What is the value of experience?
Initially, it caught me off guard. That was not a question I usually get. But, I could tell by the guy’s Instagram profile this wasn’t his first rodeo. He mentioned he had over a decade of lifting experience but couldn’t remember the last PR or noticed any physical changes. As you can imagine, he was frustrated. I’m sure you can relate. When you pay for a gym membership, buy programs, listen to podcasts, and take supplements, you expect to see a return.
In fitness, time on task should be worth a lot. However, sometimes experienced people still struggle with their fitness goals.
Why is that?
We all follow basically the same pattern with any new skill we learn. We start off wanting to get better at something, gather information from a book, website, podcast, or coach, practice until we reach an acceptable level, and then let it become automatic. For much of what we do, this is perfectly acceptable. For example, once you become a competent driver, that is sufficient. You don’t need to be world-class to get from point A to point B without running into things.
The real question is, how do we go beyond an acceptable level of competence? Unfortunately, once you reach a satisfactory skill level at something, it becomes harder and harder to continue improving. Many people come to this realization with their training after a few years. The longer you lift weights, the more work you need to do to ultimately get fewer results. At this point, the margin for error is small to continue making gains. Simply spending more time is unlikely to get it done if mistakes are still being made.
To see progress in years five, ten, or fifteen, you need to dot your I’s and cross your T’s. Over the years, I have observed a few common mistakes advanced lifters make. If you have put in the time but are still frustrated with your results, fixing these errors is a great place to start.
#1: Living in a Calorie Deficit (Or Surplus)
When it comes to building muscle and losing fat, it’s all about energy balance. Energy balance is the relationship between calories consumed through food and drink (energy in) and calories used for all daily functions (energy out). When the goal is to build muscle, you need to consume more calories than your body requires to maintain weight. On the other hand, when the goal is fat loss, you need to eat fewer calories than your body requires to maintain body weight.
One of the most common issues I see advanced lifters make is getting obsessed with maintaining a low body fat percentage. I get it; being lean is fun. Seeing your abs pop, muscle separation, and a bicep vein can be intoxicating and addictive.
The trouble is, maintaining that degree of leanness often requires caloric restriction. I call this chronic dieting. This is when you either diet too frequently, run extended fat loss phases for most of the year, yo-yo diet off and on, or simply try to maintain body weight on low calories.
Chronic dieting presents two issues. The biggest concern is it severely limits your ability to build muscle and gain strength. And, at the end of the day, what else are we in the gym for?
It’s hard to make progress as an advanced lifter. You need to combine overload training with optimized nutrition, and the most efficient way for this to happen is to eat in a caloric surplus. Unfortunately, a caloric surplus comes with potential fat gain. I hate to say it, but being afraid to put on body fat is why you look the same and lift the same weights year after year.
Chronic dieting also prevents you from getting leaner. A history of prolonged calorie restriction makes it harder to be successful when it comes time to lose fat. When your body lives on low calories, getting leaner often requires drastic calorie cuts. It’s counterintuitive, but in this situation, the best thing you can do is eat more calories for a while.
It goes the other way too. You can’t live in a caloric surplus forever, either. This is much less common overall, but it’s prevalent in the strength/powerlifting community. Instead of being afraid to add body fat, these people are petrified to see their strength numbers dip. The sad thing is, they probably have a fantastic physique hiding under a layer or two of body fat.
Outside of a bodybuilding contest prep, there is no reason anyone should lose a lot of strength from a simple fat loss phase. A slow and conservative approach will minimize muscle and strength loss. I recommend taking your time and aiming to lose between .5–1% of body weight per week. I have done this with a lot of clients over the years. In fact, if clients have some body fat to lose, we can get them down a powerlifting weight class without losing a pound on their total.
#2: Too Much Jumping Around Looking for the “Best” Program
Optimal training to build muscle and gain strength can get boring. The most effective training programs involve the same basic exercises repeated consistently and progressively over time. I understand the appeal to jump on new programs. I mean, when your favorite fitness influencer drops a new program, you have to show support, right?
In the current fitness landscape, it’s easy to get sucked into a pattern of jumping from program to program without seeing any progress. When you constantly change course, too many variables are in play. This makes it hard to focus on progressive overload. It’s almost impossible to know if you are progressing when the training split, exercise selection, rep range, intensity, and volume change every couple of weeks.
Program hopping is when you move from program to program, often without finishing them and never long enough to maximize progress. Sometimes it stems from a fear of missing out, but other times just plain boredom. For the advanced lifter, the desire to find the “best” program is a detriment to success.
Here is the unfortunate truth, the best program does not exist, at least not in isolation. The best program is the one that is customized to you. As an advanced lifter, you need the right amount of volume, intensity, and frequency to be successful. The only way to find this out is to be consistent long enough to track your progress. The longer you move in one direction, the more data you have to customize a program around your needs. Most people jump around so much they don’t even know what they respond best to.
Essentially, this is what I do with my clients. Every month we see what works and what doesn’t. From there, we consistently refine the program as we go. Everything we do builds upon what we have done before. If I have any secret programming technique, it’s working with people who trust me enough to follow what I give them for an extended period. If done correctly, month six of a program will be better than month one.
Not Having Concrete Goals
To make progress as an advanced lifter, you have to move in one direction for a long time. To do that, you can’t frequently change goals.
I see it all of the time. The first week you want to build muscle, the next week do a powerlifting meet, and the following week you want to be functional. When you chase multiple rabbits, you end up with none.
Set a goal and follow it through until the end. If you want to build muscle, awesome, plan out a 16 or 20-week training and nutrition plan to get it done. If you want to improve your numbers on the big three, jump on a 12-week strength-building phase and test at the end. If you are serious about your results, you need to be disciplined enough to stay the course.
You Are Not Bruce Lee
“Absorb what is useful, discard what is not, add what is uniquely your own.”
Yes, I love that quote too. But you are not Bruce Lee. Mixing and matching different training styles and combining them is not a good approach. Usually, it just creates something worse. Keep in mind when someone puts a program together, everything is included or left out for a reason.
#3: Lack of Intensity and Form Discipline
Calling someone out on a lack of discipline is a touchy subject. In my opinion, many of us in the fitness world have above-average discipline. It’s not easy to go to the gym and eat well for years on end. With that being said, I do see areas where some advanced lifters lack discipline — with intensity and form.
What do I mean by intensity discipline? Well, intensity can be defined and implemented as the intensity of load or effort. The “intensity of load” refers to the percentage of a one-rep max or training max, whereas the “intensity of effort” refers to how near maximal effort the load is, represented by a rating of perceived exertion (RPE) or reps in reserve (RIR).
The intensity of effort is where discipline issues arise. To get the most out of training, you must ensure your working sets are close enough to failure to produce a lot of tension in your muscles.
If you are not mindful of intensity, working sets will get further from failure without you even realizing it. Even experienced lifters can get comfortable and lose the ability to gauge RPE/RIR. I find myself going over this will clients a lot. Don’t go into autopilot. At the end of a set, ask yourself, “If I absolutely had to, how many more reps could I have gotten with good form?”
It helps to know what muscular failure is and feels like to get a good handle on RPE and RIR. To prevent a lack of intensity discipline, periodically program sets to failure. I use AMRAP sets and 10 RPE / 0 RIR top sets to recalibrate myself and my clients to the scale. Plus, advanced lifters likely need to push it closer to failure, more often than beginners or intermediates.
The ability to gauge failure is movement specific. Accurate ratings on the squat or deadlift don’t necessarily translate to a dumbbell side raise. This is something you need to do for most exercises.
Another area I see discipline issues is with technique. With advanced lifters, it’s not being able to do a movement correctly that is the problem. Most advanced lifters know what proper form is. However, it’s the little details that sometimes get missed or forgotten. Things like bracing on squats and deadlifts. Consistent positioning between the first rep and the last. Controlling the eccentric part of the lift. Using a full range of motion where applicable. Just to name a few.
The best way to regain form discipline is to record videos of yourself lifting. Take out your phone and see what your technique looks like. Sometimes how it feels isn’t how it looks. Try to get multiple angles for the best view.
#4: Not Training Specific Enough
Understanding how to leverage specificity may be one of the most underrated aspects of training for advanced lifters. Typically, when we talk specificity, it is in regards to strength. However, specificity is relevant for muscle building as well.
In basic terms, specificity is simply prioritizing training for the desired outcome. It’s also known as the SAID principle, standing for Specific Adaptations to Imposed Demands. If you want to get better at hitting a golf ball, what are you going to do? You will spend time at the driving range, and the better you want to get, the more swings you will take. Lifting operates the same way. If your goal is to get stronger at a particular lift or build a specific muscle group, you need to prioritize it.
As an advanced lifter, specificity takes on greater importance. The longer you have been in the gym, the less carryover you get from general training.
In terms of exercise selection, the most efficient way to get stronger in a specific movement is to train that movement. If you want to improve your one-rep max on a bench press, you need to bench press. The more advanced you get, the less benefit you will get from non-specific exercises. For example, a beginner or intermediate lifter may see a lot of carryover to their bench press by doing an overhead barbell press. However, as an advanced lifter, your time and effort would be better spent doing variations of the bench press. An example would be a close-grip bench press, feet up bench press, or tempo bench press. Although an overhead barbell press is a great exercise, to an advanced lifter, it needs to be looked at as an exercise for shoulder development, not a bench builder.
Intensity also needs to be specific. If you want to improve your one-rep max bench press, you need to include singles in your training. This is where a lot of “powerbuilding” programs miss the mark. Doing sets of ten on a back squat is more specific to improving a squat than a leg press, but sets of 10 are a long way from a single. In the grand scheme of things, sets of 10 are still not very specific if you want to improve your one-rep max. Train the rep range you want to improve at.
Bringing Up Weak Muscle Groups
When it comes to bringing up weak muscle groups, specificity training cycles are highly advantageous. Research shows 10–20 sets per muscle group per week is the sweet spot for hypertrophy. However, this is not a hard rule that needs to be followed at all times. Every muscle group does not always need between ten and twenty sets at all times. If you have less back work for a month or two, it will not waste away. In fact, you can maintain muscle on less volume than you think.
Advanced lifters tend to need more volume to see progress. This presents challenges in terms of recovery and time. Most people don’t have the recovery ability or time to hit twenty or more sets for each muscle group per week. This is where specialization cycles come into play.
Pick out a muscle group or two to prioritize, and instead of doing 10–20 sets per week, bump it up to 20–30. To counteract the added volume, you would lower the volume on the other muscle groups.
Here is how it could look if you wanted to focus on the chest and biceps.
Chest: 30 sets
Biceps: 25 sets
Back: 10 sets
Shoulders: 8 sets
Triceps: 6 sets
Quads: 8 sets
Hamstrings: 8 sets
Specificity in Specificity in Volume and Intensity
One of the benefits of working with a coach vs. just following an online training program is getting a specific amount of volume and intensity you need. Even within the hypertrophy guidelines, there are individual differences. Some people will respond better to higher volume, while others can get away with less. Some people need frequent heavy singles to get stronger, while others respond best to rep work. There is an art to quality training programming. In general, we only want to train as hard as we need to for progress. Doing more just for the sake of it is a waste of energy.
#5: Neglecting Recovery
Last but not least, recovery. Recovery has become somewhat of a buzzword in the last few years. It’s not uncommon to see lifters using massage guns, ice baths, and chiro adjustments but never take a rest day or a deload week. Look, it’s ok to be obsessed with training. I am personally giving you permission. I’m obsessed too. I hardly ever want to take any time off from hard training. But, I’m not just obsessed with training; I’m obsessed with progress too.
The science of strength training can best be described as a three-step process of stimulus, recovery, and adaptation. The process starts in the gym with a workout. Next, the recovery systems kick in to heal and rebuild the damaged tissue. Lastly, after the tissue is healed, adaptation occurs. Although lifting weights gets everything started, it’s not until the entire process of stimulus, recovery, and adaptation occurs that progress is made.
Rest days are the first layer of recovery in a training program. Everyone should have at least one day off from lifting weights per week, probably two or three. This doesn’t mean you need to be a couch potato a few times per week. It’s advantageous to stay active on rest days. Go for a walk, ride your bike, play with your kids, do some yoga, etc. The key is to keep the intensity low and allow your body to recover.
Next up is deload weeks. If I had to pinpoint one area of programming a lot of advanced lifters get wrong, it’s neglecting deload weeks. Look, volume and intensity can’t progress linearly forever. If it could, we would all be jacked and deadlifting 1,000 pounds. This is why quality training programs have periods built-in where overload is purposely less.
Deload weeks are nothing unique or different from the general training structure. A deload week is simply a week with less volume (sometimes a little less intensity, too) than what a typical hard week of training would have.
Incorporating deloads have a few advantages. For one, deloads can actually help you train harder. A lot of advanced lifters train in a perpetual state of fatigue. Accumulated fatigue is a common cause of training plateaus. The goal of a deload is to mitigate fatigue which allows you to perform at your full potential. Sometimes progress has been made, but since fatigue is so high, the performance in the gym won’t demonstrate the gains being made.
Managing fatigue with deloads is also a way to help prevent injuries. When fatigue is high, injuries are more likely to occur. This is not to say deloads will prevent injuries, but not beating yourself into the ground is the best way to stay healthy.
Ideally, you will throw a deload in before it is too late. I typically program deload weeks anywhere from every three to every eight weeks. The frequency of deloads depends on the person and program.
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