Quick and Easy Ways to Feel and Move Better: Installment 20

About the Author: Eric Cressey

In this momentous installment of this series, Cressey Performance Coach Greg Robins introduces you to some valuable lessons he’s learned from the past 14 months of competitive powerlifting training.

With this being the 20th Installment of the series (whoa!), I decided I want to do something different. This post will be longer than the others, but I urge you to read it in its entirety, as the lessons from this past 14 months of training will be worth your time. These tips are based on my own experiences and are applicable to any fitness goal.

“It is not the critic who counts: not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles or where the doer of deeds could have done better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood, who strives valiantly, who errs and comes up short again and again, because there is no effort without error or shortcoming, but who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotions, who spends himself for a worthy cause; who, at the best, knows, in the end, the triumph of high achievement, and who, at the worst, if he fails, at least he fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who knew neither victory nor defeat.”

-Theodore Roosevelt

The quote above has followed me for a long time. I keep it in my wallet (it was on a business card I once received). I kept it in my locker when I played baseball, and I taped it inside my wall locker when I went through basic training. My powerlifting journey began at Total Performance Sports in June of 2011. I noticed a corkboard on the wall, and in bold letters, this quote was pinned to the top corner. Surrounding it were updates from different powerlifting and strongman events.

At first, it didn’t convince me to train for a powerlifting meet. However, it did kind of bug me. I’m like that; if you can do it, I can do it. For better or for worse, that’s largely how I operate. Give it a month or so, and training with a group of guys who are all trying to get brutally strong rubs off on you. It’s sort of a survival of the fittest environment. It wasn’t just a pride thing; it was a challenge. If you know me well, you know I am always working on a physical challenge.

Fast forward to July 2011, and the quote got taped inside my training journal; I decided I wanted to do this.
The process was a major change in how I was used to doing things. I had just finished OCS that summer, and for the past two years, my training had been focused on building a lot of relative strength and aerobic capacity. I decided if this was my goal, then I’m going to go after it hard. This included eating a ton, training hard, and taking time to recover. When it was all said and done, I could reassess and see what I thought. This was my first lesson:

1. Embrace a three phase training mindset.

The three phase training mindset is something I live by now. I first learned to embrace it after reading this post from strength coach Dan John. I encourage you to read it, but the important part is in the last paragraph. It reads “Plan the hunt, hunt the hunt, discuss the hunt.” This boils down to approaching training in three phases. 

First, you plan your training. With the help of my training partner, and co-worker at the time, Jamie Smith, a 12-16 week training cycle was born. Additionally, I had always been someone who, in retrospect, was held back in possible strength gains by constantly avoiding gaining too much weight. I decided on day one that I would forgo the constant nutritional dilemma in my head, as well as the urge to finish every workout, and fill every off day, with “conditioning”. I had a plan: do the program to a tee, execute the assistance work I decided ahead of time would target my weaknesses, stop conditioning excessively, and eat like a horse. When it was over, and not before, I would discuss the results.

If you are going to go after a goal, sit down and figure out the best way to get there. Furthermore, assess what you are doing now that may interfere with your success. Prioritize what will have the best transfer and execute with unyielding intensity. As I tell all the athletes at CP, train with a purpose. Once you have carried out your plan with a 100% effort, then you can sit down again and re-evaluate.

This is precisely what I did, and I got exactly what I wanted. I improved all my lifts dramatically, gained 25lbs, and had a whole host of ideas to bring to the table for my next planning session. This leads me into lesson #2.

2. Learn to tweak a program, not “change” it.

Coming off my first meet, I was very happy that our program had produced results, I stuck to my guns with regards to my nutritional approach, and avoided any extra conditioning. That being said, I had managed to gain a fair amount of not-so-lean body mass in addition to a lot of new muscle. Likewise, I was slowly developing into a one trick pony – or a three trick pony (Squat, Bench, Deadlift), as the case may be. While I was surely able to lift a heck of a lot more than ever before, I was getting winded walking up multiple flights of stairs, and feeling a little disgusted in my physique.

While the power lifting purists may scoff at that comment, I knew enough to know that progress could ensue without continuing to become a sloth. I had lived the first two phases of my training mindset, and now it was time to re-evaluate. The important lesson here is that I kept the nuts and bolts of my training program the same. I planned to work off the same percentages, hit the same supplemental lifts in the same sequence, and choose accessory movements that targeted my weakness.

The difference this time around was in how I approached my nutrition, and additional “moving.” Common sense would tell us that you can’t remove two sources of energy (calories, and the addition of more physical activity) and continue to gain. So. I chose to remove one source of energy, and tweak another. I made sure that my calories were still very high, but that they came from better sources.

On top of that, I decided to utilize a nutrient timing protocol to make my calories work towards my goals more productively. I did that by slowly adopting the principles of Carb Back Loading, which you can read about here.

Knowing that my caloric intake was more than enough to gain muscle and strength, I simply placed in “movement” days in a fashion that would promote more calorie burning, but also enhance recovery. This was done by intelligently approaching these days with less intensity, as well as by optimizing the means. An example of this would be running sprints at low intensities 50 – 70% on an elevated (hill) soft surface (grass).

Fast forward 16 weeks, and the new plan had worked as well. I was stronger, leaner, and much more confident in my physique. I even got girls to like me again…phew!

Too often people jump from program to program. Most people jump before the first one is even done; this is silly. There are also a fair amount of people who finish one program and think the most logical choice is to scrap it and start something completely different. This isn’t always stupid, depending on certain factors. However, I would strongly encourage you to think about tweaking programs, rather than abandoning them all together. Conveniently, this leads me to lesson #3.

3. Know thyself.

Being able to put lesson #2 into practice is largely a function of learning to know oneself as a lifter. At this point, I am 3 weeks out from my second powerlifting meet. It is also the 30th or so week I have followed the same program.

It’s pretty funny to think back on the three separate training cycles and how I felt at any given point during the training. I remember saying to myself in week 10 of my second go: “Wow, I feel horrible.” Then, I thought about how I felt during week 10 the first time around: the same. Come week 10 this time, it was same thing. It’s important because I was able to locate an exact point where the volume was getting to me. This means I was able to do two things.

First, I didn’t abandon ship, because this was normal, and I was beginning to taper the volume anyhow. Second, I was able to slightly tweak training sessions in order to optimize my training. As a young fitness enthusiast, I would read about the difference between advanced and novice lifters. A common theme was that the advanced lifter was able to auto-regulate his training. He or she could make calls on how they felt while staying within the parameters of their training approach as a whole. I even thought a few years ago I was one of these people. I would smash it when I felt good, cut back when I felt crappy. In some ways this was beneficial. However, now I am able to do this on an entirely different level, and I’m still new to understanding it. This is a little over a year of understanding how to train for optimal outputs; the best have decades of experience!

If you want to be great, and have great success in the gym, you need to understand how you react to all the stresses put upon you. It may be possible for some of you already, but I guarantee you it is possible for all of you if you stick with a certain approach over an extended period of time and remain cognizant of how you feel under different circumstances.

Bottom line: do something consistently enough to be able to determine what works, what doesn’t, and what can be improved. Furthermore, listen to your body. As a side note to coaches: listen to your clients and athletes.

Moving on, my next two lessons don’t flow from the previous ones quite as smoothly as the others. I’ll never be described as a literary genius, but nonetheless, they are good ones!

4. Hammer home technique, technique, technique!

Powerlifting has filled a void in my life. One thing I loved about playing baseball was working on my swing, and receiving skills as a catcher. The neat thing about sport performance is that the most elite athletes are able to blend both tremendous physical outputs with mastery of their sport skill. When a high level of each is achieved, the result is simply amazing to watch.

When I would lift weights in the past, I knew form was important, mainly so that I didn’t get hurt. After all, my weight room antics were mainly done in order to improve performance in activities outside the weight room. Now lifting weights is my sport, and technical mastery of the three lifts is hugely important. While I have obviously gotten a lot stronger over the past year, I attribute a large amount of my success to dissecting my form. I have well over 250 videos of different lifts saved on my computer, and I’ve watched each multiple times and scrutinized for flaws in technique. If you have seen some of my videos on Facebook, you are probably wondering what the heck I am looking for, as it isn’t always pretty. In all seriousness, it has been the single biggest factor in improving my squat and bench press, and a good way to locate little mishaps in timing with my deadlift. If you are a competitive lifter, break down your technique and learn the nuances of each lift from people who have lifted weights you hope to someday lift. If you are a coach or fitness buff, I would advocate the use of video on the big lifts. I also think becoming meticulous with your technique will add a rewarding piece to your training as a whole!

The last lesson is the most important, and in light of what it is, and the fact this article is already a short novel, I will keep it short.

5. Do Less, get more.

If powerlifting has done one thing for me, it has proven this mantra. My training has become focused. I have three lifts I am looking to improve. I have learned that doing too much physically outside of these lifts will negatively impact them. I have learned that doing more mentally (looking at video, crunching numbers, assessing training stress) with these three lifts will improve them.

This is the lesson that can be most easily applied to everyone’s training and life. Don’t do so much that you become mediocre at a lot, and great at nothing. Don’t create so many variables that you cannot locate and manage the ones that matter.

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