I had a conversation with a client recently that I wanted to share. This particular client is an avid fitness enthusiast who has been performing what I would call traditional strength training regularly over the past 7 years. She is very committed to her training and is at the gym 5 days per week, nearly without fail.
She was confiding in me that she had become frustrated with her progress, or lack thereof. She told me “ I just know I should be better than I am.” I asked her to clarify what she meant by this. After some discussion we came to the conclusion that she had become discouraged because she felt that she had been putting in all the work, but not getting the results that she wanted.
Of course at this point, I decided to dig into the bones of her training program.
I thought maybe her training wasn’t well thought out or it was poorly organized. This wasn’t a knock on the coaches at her gym, to be fair these are the most common errors that tend to keep people from achieving their fitness goals. After dissecting her program, it was clear that her training program was pretty darn well put together. At least from a conventional strength and conditioning framework.
This is the point I want to make by sharing this story. The traditional strength and conditioning framework is a flawed system for most of us to evaluate our progress. By adopting this framework we are adopting a measurement that has no relation to the majority of outcomes that many of us are striving for by going to the gym.
Before we continue on this train, let’s answer two important questions. First, how did we get to the point where our progress is measured purely by the amount of weight we put on the bar? Second, why do we continue to measure our success of our strength training this way?
Here is a quick history lesson. The earliest references to strength training date all the way back to 3600 BC, where potential soldiers of the Chou dynasty had to pass weight-lifting tests in order to be accepted into the military. Fast-forward to the 6th century BC and we enter what is known as “The Age of Strength.” A period where competitions were held by strongmen to see who could lift the heaviest stones. You see,even thousands of years before us, human beings were fascinated by being able to lift the heaviest weights. Because of this, various types of competitions centered around lifting heavy weights emerged. The best way for the winner of these competitions to be decided was to award victory to the person who could lift the most weight. This seems pretty reasonable, right?
Fast-forward to modern day. For many reasons, millions of people today now perform some version of strength training on a regular basis. However, very few of these people strength train with the intention of entering competitions. In fact, most people I talk to and work with really don’t have “true” weight-lifting goals of achieving a specific one rep max for their core lifts. More often than not, people say they choose to start strength training programs because they want to avoid gaining weight, they want to achieve a specific physical appearance, they want to gain a longer quality of life, they want to improve their athletic performance, they want to prevent injury, and they want to feel like they are still youthful. You see, none of the top reasons that people actually choose to start lifting weights actually have anything to do with how much weight they can lift.
Why do so many of us continue to insist on evaluating our progress by a metric that has no relevance to our goals? The answer, because it has always been this way, and it’s easy to measure. When you read that back again, it just sounds silly, but it is the unfortunate truth. Now, I am not suggesting that anyone abandon tracking their weights. It’s a great way to remember what you have done in the past and can definitely be a source of motivation. However, it should not be the only datapoint that people look to in order to determine the success or failure of their training. In fact, by only focusing on this singular metric you actually may be keeping yourself from getting the results you want, and it may even be the reason why you find yourself getting injured.
Back to my conversation with my client. She had fallen into this exact trap. She had become so focused on the amount of weight she was able to put on the bar that she had forgotten why she started strength training in the first place. When I asked her specifically why she had started strength training she thought for a moment and responded, “because I wanted to move better and feel more athletic.” Though it had become easy for her to judge her progress by how much weight she could lift, it had derailed her progress toward her actual goals. She felt like her training was making her body sore, and that her movement had become more labored. Yes, she was lifting more weight than when she started but at the cost of moving well and becoming the athlete she envisioned herself being.
This client and I worked together and identified areas in her movement that we could optimize. Additionally, we worked on cues that she could implement while performing her strength training so that she could prioritize how she was moving her body during her sessions. By doing so, she could now gauge her progress based on her movement quality instead of purely by how much weight she had on the bar. The result? She is now back on track in the gym and feeling like she is again making the progress she feels like she should be. She even recently told me that she feels more athletic than she has felt in a long time.
If you are struggling to make progress with your fitness goals, or feel like repetitive injuries are holding you back from the results you want, consider coming in to see us at Sterling Sports Medicine and Physical Therapy. Building the proper foundation is likely exactly what you need in order to break through your current plateau.