Written by Chad Wesley Smith
There are many different effective ways to train, but regardless of programming, there are a few common traps I see lifters falling into that they can simply correct.
1. Too Much Volume/Too Much Intensity
Striking a proper balance of volume and intensity throughout a training cycle is critical to success. There are three main ways I see this problem manifesting itself with lifters.
The too-much-volume group has the right idea, as increased volume is the most effective means for increasing strength, but the timing of this volume is key. Lifters who continue to train with very high total volume and/or high reps per set in the final month leading into a meet aren’t able to reduce fatigue enough for an optimal meet performance. When you see someone still doing multiple sets of 6-8 reps a few weeks before a meet or doing high rep down sets after their primary work when they’re 2 weeks out, know that they aren’t properly managing the fitness-fatigue relationship. Even though they may be very big/strong, they could be performing better in meets.
The too-much-intensity crew tends to also be the YouTube/Instagram hero group, and they are leaving their best performances in the gym. People who perform too much high intensity work (ie., weekly maxes) are missing a key concept of effective programming known as phase potentiation. Phase potentiation, in a nutshell, is using one training phase to better setup the subsequent cycle, usually meaning doing higher volume work to set up later, higher intensity work. Performing too much high intensity work will not raise fitness as high as possible and is more likely to lead to nervous system fatigue while also making it harder to properly time an effective peak.
There is a third group who trains with both too high of volume and too high of intensity. I usually see this happening in lifters utilizing Daily Undulating Periodization and often have less than 5 years of lifting experience. These athletes are lifting beyond their maximum recoverable volume and often will end up injured because they’re loading less than perfect technique with high intensities, causing movement dysfunctions to become more deeply engrained.
2. Too Much Specificity/Too Much Variation
If I was writing this article 3 years ago, basically all of the focus would have been on people doing too much variation, but it seems as if the pendulum has swung quite a bit. While too much variation is still certainly an issue for many, it also leads to a lack of technical excellence and selecting exercises with too low of transfer to the competitive movement.
As great as the Internet has been for sharing information, it has also given beginner lifters access to the training programs of elite lifters. Some beginners then emulate the current training of the top lifters, rather than the training those elite lifters did to get to the top. Variation via different exercises and loading strategies is important to use during different parts of the training process, as that variation will lead to better general preparation, which you can build a high tower of strength atop. Remember, too, that variation can be achieved through small changes like stance width, grip width, bar placement, tempo, pauses, and rep schemes; you don’t have to make drastic changes like specialty bars and accommodating resistance as variation.
3. Too Much Overload/Too Much Technique
Overload is a critical part of progressing and one of the most important principles in good programming, but too often overload is being overdone. Overload is being misapplied by either being done too frequently or overloading by too much. Overload in the sense of continually making your training more challenging by doing more reps or more weight is always necessary, but the type of overload that I see becoming problematic for lots of lifters is a mechanical overload achieved through the use of tools like reverse bands, supramaximal holds, very short ROM lifts, or assistive devices like the Slingshot/Ram/etc. These type of dramatic overloads on the nervous system have the ability to prime the body for enhanced performance, but due to their potent effects, can also cause you to exceed recovery capabilities. When using overload techniques, I encourage people to at most use a 10% overload of their max and to not implement this more than every third week for the squat and deadlift, and every other week for the bench. You must understand the stress this type of overload places on your nervous system, muscles, and joints. Your training doesn’t exist in a vacuum, meaning that the training you do on Monday affects what you’re able to do on Wednesday and that what you do this week affects next week; don’t get caught up in trying to load 150% of your max on the bar for a few extra Instagram likes, but in the process, actually set your long-term training back.
Too much technique?! Of course, technique is important and I don’t want to downplay its role in getting strong. Just as there are people who are too concerned with just putting more weight on the bar, there are also those who are so concerned with perfect form that they never push their limits and create an overload effect (the small overloads of more weight/more reps) in their training. Technique development is very important, but people who strip the bar back down to 135 anytime there is some breakdown are unlikely to ever push hard enough to reach their potential. The too-much-technique problem also creates problems for lifters who end up creating a paralysis by analysis situation for themselves, as they’re constantly trying to make technical adjustments and never allow themselves enough time to practice a given technique long enough to know how well it really works for them. So if there is the occasional inward movement of the knees in a squat or rounding of the back in the deadlift, understand that that is part of pushing your limits, so don’t panic. Rather, understand that even though you may have made the lift, you need more work in the 60-80% range to build up your weakness to be able to make a PR with better technique.
Read: The Myth of Perfect Form
Striking the right balance between these different training principles will help you keep making progress over the long term. Think critically about what you’re doing in your training, how and why it is helping you (or why it isn’t), and continue adding pounds on the bar, week after week, month after month, and year after year.