Written by Dr. Mike Israetel
“It didn’t work for me.”
“I tried that high frequency squatting, man. It didn’t work for me.”
“I moved my hands wider on the bench, but my press went DOWN. I guess I’m just better off with close grip.”
We’ve heard a lot of these before. Stories and admissions of lifters trying new techniques, established techniques, or even techniques supposedly suited for their body types and NOT benefiting. We’ve done the same ourselves; sometimes, the supposed helping hands just don’t seem to do us any better and can even leave us worse off.
Now, sometimes the new changes are indeed less effective. But many other times, we simply didn’t test them properly, and most of that can be attributed to testing at the wrong time points. Let’s take a look at some major categories:
Whenever we train a muscle group or movement a LOT more, we grow muscle and get stronger. But more training also comes with more fatigue, which can mask all or most of those new adaptations. Only when we let fatigue drop off can we actually detect and experience most of the new changes. Just like a day of hard studying at the library can leave you confused and brain-dead, but a good night’s sleep can illuminate that you in fact now know much more than before the study session.
So if you undergo a high volume program for a certain movement (let’s keep it simple and say squats), you’re not truly going to be able to find out if that program worked until and unless you bring the fatigue down, which takes at least a week of deloading after a tough training cycle. Otherwise, the fatigue masks the fitness gain and you’re doing the equivalent of taking a test right after a mind-numbing study session. Check on the strength forums online and you’ll see TONS of this.
“I tested my max during a Sheiko routine and it was down. … It didn’t work for me.” Well, if you try to drive your car off while the mechanic works on it, you won’t see good results either! At least wait until the program is over! And for those that wait, you have the guys who test THE NEXT DAY. That’s right, just go ahead and test your max right when you’re the most beat up.
A lot of these guys end up gravitating away from high volume programs (that work best) and toward low-volume programs (that don’t) because the low volume programs never sum up enough fatigue to depress their fitness. They’re always ready to test, and they test well. Except by not ever doing enough to be very fatigued, they also don’t do enough to get the best long-term results! Doing 405 in the squat is awesome – unless a year later you can still only do 415.
2.) Lagging Muscles
In order to bring up a lift, sometimes the ticket is to bring up the lagging muscles. And it works: If your chest gets bigger, your bench is almost certainly going to go up, especially if your chest is a weak point for you. Here as well, some special considerations must be taken.
First of all, muscles take a while to grow enough for bar weights to really be affected. Especially for intermediate and more advanced lifters, at least a dedicated month is needed to get muscles big enough to see meaningful improvements in the lifts.
Second, the fitness/fatigue of the individual muscles must be considered. By adding multiple sets of dumbbell flyes after your usual bench work, your pecs got way bigger, but now they are beat up and tired. Only after a week or so of backing off on the chest training and letting the pecs heal will you be likely to notice the real improvements of muscle size on your lifts.
Lastly, by being stronger than before, individual muscles are now contributing more force to the movement. This contribution must be accounted for and balanced by the other synergistic and antagonistic muscles in the movement. If your quads get a lot stronger, you might start to tip forward on the squat just a bit, and it can take some time for your posterior chain muscles to begin activating earlier than usual to keep you upright. These technique changes that accommodate your full lifts to changes in individual muscle strength can take time, often weeks. Testing too early can simply illustrate that your body is not yet fully versed in using your new muscle strength.
3.) Slow Progressions of Technique Changes
No matter how objectively bad your current technique is, your nervous system is USED to executing it. Even though it’s bad, your body is very efficient at it. When a new technique is introduced rapidly, chances are that unless the technique is SUPER powerful, it will result in an immediate REDUCTION of ability rather than an improvement. Lots and lots of people have quit on otherwise great technical improvements at this point, without taking the needed time to let the body adjust.
There are two ways to change technique: rapidly and slowly. Both work, but need to come with different mental expectations and attitudes on the part of the lifter employing them. Rapid changes must be understood beforehand to result in an immediate LOSS of performance or at least no improvement, with the belief and understanding that later improvements will be steady and eventually outpace current performance. When a powerlifter first taught my high school self to bench with an arch and retraction, my bench went down by 20 lb. that very day. But the next week, it went up 10. The week after that, the technique was even more comfortable and my bench went up another 10 lb. Sure enough, by the end of the month, I was benching 30 lb. more than I ever had, and I never benched with a flat back and flared shoulders for the rest of my powerlifting career. EXPECTATION is key with the rapid approach: The lifter MUST know that a reduction is going to precede improvement.
For lifters that don’t like reductions, the slow progressive approach can work better. In this approach, only small changes are made at any one session, with the goal of total technique adjustment within several weeks. The perfect example is of Eric Lilliebridge’s recent transition from high- to low-bar squatting. Eric moved the bar down his back just a fraction of an inch with most workouts for several months. His squat never went down, and in fact, is now almost 100 lb. higher than his high bar squat ever was.
4.) Phase Potentiation
Phase potentiation is the concept that one phase of training can make the next phase or phases go that much better if it logically precedes them. For example, bigger muscles can get stronger than smaller muscles, so it pays to train for size first (several months) and then strength-train those bigger muscles. After that, it pays to focus on maximal lifting in heavy ranges (sets of 1-3 reps) to really maximize the technique and nervous system requirements of max lifting. Only then will the biggest improvements be seen.
If you try to bring up your quads by doing sets of 10 in the front squat four weeks out of your competition, that gives you no time to convert that size to strength nor peak for max strength. Instead, if you put on size, make sure to go through a strength phase (sets of 3-5 reps) after, and if you do a strength phase, make sure to do a peaking phase (sets of 1-3 reps) in order to see the true and full benefits of both size and strength training. Maxing out right after a high rep and volume hypertrophy phase is a seemingly daily occurrence in powerlifting, and it just leads to discouraging (and false) conclusions about training.
5.) Big Technical Switches
If you make a HUGE technical shift, it’s going to take MONTHS to see the full benefits. If you switch from conventional to sumo deadlifts, literally ALL of the above considerations apply at once. Same with squats from/to sumo, same with benches super close grip to competition wide. Such big changes likely require a full macrocycle in most cases, that is, the entire length of time between two meets (usually 3-6 months apart) should be used to work on the new techniques to build the muscle, technical ability, strength, and peaking skill to maximize a lift. “I didn’t like sumo” after trying it for a week is NOT an intelligent approach to training.
If you run it for a whole macrocycle and get disappointing results, THEN maybe sumo isn’t for you. It’s a long process, for sure. But if you’re SERIOUS about actually trying something very different for a potential benefit, you’ve gotta give it the proper timeframe for testing. Otherwise, you’re just pretending to give the changes a chance.
Born in Moscow, Russia, Mike Israetel is a professor of Exercise Science at the University of Central Missouri. Additionally, he is a competitive powerlifter and bodybuilder, and has been the head sport nutrition consultant to the US Olympic training site in Johnson City, TN. Mike is currently the head science consultant for Renaissance Periodization, and the Author of “The Renaissance Diet.”