What's the one thing every lifter should try in his lifting career?
Nick Tumminello – Strength Coach and Author
This is a form of rock climbing that doesn't involve ropes or harnesses because you're not going up very high. Instead, it's a short fall onto crash pads. And more lifters should be into it.
Bouldering requires some technique, but it's the most strength-oriented form of climbing that you'll find. Obviously you need tremendous finger and grip strength, but you also need a lot of body tension and relative strength. And the requirements for bouldering will naturally help you build them.
Imagine doing one, two, or three RM type effort, but in all kinds of awkward positions. That's pretty much what a typical bouldering route is like. Bouldering will also give you some perspective on what strength really means. If you think about it, strength is domain/task specific. And being strong isn't just about having impressive numbers in the three big lifts.
When most people say "just get strong" they're really just telling us to focus on the big three. Many coaches who say this are basically training everyone like powerlifters. We've talked about this scenario before, but it's worth remembering.
So when you think about strength, don't automatically assume it means doing the same conventional barbell exercises. Because that type of thinking puts training methods above training principles. Instead, your first thought should be to ask "strong in what?" And "strong for what purpose?"
There are lots of ways to be strong and express strength. Bouldering is one of them and it's incredibly fun. – Nick Tumminello
Dr John Rusin – Strength Training Specialist and Performance Expert
The constant chase to throw more weight on the bar with a progressive-overload-or-die mindset will eventually bite you in the ass. Especially when it causes you to lose sight of other things and you end up fat and unhealthy.
There are a lot of strong guys out there, but how many of them look and feel like shit because their body fat percentage more closely resembles the hospitalized obesity ward rather than an elite level athlete?
That's why at least once in a lifter's career, the goal should be to get as absolutely shredded as possible, straight up. Sure, this seems like a superficial goal, but maybe it's not a bad thing. If a superficial mindset allows you to drastically reduce body fat, improve general health (no one likes diabetic ulcerations, trust me, I wrote my dissertation on it) and get you the aesthetic of an athlete, I'm all for it.
And this goes for the entire lifting population. From the old, hairy meatheads to the gym bros, no one is impressed by your size when it's mainly just fat. And the thing about fat is it doesn't make you strong. It makes you sad.
Sometimes shifting a mindset and breaking free of the absolute strength dogma is exactly what the fat lifter needs. When you chase health, leanness, and an injury-free body, you end up with more relative strength.
In fact, why not make that the goal to begin with? How strong can you get relative to your own bodyweight on the big indicator lifts? If you can keep that as the goal, you'll get ripped and enjoy not being a tub of lard that gets winded walking into the squat rack.
If your goal is to lift for a lifetime, better get your health on track first. And once you make the shift and achieve a pedestrian body fat percentage and relative strength metric, I guarantee you'll never want to go back to your fat boy days. And if you do, well, that's an entirely different story. – Dr John Rusin
Bret Contreras – Strength Coach and Performance Expert
At some point, every lifter needs to try the 20-rep squat protocol.
Many of us old-timers did it back in the day and saw impressive results in terms of repetition strength and thigh mass, but we also built our mental fortitude on this program.
I will promise you this: After this protocol, you'll never begrudgingly perform a heavy set of lower body training ever again. Sets of 5 and under are hard, but they don't hold a candle to 20-rep squats performed according to the protocol's standards.
Basically, you take your 10RM load and squat it for 20 reps by refusing to rack the bar and continuing to produce reps in a rest-pause fashion. You end up breathing so hard that these have been called "breathing squats" by many lifters.
Seventeen years ago, I increased my 20RM from 135 pounds to 275 pounds over the course of a few months. The set of 275 pounds lasted 9 minutes. Yes, I had the bar on my back for nine whole minutes.
The first ten reps were probably performed one minute, and the remaining ten reps took an additional eight minutes. The typical protocol is 6 weeks long, but I continued with it until I never wanted to perform another 20-rep set of squats again for the rest of my life. (I still haven't.) – Bret Contreras
Dan John – Strength Coach and Performance Expert
Compete in an Olympic lifting meet
When I go to parties, I always argue that being a fitness professional is the worst career to mention. People grab part of their butt and ask, "What do you do to get rid of this?" They wave food in front of you and ask for moral theology: "Is this good or bad?"
When they find out, and I beg my friends not to tell people, that I also teach Religious Studies in college, the questions get worse: "Hey, I had a dream about my aunt... and she is dead! What does that mean?"
It means I need more to drink.
The one that gets me is this: "I'm not religious, but spiritual."
Well, what do you MEAN by that?
When it comes to our world of weights, people tell me all the time that they train, lift, bodybuild, exercise, workout, Zumba, Rumba, and loofa. If they mention weightlifting, I always need to add:
Well, what do you MEAN by that?
When a high school boy brags about a 550 squat at a party at a bodyweight of 175 (and tubby) I have to ask "what do you mean by a squat?" When a bro tells me his bench press, I ask him how much his buddy deadlifted it off of him.
There is only one sport, besides swimming and track and field, that I never need the follow up question: Olympic lifting. Now, I love powerlifters, but with wraps, belts, suits, and racks constantly changing, I don't know what the numbers mean anymore.
O-lifting is you and the bar. Everyone knows when you win and when you lose. You get three attempts in a real meet, you have three judges and no place to hide. When my friend, Coach Stevo, went to an O-lift meet, he lifted, struggled, failed, won and put it on the line. Afterwards, he sat next to the late legend of lifting, Tommy Kono, and talked like brothers.
You see, you can brag about your pump, your blitz, and your vomiting in the bucket and, good for you, you are a superstar. You can post pics with perfect lighting and enough glaze for a Christmas ham and impress everyone on your social media account. But, when you tell me your snatch, clean and jerk, and total, I know exactly what you did and what kind of lifter you are.
I know what you went through to learn those techniques and to develop that power. Either you're a person who can get a heavy bar from the ground and put it overhead or you're not.
Olympic lifting put forty pounds of bodyweight on me in the first months I learned the lifts. It transformed me from a good high school athlete to a Division One MVP.
Now, the snatch and clean and jerk are not a cure-all. But, you, Mr. Hot Shot lifter, need to step on the platform, learn the moves, and at least one time lay it on the line. – Dan John
Joel Seedman, PhD – Strength and Performance Expert
Train full body, heavy, every day, for one month straight.
What separates intermediate lifters from advanced ones? Strength, size, body comp, PR's, or the number of years they've been training? Actually, none of the above. Instead, the true mark of distinction that indicates a lifter has become advanced is how well they've mastered their body mechanics, technique, and movement patterns.
While there are numerous methods that can be used to accomplish this, one protocol that expedites this process is training full body, heavy, every single day, for a month straight. It's one of the most informative experiences a lifter can undergo. Why? It exposes dysfunction.
Here's what I mean. A majority of lifters have flawed mechanics. Unfortunately, most of them are either unaware or simply too lazy to do anything about it. Besides minimizing the total load they can handle due to neuromuscular inefficiency, these dysfunctional patterns will gradually cause injuries and inflammation.
When a lifter does all of the basic movement patterns – squat, hinge, lunge, push, pull – in a fairly heavy fashion (at least 70% of their 1RM) on a daily basis, several key things occur.
First, he will most likely experience significant pain in his joints, connective tissue, and muscle. These are signs that mechanics and activation patterns are amiss to varying degrees. Performing the basic movement patterns even fairly heavy should be therapeutic, not damaging. To continue training these same movements on a daily basis, particularly with relatively heavy loads, the lifter will be forced to quickly clean up his technique or else the pain, inflammation, and physical discomfort will continue to persist and increase rapidly.
This is also where mindset comes in. The lifter has the choice to either perfect his body mechanics or quit. So rather than discontinuing the routine that caused the pain, the lifter can use it as an opportunity to master the techniques.
Pain is better feedback than any coach can give regarding the quality of your movement. In fact, if you're moving improperly, the best thing that can occur is for your body to produce pain signals and notify you that your mechanics are amiss.
Don't try to mask these symptoms by stretching, foam rolling, icing, massaging, etc. because that's like putting a Band-Aid on a wound that'll follow you around forever. Instead, fine-tune the movement until there isn't pain. This is movement mastery.
At the end of 30 days, you'll have more strength, size, mental fortitude, and more importantly, you'll have mastered the movements. – Joel Seedman, PhD
Mike Roussell, PhD – Nutrition Scientist
Do the opposite of whatever you've been doing.
If you're a hardcore low-carb person who thrives on ribeyes, then you should try to be a vegan for 30 days. If you've long been a powerlifter then you should train for an endurance event. Doing the opposite of what you've always done gives you insight into how your body responds to different stimuli and how you can further improve and master your approach.
If you're a staunch advocate of low-carb eating, you'll probably be surprised at how many more carbs you can eat and not get instantly fat. There's so much to learn from areas that you fear or ignore.
It's possible to have great endurance and be really strong at the same time. If you're a powerlifter and never ventured into endurance work, you probably won't transition to running marathons forever, but when you get back to powerlifting you'll know more about how improved aerobic fitness can positively impact your work capacity, and at what level it starts to become detrimental to strength. If you try both extremes, you'll probably find a middle ground that suits you best.
I've always acknowledged the science behind fasting but haven't been a proponent of using it. I enjoy eating too much! So I decided to test how fasting impacted my performance. And as a result, my body adapted to being proficient at fasting and functioning on minimal fuel. And in a 12-hour endurance event I was even able to go with just water and a single packet of bacon jerky.
I'll never do it again, but it taught me a lot about my body's hunger signals and true fatigue while training. – Mike Roussell, PhD
Lee Boyce – Strength Coach and Performance Expert
Train with a coach.
You can be a lifter. You can be a trainer. You can be both. It's extremely important that you have experience working with a trainer of your own if you want to get a better scope and perspective of what all of this is about. And I don't mean just for the enhancement of personal results and reaching goals faster.
Learning from a coach gives you a better understanding of what you respond to, what clients respond to, and how certain "popular" training methods actually feel. That's invaluable to realize just how individual this stuff should be. You'll see what works for you and more importantly, what doesn't. Beyond that, having a better trained set of eyes watching your technique and pinpointing weaknesses in your movements is worth its weight in gold, especially if you're trying to learn a new style of lifting.
It's an investment to train with a coach in person, but if you're serious about making progress, you'll make the sacrifice at some point.
Having a coach makes you more accountable and motivated as well. One thing though: When you hire a coach, shut up and learn. The biggest mistake I see people make in these circumstances is trusting their own knowledge and not the coach's.
Take a step back and trust another seasoned lifter who also does this for a living. It's a great exercise in discipline and humility. It'll transfer to solo workouts and life outside the gym too. It's an investment you won't regret. – Lee Boyce
Michael Warren – Strength Coach and Performance Expert
Compete in anything.
Whether it's a strongman competition, powerlifting meet, or a bodybuilding show, you should step up and compete.
Competition has been in existence in one form or another from the ancient Greek Olympic Games (going back as far as 776 BC). Investigations into the benefits of competition are as old as psychology itself. In a classic 1898 paper, Norman Triplett of Indiana University observed from race data that cyclists recorded faster times when competing against others than alone against the clock.
There are numerous lifting studies too, like the 2003 study by Matthew Rhea and his colleagues at Arizona State University. Given one chance to lift the maximum weight possible in front of an audience, both male and female amateurs bench-pressed more, by an average of 2kg (4.4 pounds), when competing against another person than when lifting by themselves.
There's something inexplicably compelling about the nature of competition. Perhaps that's because, as some scholars argue, competitiveness is a biological trait that evolved right along with the basic need for survival.
You'll get several significant benefits to stepping up and competing. The biggest one is, regardless of the specific competition, you have an absolute, clearly defined goal. Competition will give you the motivation and focus to push beyond perceived limits.
It ensures that regardless of who you're up against, you'll want to arrive on the day and perform to your absolute best. To achieve this, from the moment you enter to the competition day there will be the constant pursuit of improvement and readiness. And you'll likely seek new training methods, techniques, environments, and mentors to push your performance and develop as a lifter.
Finally, the great thing about competition is that regardless of the result you will have the experiences and memories that will last forever. – Michael Warren
Mark Dugdale – IFBB Pro Bodybuilder
Endure a bodybuilding competition prep diet.
Send in your entry form and expect to step onstage. Dieting takes on a whole new level of importance when you know you'll be standing under bright lights, wearing underwear, and being compared to other oiled-up dudes.
Nobody wants to place last or embarrass themselves, so the fervency of your training and diet discipline increases exponentially. Various divisions exist such as men's physique, classic, and traditional bodybuilding. I suggest opting for classic or preferably traditional bodybuilding. The bodybuilding division, by in large, places a heavy emphasis on leanness which is the primary aim of my suggestion to compete, even if you're in relatively good shape already.
Something special happens when you suffer through a diet in pursuit of a mid-to-low, single-digit body fat percentage. First, you learn a ton about how your body works, even if the end result falls short of your expectations. You learn the intricacy of how various food sources and the timing of their consumption impacts your progress, while gaining a better respect for those who attain incredible conditioning. You'll learn how various training programs and cardio approaches impact your energy levels, muscle retention, growth and fat burning capacity.
All this knowledge can't be gained without personal experience in the trenches of a grueling, multi-month-long diet. It'll help you grow and maintain a favorable body composition even if you never compete again.
Finally, weeks of battling cravings and subjecting yourself to selective food deprivation hones your focus on the important things in life. When you're dying for carbs you tend to care much less about life's frivolous pursuits that often capture and/or distract your attention. – Mark Dugdale
Christian Thibaudeau – Strength Coach and Performance Expert
Prepare for something.
Everybody should prepare for something that requires them to work harder, leave no stones unturned, and do everything possible to reach a specific goal.
There are plenty of options: a bodybuilding contest (or if you're not there yet, a professional photo-shoot), a powerlifting or amateur strongman competition, etc. Having to prepare for something specific that puts the pressure on will take everything to the next level. It'll allow you to do things you couldn't imagine possible.
My two biggest challenges have been:
- I couldn't stick to a diet for more than a few days.
- I couldn't follow a strict training plan because I always do what I feel like doing or try new things in the gym.
So last year I did a photoshoot and got into great shape again. And I have another one coming up and I'm in even better shape. For the 10 weeks leading up to these shoots I was a machine. I cheated maybe once per diet (one cheat meal in 10 weeks, both times). I actually stopped having cravings because the importance of the goal and my desire to succeed exceeded my desire to eat crap.
Furthermore, I designed a training plan and stuck to it with no deviations. And the result is that even while being in a caloric deficit and doing cardio, I managed to make improvements in muscular development while getting super lean. I learned from last year, and this year I'll take the habits I formed and will stay in great shape the whole year.
Here's another example. My good friend and powerlifting coach, Alex Babin, had his bench press stuck at 395 for years. He decided to enter a competition and his training focus got jacked up two notches. Instead of experimenting with new training methods he hired an expert and followed the plan.
The training, better eating, and laser-like focus allowed him to hit a 425-pound bench press in competition, and he could have done more. He's preparing for another competition in a few weeks, gunning for 452-pounds, the Quebec record.
The urgency and sense of accountability provided by an actual specific and pressure-filled goal is one of the best ways to learn just how good you can be and what focused effort really is. – Christian Thibaudeau