Focus on what you need to do, not necessarily on what you want to do. That's the secret to strength training success. But how do you know what you need to do? Easy. Make sure you can do everything on the following checklist. Any shortcomings will shine a bright light on your weaknesses, then you can fix them and get better.
1. Bench Your Bodyweight
Mastering bodyweight on the barbell is the transition between beginner and intermediate. I'm amazed when people who've been training a while still can't bench bodyweight. Seven-foot tall genetic anomalies with crazy levers aside, the bodyweight bench press is something you should be able to do. For many, it's a technical issue. For others it's a problem of variation.
The technical problem
To be strong, the joints need to stack up on each other. Along with understanding tension, this seems to be a lost fact with many lifters. Some people will bench with a grip that would be perfect for a middle school boy – too narrow. Your elbow should be directly under your wrist while benching. It might take a workout or two to adapt, so have someone "eyeball" your elbows and wrists. They should be basically vertical. This little hint always helps people bench more.
The variation problem
Keep an eye on how much "stuff" you're packing into your workouts. Military (overhead) pressing will probably help your bench, but adding inclines, dumbbell presses, flyes and all the extra chest work is often the issue holding you back. Too much is too much, and until you bench at least bodyweight you don't need the extra stuff.
Now, if you can bench bodyweight, can you also front squat and clean bodyweight? If yes, then can you snatch it? See where we're going here? Master bodyweight on the barbell, first and foremost.
2. Deadlift Double Your Bodyweight
This is a basic test, but some might struggle to do this for years. Grip strength, position, tension control and injuries might all conspire against you here.
Here's the odd thing, most people don't need to deadlift to improve their deadlift. Pull-ups will help with grip, kettlebell swings will help with hip and glute strength, and high-rep squats can teach tension. I've yet to meet a good Olympic lifter that couldn't pull a big deadlift – without any deadlift training. Getting strong in the fundamentals gets you strong in the deadlift.
Powerlifters may disagree, but the great lifter Hugh Cassidy said that only silverbacks can deadlift more than once a week. So, what do you do the rest of the time? Simply put, "work" increases a deadlift. Push a Prowler, farmer walk, squat heavy for high reps, get stronger. Dedicating three to six months of heavy, hard training without deadliftingwill do miracles for your deadlift.
3. Hold a Two-Minute Plank
I like the push-up position plank (PUPP) as it challenges the shoulders a bit more and makes it nearly impossible to rest the gut on the ground during the test. It doesn't matter what plank you do, but can you fight tension for two minutes?
Dr. Stu McGill has said that if you can't hold a two-minute plank then either you're obese or your ab training is terrible. Let me add a third: you don't understand tension.
Now, you can address this shortcoming by practicing the plank. That's actually a good thing for many people. Learning to crank up the tension is a secret in strength training. Many neophytes simply can't ratchet up the whole body tension needed for maximal lifting.
There's another way, too. Pick up a reasonably heavy kettlebell or dumbbell in one hand and walk with it. This suitcase carry is a walking plank and the load is going to teach the body tension while moving. Most people start with at least 50 pounds, but going much over 100 might not help much. You don't want to wilt like a flower as you walk. Stay tall and strong.
Suitcase carries are simple to add into any training program. For distance, simply go as far as you can with one arm and return with the other. Today, you'll notice your grip strength. Tomorrow, you'll notice your obliques.
4. Sleep With Only One Pillow
How many pillows do you need? If you answer more than one, you need mobility and flexibility work, and maybe even a visit to the physical therapist. Having to prop your head so far forward is a sign you could be dealing with some kyphosis – excessive curvature of the spine causing a hunching of the back.
Vlad Janda taught us half a century ago that the tonic muscles – specifically the pecs, biceps, hamstrings, and hip flexors – tighten with age, injury, and illness. So focus flexibility work there first. If you have joint issues, surgery or rehab might be the correct answer to the problem versus "I'll just work around it." If you have massive asymmetries, balancing this out earlier rather than later might be a good way to sleep through the night. Move well, sleep well.
5. Sit on Floor Without Using Hands, Knees, or Shins
Go from standing to sitting on the floor without any assistance of your hands, knees, or shins, and then get up without putting weight on any other part of your body other than your feet.
This test literally can save your life, and the research bears this out. It gives some insights, statistically, into your life expectancy. (Look up Dr. Araujo at the Clinimex-Exercise Medicine Clinic if you want the details.) It's also very predictive of long-term flexibility, physical strength, and coordination.
This set of tests will give you a full-body safety check. I call them the "hang on to these as long as you can" standards.
Now, if you're younger than 50 and struggle with one of these tests, begin thinking about your long-term health and fitness. Basically, something that's correctable now might not be correctable when you enter the golden years.
6. Balance on One Foot for 10 Seconds
Stand on one foot for 10 seconds. Failing the stand-on-one-foot assessment might be a sign of a serious problem. For me it was a hip issue.
7. Hang for 30 Seconds, Pull-Up
Hang from a bar for 30 seconds. Aside from grip strength, the hanging test might highlight some shoulder and spinal issues.
Can you do that easily? Good. Now try this: Hang from the bar for thirty seconds. When the timer rings, do a pull-up. If you can do that, you're not too bad. Now let's ramp it up. Without letting go, drop back down and hang for another thirty seconds and do a second pull-up. For the true crazies, let's see who can do 10 of these 30-second hang pull-ups. Few can. Gripping is the weak point for most lifters.
8. Long Jump Your Height
Every athletic person should be able to do a standing long jump for as far as they are tall. And besides, if there's a rattlesnake in your path, that jump will clear you from danger. If you can't do it, just start practicing it. That's all most people need to do to get back to this standard and stay there.
9. 30-Second Bodyweight Squat and Hold
Squat down, hold 30 seconds, and then stand up without using your hands. This gives you a general insight into your lower body health.
10. Farmers Walk Your Bodyweight
Farmers walk your bodyweight for a few steps. If the zombie apocalypse does happen, the farmers walk test will help you move your stuff. And of course it also shows that you're reasonably strong in a "functional" manner, have decent conditioning, and you're not too fat.