Indicator Lifts: How to Know if You’re Getting Better

Arnold-Schwarzenegger-1r4A few weeks ago I attended the Perform Better Summit about an hour north of here in Long Beach. It’s a great event, hundreds of trainers, coaches, and fitness enthusiasts attend and there are 4 different experts in different rooms every hour for 3 days discussing all things strength, conditioning, fitness, and nutrition.

I’ve attended the one in Providence several times, but this one was my first on the west coast. Great event. I strongly suggest attending if you train people for a living.

Anyway, the event has really grown in size and depth, and one of the great things about attending is the swag they give you. They’ve gone from giving out drawstring bags years ago to sweet backpacks with a shirt, Nike discount code, and various discount offers to other seminars and certifications.

The long winded reason that I bring this up is because the T-shirt we got this year was a sick Nike dri-fit, and it said “Stop Exercising, Start Training.” In the big scheme of cheesy gym T’s, this one is pretty tame, but it got real estate in my brain. I started thinking about all the people I see in the gym who just come in to do random things in an attempt to get tired. This isn’t just the spandex clad casual gym goer either, either. I see athletes of all levels and professional (and really good) trainers fall into the same trap. It’s like when you take a dog to the park and they just need to burn off the pent up energy they have from a day of watching Judge Judy reruns while you were at work all day.

Now, I value randomness in people’s lives and fitness. I’m far from the belief that every little thing needs to be structured, and there should be things that we do just because they feel good or they’re different and hell, if our body can move a certain way, let’s move it that way, and often.

But if all we do is randomness, we never actually make progress, and if you’re reading blogs on the internet about fitness instead of chasing skirts or poring over TPS reports, then progress is probably pretty important to you.

I remember coming across the idea of indicator lifts years ago, and I forget where, but I think it was something Jim Wendler wrote about. Jim is the creator of the very effective and popular 5/3/1 program and is a no nonsense dude that has squatted 1000 pounds. When he says things, I listen. I might not agree with every single bit of it, but I listen nonetheless.

Indicator lifts are the few lifts that you find are really important to you. They’re the ones that over time you are looking to improve, because they have the most carryover to whatever your long term goals are. If you stray too far from making progress, you’ll know when you do an audit and find that your indicator lifts are suffering, and you need to get back on course.

These aren’t going to be lateral raises or dumbbell skullcrushers. These are going to be the big rocks-compound movements that make up the backbone of your program. The Big 3 you decide on would be 3 of your indicator lifts.

I have a spreadsheet on my computer where I track my rep maxes across my indicator lifts:

1RM 2RM 3RM 5RM X8RM X10RM BW Max Reps
CG Bench
Front Squat

I’ve chosen a few presses, a few squat movements, a few deadlift movements, an olympic lift, chin ups, and a few conditioning protocols.

So what does this really tell me? It tells me that if my bench press goes up, but my chin ups go down significantly, it means that I’ve gotten too fat and I need to get myself in check. If my times on the Airdyne go down but my front squat goes up, it means that I have to sack up and stop skipping conditioning. There are checks and balances involved so I know whether or not I’m actually getting better or just staying busy.

During the week of my birthday every year, I put myself through a battery of tests to make sure that I’m better than I was the year before. This consists of bodyweight chin ups for max reps, a bodyweight bench press for max reps, a 3 mile Airdyne for time, a 3 rep max front squat, and I get my bodyfat checked. This assures that my relativeĀ andĀ absolute strength are being checked, my conditioning is in order, and that I haven’t spent too much time in the buffet line. I compare my results to previous years so that I know that I didn’t waste the last 365 days not getting better.

Last year, I wasn’t able to do it. Why? Because I hurt my hip. Why? Because I was a fucking idiot and strayed too far away from what I know works for me. I clearly wasn’t better than I was the previous year. I took note, got back on track, and am having a much better year of training because of it.

We can be our own worst enemies, and spend too much time analyzing every single rep and training session we do. That’s why self audits are crucial. Put together a plan, execute, and if it works, great-rinse and repeat. If the things that matter to you aren’t improving, scrap it and get your shit together.

Find out which lifts have the biggest carryover to your goals and make them staples. I don’t mean max out on them every month, or even every year. That’s why it’s important to have a number of different rep maxes for each lift. As long as those are improving over time, you’re getting better.

Stop exercising. Start training.


1 Comments on “Indicator Lifts: How to Know if You’re Getting Better”

  1. Pingback: Build Muscle, Lose Fat, and Compete Like a Stud: The Ultimate Guide to Building Your Own Training Program - Hansen Performance

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