I just saw a comment on one of my daily YouTube videos that shook me.
It’s not that it was particularly scary or outrageous… it just reminded me so much of me.
How do you get huge while nursing your body? Is it even possible?
How do you treat that nagging shoulder/elbow/hip/back/etc but still have fun in the gym?
How do you sweat and make your muscles burn when you feel indefinitely injured?
This post is probably the most existential topic I’ve ever covered. It addresses the questions I’ve been pondering the most for the last decade.
So many of us get in this fitness game because we love the iron. I am reminded of Henry Rollins’ essay on the topic.
I remember the first program I wrote for myself. I read on T-Nation that big lifts were more effective than single joint movements, and that heavy weights made you stronger. And wave loading was the most effective thing I had ever done. So naturally I combined them all.
- Snatch – 3, 2, 1, 3, 2, 1
- Squat – 3, 2, 1, 3, 2, 1
- Bench Press – 3, 2, 1, 3, 2, 1
I put my heart and soul into that program. I think I had another day where I did the same thing with other movements, too. I’d have to find my workout log.
I just wanted to train. I wanted to get yoked, which I don’t even think was a thing at that point in time (circa 2007). I busted my butt in the gym and loved every minute of it.
That program was terrible and got me nowhere, but that didn’t take the wind out of my sails. I started competing in powerlifting and always lost to my cousin.
Even coming in second out of only a handful of people wasn’t enough to stop me. I kept pushing.
No, the turning point was the night after my second meet. I went to a friend’s house for a party and laid down on the grass outside.
Now I want to pause here to give you some backstory: I’m allergic to basically everything; grass especially. I remember doing one of those prick on your back tests for allergy testing back when I was a kid and every freaking spot lit up like a bulls-eye. And one of the biggest dots was right where the plain old grass prick was.
So why in the world would I lay down in the grass if it’s basically attacking my body? (though technically it was making my body attack itself)
I laid down because my hips were LIT UP. I’d been having hip issues for a while on and off, but this was the worst it had ever been. Obviously something I did that day did not sit well with my pelvis.
Thus began my search for pain-free movement. With the help of my mentors, Mike Robertson and Bill Hartman, I tried all sorts of single leg training, technique changes, and physical therapy. We found a few things that definitely helped, and I steered into it.
That is probably why I took a little over a dozen Postural Restoration Institute courses. And why I now believe that some of the best coaches are the people who have gotten really messed up. They’ve had to work to optimize the bad hand they’ve been dealt. Though I probably just think that because my identity depends on it.
So experimentation and career development… check.
But I found that every time I went back into the gym and “pushed it”, I would relapse. I had friends and training partners who went through the same.
At that point, my worst fears were realized: I would never be able to work hard in the gym again without serious joint pain repercussions.
Adjusting the program
After accepting my perpetual doom, Bill wrote a program for my training partner and me. And this thing didn’t really look much like anything I had ever done in the gym before.
We had to lift sets of three with sub-maximal weight. Upper body only for your main exercises. One single leg exercise as an accessory exercise. Maybe 90 minutes in the gym.
No squats. No deadlifts. How weird is that?
Even weirder: SUB-MAXIMAL WEIGHT!? How am I supposed to get big on these tiny weights?
Well, the answer is to do insane volume. Often twelve sets. Cut it sooner if you lose your technique or can’t get the lift.
And you know what?
My training partner and I felt great.
Why in the world would a weird program like this work?
I had been training for years trying to “increase intra-abdominal pressure”. Take a big breath because you need to stabilize the core. Makes sense.
Then I learned about the diaphragm, the pelvic floor, and how my breathing and bracing weren’t really “stabilizing” anything.
And I figured out that arch I was using for my bench press was trashing my scapular position and shoulder motion. And that popping my sternum was probably related to heavy right turn it made whenever the weight got heavy.
Basically, I had habitually used weights that my body couldn’t handle. I could COMPLETE the lift, but I could never keep a position that allowed me to use my muscles. Instead, I used my hypermobility to masquerade as someone with good technique.
And that story added up with my experiences. I would never feel my muscles working during heavy sets. I could feel pressure in my joints, but would only fatigue in a muscle once my entire body gave up.
It felt like I could do my 90% 1RM for ten reps, but put twenty more pounds on and I couldn’t even move it. That makes sense, too, in light of the length-tension relationship of muscle. Turns out that short pecs from your big bench press arch don’t really allow for muscle loading.
Turning over a new leaf
I imagine some of this story reminds you of yourself. You struggle with heavier weights. You’ve had trouble breaking through strength plateaus. You feel like you just get fat when you eat more protein.
Well, I know how you feel.
But there IS a way forward. There IS something you can do.
You can train again. You can push yourself. You can get stronger, more muscular, and less fat.
But if you thought training was hard before, you better prepare yourself for what is to come.
Now you have to totally redefine what training means.
You have to totally redefine your body’s capabilities.
You have to totally redefine your medium-term training goals.
Because you can’t just do triples, doubles, and singles day in and day out and expect to just get stronger. Your body will tank.
Your body’s strongest positions are ones that lead to plateaus. They are maxed out.
You need to teach yourself NEW positions. Ones that will make you feel weak and humble in the short run, but will unlock more potential in the long run. You need to stop benching with that insane arch in your back. And you need to stop trying to get your back so flat when you deadlift. And you need to stop sticking your chest out during your squat. Because those cues don’t work for you. They destroy your body and your gains.
You need to train like a bodybuilder for a while. Learn how to feel muscles. Heck, even do some SINGLE JOINT EXERCISES. Blasphemy, I know, but they’re fun and they’ll teach you what it means to feel the pump.
And — don’t take this the wrong way — but you’ve probably gotten a little sloppy. You’ve maybe forgotten what it means to do steady start cardio (again, because you heard it was boring and sub-optimal). You’ve probably never done a set above 15 reps.
I feel like I can be derisive because I’m talking to the younger me. Getting older is fun.
I’m not even saying you need to change your goals entirely, but do I think that many amateur powerlifters would benefit from a muscular endurance mesocycle? Absolutely.
But sometimes, your goals DO change…
Shaping the path
This process could take years. And during years, people grow up.
So I can look back on my old training days and think, “Yeah, it’d be nice to be strong again. But there’s also a bunch of other stuff I want to do.”
So I don’t need to compare my back squat with everyone else. It’s embarrassingly low right now, but I can usually do it and feel pretty good after. And that’s all I want.
I dislike writhing in pain before bed more than I like using heavy weights in the gym.
So I train weird single leg exercises. Or the dumbbell floor press. I don’t need to place all my energy into the Big 3 lifts because I have heavily patterned those lifts with years and years of practice. And those patterns don’t look that great. So I’ve found it best to bypass them all together and choose something similar, but still different.
Maybe after you try a training block of cardio and muscular endurance, you’ll find that you really like how much energy and memory you have when you do more cardio.
Maybe after doing some floor presses, you won’t feel like such an egomaniac around the bench press.
Or maybe after finding out how to fix your own problems, you’ll want to start helping others fix theirs.
Keep an open mind. There’s always room to grow.
This story summarizes my philosophy on training better than anything I’ve ever written. If you want to understand why I am the way I am, there’s no better piece to read.
I’ve said before that my goal is to put myself out of a job, but there’s more to it than that.
I want to give you options. I want you to feel better after working out, not worse.
I will continue thinking about ways to do that, but the most effective solution I’ve found is just coaching. I do some online, but you can do it yourself, too.
Treat yourself like an experiment. Try things out. Change one variable at a time. Let it sit for a while. Note the differences. Write your own Restrospective on your training history.
Figuring it out all on your own is a loooong process. You can definitely do it, but you will pay in time and energy.
I can help if you want help. But if you’re gonna go it alone, leave us a comment below to commit yourself to the process. Because when things get tough, I want you to know we’re waiting to hear from you.
I can’t wait to see what you do.
Shout out to Colin Gowland for catching a typo.