just because you can
doesn't mean you should
by Alec Enkiri | 11/15/19
Let me tell you a story that is 100% true. I had these two clients last year (one is still with me, the other isn't and you'll see why soon enough) who came to me with roughly equal strength levels on the squat. Both guys had PR's in the mid 300's and both shared the same goal of breaking the 400lbs barrier. Client A is happily continuing to make progress under my tutelage to this day and has, to date, squatted 440lbs. That represents a gain of roughly 90lbs in about a year and a half now. I'll take that any day. Client B, the client who is no longer with me, came to me frustrated due to being stuck in a long plateau where he had been unable to make progress for quite some time. Continuing that narrative, he left me after 12 weeks with the same PR that he came to me with. Client A, from the moment he hired me to this very day, has never done a single repetition on any exercise that was not prescribed to him by me, his coach, and has never lifted a pound more or less than what the program calls for on any given day. He shows up every single day and he does the program as it is written. Every single session. Every single week. Every single month. He doesn't try to be a hero; he doesn't max out just to "see where he's at;" and he doesn't add in hordes of junk volume because he's bored or somehow thinks he needs more work. He just does the fucking program. Boring, I know.
Client B, on the other hand, had a penchant for maxing out his squat at least twice a week. He had managed his all time best during a bout of high intensity, daily squatting and so he had gotten it in his head that the only way to continue to progress would be to continue to keep the intensity levels ultra high all the fucking time. Thus, in his mind, the work I had prescribed for him was not nearly heavy enough to be meaningful and was never going to spur on further progress. The problem, however, was that his squat was full of compensations and technical inefficiencies (namely, an unacceptable amount of knee valgus and a pretty gnarly hip shift to go with it). Now, I'm not a stickler for perfect technique by any stretch of the imagination. I like to think that, initially at least, we are simply trying to create a "working technique." One that is good enough to allow you to push the bounds while also not being likely to get you injured. And then things evolve from there. Technique is an ever evolving process for every single lifter anyway and the idea of chasing "perfect" is a great way to stymie your progress, but nonetheless, his truly needed some work due to the alarming level of compensation that was present.
Now, I could have given him a bunch of heavy work like he wanted and satisfied his constant urge to max out and probably kept him as a client. I could have done that, but I could not have done that in good conscience. His squat needed a rebuild. It needed to be addressed from the ground up and that required taking a couple steps back before we could begin taking steps forward. I explained this to him many, many times in many different ways as delicately as I could muster over the course of our time together. Alas, to no avail. Thus, as far as training sessions went, what should have been smooth triples at 275lbs had a way of becoming grindy and ugly triples at 315lbs instead. What should have been a routine front squat session became an ugly, compensated max single on the back squat followed by front squats that were now tired, shitty, and overall low quality.
Everything that was prescribed was deemed insufficient and more was always done in some form or fashion even though the foundation it was all being built upon was ripe to crumble at any given moment. After 12 weeks of lackluster progress - both in regard to strength development and technical improvement - he decided to part ways with me (which, frankly, I was glad about) and I guarantee you, barring a drastic change in course, if I were to get in touch with him today I would find out that he never did manage to hit that elusive 400lbs squat.
TIL I Have a conscience.
Just Because You Can...
So, what have we learned from this little regaling? Well, if you're anything like me, it's something along the lines of just because you CAN doesn't mean you SHOULD. Client A did the boring, unsexy work and was rewarded in time with technical proficiency and vastly increased strength. He could have chosen to prematurely add more weight to the bar than what was prescribed. He would even have been able to "succeed" in doing so. But at what cost? I would argue at the cost of his long term progress and development. Thankfully though, he chose, and continues to choose, not to go this route.
I can run over there and boop that sea lion on the nose, but I don't think that I should.
As a complete mirror here, Client B almost never did the boring, unsexy work that was programmed for him. Instead he generally chose to add more weight to the bar than what experienced eyes deemed would be optimal; or he often chose to veer off the program all together and "go for a heavy single" or whatever the hell else instead. And more often than not he succeeded during these aberrations! It was rare for him to actually miss a lift entirely even when he was ignoring the numbers that were programmed for him. However - and not to sound like a broken record or anything - just because you CAN doesn't mean you SHOULD. Just because you can reach into the bottom of the well and squat 315lbs for 3 butt ugly reps today, doesn't mean that it's doing anything to further your long term development or bring you closer to your goals - in fact, the opposite is more likely the case.
...Doesn't Mean You Should
These deviations are the primary reason that Client B saw no progress with his training. Anyone can go to maximum all the fucking time or run a 5k at RPE 10 every single day or perform Crossfit style box jumps until their Achilles tendons swell up like balloons, but these tendencies indicate a fundamental misunderstanding of stress, adaptation, and training to improve in general. By going balls to the wall too frequently or simply executing things in a haphazard fashion in general, you miss out on a lot of opportunities to otherwise build yourself up. True training - working to enhance the capacity of your body so that in the future it is capable of completing a task that in the present it cannot complete - requires a structured, intelligent, and progressive approach. And this approach must be followed diligently and consistently. Completing one workout here and one workout there with a random "test day" sandwiched in between does nothing but destroy momentum, kill recovery, and ultimately derail progress. Why would your body adapt to a random max effort thrown into the middle of a bunch of randomly performed workouts anyway? It's only goal under max load is to not get injured or killed. The stress is both too high and not repeatable enough to have any value in the sense of actual training (read: working to improve).
But too many people conflate the idea of peaking with training. They see top level lifters on social media who are peaked all the fucking time and they try to emulate their methods (or what they think are their methods). But peaking is not training and training is not peaking. They have different purposes and end goals and thus require different approaches. I believe it was the oft both maligned and praised Louie Simmons who first said "the wider the base the higher the peak." Well, training is building up your base - improving the minimal amount that you are capable of doing any freaking day of your life, no matter the conditions or circumstances. Peaking, on the other hand, is riding out a wave that you've already caught.
By peaking you are simply realizing strength (or endurance or whatever it is that you've trained for) that is already there. You do this by optimizing the conditions for displaying it - through ultra specific practice, dissipation of chronic fatigue, attempting to create glycogen supercompensation, adding caffeine/ammonia (or cocaine)(or tren) etc. But the physical adaptations have already been made. The house has already been built, it just hasn't yet been prepped for display. Training is what built it though, not peaking. That's not to imply that peaking isn't necessary or useful for competition because it certainly is, but for recreational purposes it is wholly unnecessary and even detrimental as it simply results in an opportunity cost (i.e. productive training time is lost to the peak for no real purpose or gain).
I can climb that mountain with no safety equipment - and I did - but I shouldn't have. Also, I bet can throw a football over them mountains.
If you want to maximize your progress though - build the most muscle, strength, endurance, work capacity, etc. etc. etc. - then you should focus on proper training. You should focus on consistently stringing together high quality, clean, manageable, and repeatable efforts day in and day out for as long as you can continue to do so, and you should strive to gradually increase your baseline level of function by slowly but surely making those clean, manageable, repeatable efforts a little bit better. If 300lbs represents 80% of your 1RM today, then you should strive to make 320lbs represent 80% of your 1RM tomorrow. Build the base wider and wider every single day, but don't veer off the damn program! It's designed the way it's designed for a reason. Don't succumb to the temptation to do more simply for the sake of doing more, and if you are going to do more you better have a good reason for doing it. Don't add weight to the bar until your body is ready for it. Don't max out because you're too lazy to actually train (I used to be guilty of this) or because you're bored or want to "see if the program is working" (hint: if it was working before the haphazard max out it won't be after because you will have tapped out your recovery resources and your body will no longer be capable of giving you the "little bit more" that's needed to incite adaptation that it could have given you before you randomly decided to max out).
"Easy as fuck." I tripled 355lbs on the zombie squat probably 20 times before I attempted 405lbs for a single.
Long term vision, discipline, and patience are key here. You have to have some sort of plan and some sort of framework/structure (a little leeway to separate good days from bad days is fine, but that should still be incorporated into the plan - e.g. a strategy I like to use is a final set AMRAP not to exceed a predetermined number of reps used on days where I'm feeling particularly strong or energetic) and you have to force yourself to stick with it. If the program calls for 350lbs, you have to resist the urge to lift 400lbs that day - even though we know you can! - because the real goal is preparing your body to lift 450lbs in the future, and that only requires lifting 350lbs today. More is not always better, heavier is not always better, and quality trumps pretty much everything else when long term development is the litmus test.
So if you want to maximize your long term progress and transform yourself into a physical specimen that your current self would hardly even recognize, then get yourself a good program, trust the process, stick to the goddamn plan, and always remember - just because you can doesn't mean you should.
Obligatory plug: if you find yourself currently in need of said good program, then check out the options I offer. My training templates are all very solid base-building programs that are tailored to the different stages of the trainees weight training career, from novice to the cusp of being advanced. They are meant to be re-usable and, when run sequentially, they are designed to take a trainee from year 1 to the point where they would be considered advanced and are best capable of programming for themselves. If you're looking for something a bit more specific, I also offer fully customized training programs (8, 12, or 16 week cycles) that are tailored entirely to you as an individual and your specific goals, training history, and current circumstances. And if you don't really need a program right now but you just enjoy the content I produce, then pick one up anyway so I can keep making more of it!
Seriously though, I truly appreciate every single person who supports this web site. I love writing training programs and I love making this content for my site and all of that is only possible with an audience, and that support has not gone unnoticed. So thank you all!
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