Every workout has a weakness, to combat this problem coaches unfortunately tend to throw in everything but the kitchen sink. Minimizing the weaknesses of various methods isn’t challenging if we better understand powerful training principles. As coach Charles Staley has said, “everything has a cost, not everything has a benefit.” You can easily apply this to
workouts as well. Understand the weaknesses of a workout helps you better construct an entire program.
The lack of success of many fitness programs can be directly traced to not altering training variables. Even those that do try to cycle the various training concepts still miss big on three important ideas. Implementing these methods can enhance the strength of your workouts, easily periodize your programs without having a degree in Soviet sports science, and most importantly give you the opportunity to achieve long-term success.
Mistake #1: Not Altering Load Placement
I have spoken in previous articles in regards to altering holding position and how this principle plays a paramount role in loading, stability, and overall effect of an exercise. That may sound like a justification for only sandbag training, but the truth is that it applies to all forms of strength training. However, very few coaches actually systematically manipulate holding position. Why is this important?
Let’s apply this concept with a barbell to get rid of any assumed biases. Front squats and back squats are favorite exercises for many lifters. However, which one do you choose and why? I have always heard of interesting ideas such as front squat works more quads and back squats works more hamstrings. The reality is most coaches do not understand why they are using specific variations of a movement. What does the research say?
In a study by Gullett et al, front and back squatting was directly compared. The researchers concluded, “The front squat was as effective as the back squat in terms of overall muscle recruitment, with significantly less compressive forces and extensor moments.” This was also with lighter loads used during the front squat. Digging deeper, one could see some differences, but overall this is very intriguing. Now before you go run off and just start performing front squats, I want you to think bigger picture than just the exercise. This study ultimately demonstrates the value of load placement changing the impact of a movement.
Remember, both are squatting patterns, but it is where the load is applied that changes the outcome for both effectiveness and safety. Seeing such results with lower weights also has to make us wonder how other implements that are strategically placed on the body can also create positive effects even though the loads appear much lighter.
- Kettlebell Single Arm Front Squat
- Sandbag Shoulder Squat
- Bear Hug Squats
- Front Loaded (Zercher Squats)
Mistake #2: The “Big Lifts” Are Your Keys to Success
The number one rule of strength training dictates that you perform cleans, squats, presses, and deadlifts, and that you do those lifts first! After all, whatever you place first in the workout does receive priority. I know, I know, the big lifts are all you need to get stronger, but what if that wasn’t true?
“Typically these players (NFL players) over-emphasize the two-legged lifts and pulls like squats and power cleans without considering single leg loading. In other words, the pelvis must not drop laterally with high load or high-speed single leg support.” These are not my words, rather, those of renowned spinal expert, Dr. Stuart McGill.
Are cleans, squats, deadlifts, and all the other “big lifts” good and important? Of course, but when was the last time you didn’t put them first? When was the last time you prioritized other drills where you challenged stability or leverage over load? After all, many of these drills we are referring to may require more neural activation to coordinate the movement than simply high loading.
- Lunging in All Directions Under Various Loading Positions
- Bench Pressing or Push-up Single Arm Leveraging
- Step-ups of Different Patterns and Loading Positions
- Single Arm Clean and Presses from Variety of Body Positions
- Carries: Farmer’s, Single Arm Farmer’s, Shouldering, Front Hold, Single Arm Overhead, Various Overhead Positions
Mistake #3: Not Paying Attention to Tempo
The fitness industry has changed quite a bit in the last ten years. For a long time, performing any type of “quick lift” was almost unheard of in fitness and only reserved for well-qualified athletes. Now, just about everyone is using explosive lifts as part of their program, for both good and bad.
The good? Explosive or quick lifts do help our neuromuscular system and fast-twitch muscle fibers. In fact, one of the fastest qualities we lose as we age is power and this can be related to aging issues such as falling. There definitely is no arguing that fast can be good, if used correctly, but so can slow.
“Slower tempos with lighter weights are an especially useful tool for novice trainees because such protocols produce neuromuscular and hypertrophic adaptations without being dangerous or compromising technique with loads that are too heavy. They are also a staple of programming when recovering from injury to increase blood flow to the injured area, gain strength, and focus on getting to the muscles to fire effectively.”
These are the words of renowned strength coach, Charles Poliquin. Since many lifters spend a high volume of work performing quick and/or heavy lifts, I believe the same benefits can be found for the more advanced trainee.
An additional benefit of slower tempos may be in the energy systems. Coach Poliquin cites a study showing how excess post-exercise oxygen consumption was lower for lifts with a faster tempo than slower. Additionally caloric expenditure was shown to be less with the faster than slower tempos. The moral is to vary tempos over the course of training cycles to obtain the benefits of both.
Understanding how to apply these principles can dramatically change the outcome of your programs without having to perform overly complicated exercises. Where do you start in using these concepts? If you have never varied how you hold your weight, start to plan a cycle of one major exercise in which you do so. If you have never prioritized asymmetrical lifts, use that as a secondary movement in your program. If all you have ever performed are highly explosive lifts, try a finisher movement where you focus largely on slowing down the speed of the movement. These principles are easily integrated into any training program and can add motivation for new training goals.
1. Gullett, Jonathan C; Tillman, Mark D; Gutierrez, Gregory M; Chow, John W. A Biomechanical Comparison of Back and Front Squats in Healthy Trained Individuals. Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research:January 2009 – Volume 23 – Issue 1 – pp 284-292
2. Scott, Christopher. The Effect of Time Under Tension and Weight Lifting Cadence on aerobic, Anaerobic, and Recovery Energy expenditures. Applied Physiology, Nutrition, and Metabolism. 2012. 37(2), 252-256.
3. Ten Things You Should Know About Tempo Training, Charles Poliquin.