Whether your goal is fat loss, strength, muscle, sport performance, or something else entirely, the preparation process involved is a system. By this, I mean it's got a lot of moving parts, and if just one of those parts isn't performing up to speed, the whole process suffers.
Think of it like a 12-station assembly line. If 11 of those stations are humming along at full speed, but one is jammed up, guess what? Your overall production comes to a screeching halt.
Training is a lot like that assembly line. For example, we've all heard expressions like "You can't out-train a bad diet" and "There's no such thing as overtraining, only undereating and undersleeping." Regardless of whether or not you buy in to these statements, the underlying point is still true: Your overall training process will always be limited by its weakest link.
If you're serious about results, you need to get serious about this process.
The Power Of Assessment
This a self-assessment tool I first started using with my martial arts students way back in my former life as a martial arts instructor: I'd have two students engage in a sparring match, and have each student rate themselves afterward on these attributes, using a 1-10 scale:
- Defensive skills
- Use of feints/indirect attacks
- Use of counterattacks
- Use of combinations
- Overall aggressiveness
After each student filled out their own inventory, I'd give them my ratings based on what I saw, right next to their own scores. In this way, my students could get a more objective assessment of their own abilities and a better handle on what they needed to work on in order to become a better fighter.
Not surprisingly, the greatest learning opportunities were in the areas where the student and my ratings differed the most. If they thought their counters were a strength, but I identified them as a weakness, that was definitely an eye-opener that stuck with them. I recommend this approach to you if you work with a trainer. But you can also do an effective version of it on your own.
Fast-forward to present day. I now use a similar assessment to identify and rate the various components that contribute to my own training process as I prepare for raw powerlifting competitions. It's a simple four-step process you can use regardless of your fitness goals.
Step 1. Identify Training Factors
Kick off the process by compiling a simple list of every imaginable factor that contributes to your overall preparation process. Like any form of brainstorming, the key is to let those typing fingers fly. Don't put too much analysis into this—just make that list. Just to get your imagination going, here are some things that have been on my list:
- Training facility
- Social support
- Clarity of purpose (goals)
- Skill level (technique)
- Training plan
- Orthopedic health
- Body composition
- Hormone levels
- Overall health
- Financial stability
- Life stress
- Sleep quality/quantity
- Symmetry (weak or underdeveloped muscles)
- Training consistency
- Psychological maturity
Now, if your goals are significantly different than mine, you might have items on your list that I don't and vice-versa. You can also include more athletic-specific attributes than I did, such as cardiovascular endurance, work capacity, or absolute strength. That's fine. Just compile your list and make it as complete and as detailed as possible. The longer, the better.
Step 2. Delete Factors You Can't Influence
Once you've completed your list, remove any factors over which you have little or no control. In my own case, under the category of orthopedic health, my right knee has limited flexion due to surgical scar tissue from old surgeries. It's certainly undesirable. However, it has no solution, so it's not a problem.
Similarly, if you're in prison (an extreme example, of course) you have little to no control over your training facilities, your nutrition, and most of the rest of that list. But you can still control your clarity of purpose.
Spend a few moments on your list, and simply cross out those items that aren't within your control. If you're not sure, leave them in for now. You can always remove them later.
Step 3. Rank Factors
This is the meatiest part of this process. It requires an honest willingness to take a cold, hard look at your situation and identify your strengths and weaknesses. Sometimes it's not easy to be objective with this, so it might be helpful to enlist the help of a coach or a training partner to lend some objectivity to the process.
You can either assign a numerical ranking to the items on your list, or you can simply order your list starting with items that seem to be the most limiting, down to the items that appear to be the least limiting.
Once you've ranked your list, earmark the "top" (meaning worst) 1-3 items for future attention. I wish I could be more precise than "1-3," but honestly, everyone's different. One person might really, truly be limited in a single area. If so, well, at least they know what they need to work on!
If you feel like you're already working hard and you'll have a difficult time shoring up your multiple weak points, you're likely still better off limiting your efforts to one item at a time. If you've got a bit more maneuverability, perhaps you'll be able to tackle 2-3 areas. Only you can answer this.
Step 4. Maintain Low-Ranking Factors, Improve High-Ranking Factors
Okay, you've made your list and ranked each item, and you've selected a few items for an improvement campaign. The next thing you'll need to get comfortable with is the idea of putting at least a few of your strengths—or at least your nonweaknesses—on the back burner. This frees up enough time and energy to devote to shoring up your weakest factors.
As it turns out, this is a very worthwhile compromise. The things you're best at can be maintained with much less work than it took to develop them in the first place. For example, using the example of maximal strength, you can maintain your one-rep max on core lifts with perhaps a quarter of the work that it took to reach them in the first place.
Also keep in mind that in most scenarios, just shoring up your weaknesses will improve your strengths. That's a major point of this process, after all!
So diving into that specific example, if maximal strength is one of your strongest items, and work capacity is one of your weakest, simply improving your work capacity should improve your 1RM all by itself, even if you're doing significantly less maximal strength training.
When The Answer Isn't So Clear
If, after spending time on your weakest areas, you don't see an improvement in overall performance—and assuming you've given the process enough time to kick in—it simply means that your initial premise was mistaken. What you thought was a significant weakness probably wasn't. This is when it's time to get a second set of eyes involved.
Along the way, identify which factors, if improved, would simultaneously improve other factors as well. Example: A wide range of issues can often be improved through better nutrition. Overall recovery can be improved through smarter programming. Whenever you identify a weakness on your list, look to see if another item might be a root cause of that weakness.
Depending on your unique situation, it also may be worthwhile to further break down some of these categories. For example, perhaps your nutrition is fine, except that you don't take in adequate protein. In a case like that, insufficient protein intake, not your overall nutrition, limits your progress.
Similarly, your overall mobility might be fine, with the exception of restricted hip flexors or shoulders. Unlock those two, and you might see a wide range of improvements.
Simplicity Is Underrated
Although the model of the "weakest link in a chain" is sometimes criticized for being too simplistic, in my mind, when dealing with complex topics like training, simplicity can be a valuable asset.
What's really nice about this tool is that it works equally well for bodybuilders, powerlifters, weightlifters, CrossFit competitors—honestly, it can be applied to absolutely any goal with great results. Do some honest, fearless, introspective analysis on your situation, and treat your training like the important system it is!