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Principles In Strength

I've been working with a broader demographic of individuals recently. I think most people know me for my work with adolescents and athletes. But as of recent, my coaching has expanded to more weightlifters, powerlifters, crossfitters, and the general population. Many of whom are high achievers or of a high-achieving mindset.

Some of the questions which have been brought up by being more immersed in the realms of general fitness and working more with the CrossFit side of the demographic have revolved around getting stronger and increasing the amount of weight one can lift in the primary competition lifts (Snatch, Clean & Jerk, Squat, Bench Press, and Deadlift). In talking with, and teaching, these athletes and individuals I find it easier to break down a few common principles of lifting heavy things. And what also needs to be considered for those using these principles for sport performance or overall health.

Compression and Stiffness*

This is a skill I find many struggle with. Especially when you're really trying to lift weights, being able to compress your ribcage and pelvis in order to create the most rigid structure is key to lifting the most amount of weight. What most people consider a round back in powerlifting for the deadlifts is usually a purposeful and technical skill developed for the purpose of lifting the weight. The same goes for other lifts as well. This is what bracing for a lift is: compressing and creating as much stiffness at joints in order for them to handle the amount of forces they need to produce to lift a weight. Often, the people who are really good at creating this brace can lift weights which seem far outside the realm of possibility (I once witnessed a 60kg/132lb lifter deadlift 220kg/485lb, barely missing the lockout because her grip gave way).

The major consideration here for athletes and those pursuing a more general health and fitness, however, is to make sure you spend time in more fluid or "expanded" states. The ribcage, spine, and pelvis are structures which are designed to have certain degrees of movement to them. Powerlifters tend to live in compressed states, and it's obvious as you watch them waddle around gyms from exercise to exercise.

If we want holistic health and to increase overall performance in a field or court sport, we need to make sure we spend time working and moving in expanded states.

Frequency and Intensity

I think people often underestimate how frequent strength movements need to be performed or at the intensity they need to be performed at in order to make substantial gains in strength. Especially as it pertains to the weightlifting movements (Snatch and Clean & Jerk), high frequency in the lifts and their variants is crucial to increasing those numbers. Even in movements such as Squat, Bench, and Deadlift, frequency in the beginning stages is key because it lends itself to greater skill, and greater skill drives output.

The big consideration many have to take here, especially when they hear to increase the frequency they do an exercise, is also to moderate the intensity. Not every session can be a Maxout Session. Of the Powerlifters I know who are really successful in the Bench Press, they may Bench 3-4 times per week. But much of their intensity and volume is spent in the 70-75% of a 1RM range. They work on the skill at submaximal loads relentlessly, and only really push numbers once per week. This is key to preventing injuries.

If you're going to increase your frequency, you need to make sure you're not truly maxing out all the time.

Effort and Mindset

This goes into skill, but there's a mentality you have to approach strength training with. As weights go up, so does the demand for a little bit of mental toughness and the embracing of powering through. I remember talking with some of my powerlifting friends to see if they had "Oh S#!+" weights one time. These are the weights which no matter how good you feel, the moment you pick it up off the rack or floor and feel its full weight, your mind goes "Oh, S#!+, that's heavy." You have to learn to power through these and get in a frame of mind for them. You have to be willing to try, even when your blood pressure spikes and you can feel your pulse in your eyeballs (which is a really weird feeling, frankly).

The main consideration then, which goes into the effort and mindset of getting strong, is treating strength like it's a game. If you play a sport, you have to get into the same frame of mind you would for a game. If you're a crossfitter and you're trying to get stronger, you can't treat getting strong like a WOD with a ton of reps. You have to take it one rep at a time.

This is how I'd encourage you to look at getting stronger: Every rep is a world record, regardless of the weight on the bar. Treat it as such.

These are the principles of getting stronger. Now, it's important to note how principles can be applied a vast number of ways and in a vast number of contexts. People often look for technical cues, or a specific technique, or some kind of program. But strength falls along guiding principles of application and execution, and we need to find how those principles apply to you as an individual.

*Note: For the strength coaches and trainers reading this who want to play Devil's Advocate on the complexity of Compression and Expansion strategies in strength development and training, this article isn't going to debate this complex of a topic. Yes, there's some nuance here, but for the purposes of this article we won't dive into them.

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