Take Some Weight Off the Bar to Get Strong as Hell

I loathe Mondays. International Chest Day. Bros everywhere are deadlifting weight off of their buddies chests, with the customary, “It’s all you bro!” It drives me nuts.

Listen, nobody ever got stronger by someone else lifting their weights for them.

There is a spectrum of people who train. On one end is the group above, the ego lifters, who load up way more weight than they can handle, might eek out a rep at best, then have someone lift a good chunk of the weight for the rest of the set. This end of the spectrum is notorious for half rep squats and deadlifts that make their spines look like question marks.

The other end of the spectrum is the group who are terrified to pick up anything heavier than 3 pounds because they don’t “want to get too bulky.”

This group is a topic for another day.

Anyway, I saw a really great talk at a conference a few months back where I thought I was going to hear Dr. Richard Ulm talk about Olympic weightlifting technique, but instead, got a great explanation on why our technique breaks down in the first place.

Here’s what I took from it:

We have what he termed Functional Capacity, which is the range within which an athlete is able to maintain proper movement strategies.

In layman’s terms, how much can a person lift with perfect technique.

There are 3 main stressors that challenge an athlete’s ability to maintain perfect technique during a lift:

  1. Force Threshold: When the force output requirements of a movement exceed the athlete’s ability to execute the movement with technical efficiency.
    • IE: the weight is too heavy to be able to complete without compensating. Think hyperextension of the lower back when coming out of the hole on a squat.
  2. Speed Threshold: When the joint motion speed requirements of a movement exceed the athlete’s ability to execute the movement with technical efficiency.
    • IE: the speed of the movement is too much to overcome. Think about the knees collapsing when landing on a box jump
  3. Duration Threshold: The point at which an athlete is unable to execute the movement with technical efficiency due to fatigue-be it respiratory, neurological, or muscular fatigue
    • IE: can’t keep the elbows up when front squatting for high reps and the upper body starts to collapse

We can all move more weight if we make compensations of some kind. Look around the gym and you’ll see ugly form all over the place. This is where the ego lifter lives. Who cares if your spine explodes when you’re pulling big wheels right?

But there is a cost of doing business like this.

The chart below is a representation of 3 hypothetical people who all have a max squat of 500 pounds, which is in blue. The green is their functional capacity-the highest point that they can reach before having a form breakdown.

Person one can squat 365 perfectly, while person 2 has a perfect squat up until 195 pounds, and the 3rd person has a picture perfect squat up to 455.

func cap

At the end of the day, they can all move 5 bills in a “squat” but they are going to look very different as they build up to that point. The fact of the matter is, none of the 3 might get hurt today when training above their functional capacities. Maybe they will.

But the more they have to compensate, that is, the bigger the gap between their functional capacity and their actual training loads, the higher the risk of injury, whether that’s today, tomorrow, or 5 years from now.

More to the point, when someone is training above their functional capacity, they’re not really overloading the movement that they’re trying to improve anymore, so it’s unlikely to give the desired outcome. If you’re squatting big weights with collapsed knees and a rounded back to get bigger legs, you have to understand that the legs aren’t getting challenged any more than they would if you were doing a heavy set that you could handle. Instead, you’re back, hips, and knees are likely taking on the increase in stress. Now you’re waddling around like a penguin with a stick up his ass for 4 days with no improvement to show for it.

The moral of the story is to train close to your functional capacity, and work to improve that. Check the ego at the door and strive to get better. Nobody gives a shit what you bench, so stop trying to impress. As a matter of fact, in the internet era, unless there’s a video to show someone’s big lift, nobody believes it anyway.

At Mike Boyle Strength and Conditioning, we called sets at technical failure, which is synonymous with what Dr. Ulm calls functional capacity. Stop the set at the last rep you can do perfectly. Over time, you’ll have more weight on the bar before you reach technical failure. That’s why they make 2.5 pound plates. Add them slowly, and reap the long term rewards.

Like Dan John says, increase a little, for a long time. That’s the secret to getting stronger.

Cut down the weight on the bar, hammer picture perfect technique on every rep, and you’ll get stronger. It’s not sexy, but it’s the answer.

Otherwise, you’re going to break down, somehow, someway, sometime. Just like nobody got stronger by having someone else lift their weights, nobody ever got stronger by being laid up and injured.



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