In strength sports like powerlifting, fixing weaknesses is always a popular and debated topic.
Whenever I hear someone talk about weakness, I can’t help but think about The Karate Kid and that badass Kobra Kai dojo. Danielson walks in and sees all of those badasses getting the shit kicked out of them by their even more badass Sensei, John Kreese. Every single student is grinding away, working positions, sweating, fighting back the tears – It’s total no pain, no gain porn:
“Fear does not exist in this dojo, does it?”
“Pain does not exist in this dojo, does it?”
“Defeat does not exist in this dojo, does it?”
Everyone knows what happens next…Cinematic genius ensues. But is all that intensity actually necessary? Is pain just weakness leaving the body? More to the point, is a weakness something you have to beat out of yourself?
As you might guess, there’s a much better way to get strong. Here’s what you should know.
Three kinds of weakness
In my opinion, you need to separate weakness into a few categories.
First, a muscle or muscle group might not be strong enough to allow you to reach your full potential. The second issue is more form related, where you just cannot perform a movement properly, no matter how much you suffer and grind in your dojo. And finally, we can’t talk weaknesses without mentioned some mental factors that could be holding back your strength.
Physical weaknesses are best identified when the lift gets heavy and then things go wrong. Back’s round over. Knee’s dive in. During heavy presses, you might see the elbows flare and flail, etc. Those problems usually start around 85% of your best lift.
During high-rep WODs and sub-maximal efforts, you might also notice inconsistencies. Every rep should look identical, but we know that doesn’t happen. Squats tend to have different starting positions and levels of depth. Deadlifts get bounced and hitched, which is certainly problematic.
Mental weakness in the gym is more common than you think and can manifest in a number of different ways, but the most common is symptoms are intimidation and self-doubt. Simply put, if a number seems heavy to you – If you’re hang-up on squatting “4 plates” one day, for example – then you likely have a mental hang-up that’s greatly limiting your performance. Whatever the issue, this is where having a talented coach and/or training partner is worth their weight in gold.
Having someone there to talk you out of your self-doubt haze is critical!
Fixing weaknesses So, now that we know a little bit about the weaknesses and how to recognize them, what does that mean for you? How can you fix your weaknesses the right way and maximize your strength?
Let’s start with the back squat as an example. A common error is where the barbell starts to drift forward, right as the lifter comes up from the bottom of the squat. You might also notice the hips popping up high. This places the loading burden on the back and forces the center of mass forward onto the toes. This is cool when you’re training the good morning or RDL, but it’s not what you want to see in the squat. Does that sound familiar? When you see this, usually the athlete’s legs aren’t as strong as their back. It’s a muscular issue that can be corrected with extra leg work programmed as assistance. A heavy dose of leg dominant exercises like front squats, lunges, and even leg presses could be just what you need. Let’s move on to the bench press. The most common flaw I see in this lift is the elbows. After touching the chest and starting the press to lockout, you might see elbows flair outward from close to the body, to wide. This is indicative of a few things. First, the lifters back is probably not engaged very well on the lowering portion of the lift. But most importantly, the shoulders are probably stronger than the triceps. If the triceps were stronger that initial push of the barbell would be dead straight, and elbow position would be stable and strong. A great way to address this is with paused rep work from the chest. Just allow the barbell to become motionless after descent, stay tight, then drive with the arms. Couple that with some heavy barbell rows and about a million triceps extensions, and you’ll be setting PR’s in no time! Some of the best advice I’ve ever got on benching was this: “If you want to press more, you need to press more!” That’s very simple, but profound advice. At times people can get caught up in looking for the magic exercise that will fix their problem when a lot of the time, we just need to get more efficient at the movement itself! Remember, strength is a skill like anything else. The more often you practice deliberately and progressively the stronger you will grow. Also, if you have a mental hang-up that’s keeping you from hitting that next big PR, there’s no better remedy than repetition. In time, you will go pro and break your fear of big lifts.
When it comes to the deadlift, the most heartbreaking and frustrating thing is to watch someone blast the bar up off the ground, only to be left struggling and purple just before lockout. What you will see most often here is that the lifters lat muscles didn’t start or stay engaged during the entire lift, which allows the barbell to drift forward again. That, and there’s the obvious lack of hip extension strength that’s such easier to spot.
The fix here is to perform lots of extra sets of pulldowns and rows, to bring the lat muscle up to par. Yeah, I know you love to do your kipping pull-ups. But you need to understand something – Great lifters from all strength sports do tons of bodybuilding-style back movements for a great reason. This adds muscle mass and stability, which has a great carry over to many lifts.
When it comes to bringing up hip extension strength, I love Dimmel deadlifts, heavy kettlebell swings, and best of all, sumo stiff-leg deadlifts. If you work these movements into your programming, you’ll get much stronger, very quickly.
Keep it positive
Let’s touch on the mental side of things one more time quickly, and I mean that. There have been entire libraries of books dedicated to this subject, and I strongly urge you to go out and read more about the subject if it interests you. However, there are a few simple things you can do (don’t confuse simple with easy!).
When dealing with yourself, a teammate or athlete, always make a point to turn things positive. This is tough in the gym because no matter how well we do, there will always be more weight to put on the bar. You have to maintain the correct mindset in goal setting.
In this case, we’ve talked a lot about fixing “weakness”, which certainly sounds negative. When addressing the issues, saying something like, “To improve the lift more’ or ‘Lets focus on bringing up your leg strength.’ These might seem like small and subtle things, but cutting out as much negative language as possible is always a good thing.
Work on this and you’ll see some incredible results, both in yourself and others.
Remember, to be a great lifter or coach you need to be a scientist. Take a broad look at things, make a hypothesis, and then put a plan together. Get after it, stick to your whole plan, then analyze the results. Whether you fixed the weakness for good or just for the time being, you will have to restart the process as many times as needed until the goal is reached.
A weakness is just something that you know is wrong. By just getting to work on your plan and making a devoted effort, you will be well on your way. Like Mr. Miyagi always said, “Wax on, wax off.” All the magic is in the daily effort, not the exercise.
If you can learn that much, you’ll be well on your way to setting new PR’s. I promise.