by Robert Maxwell
I've written before about the differences between training for general strength and health versus training for maximal, competitive strength. If you missed that article, you can check it out here. This article is somewhat related. In it, I'll explain how I allowed my love of barbell strength training to derail my goals and damage my body, and how I ultimately came out the other side wiser. Most of the articles on this site are designed to encourage weak, untrained people to pick up a barbell regularly. If you don't, you should. I still stand by this 100 percent. Many studies confirm that you'll be much better off physically. Most people know this, but still have to force themselves to train, and don't enjoy it. Those who stick with training long term enjoy the benefits, not the process. The dangers of losing willpower and quitting loom constantly for these folks, but some people fit into a completely different category with its own dangers. People like me. Ever since I started training, I've loved it. I don't just enjoy strength gains, either. I genuinely love the process of picking up a heavy barbell and pushing myself to my physical limits, trying to see how strong I can get. Normal people who have a normal distaste for training often ask me why I enjoy torturing myself. The answer is simple – I don't see it as torture, but pleasure. If this is hard for you to understand, you're not alone. I don't fully understand myself why I have such a drive to train, except that it's hardwired into who I am. For me, it goes way beyond simple enjoyment of a hobby. My heart rates actually increases when I imagine my next training session. I sometimes can't fall asleep at night because I'm too euphoric after hitting a big personal record in the squat, deadlift, or bench press. I've consumed hundreds of strength training books, essays and videos, and my hunger to learn more never diminishes. I actively imagine every training session beforehand, picturing each weight I'll lift, and focussing as hard as I can on achieving my particular goal for that day. Then I film every set and rep, watching the footage dozens of times afterwards to analyze and improve my lifting technique. The thought of competing in a powerlifting competition makes me weak with excitement. I've never wanted to do anything more. This enthusiasm drove me to train very intensely for a long time, and make some terrific strength gains. Then it drove me into the ground, and it took me a long time to find my way through the wreckage.
Mistake #1: Going Too Hard For Too Long
Your average guy who enters the gym for the first time will most likely not train hard enough to achieve optimal results. If he's new to lifting, he'll be surprised by the difficulty of the exercises, and how painful and unnatural it can feel when you go from lifting no weight to lifting weight. I had the opposite problem. Pretty early, a fiery drive to lift more and heavier weights ignited in my belly, and it's never gone out. Trouble is, as every long term natural lifter knows, there are definite limits on how much resistance training a body can recover from. Exceed this, and you'll get injured. Stay within the limit while doing everything else right, and you'll recover and gain strength. Might sound simple, but for those interested in maximizing their strength potential, there are nuances that can make achieving this balance pretty challenging. If you're fit and healthy, training hard and really wanting to get strong, you might be overdoing it with knowing it. At least not right away. Your short term training trajectory may lead to new personal records every few days, but long term, you could be headed for fatigue, muscle strains, and joint pain. These overuse injuries can slow a lifter down enough that they lose weeks or months of training time while their body recovers. This was my experience. After more than a year of huge strength gains and brutal training, my shoulder started hurting every time I bench pressed. Then my left elbow started giving trouble during all pulling movements. My right elbow soon followed. It took me longer than it should have to realize the obvious – I was overtraining. If you're not a lifter, you might wonder why this wasn't an easy fix. Just train less, right? My problem was that I didn't want to train less. As I saw it, training less meant less strength, and maybe not maximizing my genetic potential. I couldn't stand that thought, so I largely ignored my body's warning signs, and kept training as usual. This led to my next big mistake.
Mistake #2: Training Through Pain
For the serious lifter who loves straining under a heavy barbell, training through pain is familiar. Even comforting. Experienced trainees know the difference between regular lifting pain and injury pain. The smart ones stop immediately when they feel the latter. Unfortunately, I wasn't always smart. After overreaching for far too long – pushing my body beyond its limits again and again, I knew the twinge in my shoulder every time I did a bench press wasn't just normal stress and strain. I hoped and believed I could train through it without any lasting damage, but was proven wrong. When my elbows followed my shoulder to Snap City, I began to realize my mistake. More accurately, my series of mistakes. Every time I chose to ignore the pain signals my body was sending and pick up heavy weights as if nothing was wrong, I was making another error. Eventually it caught up with me, and I had to take a long time off performing certain movements. I even took some time completely away from the gym. If you're not a lifter and hate exercise, this won't seem like a big deal, but for me it was. The biggest. If I'd controlled my massive enthusiasm, the road to recovery would have been much shorter and easier. Trouble was, I couldn't quit, even when I knew I should. The drive to train and improve and get strong was too powerful. It wasn't until I had done serious damage to myself that I finally understood – if I wanted to keep training and building strength long-term, I had to accept that barbell training is a marathon, not a sprint. You can try sprinting a marathon, but you'll be walking before the first kilometre's done.
Mistake #3: Concentrating Too Much on Short Term Goals
For a long time I followed a very specific training formula. It involved attempting to set a new rep record every week, without exception. Every weekend I'd visualize as hard as I could the exact weight I'd squat, bench press and deadlift for a precise amount of reps in the following seven days. I focussed on these numeric goals until my head hurt, willing them to transfer smoothly from my imagination to reality. Most times they did, and I'd go home believing I'd achieved something worthwhile. When my body didn't come through for me, I struggled against feelings of failure and inadequacy. This isn't easy stuff for me to admit. For nearly 12 months, my intense, rigid approach worked. I got stronger than I thought possible. I set new rep goals each week, shattered them, then set higher ones. I drove myself as hard as I could physically, although mentally it took no discipline. Lifting heavy weights was what I most deeply wanted. I ate, slept, and dreamt lifting, so when it came time to actually train, I simply made my vision a reality, having long since completed the workout in my mind. Then I started getting hurt. I realized my body couldn't handle the intensity I was throwing at it, in an attempt to hit a new, shiny PR every week. I'd started training to get strong and stay strong long term. Somewhere I'd lost my grip on that goal, replacing it with the goal of moving more weight every single week, no matter what injuries plagued me. It took me too long to realize this approach could keep me from achieving either. It was a form of addiction, plain and simple.
What I've Learned
Most people go to the gym to look and feel better, and don't really want to be there. I go to get as strong as possible, and really want to succeed. Desperately. This desire has burned long and brightly enough to spawn my 10 year journey of gathering the knowledge to fill these articles with useful information. It's also driven me to train myself the best I can to be as strong as I can. I now realize this enthusiasm can go too far, and end up short-circuiting my goals. Enthusiasm is necessary to become very strong, since without it you'll have no motivation to willingly step under a heavy barbell several days each week. In my case, my enthusiasm must be reined it if I'm to keep making strength gains. Like a powerful locomotive, I'll shake myself to pieces if I don't focus and control my energies intelligently. I also now understand the danger of constantly chasing new personal records in the weight room. It works for a while, but leads to system failure if done long enough. All this might seem obvious, but for me it took years to develop the wisdom to gaze through the thick cloud of my own enthusiasm. So what can you learn from my experiences? First, if you really love an activity, you might have to rein in your enthusiasm to continue doing it in a healthy, constructive way. Second, focus on long term goals rather than short term intensity. It could mean the difference between success and failure. Finally, don't become addicted to the fastest possible results. You'll pay for it in the end.