“I see more clearly than ever before that even our greatest troubles spring from something that is as admirable and sound as it is dangerous—from our impatience to better the lot of our fellows.”
— Karl Popper
This is part of a new weekly series where I will answer a selection of questions from various lifters we coach, both in the gym and in our online programs.
Be aware, true knowledge comes only through the actualization of your learning. Reading is not enough. My words can’t make you stronger any more than a bottle of bourbon can make you drunk—action is required. Further, these answers are not definitive, but rather more like the finger pointing toward the moon. Your job is to reach the moon, not stare at my finger.
With that in mind, let’s begin.
“What do I do when my legs are fried from all of the work I’m doing?”
My first follow up question to anyone asking about a feeling is to find out about their performance.
Is your performance in the gym going up or going down?
For example, if we’re discussing squat-progress, are you improving on the squat? Not your single-rep-maxes (ever the obsession of new lifters), but all aspects of your strength should be considered here—especially, your ability to endure the high volumes of training.
If the answer to this question is positive—the workload is being maintained or going up (even in the face of discomfort)—then, I tell the lifter to stay-the-course.
How you feel is not actually a lie, but it can be quite misleading to the beginner. Performance measures are more honest.
If the answer is negative—your performance is going down—then I have a follow up question: how long has your performance been going down?
If your performance has been going down for less than a week (or so, not exact), then again, I’ll tell you to stick it out—and while you are at it, increase your food intake, and take a hard look at your sleeping patters (these are nearly always the culprits).
If your performance has been in decline for over a week AND we have ruled out the possibility that your diet sucks or that you are seriously lacking sleep—then it’s time for a deload.
A deload is a word that should be taken literally: you cut down on your load.
Load is defined as total volume (total number of reps) times total weight lifted (on each of those reps). So you can see how there are many ways to lower the load.
Among them are:
- Lower the weight
- Lower the volume
- Lower both
For someone interested in building peak strength, my advice is to lower the total load by choosing option 2.
In practice, this means that you keep your weights high, focus on rep ranges between 1 and 3, and don’t do very many sets. An easy way to do this is to just do a Volcano ramp, and be done—this works for squats, snatches, cleans, even deadlifts.
Do this for about 7 to 14 days, or until your performance begins to go up, and you feel excited to dive back into the darkness of high load work again.
To recap, if you are suffering in the gym, odds are strong that the culprit is your diet or your lack of sleep—it is amazing how bad most athletes are at paying close attention to either of these. If those are ruled out, are not the problem, AND it has been longer than 7 days, then take a simple deload as outlined above.
Let me emphasize that if you are unable to maintain 3 weeks without needing a deload (and this is consistent), then you are almost certainly doing something wrong in your diet or sleep. I regularly have my athletes in the gym going as long as 12 weeks without a deload, and their workloads are astronomical.
“Snatches & Cleans: How do you feel about ‘block work’ for the Olympic lifts?”
I don’t like block work for anyone other than (relatively) advanced lifters—at least 2 or 3 years of serious training under the guise of a good coach.
NOTE: All of my complaints are rendered moot if you have a coach to watch you and keep you on track. ALL of my advice online is meant for those of you who are training without that luxury.
The reason I dislike block (and hang) work for the Olympic lifts is because it is far too easy to do it badly—very badly.
You, in your effort to move more weight, will rightly shift to positions that are NOT the same as those you’d be in (at that same place in the lift) if you’d lifted off the floor.
Because these weirdo-positions make your stronger. You’ve seen the hilarious videos of high school football players bouncing and swinging their “hang cleans” before their heroic biceps hurl the unsuspecting barbell onto their shoulders. They do this because it does make you stronger from the hang to lift this way. Similarly, when lifting from blocks, you can shift into interesting positions that make you stronger from blocks than you’d ever be from the floor—positions that are not even close to where you need to be when you ARE lifting from the floor!
It is a very bad sign if you are lifting more from the blocks than from the floor. The only possible reasons for this are:
- Your positions are different from the blocks, giving an ‘unnatural’ advantage to the block lift over the equivalent lift from the floor.
You are less afraid during the lift from blocks, and this lack of fear allows you to execute the lift with proper aggression and power, where off the floor, your fear prevents this.
In both cases, you are better off working from the floor.
As my italicized note above suggests, there may be times when a coach will have you work from blocks with different positions on purpose. But, then, they will be there, and it will be a breaking of the rules in a safe and controlled environment.
You don’t have that.
You train without me there watching you.
Because of this, you need to avoid ALL things that have a high probability of causing you to ingrain bad habits—block work is notorious for that.
Blocks are for advanced athletes, not beginners.
It’s worth noting that blocks can (and possibly should) be used by beginners when training the deadlift. Yet another case where the Olympic lifts are remarkably different than the power lifts.
“Snatches: I’m hitting my lower stomach, above the hip. It seems to make me lift better. Is that normal, or am I doing something wrong?”
This is great!
While I’m not going to declare that hitting the low stomach is the goal, if we have to err on one side (we do), it’s better to hit too high than too low.
When you hit low, not only have you lost substantial amounts of power, you also make it more likely that you’ll smack your pubic bone with the barbell—which results in that horrible pain we’ve all felt, that can take weeks to fully heal.
Maybe it would make more sense for us to tell lifters to hit their waist, rather than their hip, as this would give them a wider range, beginning at the proper hip (above the pubic bone; at the hip joint) leading up to the top of the hip bones (you can feel them on your sides if you poke yourself right now).
I wouldn’t have you go above the top of the hip bones, as that puts you far into the squishy-bits of your belly. But, anywhere in that waist-range is perfectly fine.
“Squats: I’m doing the Volcano ramps, but I can’t ever hit near my maxes. Does this matter? Should I be taking smaller jumps?”
Before I answer the important part of this question (the first), let me say to the second, “Yes!”—you should take smaller jumps during your ramps. The volume on the way up is more important (by far) than whatever number you hit (or don’t) at the end.
Take big jumps until you hit 70% of your max. Then, take small jumps between 3% and 5% of your max all the way up.
Now for the important question: Does it matter if you are hitting near your maxes?
No, it doesn’t matter. In fact, it is the opposite. If you ARE hitting your top PRs or anywhere close to them on a regular bases, you are not training hard enough.
Your concern during Training is NOT hitting PRs!
Your concern during training is to cause so much stress on the body that it has no choice but to adapt, so that after this adaptation period, your probability of hitting PRs has increased.
That might not sound as exciting, but it is—precisely because that is reality. If you want to hit huge PRs in the future, you have no choice but to go through many Stress-Adaptation Cycles.
The Stress-Adaptation Cycle is a period of high stress on the body followed by a deload period that allows the body to adapt to that stress.
Your program is considered to be designed well or poorly based upon how well it helps you to manipulate that cycle to get whatever specific effects you are looking for.
During your Stress periods, you may be far too fatigued to hit genuine PRs, or be even close to them. That’s good! That means you ARE causing enough stress.
The obsession with PRs is at the root of why so many beginners stay beginners forever, and never squat the amounts they are fully capable of—because they stay in a state of perpetual deload!
They refuse to endure the Stress part of the Cycle, and as a consequence, they never reap the rewards that come from the adaptations to that stress.
It’s a game of cat and mouse—embrace it.
Now go lift something heavy,