What’s the difference between a beginning or intermediate lifter, and a more advanced lifter? This seems to be a question on the minds of most people who’ve put in a little time under the bar. They feel themselves straining with a 3-4 plate squat or a 4-5 plate deadlift, but then watch someone the same size squat 700+ or pull 800+. It feels like, in spite of how far they’ve come, there’s an insurmountable gulf separating the intermediate and the advanced. Sure, to get stronger initially, they just had to eat more and progressively put more weight on the bar; where do you go once that stops working?
Well, this certainly won’t be an exhaustive list, but here are some of the things that have changed about my training (both from the perspective of nuts-and-bolts and my overall approach) to get me to where I am today. Don’t interpret this to mean I think I’m one of the best out there (or even anywhere close to it, for that matter), but at this point I’ve opened up about a 100-200 pound gap per lift between myself and most upper-end intermediate lifters, so hopefully these insights will prove useful for people who’ve hit a wall with their current approach.
1. Increase the quantity AND the quality
Improving work capacity is of utmost importance for long-term success. However, you can’t just indiscriminately add sets willy-nilly and expect results. If you want to improve your squat and your form deteriorates past a certain point, or you fatigue to the point that you have to drop your working weights substantially, increasing the volume of that squat session gets your nowhere. You’re on the right track (doing more work to build a better base), but you’d be better served by doing more work on the areas that need it most. I’m NOT referring to traditional weak point training (training a movement from your weakest joint angles with boards, pins, etc.). I’m talking about finding the specific muscles that are weak and doing more work to make them strong.
As an example, my left glute doesn’t always fire properly, my hip flexors are both tight and weak, and my VMOs are a joke. Instead of just increasing squat volume, I’ve started doing tons of split squats, pressing with a split stance or half kneeling, and glute bridges (I don’t always log little things like that, in case you follow my training posts). I’m improving the work capacity and strength of those specific muscles (that are limiting factors for my squat), which has a positive carryover to my squat performance, while also teaching my lagging muscles to better incorporate themselves in the movement. Once they’re up to snuff, I can transfer that general increase in work capacity to a specific increase in work capacity for the squat via increased squatting volume until another problem reveals itself, or instead focus on more general conditioning. Either way, I’m constantly doing more work but not at the expense of movement quality.
Just for another quick example, if you miss deadlifts at your knees, you probably have weak hamstrings. Rather that hammer partial deadlifts from knee height after you already tire yourself out pulling from the floor, do some lighter, full-ROM RDLs or GMs to focus specifically on the limiting factor in the movement. You’re increasing work capacity without sacrificing movement quality.
2. Keep your body feeling good
Don’t skip over this one. It seems self-explanatory, but it’s more important than most realize. When I was weaker, I could train excessively, beat my body up, stay achy and creaky, and still consistently put more weight on the bar. Not so anymore. I still believe that overtraining is just underrecovering, but the scope of what counts as “recovery” changes. You’re not just looking for recovery of your prime movers, but of generally how good your body feels. If your quads feel fine but your knee or hip feels a little wonky, then push squats back another day, and take some time troubleshooting the problem. If your chest and triceps are recovered, but a little ache in your shoulder tells you not to bench, then push your bench day back.
In my experience, if my body generally feels good, I get stronger just as easily as I did when I was just starting out. When I’m constantly nursing multiple bumps and dings, I stagnate. Don’t accept that being banged up all the time is a necessary part of getting stronger. I have fewer aches and pains now than I did when I wasn’t as strong. It takes some maturity to pull back and wait when you need to, but it pays off. However, don’t use this as an excuse to be lazy. Find a way to work hard. Always work hard. If you can’t get a bar on your back, thrash yourself on a leg press or do some walking lunges. If you can’t press, then just spend a couple hours rowing. Just make sure you’re not setting yourself back further by pushing your body in a specific way that it doesn’t want to be pushed.
As an adjunct to this: develop a basic knowledge of musculoskeletal anatomy or make friends with a good PT. If something starts becoming a recurring problem, identify the problem and fix it immediately. Little problems with light weight can become big problems with heavy weight very quickly.
3. Pick your battles and avoid failure
This point is somewhat in conjunction with the last one. I still need to improve this, but I’ve already improved vastly relative to where I started. The key to getting stronger is still adding weight or doing more reps with the same weight. However, you have to accept that progress is no longer linear. Instead, you have to look for a generally positive trend. If you haven’t PRed this week, that’s not a big deal. If you haven’t PRed on anything this month, then maybe you need to evaluate things. If you get frustrated and try to force every day to be the best day ever in the gym, you’ll get nowhere. Do you have a noticeable limiting factor for a movement (you can usually figure this out based on where you miss)? Put in the work to improve it, and the gains will come. Otherwise, do more work, eat more, sleep more, and take care of the boring stuff. Travis is fond of saying that champions become champions by first becoming masters of the mundane. <– truer words have never been spoken.
I rarely do a true max anymore. When I was first starting out, I grew like a weed on a Westside template. As I’ve progressed, however, I’ve learned to rarely push past an RPE of 9. That extra 20 pounds on the bar, or that extra rep or two will only add a day to your recovery without providing any meaningful additional training effect. Most experienced lifters know what I mean by this. You were fighting for a rep PR on the squat, and when you tied your old PR, you were pretty sure you could eek out one more. You go down again, cut it a wee bit high, fight it for 8 seconds, and finally get it. The next day you feel awful, and you KNOW that if you cut the set one rep short (and “only” tied your PR) you’d feel fine and be able to train productively. Always leave a rep in the tank = words to live by.
4. Redefine strong
I’ve written an entire post about this topic, so I won’t dwell on this point. In short, however, if you aspire to greatness then make greatness the standard by which you measure everything else (including yourself in the present). Mentally, you’ll discover that doing so gives you a lot more “growing room” that you didn’t realize you had.
5. Chill out
Not every advanced lifter follows this approach, but my experience has been that I improve most readily when I’m more relaxed in my approach to training. I used to yell, slam bars, etc. No more. I’ll carry on a conversation as I unrack a PR attempt squat, talk in a calm voice in the middle of a set, and usually hum whatever song is playing on the radio. Often I’ll do those things specifically TO chill myself out when I find myself inadvertently getting amped at the wrong time for the wrong thing. Arousal is for meets. You keep the beast for when you need it, but you don’t unleash it for a freaking training lift. With the inherent physiological stress of handling increasingly heavy weight, I see no reason to compound matters by adding psychological stress as well. This approach also helps keep you confident about your ability to PR (“I lifted THIS when I was calm and barely even focusing, so I should be good for another 20-30 pounds if I got intense, and another 40-50 pounds after a peak”).
6. Become humble and arrogant
Paradoxical, I realize. However, when you’re not under the bar, get over yourself. This goes hand in hand with redefining strong (deliberately to NOT include yourself). You’ve come a long way, but you still have a long way to go. In spite of more knowledge and experience, you should become more coachable, more willing to accept advice and criticism, and less enamoured of your own abilities. Gaining strength tends to go hand in hand with gaining knowledge, and the moment you think you know more than everyone else and that your poop doesn’t stink, you should start expecting reality to come and take a big dump on your doorstep in the near future. When you’re starting out and you’re making really fast newb gains, I can understand if you feel 10 feet tall and bulletproof. Eventually you need to move past that, and when you fail to do so for whatever reason (primarily insecurity) it’s both pathetic and self-destructive.
On the other hand, as soon as you touch the bar, there should be no doubts in your mind. “You’re the best lifter ever to draw breath, and time is the only thing separating you from immortalized greatness. As long as you keep your form dialed in, you own the weight on the bar.” Obviously you can’t let this attitude take control when you’re loading weights, and drop it as soon as you rack the bar or sit it back down. The moment you complete a set, you turn back into mild-mannered Clark Kent. Along with this: never be afraid of a weight. I like using partials or supermaximal holds to address this problem, but whatever you do, don’t let a weight scare you. It’s cold and lifeless, and you’re alive with conscious control. You have the upper hand in the relationship. You may end up missing a weight, but don’t let it be because you were afraid of it.
7. Learn as much as you can from as many sources as you can
Admission: when I was first starting out, I would read every training article I could find, and ignore almost anything written by guys like Alwyn Cosgrove and Mike Robertson. Big mistake. Sure, rehab articles aren’t scintillating excitement, but it always helps to have more tools in your toolbox in case of a rainy day. Same goes for reading about every training methodology, including ones you haven’t used, aren’t using, or doubt you’ll ever use. There’s a logic to successful programs, and you can apply principles even if you don’t jump into the entire program with both feet. Don’t disregard someone’s information because they’re a “pencil-necked labcoat,” or because they’re a strong but inarticulate “broscientist.” The nerd probably got something out of the scientific literature you can learn from (even if he puts the kiddie gloves on for application), and the meathead obviously knows SOMETHING to see the success he has, even if his reasoning (and perhaps grammar) is horribly flawed.
New ideas don’t emerge from naught. They emerge by making novel connections between old ideas. Don’t limit yourself by limiting the scope of your inquiry.
I’m pushing 2000 words and have said pretty much everything I wanted to, so I’ll cut it off there. These are the main things that have changed between my approach and application when I totaled 1400, and now that I’ve got a 1700 on the books with the expectation of improving upon that in the near future. I’m sure more things will change as I continue to learn and put more time in under the bar, but this is a snapshot of where I was and what’s changed to get me to where I am today. These are obviously cliff-note versions of topics that could all be their own article, so if you have any questions or want some elaboration about something, fire away!