Saturday, March 21, 2015


(Author’s note: Though I’ve written around this topic many times before I feel as though it is one of my few significant contributions to the world of training, and something I would like to take the time to expand upon.  Though by no accounts an original idea, it has been one that has radically transformed and improved my training.)

In lifting, one of the most common metrics for success is to witness an increase in the weight being used for particular movements.  It seems logical enough, for when one’s goal is to become stronger, what better way to reach assurance in one’s goal than to observe that they are lifting heavier weights, and therefore “being” stronger.  However, given that lifting becomes THE activity, rather than A activity to support another athletic endeavor (hockey, football, MMA, etc), a confounding variable can arise wherein a trainee does not become stronger, simply better.  What I speak on is the notion of being able to move more efficiently, recruit more muscles, improve one’s breathing patterns, etc etc.  The end result is still desirable, as more weight is being lifted.  However, are you getting stronger?

Image result for futurama harlem globetrotters

Dave Tate has spoken countless times on how, in just one session, he has been able to add 30-50lbs to someone’s bench press.  Dave’s eye for technique breakdown is incredible, and with modifications to foot placement, setting up the arch, bench stroke, breathing, etc, he allows a trainee to utilize much untapped potential.  This is a significant success, as one now has a substantially greater chance of winning a powerlifting meet.  However, did that trainee leave the gym any stronger than when they arrived?  No, they simply became a BETTER lifter.  The lifter possesses the same exact amount of strength, he is simply better at utilizing all of it.

This understanding becomes imperative when discussing matters of training, for many times trainees argue extensively with each other over the correct means to train, not understanding that both are arguing about improving different qualities.  It may seem that two trainees are arguing about the best way to deadlift more weight, but when broken down we realize that one is arguing about the best way to become a better deadlifter, while the other argues about the best way to become a stronger deadlifter.  Both arguments may in fact be sound, but due to the presupposed hypothetical imperative that each trainee operates under, it creates the illusion that the other person has no idea what they are talking about.

Image result for skinny person lifting weights
The fact they look like this doesn't help

It is not just in the realm of discussion where such clarifications are necessary, but when we design our own training as well.  So many times we operate under the assumption that, in order to lift more weight at a movement, we must DO the movement.  It seems to operate logically enough, with pithy witticisms such as “practice how you play” attempting to enforce dogma, but we must understand that this premise is hinged upon the notion that one needs to improve their PROFICIENCY with a movement.  It is absolutely true that practicing a movement and becoming better at it will yield near immediate results in terms of poundages on the bar, but it is also true that, once this skillset has been honed, said results will come slower and slower by employing this method.  Though mastery is still impossible to obtain, once one has become very skilled, continued improvement of skills will yield minimal results.

To take a personal example, I spent the majority of my training career performing no manner of clean whatsoever.  My goals never dictated that I perform the clean, and time/energy invested in the movement could have been better invested.  Now that I compete in strongman, the clean (as part of a press event) is necessary for my goals, and as such I have started training it regularly.  When I first started cleaning an axle, I could not manage a 190lb clean.  After 2 months of regularly performing the movement, I have managed a 250lb axle clean, meaning an improvement of over 60lbs in 8 weeks.  I did not somehow develop 60lbs worth of “axle clean muscle: during this time, it was simply that I, as a 650lb deadlifter, learned how to tap into the required muscles/coordination necessary to get better at this lift.  More than likely, I can continue to spend time getting better at this movement before I need to concern myself with getting stronger.  

Sometimes, a program designed to improve a lift will NOT contain said lift within it.  The reason here being that, instead of seeking the goal of becoming better at the movement, one instead desires to make the muscles involved in said movement stronger.  Front squats to make squats stronger, mat pulls to make deadlifts stronger, overhead pressing to make bench stronger, etc.  When we make these decisions, we do so operating under the premise that not only is our skillset developed enough that improvements to it will have minimal impact in terms of improving our numbers, but also that our skillset is developed enough that time spent away from the movement will not have a disastrous negative training effect.  When we make this decision, we do so knowing that the time and energy we are spending on the movement we want to make stronger is in fact taking away from our ability to train the movements that will actually MAKE us stronger.

Image result for Jackie Chan confused
I know, I know, just stick with me.

Additionally, we, the honest and observant athlete, must be true to ourselves when we analyze improved numbers on our lifts.  Did we become stronger, or merely better?  Is it that we have developed a brutish ability to apply more force in all situations, or is it instead that we learned how to better recruit force into this specific instance?  This is not a morality judgment, or a claim of superiority of strength over skill, but simply a realistic understanding of the applicability of each attribute.  If I added 20lbs to my overhead press because I developed my shoulders, triceps, lats, and all other pressing musculature to such an extent to result in said gains, I have most likely developed the same type of brute strength for all manner of pressing (even if not exactly a 20lb carryover).  If I added 20lbs to my overhead press because I mastered the skill of the double dip with a jerk, I most likely will not see this same increase present on a bench.  When it comes time to compete, it does not matter HOW I got these 20lbs, BUT, when it comes time to account for fatigue, injury, or other variables, I must assess how much these factors affect my strength and how much they affect my skill when planning for my victory.


  1. Excellent distinctions here. I had not thought about this too much.

    I wonder to what extent you think that real gains in strength over technique occur as we close in on temporary plateaus.

    Applying your thoughts to my own experience my sense is that when things become hard to progress that I have reached a point where i have milked the technique improvements I can leverage myself without expert guidance to a large extent.

    It is the gains in one or two reps from busting ass each week where I feel my strength and muscle gains are eeked out.

    1. I am glad you enjoyed this topic. It's honestly one of the reasons I keep writing this blog. I don't get a ton of readers, but it was through writing and forcing myself to think that I once stumbled across this idea, and the more I have explored it, the more it has improved my training.

      As far as determining when/how we improve, I imagine there are a lot of factors at play for the individual, and it really is going to require objectivity and honesty with oneself. As you mention, most likely knowing that you are progressing more via effort than intellect is a decent sign of strength versus technique, but it's also worth noting that, a lot of times, the most effective technique HURTS.

      I'm a terrible bencher, but I can tell the difference between a good and a bad set up when I bench based on how much discomfort I feel. The worse I feel, the better I bench, because it means my body is as tight as humanly possible and squeezed together like an accordion. If I am loose and lax, I am not going to be moving much weight.

      But, of course, looking at the above, if I put myself in a sub-optimal position to move heavy weights, maybe it will mean that I have no choice but to develop STRENGTH at this point, since technique will no longer move the weight.

      So much at play here, I could honestly write thousands of pages on this, haha. I have thankfully limited this to a 2 parter for now, but can always return to it.

      Thanks for reading!