Using Exercise to Expose Weakness: Part I


weak linkA general sort of concept is on my mind and it’s been expressed by several experts that I look up to. In his book Movement, Gray Cook says “True champions will spend more time bringing up weaknesses than demonstrating strength.” The great powerlifting coach Louie Simmons of Westside Barbell says, “The Westside program is all about finding where you are weak and making it strong.” Your weaknesses will hold you back.” Kelly Starrett discusses the idea of “making the invisible visible.” With this statement he suggests we can use exercise to expose movement problems. (He talks about this concept here,here and here.)  What does all this mean?

All these guys are telling us that rather than going to the gym and doing fun stuff that we’re already good at and simply making our strengths stronger (taking the easy route, really) rather we should find our weaknesses and work like hell to bring them up to speed.

A slightly different paradigm

I think most of us have an equation in our head regarding exercise.  It might look like this:

I exercise → I get stronger.

(BTW, the word “strong” doesn’t just mean muscular strength.  We can get stronger at swimming, biking, driving a golf ball, carrying bags of mulch, etc. “Stronger” means to improve an ability.)

There might be a few more dots to connect between those statements though. With regard to the earlier statements about weaknesses and making the invisible visible (i.e. make hidden weaknesses visible), we might see the equation thus:

I exercise → I expose weaknesses/pain/poor movement → I correct/improve my weaknesses and poor movement →I get stronger.

What often happens is that we find an exercise that we enjoy doing and at which we’re very strong. We really like that exercise! We do it and we demonstrate to ourselves (and let’s face it, others in the gym) how strong and able we are. Therefore our already well-developed ability gets stronger.

In contrast, I think a lot of us have discovered exercises that we don’t like. The movement pattern feels awkward, painful or somehow asymmetrical or unbalanced. We have a poor ability to execute the exercise. We may tack it on at the end of a workout if we feel like it–and we rarely feel like it. In other words, we’re weak at this particular movement. We don’t do it well and we know it so we avoid it. Thus we rarely if ever explore this particular exercise. What happens?  We probably get weaker and weaker at it.

So while something we’re already fairly good at gets better, a glaring weakness gets weaker.  And what do we know about chains and weak links? At some point that weak link (poor movement pattern) is going to cause us a problem if it isn’t already. We may not even know how strong we could be if we fixed our weakness.

My rule of thumb is: “If it’s really difficult to do and you don’t like doing it, then you probably need to do a whole lot of it.”

My experience

A lot of my clients have movement problems and various aches and pains. Their weaknesses are often rooted in a forgotten ability to move properly and maintain their joints in proper position. We frequently need to dial back the exercise intensity and simply work on slow, proper, mindful movement. Sometimes this requires a frustrating level of concentration. It gets difficult. It isn’t always fun. This frustration may lead a client to say ” I just want to work out!  I don’t want to think!” In other words, he or she want to revert to their hold habits, ignore their movement shortcomings and do what they’re already good at.

This is an important fork in the road. If a client chooses to continue to focus and do the hard work of correcting bad habits–to improve their true weaknesses–then he or she will almost certainly start to see lasting improvement in the near future. This client and I will likely have a long, productive and happy relationship. On the other hand, we have another type of client.  He or she balks at the first sign of difficulty, ignores and avoids weaknesses, and in essence chooses to tread water and only marginally strengthen their limited strengths.  He or she has picked an easy but limited route. In this case, our relationship is thankfully short.

The big picture

I’m going to go into some specifics in the next post, but for now I’d like you to consider the idea that the real way to get stronger is to seek out and wallow in your pathetic weaknesses. If you think you don’t have any, then add weight, reps, range of motion and/or speed to see if things start to come apart. Recognize where you start to fail and dedicate yourself to working on those weaknesses.

New Developments: Changing Exercises & Squat/Deadlift Reading


The New Workout

A couple of posts ago I outlined my new strength program which I adapted from a Mike Mahler program. I stayed with those exercises for six weeks. Now I’m rotating most of those exercises out for new exercises that are as Pavel Tsatsouline says, the “same but different.” This means that the new exercises should look like and require similar movement patterns as the previous exercises.  Here are my changes:

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I’m still doing barbell cleans but now each week I’m either doing cleans 2x/week and barbell snatches 1x/week or vice versa. I’m trying to learn to snatch the barbell and I’m pretty new to it. I’m still doing Renegade Rows and I’m trying to find time to do Turkish Get-ups 2x/week instead of just once. The TGU is very difficult so I figure I need to work on it more. (If you’re not good at something, you don’t like doing it and it’s real hard–then you should probably do a lot of it.)  Similarly, I’m keeping the kettlebell windmills.

I plan to stay with this new scheme for four weeks and change it up again. I’ve also added weighted 45 degree back extensions 1x/week. I believe this plus the good morning will help my deadlift and squat numbers go up.

Why have I rotated the exercises? I’ll let powerlifting expert Louie Simmons of the Westside Barbell Club explain:

“Science has proven that training at a 90% or above for 3 weeks will cause physical and mental fatigue. With the Westside conjugate method we switch a core barbell exercise each week to avoid accommodation. “

Further, from a mental viewpoint, changing exercises keeps things interesting.  I like doing new things.  There are a ton of useful exercises out there.  By cycling the exercises I get to stimulate the mind.

(BTW, Louie also says they at Westside “live on the good morning.” Seems that it’s essential for improving the squat and deadlift. Thus I’ll likely do some version of it for a long time to come.)

My sets & reps scheme is a variation  on the Windler 5-3-1 protocol.  It looks like this:

Week 1: 3 sets x 5 reps.  I work up to a 5RM and do three sets

Week 2: 3 sets x 3 reps done in similar to the 3×5

Week 3: 5 reps – 3 reps – 1 rep

Week 4: Back off.  I may skip lifting altogether or do something alone the lines of 1×10 reps at 50% of my 1 RM.  The point is to take it easy and RECOVER.

Westside Barbell Squat & Deadlift Manual

Speaking of Louie Simmons and Westside, I recently got the Westside Barbell Squat & Deadlift Manual. There’s a wealth of fantastic info in there from literally the strongest group of people on the planet. (I look forward to reading the Westside Barbell Book of Methods and the Bench Press Manual as well.)

Most interestingly, I learned that those guys change their main exercises every week–but they very rarely do the standard issue competition powerlifts: the squat, bench press, and deadlift.  They do variations on those exercises: box squats, board bench presses, good mornings and a billion other variations on the competition lifts.  They use bands and chains to vary the nature of the resistance on the bar.  Different bars are used and different speeds are used when lifting.  Why? It goes to the concept Louie mentioned up above.  All these variables are changed in order to prevent accommodation. If you’ve accommodated to the exercise then you’ve essentially gotten used to it and progress will slow.