become unreliable to others (which is bad for relationships) and to yourself (which will mess up your self esteem and perceived potential).
“Of course some will be outraged that I insinuate that, but all you have to do is ask yourself, when is the last time you believed that the reason you aren’t where you want to be in your life, or your training is because you simply haven’t done the things to earn that yet?” – Paul Carter
Short summary for those that don’t want to read the whole thing: Got fatter, got stronger, all but solved my back injury.
I’m also not going to transfer cm and kg to inches and lbs all the time, you can do that here if you’re metrically impaired.
Over the last 4½ months or so, I’ve set a few PR’s in a lot of assistance exercises and a few bigger exercises… But more importantly, my back injury is as good as gone, save for a stiff lower back after a back squat session once in a while.
As for PR’s… Paused bench press: From 122 to 127.5 after not benching for a year. Front squat: From 144 tot 151. Set PR’s on back exercises like barbell rows and chin ups.
I had a powerlifting competition and a bench pressing competition for fun during this period.
Powerlifting competition in early september (where my back was still bothering me a lot) :
Bench press: 120/122.5/-127.5
Deadlift: 140/150/- (skipped third attempt because my lower back didn’t feel okay)
Bench press competition at the end of november: 120/127.5/-132.5
In around 4½ month:
Bodyweight went from 84 to 97kg.
Bodyfat went from +-15% to somewhere over 20%. (Unreliable estimates.)
Waist went from 83 to 93cm.
Arms went from 37/38 to 40cm. (left/right)
Legs went from 59/58 to 61/62cm. (left/right)
Chest went from 109 to 116cm.
Let’s see what remains of those numbers as I lose some fat in the next two-three months. For now I’ll just eat a little less, and if I’m having trouble, I’ll roughly stick to the guidelines outlined in my Wolverine Diet.
Olympic lifts ‘feel’ better now. I will focus on technique and building up weights over the next months. Strength work will be limited now. I will stick to the following template over the week, to some extent limited by the facilities where I train:
Monday: Snatch variation or assistance, squat, upper body push, upper body pull
Tuesday: Clean & jerk, a little bit of light technique work
Wednesday: Snatch, Clean & jerk, front squat
Thursday: Clean & jerk, a little bit of light technique work
Friday: Snatch variation or assistance, squat, upper body push, upper body pull
“Pizza makes me think that anything is possible.” – Henry Rollins
So I came across this image and put a big, red cross of frustration through it.
Although I’m all for people deciding for themselves what they should do with their bodies, promoting a specific ‘perfect body’ to people (especially to young girls) irks me. It’s no secret that there are countless people, mostly young girls, with eating disorders and although we love blaming commercials, there are a lot of communities that -in varying degrees- will tell you that thinner = prettier. We don’t even need the commercials to tell us that we need to be skinny anymore, we now have fucking pro-ana websites giving us advice on how to get skinny.
Even the recent “strong, not skinny” movement, that I originally supported, seems to have caused a slew of women to become semi-orthorexic variations of the original “thinner=prettier” girls. They basically want to be really thin, but with 15lbs of
extra muscle. In terms of health, this may seem like progress but it’s not that black and white. Besides the risk of replacing one eating disorder with another (there’s quite a bunch of fitness models with a history of wrecking their bodies with eating disorders and messed up dieting), the focus still tends to be on the way a woman looks. That makes little sense if you’re saying that “strong beats skinny everytime.”
Sports performance at a modest level correlates with health, vitality, a better quality of life, longevity, higher self esteem and a better, overall feeling of well being. Physical development can offer us so much in terms of physical and mental
health, yet we’d rather focus on visible collarbones. Or more recently, visible collarbones and bigger biceps.
Don’t get me wrong, wanting to look good is absolutely fine, but I do believe that it’s good to assess your priorities and the reasoning behind them. There is a difference between trying to look a certain way because that’s what everyone wants to see, or trying to look a certain way because that’s what you want to be. The former may result in eating disorders and insecurity. The latter may result in a lifelong journey to be better and stronger, where you can actually enjoy every step forward instead of chasing the carrot on a stick.
Frankly, I’d rather see my body as the result of taking good care of my body and loving myself, rather than hating what I see and desperately trying to adhere to some arbitrary ‘perfect body’ ideal. Then again, I’m not a young girl.
The ‘perfect body’ of a woman is not the skinny, fat or muscular one. It’s the one well taken care of and loved – especially by herself.
“This makes me feel special. I will not always be the best at everything in life but I will always be the Hardest Worker. My advice – more people should spend less time complaining and comparing themselves to others and more time working! My satisfaction is far more related to the effort that I put forth versus the end result. The end result is often out of my control, my effort on a daily basis is not.” – Gillian Ward Mounsey. A woman who has outclassed many men in her life through sheer, hard work. Read her story here.
Yes, losing fat is the best way to a flatter belly, followed by working your abs by doing your squats and deadlifts. There is however a simple yet easily overlooked thing that can directly influence the way your belly looks.
Look at these two pictures.
You can see me slouch on the left and stand up straight on the right. The funny thing is: I’m not exaggerating nor am I tucking my belly or pushing it out. A lot of people let their head hang forwards and drop their chest, some more than others, often worse if seated. Look around at a crowd and consider the following guideline: If the upper back is rounded and the crown of the head is not above the neck, you’re not standing up straight. You’ll see a lot of people slouching.
Now look at the pictures again and compare the effect on my midsection. Even though I still have a high-ish % of bodyfat, just standing up straight makes a clearly visible difference. There you have it, a flatter belly.
So how do you do it? Chest up, flex your abs and ass lightly (which may come naturally if you’re used to heavy strength training). If you’re used to letting your head hang forward, you may have to ‘pull in your chin’ a bit as well, as if you’re trying to make a double chin. Don’t tuck your belly in and don’t roll your shoulders or whatever, that’s not necessary. Practice this occasionally throughout the day. Even if you don’t care about a flatter stomach, it helps with preventing pains throughout the upper body as well, since slouching can cause trouble throughout the neck/upper back and even your upper extremities in the long run.
“Stand up straight, boy! Don’t slouch!” – About 90% of all mothers and grandmothers.
It’s not nice to judge people on their looks. If you do, you’re shallow. Mean. You “don’t know what’s important”. If the world were perfect with rainbow-farting unicorns and fluffy kittens influencing us rather than psychological and sociological facts no one wants to hear, then yes, perhaps looks wouldn’t matter.
The biggest part of my life, I haven’t been particularly concerned with my looks. The exception might have been around 4 years ago when I considered bodybuilding… Which lasted for only a few months. I still have no sense of style, I have a beard because of the assocation with manliness and not because I consider it a fucking fashion accessory, and when I was 15 I thought my dad was being stupid when he recommended against letting my hair grow long because of what other people might think.
I don’t blame my 15 year old self for wanting to be too cool to care, nor do I blame myself for naively spouting things like “looks are not important, it’s what’s inside that counts” while having long hair, wearing a leather jacket and studded bracelets with spikes because “my clothes are how I express myself”. The first time I really thought about the subject was when I just turned 18. In sociology class, I made a remark about how it was stupid to judge people based on their looks and that I don’t do that sort of thing. The professor said that it was silly to think that way, because everyone does it. “Stupid, narrow-minded adult sheep, conditioned by society!” is what went through my head, but it’s basic psychology to have associations with everything you experience with a person, their looks generally being the first thing. Go look up any of the 342424534524362 studies that conclude that many people, for example, associate obesity with laziness and muscularity with dominance.
Over time, I finally realized that when I wanted a job or get on someone’s good side with a first impression, I had to be mindful of how I presented myself. It took time for me to realize the impact that my looks had on someone else, both for business reasons and for personal reasons. I never gave it too much thought and besides putting on nice shoes and a dress shirt when I went job hunting besides college, I still didn’t care that much.
A while back, on the website Bold and Determined, I came across an article where the importance of being presentable was highlighted. And it mostly summed up my current attitude towards my own looks. ‘Pride’ is no longer a dirty word to me when it comes to looks and I don’t give a fuck if someone calls me vain or arrogant – It beats dirty and badly taken care of. I also feel better and more motivated to work harder if I take a shower and wear something decent instead of sticking to a lazy outfit. Fun fact: people actually perceive themselves differently depending on what they wear. I’m not just talking about feeling prettier because you’re wearing those new shoes, the way you look actually influences your self esteem. (And vice versa, by the way.)
If I have a business meeting or something and will meet someone new, I will make sure to look my best. If I had to deal with some fancy people for a business deal, I’d wear that pretty dress shirt and those neat shoes and make sure my beard was trimmed neatly. All to give a good first impression to help get what I want. Looking like a bum may certainly make people less inclined to work with me than looking fit, strong, clean and well taken care of. (Don’t you dare bring up the fact that I’m too lazy and uninterested to diet down to decent body fat levels to look better!) You may think it’s stupid that your looks have such an impact on how people perceive you, but it’s a cold, hard fact and you’re naive if you think it doesn’t go for you. Science has shown this again and again.
So far for the business side, which I realized a long time ago and what my dad was afraid of with me as a teenager. It’s not that there’s anything wrong with a guy having long hair, it’s the total picture of looking like you can’t take care of yourself (and my hair did look a bit like a a black Afghan Hound had died on my head) which can ruin people’s image of you. But there’s another side that didn’t come up until a few years ago, and which I didn’t become fully aware of until I read that article on Bold & Determined. If I have a girlfriend I want her to be turned on by both my looks and my personality. Also, I don’t want her to be embarassed when she shows a picture of me to her friends and they go “Oh… Uh… That’s nice, I guess. As long as he’s sweet.” If I walk through town with my mom, I’d feel like I’d be shaming her if I looked like a vagrant. I don’t care that much of the majority of people find me unattractive, but I’d rather have my mom be proud when people think “Wow, that woman has a good looking son!” than have my mom be sad or angry because people go “Why is that woman walking around with a bum like that?”
There’s much more to wanting to look presentable than being vain or insecure (which is what I used to accuse people of when I was 15). Oh yes, I still believe that my looks are part of the way I express myself. I take pride in who I am and I want my exterior to match my interior. For every reason mentioned before, if I find out that there is a part of me that people react positively to (both in terms of looks and personality, actually) I will use it, emphasize it or even show it off.
All this may sound like an essay in favor of judging people based on their appearance – It’s not. If you don’t like the way someone looks, that’s not a reason to be a dick. I’m trying to point out that people will do this to you, that you should be aware of it and that you can’t change how everyone thinks just like that. How you deal with other people and their appearances is a different story, since you CAN influence how you think. Be conscious of the associations you have with people’s looks and consider how to act on it. The association in your head doesn’t have to be important, how you act upon it can be. You may associate the tattoo-covered man at the bus stop with criminals, but he may not be. So shouldn’t you just greet him all the same when you encounter him? You may associate the tired looking man in dirty clothes buying beer at the store with homeless alcoholics, but he may just as well be returning home from a day of heavy, physical labour. Shouldn’t you just let him be instead of giving him condescending looks?
These examples are really obvious, but this whole concept is present in many subtle ways around us. Be mindful of the game and know how to play it.
“What do you mean ‘You can’t eat from a pretty plate’ ? Of course you can eat from a pretty plate, and when you’re done eating, you have something nice to look at.” – Theo Maassen (Dutch comedian), criticizing a well known adage that suggests that looks aren’t important.
If you read up a bit about proper strength training, you will quickly find that exercises like “the big 3” (the squat, deadlift and bench press, to which I will add the overhead press in this article) serve a wide variety of goals. I prescribe these exercises to most of the people I train since they can help in adding muscle, preserving muscle when trying to lose fat, getting stronger or keeping joints healthy.
Now if you look around in the average, commercial gym, you will find a few very common mistakes when people do these exercises. I want to go over a few of these in this post. Keep in mind that certain variations of the basic exercises might have technical differences, to which these errors do not apply. Also keep in mind that there are many other errors you can make in these exercises, I just want to point out a few big ones that are not always obvious.
You don’t go deep enough. The minimum depth is for the crease of the hip to go past the top of the kneecap. Just by half an inch or something, that’s it. Any deeper than that is fine if flexibility allows it, but for most people not necessary.
You don’t squat. A smith machine squat cannot fully substitute for a squat. A leg press cannot fully substitute for a squat. Combining the leg extension, leg curl, adductor and abductor machine… You get the point. I remember during my first months in the gym, I read something about squats on the internet and enthusiastically asked the instructor about about them. He told me that they didn’t have a squat rack but that the leg press was the same thing, completely ignoring the fact that… You know. A squat is a movement pattern performed standing on two feet, balancing a heavy weight on your back and tensing every fiber in your body as you squat up and down. It is an exercise that makes your body stronger as a whole. A leg press is… A nice additional tool to build bigger legs after you’ve done your squats I guess, but it’s still not a squat.
You’re trying to squat. Repeat after me: The squat is a squatting movement, the deadlift is a hip hinge movement. I see way too many people trying to sit down behind the barbell. This does not work because the barbell is held by your hands, your hands are attached to your arms and your arms are attached to your shoulder blades. This means that if you try to deadlift while sitting behind the bar, you will be pulling the bar right through your shins. All sorts of weird stuff tends to happen this way, from having the hips shoot up instead of your whole torso, to moving the barbell around your knee (How the fuck does that even-) or even rounding your upper back. You will not properly manage this if the weight is even remotely heavy, and it should be, if you want to get stronger. The solution is simple: In your starting position, keep the barbell over your midfoot and the shoulderblades over the barbell. That’s it, and hanging over the barbell (like you should in a deadlift) looks very different from squatting down behind the barbell.
You don’t extend your back. You should ‘flatten’ your spine as hard as you can during a deadlift. If your upper back rounds a bit… Well, I don’t teach that to beginners. A rounding MOVEMENT in the back during a deadlift can be harmful to the spine, especially if it concerns the lower back. If you can keep the spine RIGID however, with the upper back in a slightly rounded position, you can get away with it. Actually, you might even lift more like that, world records have been pulled that way. I recommend you save this for advanced athletes who know what they’re doing though.
You’re not stable. A lot of guys sorta flop onto the bench and start pushing the barbell away. Their feet move into every direction, their ass goes into the air and they’re shaking on that bench. Remember what I said about arms being attached to shoulder blades? That means that your shoulder blades need to be TIGHT and pushed into the bench to properly push a heavy weight away from you. If your shoulderblades are sorta hanging on the edges of the bench, you don’t have a good base of support to push from. A good thing to keep in mind is to squeeze your shoulder blades together as you lie on the bench, this solves a big part of the problem really quickly.
Your elbows are everywhere. The barbell, your wrist and your elbow should all be perpendicular to the floor during the whole movement. If that means the barbell has to hit your chest a little higher or lower – Fine. This principle + your grip width will decide where the barbell hits the chest.
You’re doing half reps. Touch the chest on every rep but don’t bounce.
Your buddy is doing upright rows. Unless your training plan asks for forced reps or negatives or something (which is fine), your spotter is there to help rack the weight when you’re unable to, nothing else. If the training plan tells you to do 5 reps of a certain weight: Do 5 reps with that weight. It doesn’t count if your buddy grabs the barbell. A SPOTTER SHOULD NOT TOUCH THE BARBELL AT ALL UNLESS HE IS INSTRUCTED TO DO SO. I remember once telling a spotter I wanted to do 5 reps. I was ready to rack the weight and the spotter stops me with his hands. “Come on, you can do two more!”
FOR FUCK’S SAKE WHAT IS IT ABOUT THE NUMBER 5 THAT YOU DO NOT UNDERSTAND?!
Your elbows are everywhere. People have the tendency to let their backs and shoulderblades relax during an overhead press. Your elbows should be under the barbell (or even slightly in front of it) to effectively push the weight overhead. If, like many people, you let your elbows drop at the bottom of the movement, there’s a bigger chance that you’ll push the weight forward too much. The weight needs to go up, not forward.
You don’t lock out properly. A proper lock out means that you finish the movement by pressing the shoulder blades upwards. You sorta shrug up with extended arms overhead. That engages the upper back and all other relevant muscles properly.
So there you have it. Most advanced athletes will know these things, but they can be hard to grasp as a novice, or even as an intermediate. Try the things I mentioned for a while and let me know how it goes. Remember, proper strength training requires skill practice and every rep you perform is part of that practice.
“I fear not the man who has practiced 10,000 kicks once, but I fear the man who has practiced one kick 10,000 times.” – Bruce Lee
Some people will see this title and expect that this post is about ‘a 6-week regimen to build 20lbs of lean muscle mass’ or something. It’s not. Others will expect me to impress you by throwing around complicated words like ‘mTOR pathway’, ‘Z-discs’ or ‘neuromuscular adaptation’ or whatever. I won’t.
Have you ever wondered why 3 completely different training plans may all give roughly the same results when trying to build muscle? There are a few principles that every good training method adheres to in one way or another. A rank novice in strength training should progress pretty easily and can usually get stronger (and in the process, build muscle) every single workout, even if it’s for a short while. If this does not happen, which happens quite often, you can be sure that one of the following points is off.
When your body experiences a stimulus that disrupts its balance, it wants to adapt to it. Your skin gets darker from exposure to the sun, your body creates antibodies in response to a vaccine and your body becomes stronger by exposure to heavy weights. Exposing your body to the same stimulus all the time, like doing the exact same workout and lifting the exact same weight, will at some point not challenge your body to adapt anymore. What does this mean in practice? If you do not expose your body to more weight, more reps, more exercises or more variety, at some point your body will see no reason to get stronger, bigger or faster. There is a caveat, however, which is proper recovery.
It would be great if you could just add weight or reps on an exercise all the time. To some extent this happens, especially when properly planned for it in beginning trainees. Their body isn’t used to much so they can relatively (!) easily build muscle and get stronger with relatively (!) light training. That also means that the body isn’t really strained that much in terms of recovery. Recovery? Yes, a stimulus more or less damages or drains your body. Just like a vaccine (which is “a little bit of a disease”) makes you resistant to the disease, the full blown disease could be disastrous to your body. Exposure to the sun can give you a tan, yet excessive exposure to the sun without recovery can increase the instance of cancer. In much the same way, strength training can make you stronger but a lack of recovery can actually make you weaker. So get enough sleep, eat enough (not just protein), find a way to relieve daily stress and don’t fall into the trap of always trying to do more. Progressive overload is essential, but too much of a good thing is still too much. Balance stimulus and recovery. AND DO NOT UNDERESTIMATE THE IMPORTANCE OF NUTRITION IN BUILDING MUSCLE. You don’t need advanced bodybuilder nutrition plans where you eat tilapia and asparagus every 2 hours until you hate your life (far from it actually), but don’t expect your body to BUILD anything if you don’t supply it with enough material to build muscle with.
You need a certain amount of sets, reps and exercises for specific goals and situations. When it comes to building muscle, you generally need more reps, sets and exercises than when purely training for strength. Popular strength training programs like Stronglifts 5×5 WILL aid in building muscle because it’s smart about the ‘progressive overload’ and ‘proper recovery’, but the volume (total amount of sets, reps and exercises) isn’t very high. Doing 3 exercises a day with 1-5 sets of 5 reps like the program calls for can get you strong and yes, getting strong has a very strong correlation with building muscle. For that reason, people looking to build muscle could benefit greatly from temporarily following programs like that, but in the long run their muscle growth will likely not be as optimal as when a program with higher volume would have been followed.
For those that tend to think in extremes: No, this does not mean that weight is not important. If you keep lifting the same weight, even if you add reps, there will be a point where it will do little (if anything) for adding muscle mass.
Consistently sticking to a program
A lot of people hit the gym for while and see no results, they want to build muscle but somehow can’t seem to do so. When they ask me what I think the reason could be, I like to dig in their training history a little. Sometimes I find out that one of the aforementioned principles have not really been optimal, but in many cases there’s a different problem. People do not consistently do what they’re supposed to do. They skip workouts for all sorts of reasons, make changes in the training program when they’re not supposed to or jump from program to program every 3 weeks. One time a guy asked me for advice in getting stronger. I told him I’d help him out if he did the Stronglifts 5×5 program for 3 months and got back to me after that. I talked to him several months later, he quit after a few weeks because he didn’t like the program. As far as I know, he’s still not particularly strong. Another guy asked me for advice after he hadn’t been to the gym for a while and I told him pretty much the same. I saw him at the gym a week later, doing different exercises (“I can do more weight with this!), switching the order of the exercises (“Yeah it just feels better.”) and using way more weight than the program calls for (“Otherwise I feel like I’m not doing anything useful!). Last I heard he hasn’t been in the gym for a while.
For the love of Krista Bunni and all that is holy, STICK TO A PROGRAM. Put in the work and trust the process. Be patient.
I hope this gives a little insight in essential factors in good training programs when you want to build muscle.
I don’t have a funny, relevant quote to end this post with so you’ll have to make do with a picture of Krista Bunni.