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Your Program Sucks: Part 2

By November 1, 2019November 9th, 20204 Comments
1 November, 2019
Sebastian Oreb

Your Program Sucks: Part 2

…because you’re lifting too heavy

In Your Program Sucks Part 1 I introduced my hierarchical approach to programming and we talked about why your poor lifting technique is probably the reason that your program sucks. I’ll start off by saying that this principle alone is going to get you pretty far- if you focus on good technique and only that, then you will progress to a skill level well above the average gym lifter. However, if you want to step up to an even higher level in your training which I know a lot of you do, then we need to start looking at some other factors that can influence your training success.
There is no magic formula for the perfect strength program, but there are definitely training variables that we can manipulate to improve your chances of success. When a new athlete comes to me, the first thing I typically do is assess and make changes to their lifting technique to improve their ability to safely move the heaviest weight possible. Once we start nutting out their program, I don’t turn to any magic rule of rep schemes or a “must-do” exercise. Regardless of the person’s goal, the next thing that I prioritise after lifting technique is always the same thing and is such a huge determinant of the athlete’s success. So many coaches and lifters love talking about exercise selection and arguing over the best rep range for strength vs hypertrophy, but today I’m here to talk to you about selecting the optimal training intensity.
This brings me to my second commandment of program design:

If you are regularly training at an intensity that is too high, your program sucks.

Of course, the same goes for consistently training with weights that are too light for you to progress- however in my experience training too heavy is not only the more common mistake, but also the more detrimental of the two mistakes for your training.

Now I can imagine that a lot of my “no pain no gain” followers are feeling quite uncomfortable with me saying this, and some might have already dismissed my point altogether. There will definitely be a few of you right now who are thinking, “This is a great message for inexperienced lifters, but I can handle the mind-splitting training loads that are required to grow. I want it more than those people, so I need to do more”. And this is the mentality by which I so often see people fail.

I am a big believer in learning from the best, and if you want to be a “hardcore” strength athlete then you should be taking your lessons from those who excel in strength sports. I am fortunate enough to train a lot of really great strength athletes, and I can tell you that if you ask any of them about training intensity they will tell you that their training weights are far lighter than their competition lifts. This is not a question of ability, because they clearly have their competition results to prove what they can lift. Further, this is not just a discrepancy within absolute load lifted- even my most elite athletes do not exert the same amount of effort and strain in their training sets as they do for their competition lifts. In a strength test, the idea is that you should be lifting at absolute full capacity, and whenever you are lifting at full capacity and effort the assumption is that you are doing so to test your strength.

A gap should always exist between a strength athlete’s absolute maximum, and the intensity they utilise in their training cycle. As they approach competition/testing, this gap slowly closes- but the only time they reach their absolute maximum capacity is on the day of competition.

Now here’s the thing. If you are someone who lifts weights, and your goal is to progress in your training- then this rule applies to you as well. If you think that this does not apply to you and you should be pushing yourself to test your absolute capacity in every single set and session, then I’m sorry but your program sucks. Testing your strength is a great way to measure results, but it is not the way that you get strong. If you are training at your maximum capacity in every session, you are limiting your strength progression in a very significant way. Remember that the most important guideline for training success is that you are lifting with good technique- and this simply is not possible if the intensity is too high. It is always better to be slightly conservative than to go slightly too heavy in your training.
So here are my rules for selecting the correct training intensity:

RULE #1. You should leave every single session feeling that you could have done more.

If the weight you lift in a session feels easy, then I’m really happy for you. This means that you can go a bit heavier in the next session- but make sure when you do that you still follow the principle of staying below full capacity and leave something in the tank. I hope this lasts forever for you and that you go through the rest of your life putting a little more weight on the bar each week with a bit more in the tank. Spoiler alert, this won’t actually happen forever, but if you’re in this for the long game then  you will achieve far better results with conservative load selection.

RULE #2. Never, ever forget Rule #1.

If you go through your training prioritising good technique and selecting appropriate loads for every set of every exercise, you will set yourself up for great success in your training. This has been Part 2 of Your Program Sucks, stay tuned for Part 3, where I will explain the third of my fundamental programming principles and how to avoid having a program that sucks.

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