When I began writing my new book, I started thinking of all the things I've done to get to where I'm at today. I looked over my older training logs and the notes I made. I read some of the early articles I'd written and the many rough drafts that never quite made it to print.
I will say that I did a lot of things right and that I worked hard – I wasn't given enough talent to reach where I am today without working hard and working smart. But I realized that I also made a lot of mistakes.
I don't regret these mistakes, only because I've come to learn that regret (along with guilt) will eventually consume you. Rather, I've convinced myself that these mistakes were all part of the process; part of the road that led me to where I am today.
Experience is an awesome teacher. You touch a hot stove, you burn your hand. You start dating a stripper, you become the daddy-figure. Unfortunately, experience takes time, and that's one thing we all don't have a lot of.
There's no excuse anymore for not being knowledgeable in training. So much information is now available from proven lifters and experienced coaches that you no longer have to eat up valuable years of training with mistakes just to make progress.
The six mistakes below range from specific to broad; the key is to dissect each one and think about them critically. This is how we can effectively learn from those that came before.
1. Good Mornings as a Main Movement
Common sense would tell you to not bend at the waist and put your head between your legs with a heavy weight across your back. But I did – and I did it often.
When I first began doing good mornings, I used them as an assistance movement and kept them fairly light, working between 135-225 pounds.
The results were outstanding. This is mostly due to my under-conditioned lower back, and just doing this exercise allowed me to make great gains in the squat and the deadlift.
No longer did I fold under heavy weight while squatting. Along with a steady diet of abdominal work, the good morning kept my midsection strong and rigid while squatting, but the greatest effect was on my deadlift.
I'd always been strong off the floor – I credit this to the tremendous amounts of sprints, jumps, and athletic movements I'd grown up on that forced me to be explosive. I'd learned to contract hard, quickly. I wasn't born slow, but you can certainly tune your body to a higher level. How high you go is going to be largely based on how low you start and how hard you work. (Mostly the former, if we're to be honest.)
But with the added good mornings I was able to be faster while maintaining correct deadlifting position. In other words, my back didn't turn into a candy cane when I pulled. I actually felt strong after my explosion off the floor.
But I got greedy.
My big mistake was, "If one is good, four is better." I figured if I could deadlift 650 pounds while doing good mornings with 225 for 10 reps, my deadlift would improve accordingly if I could good morning 405 for 10.
That kind of thinking rarely works in lifting as there's always a point of diminishing returns with assistance work. That's why a smart, strong experienced lifter can get more out of less.
So I bent over and took it like, well, I took the pain. I did good mornings seated, standing, cambered bar, safety squat bar, and concentric-only. I did them all and paid the price of having a fucked up back.
Of course, I finally realized my mistake and made the change after my deadlift went nowhere and all I got was a ton of bar burn and a spine that has miraculously forgiven me.
The change came by taking weight off and doing the movement correctly and more importantly, with purpose. The purpose of the good morning is not to win the gold medal in the Good Morning Olympics – it's to strengthen the lower back and hamstrings to help the squat and deadlift. I lost sight of that in the quest to be an Assistance All-American. The result: my deadlift improved and my back no longer hurts.
I strongly believe that the good morning is one of the best assistance exercises around; it is great for building the deadlift, squat, and power clean. But you must do them correctly – if your hips dip, lower the weight.
2. Dynamic Bench Press with Bands
In my quest to be a "fast" bench presser, I began dropping and raising light weight on my chest like a spastic oil derrick. To make things even worse on my shoulders, pecs, and elbows, I decided to attach rubber bands to the bar to really accelerate the barbell (and my injuries).
Of course I'm being over-dramatic, but using the dynamic bench press in my training did nothing for my bar speed and really pushed my bench press poundages back. It wasn't until I slowed down the eccentric portion, took the bands off, and eventually took the whole movement out of my training that I saw results.
Replacing the dynamic bench press with presses, chain suspended push-ups, dumbbell bench presses, dumbbell incline presses, and Bradford presses finally got my bench press really moving. These were all done for higher reps and high volume.
If someone wants to keep the movement in their training, I highly recommend using a controlled eccentric (not slow, but don't drop the barbell) and an eye on A.S. Prilipin's table (as referenced in A System of Multi-Year Training in Weightlifting, by A.S Medvedev, not the internet). This will keep the weights heavy enough to elicit a response.
3. Triceps Extensions
Triceps extensions killed my elbows. Dumbbells or barbells, the weight or the implement didn't matter; extensions wrecked my elbows so bad that I could no longer unrack an empty barbell without incredible pain.
After taking a couple weeks off, icing, and using some anti-inflammatories, I was back to normal. But extensions were taken out of my training program for good. There was zero benefit and tremendous risk.
With extensions, like the good morning, people get caught up in the weight they're using. At a certain point, the extension starts to resemble some kind of extension/press hybrid. If you get to that point, just do close-grip bench presses and stop lying to yourself.
I don't think anyone really needs to do extensions to increase their lockout strength or triceps size, but if you can do them pain free, have at it. A steady diet of dumbbell pressing (palms in), dips, triceps pushdowns, and various lockout work (boards and pin presses) will work just as well.
4. Switching Exercises
This should really read "Switching Exercises Too Often" as there's some merit to keeping your mind fresh with new challenges. But I was switching exercises every week, a myriad of Max Effort exercises used for squatting, deadlifting, and bench pressing.
I used different board presses, variations of good mornings, different bars for box squats, different heights for box squats, and chains, bands or chains and bands for each. Hell, setting up some of these exercises took more work than the lifting.
What happened was I never got good at anything, and I could never tell if what I was doing was working. When you come back to an exercise every 8-10 weeks and have a bad day, it's hard to know if your training is actually working.
If you love changing your lifts, use 2-3 different variations of each and pound them into the ground. Track and establish your personal records, including 1, 3, and 5 rep maxes for all of them.
If you're a powerlifter, you may want to keep the traditional squat, bench, and deadlift in your training and use the exercise variations as assistance work. This will allow you to have the best of both worlds: ability to track and program your main lifts while having some variety in your assistance work.
5. Abandoning Athletic Roots and Knowledge
In November of 1999, I played my last football game. And I was happy to be done. I did what I wanted to do and knew my time was up. I remember being relieved that I didn't have to run gassers, hit a sled, or get my bell rung.
But I took this attitude a bit too far. I abandoned some of the simple things in my training that helped make me a better lifter.
Simple things such as box jumps, long jumps, jumping over objects, sprints, and jumping rope can make a huge difference in your training. People ask me all the time about dynamic work and how to implement it into the 5/3/1 training program. The answer is simple: be an athlete. If you want to be fast, train like fast people do. That means sprints, jumps, and learning how to be quick.
It's no coincidence that some of the strongest people in the world have athletic backgrounds. They all possess both strength and speed, and speed is best developed through a well-rounded program that includes some "athletic" based movements.
Jumping rope is cheap and easy to do – this is great to get the body warmed up. If you suck at it, work at it. You'll get quicker feet and some coordination.
Jumps can be done after a good dynamic/static stretching warm-up. It's best to do them when you're fresh. I've had great success doing 3 sets of 5 jumps between my warm-up sets of squats and deadlifts.
These are great for priming your body to be explosive and no, they won't make your legs too tired to squat. If they do, then you better get your body in better shape. And you better start expecting more from yourself.
You don't have to be an NFL player or have a dream of bringing home the Olympic gold to train like an athlete. All you need is the discipline to want to better yourself.
6. Lack of Balance
This might be the biggest mistake I made. If you've attended one of my seminars in the last few years, I always start off by saying that there are three things that a training program must have, regardless of who you are: strength, flexibility/mobility, and conditioning.
If you're a high-level athlete or 40 year-old beginner, these three things must be present in your program. Now, there may be other things you will need (for example, jumping, agility, speed) but these three are mandatory.
Depending on your goals (and your current level), these things may have a different emphasis. A powerlifter will have more emphasis on strength. A person battling high blood pressure will have more emphasis on conditioning.
"Balance" doesn't mean everything is given equal weight. Rather, balance is making sure things don't drop off to such a degree that their neglect is hindering your progress.
If your goal is to get stronger, you don't need to spend hours running or conditioning. And you don't need to stock up on wheatgrass and become a Yoga instructor. But neglect these long enough and not only are you going to become unbalanced, but bringing them back up to "normal" is going to require serious effort.
Using myself as an example, I neglected the flexibility/mobility during my years of powerlifting. Today, I have to spend much more time on this phase of my training to play catch up.
My general rule is there's a 1:1 ratio of time away/time spent. Meaning if I neglected my flexibility for 6 years, I should expect it to take 6 years of intensive work to bring it back to normal.
To expect anything more is ludicrous, like the overweight 35 year-old that gets frustrated he can't undo 35 years of shitty eating and lack of exercise in 3 weeks. It doesn't work that way.
If you're a younger lifter, heed my warning – take 20 minutes/day to do static and dynamic stretches. Push a Prowler or do some "easy" cardio 3-4 days/week. The amount of time and effort to keep these things in balance is minimal, but the results will be extraordinary.
If you're an older lifter, attack the problem areas with intent and resolve. Research and execute.
In any worthy endeavor, making mistakes is usually a necessary part of the learning process. But I'm of the opinion that today, many of the mistakes lifters continue to make are simply inexcusable in this age of excellent, available information.
To all, the path has been paved with too much sweat, blood, and work for you to fail. Read, observe, learn, and adjust. Act now.