The year was 1990, I was training for my first international competition. Two challenge meets in the U.S.S.R. My squat was the best it's ever been. I had some big numbers in training, but separated the AC joint in my right shoulder at an exhibition, and the monster lifts were not meant to be. After 10 weeks of not being able to hold a bar on my shoulders, I still hit a 292.5 kg squat (645 pounds) at in the 165 pound weight class, not too bad.
At the time, I was engaged to a beautiful and incredibly bright woman (despite evidence to the contrary in her choice of spouse) who was a personal trainer and at the Powerhouse Gym in Kalamazoo, Michigan where I trained. She was harassed constantly by questions about my training, diet, brownie recipes, you name it. One particularly long day, a 20-something guy asked "What does he do to get strong?" one too many times.
Well, almost 15 years have passed and many things have changed. She and I have been married, and divorced. A lot of iron has gone up and down. My knees don't bend quite as well as they used to, and my right shoulder still takes an inordinately long time to bend enough for me to rack a bar when I squat. The one thing that hasn't changed is the simple truth of the answer she gave.
"He does exactly what you do, just with a whole lot more weight".
At first glance, the answer seems to be simply as it was intended, a ticked off response to a borderline stupid question. When most aspiring athletes ask that question, or read books, magazines and websites, they are looking for the secret. The magic supplement, routine, drugs, or trick that will make them a champion.
They try every thing from "super turbo giant mega exhaustion sets" to creative pharmacology. And they get bigger and stronger than most of their friends, but the big bang is just never there.
Well, just because the kid searching for the secret of the big boys never finds it, doesn't mean it isn't there. It is. It's just so simple and everyone thinks there has to be more, just ask my ex-wife, "He does exactly what you do, just with a whole lot more weight".
Before dismissing the statement as "as stupid as the question" we should examine the implications.
There are reasons why some people can lift freaky weights and some can't. Let's immediately discard the two most the obvious answers (read as excuses you use to justify your not lifting freaky weights): genetics and good drugs.
Maybe, but chances are, not in the way you are thinking. (Disclaimer: I don't lift freaky weights, but I can use myself as an example without pissing off any really big people who do.) 5'6" tall, lift at 148# and 165# weight classes. My above referenced ex-wife had the same wrist circumference and ring size (within a half size) that I do.
For a guy who (and you have no idea how much it hurts to say this) has the same physical tools as an attractive, female aerobics instructor, my lifts are respectable. At least most people consider a 4X bodyweight squat and deadlift respectable. So genetics isn't a viable excuse. They do play a part, but only a part.
This isn't going to digress into a pro- or anti-drug crusade. They can and do make athletes bigger and stronger. However, they will not make a champion out of a loser (insert non-champion if you insist on being politically correct).
Aside from weight gain, let's say they contribute a 10% increase in strength. That would make a 700 pound squat into a 770 pound squat or a 500 pound bench press into a 550 bench press. They will not take a 185 pound squat and turn it into an 800 pound squat. Sorry, just not going to happen.
You can find plenty of excuses if you are willing to take the time and look. But if you spend that energy looking for the real secret to lifting heavy things, you might not need excuses. The good news is that most of what it takes to build an 800 pound squat is within your control.
Throughout my career, I have had the opportunity to train with some scary strong individuals. I feel that a 405 bench (at 181 with no bench shirt), a set of 5 bent over rows with 515 (at 220 without using deadlift straps) and pressing a 300 pound log overhead qualify as "scary strong". Three different people, all incredibly strong, range from about 5'6 to 6'2" and 181 to 340 pounds, but they have some fundamental things in common.
They all spent years training with heavy basic exercise and simple periodization. I am not trying to disparage West Side, H.I.T. or any other system. But lifting heavy weights is a skill, and needs to be learned. Watch a beginners form. When they go over about 90% of their 1 rep max, it changes drastically, and usually not in a good way.
The reason is stress, both physical and mental. When the struggle against the additional weight, adds to the fear and excitement of a near max attempt, all aspects of good form go out the window. Look at the noise restrictions on the PGA tour (if I ever compare lifting heavy weights to golf again, please hunt me down and beat me).
The finer the motor skills, the less distraction can be tolerated before performance decreases. That is why they require silence when a golfer is putting. The skill is so precise the slightest distraction or increase in arousal will create problems. I realize lifting big is a gross motor skill, a simple skill with big movements.
Admittedly, it takes a lot of distraction to screw the exercise beyond all recognition. Well, everyone in the gym watching you, your training partner yelling at you and slapping you, and a hot girl peeking around the corner counts as a lot of distraction. Oh, did I forgot to mention 14 plates loaded onto a bar in a squat rack bending so far it looks like it should snap? That counts as a distraction too.
These same distractions can either motivate or set your lift up to fail. Lets go through the steps that allow this atmosphere to push your lifts higher and prevent you from making mistakes.
A Couple Of Rules To Guide You
Rule #1 - Mental Practice
Every rep of the exercise needs to be the same. Same form, same sequence, same everything. Make your pre-lift preparation into a ritual. Always warp the same knee first, always touch the bar with the same hand first, always take the same number of breaths, and always go through the same visualization sequence and see the lift in your mind.
This preparation needs to happen on every set, initially even on your warm ups. Yes, it looks goofy to see someone get mentally prepared to bench 135 pounds, but as the weights get bigger it looks progressively cooler. You need the practice on the light-weights so that your body is accustomed to taking action without getting your mind in the process, and messing it up.
Thinking during a max attempt is a very bad thing. (My ex-wife might elaborate on how my particular lack of my specific thought processes, but we should skip that part).
Rule #2 - Physical Practice
As stated in the previous paragraph, "Every rep of the core exercises needs to be the same." Head position, hand position, equipment all needs to be identical. Every rep should be exactly the same. (Yes the previous three sentences said the same thing, repetition is critical for learning and it's just that important).
Furthermore, every rep needs to be as perfect as is humanly possible. Under a maximum effort, your body will automatically use the form that you practice most, a sort of "default" setting for your motor skills.
Making your "default" perfect form on the easy reps means that when you attempt a max on a platform, or with your personal version of Charlie Brown's little, red haired girl watching, your form will hold "perfect" without you having to think about it. When your mind lets your body do what it was trained to do, weights move fast and in the groove. Life is good.
I hear you "Yeah, yeah MENTAL PRACTICE and PHYSICAL PRACTICE, got it, but so what, how does this affect my training?" Well grasshopper, I'm glad you asked.
It means that you probably need to throw out at least half of the training techniques you read in powerlifting (or bodybuilding) magazines as being over your head or beyond your level of experience. K.I.S.S. (Keep It Simple Stupid) Until your form is PERFECT, repeat PERFECT, repeat PERFECT, repeat PERFECT you cannot change grip with, foot placement, movement speed, gear, etc. without screwing up your form and increasing the probability of blowing max attempts.
The more variation between practice reps, the less any one particular motor pattern will be reinforced. This inhibits the development of a dominant motor pattern, so when the lights come on, the crowd screams and the head judge yells "SQUAT", your central nervous system gets confused.
Your CNS can't remember whether to use the form you use on power squats, speed squats, on box squats, on (god forbid) Smith squats, Olympic squats or whatever. So a little of everything happens at once and the spotters get to save your sorry butt or they scrape you off the platform with a spatula.
After that disaster it still gets worse. You spend the long ride home telling your training partner "But, I did it in the gym. You remember, two weeks ago, I did it, I really did, you remember right? I don't understand what happened." If you are fortunate enough to have a training partner as nurturing and sensitive as mine, you get some gentle words of encouragement, like "Shut up dude, I'm embarrassed to be seen with you."
But, if every rep of every set exactly the same, perfectly, 135, 225, 275, 315 all the way up, when the lights and music hit and you get a "PRESS" command from the head judge, the 365 opener goes up, exactly like the 135, 225, 275 and 315. Your body responds in the manner it is conditioned to, and your mind stays out of the loop. You smoke your opener, the little red haired girl swoons and the two of you lift happily ever after.
Now, about half of the beginning to intermediate lifters are saying "But, (insert you favorite guru here) says, do speed days and max effort days, or chains this day, or change these exercises every week." Well odds are, as it applies to you, I'm right and they're wrong. Here's why.
The lifters that get mentioned for these training methods are elite level athletes. They are not just learning how to lift with heavy weight. Their form has been ingrained by years, and often decades, of doing the same exercise in the same way.
Breakout your stack lifting magazines and pick one good lifter, find all of his or her lifts and line them up side by side. Unless they had an injury, chances are their hair will change, their shirts and shoes will change, their facial hair will change (guy only please), but their body position throughout the lifts will remain remarkably similar.
They found a form that fits their body type and lifted that way for years, before they started any of the "methods". Once your form is flawless and has been practiced for years, then you can use speed days, bands, chains, whips, dog collars, 10W30 motor oil and Sta-Puff marshmallows, it doesn't matter. But until you are hardwired for perfect form, adding in more variables will just slow your progress and make max attempts more difficult.
So, when she said "He does exactly what you do, just with a whole lot more weight" she actually meant "He does exactly what you do, just with a whole lot more weight, and he does it perfectly, every time". OK, she might have said it then, she probably wouldn't say it now, but you get the point...right?