There is a saying popular in the small world outside the gym that the definition of insanity is to do the same thing over and over again and expect different results. That if one approach doesn’t work, try another.
Inside the gym, what works is what gets you somewhere. How to get there is much less important than showing up.
So what is the relationship between the process and the results in lifting? At first glance, the sport looks like a chase. We strive to achieve our goals: to become strong, to look good. Much of what we focus on and measure – the heavyweights in a powerlifting competition, the body fat percentage, the size of your quads – are numbers that we strive to achieve.
But while the pursuit of results may be what prompts us to start lifting, the sport is all about the process. More precisely, this is repetition.
For all the variety of programs that people undertake to achieve their various goals, we all generally follow the same rough path – gradual overloading through selected exercises, performed over time – to get there. It’s not like in the real world: the repetitive process should not just get rejected if things don’t work out. Rather, it should be examined.
The few rules surrounding repetitive lifting cycles are so general that they can be adopted by any program and approach. Weightlifters need to work their whole body, get plenty of sleep, and eat well. Cardio and recovery should be monitored. The exercises should be hard enough to be stimulating, should be a little harder each time – more weight, more intensity – and should be repeated. Sometimes breaks are necessary and there is always something to tinker with.
That is just about everything.
And while the above manners vary wildly, the framework in which they operate is pretty much total. There really is only one way to go anywhere: do the same thing – a hard workout – over and over again, over time. And then do it over and over again.
Become stronger through repetition
It is best to repeat yourself with a program, which are thoughtful paths through which you repeat optimally. Powerlifting programs train just about any muscle and make people incredibly strong without having to do 1,000 reps per week. Working with kettlebells is functional and deepens everyday movement patterns. Bodyweight training builds both muscle mass and cardio, is very holistic, and can be done anywhere.
Their exercises are different, but the programs are basically the same. They all take time and effort. They don’t build muscle right away, but eventually. They must be strictly followed – in shape, not to miss workouts, to eat well, to recover. Every program repeats things, that’s right What they repeat that it is different.
Of course, it wouldn’t make sense to stick around too long with a program that isn’t working and not progressing. The tricky part is that progress often stops less because of the exercises themselves than because of a weightlifter’s inadequacy for a particular set of exercises. Finding the PEBCAK error – the problem exists between the chair and the computer; in this case, muscle imbalances, weaknesses, lack of food or sleep – this is how coaches earn their salary.
In other words: there are hundreds of ways to get strong, but a greater variety of body types and health stories among people who take these programs. People start bodybuilding the way they are. As they adapt on the fly to new exercises and ranges of motion, lifts are not yet smooth and natural. And until then, and until the weightlifters get really strong, there are endless places for the lifts – and repetition – to stall.
The complexity of heavy lifts is one of the reasons powerlifting training doesn’t work for some weightlifters right off the bat, and why many weightlifters switch programs or quit early and seek out the perfect pill. But it doesn’t really exist. Good coaches can get clients to work with dumbbells with programs that strengthen general physical preparation and proprioception.
This child-glove progression is, for some people, necessary, because office work and sitting have ruined people’s postures and posterior chains. Until a few decades ago, serious dumbbell work was mostly done by high school football players as an off-season training, and muscular people who spent most of their waking hours wanting to get strong. We forget that for incredibly inactive people repeating those precise elevators correctly can be quite difficult.
Even at a low weight, performing the squat properly involves internalizing dozens of cues, pulling each muscle in unison, and breathing properly. A squat can fail at just about any time: bad glutes will cause a weightlifter to sink into the hole; a weak upper back will make the bar on the shoulders shake; weak quadriceps can prevent an athlete from standing.
Solving one problem often creates another. It is natural for beginners, who may not be seeing progress anyway, to let go and find another way to get strong.
But going further generally works better than going elsewhere. Analyzing the weak points of your elevators will improve them. Check in your reps, find out where you fall short, and develop the lagging body part. Blast your failing glutes with a hello or improve your quad strength with front squats. Problems that keep coming up are boring, but they can be solved.
Snags in the elevators can also be overcome by the repetition itself. Enough repetitions of an exercise grease the neuromuscular pathways, taking the brain out of the equation, so to speak, and making movements fluid and automatic.
Consider backing up your car in a driveway – it’s hard to keep every step straight at first. So this is not the case. How to improve in squatting? You crouch down.
Exercises to repeat
Kettlebell guy Pavel Tsatsouline recommends below limit lifts, repeated over and over, to grease the groove. The premise – you get better at pull-ups through doing push-ups, so you should do them as often as possible without tiring yourself out – that is, sub-limit work builds capacity over time.
Do a few kettlebell squats when you go in the kitchen, and leave room in the tank for more later in the day. Do five pull-ups each time you walk through the door. And since these repeatable exercises build strength, it’s not just a theoretical concept. Adding sub-limit work on top of a program improves the way you move and makes you stronger. It’s a real lift: it’s good to do more.
Formally, these sub-limit reps are expressed in many programs as components of volume – where weightlifters do a bunch of high rep sets after a workout. This is also why athletes can spell periods of intensity – high weight, low reps – with volume blocks. You don’t want your squat to fail because the movement is new or foreign. Repetition is how you learn what you are doing and you can’t cheat.
“When things go wrong in real life, we stop what we’re doing and do something else. But lifting is much easier than that.
It’s also an abstract concept to grasp, at least while you’re practicing. Because no program works very fast, and since no one gets strong right away, a weightlifter could, at best, gain a pound of muscle per week. This can be harder to see than a hitch in a squat. We know that if we stick to repeating ourselves correctly, we’ll get pretty strong after a year, and unbelievably strong after a decade. And we know personal bests pop up from time to time in the gym – old max lifts turn into working weights. But we do not feel it exactly.
Day to day, strength is mostly theoretical. The weights climb slowly and the success of a program should be considered. We believe that if we keep working and doing the right things, we will get the results we want.
All of that effort to gain 2.5 pounds on a lift can be frustrating. But there’s another way to look at it: People have been doing this for a long time, and it always takes time. Since it takes so long to get to where we want to go, there is no sense in rushing results. We have extra time to repeat ourselves. We might as well enjoy it, while still focusing and focusing. Everyone before us who did it right has arrived.
Lifting, then, reveals the process as the ultimate goal. It’s a liberating idea. When things go wrong in real life, we stop what we’re doing and do something else. But lifting is much easier than that. There really is only one way to do it. Success is not about reaching a goal, but figuring out how to take the path that got everyone there.
LEG DAY OBSERVER is an exploratory look at fitness, the companion to GQ.com’s vintage Snake America column, and a home for all things Leg Day. Due to the complicated nature of the human body, these columns are intended to be considered as introductory prompts for further research, not as guidelines. Read previous editions of Leg Day Observer for more thoughtful approaches to lifting and eating.