Sunday, July 21, 2019

Make It Harder, Not Easier - Bill Starr







At some point in your strength program you have to become more aggressive and lean on the top-end numbers. If you continue to train with comfortable poundages for too long, you'll get lazy and your progress will come to a halt. The body seeks equilibrium, complacency. In fact, it would prefer to stay out of the gym altogether. Given a choice, it would much rather lie on a couch and have cold liquids and junk foods stuffed into it than sweat and strain in a hot gym. 

To add to the problem of inherent indolence is the fact that there is, sadly, a trend in training philosophies that actually promotes making things easier. Use machines rather than free weights, since machines put less stress on the body. Other trendy but easier techniques include abbreviated workouts, split routines that barely raise as sweat, doing nothing but partial squats instead of full squats, and of course putting absolutely nothing really challenging on the bar. How about performing seated presses over standing ones or clean and presses? Are the latter movements better? No, but they're easier. The same goes for using Smith-type machines instead of free weights, or hang cleans instead of full cleans. When I ask people why they do hang cleans instead of the full-range movement, they usually reply that it's safer. Horse Fritters. People do hang cleans because they're easier to do -- and also easier to teach -- than full cleans. 

I have a beef with today's mania for the Trap Bar. Proponents say it makes the movements easier than when they use an Olympic bar. That's it's main selling point, but to me it's not a plus but a negative. Any time you make a lift easier to perform, other than when you're perfecting your technique on it, you're going to get less out of it. Many, many sets of huge, powerful traps were built before this device came along. What's more, I can still make any trainee's traps so sore he can't sit down without pain, and all I need is an Olympic bar and lots of weight. 

Another pet peeve of mine is the various apparatuses that are manufactured solely to ease workout pain. My favorite is the plastic cushion for the shoulders so the bar won't hurt your back when you squat. Another one is gloves. Since when are calluses are major problem -- unless you happen to be a surgeon? Wraps and other supportive equipment are in this category too -- anything to keep you from feeling any hurtful sensations while training. 

Nevertheless, my biggest gripe is the "all-you" insanity that permeates the training halls of this country today. 



Whenever I hear the cry "All You!" I can be 100% certain most of the lift is being done by the spotter, not the lifter. I believe I know how this nonsense made its way into strength training. It's supposed to be a form of forced reps. Now, forced reps do have a place in strength training, but only for advanced lifters, in which case you must do them with heavy weights and use two spotters, who must time their movements precisely.

That's not what's going on, however. What they're doing with the all-you goofiness is not really forced reps at all but rather trainees being assisted through the most difficult part of the lift. I compare it to helping runners go the final few yards in a race by carrying them across the finish line. After all, they were very tired. 

Perhaps even more ludicrous than the practice of making the lift easier for their partners is the interaction between lifters and spotters following and all-you attempt. The lifter will turn and ask, "How much did you take off the bar?" The invariable answer is, "Only about a pound," with the added note, "I barely touched it." Why not a gram? 

Am I the only person who thinks this practice is totally stupid and counterproductive? To add to the absurdity, people who have been all-youed always count the assisted reps, having been convinced by their partners that they could have done them even if the partners hadn't touched the bar. 

I finally came to the conclusion that the logic behind the all-you practice is, You scratch my back and I'll scratch yours. In other words, if I help you through the most difficult portion of a lift, then I can count on you to help me. While it's nice to have a reliable spotter in case you do fail, he or she isn't helping you get stronger by nudging the bar through the sticking point. In fact, he's hurting your progress. How am I going to learn to grind through the tough part of the lift is someone always helps me? It's called the sticking point for good reason: It's the weakest part of the lift. Instead of helping me lift the bar, better to push down on it -- which is what I generally do when I spot people who are accustomed to being all-youed. Of course, they only ask me to spot them one time, and that's fine with me.

All-youing is most common on the bench press and incline, but it also occurs during curling, overhead pressing and squats. The behind-the-lifter, hands-under-the-armpits form of spotting for squats also drives me up a wall. I see people do that sort of thing even if the lifter is inside a power rack or in a staircase rack.

Don't get me wrong, I understand the importance of spotting, especially for lifts such as the bench press and incline, where the bar is over your face, but I believe having a spotter hug you and help you through the difficult part of the squat limits your progress. If I have people squatting inside a power rack or staircase rack, where they're protected, I discourage them from using any spotters. A great many of my athletes prefer to squat without spotters. If they miss, they're covered, and they believe it forces them to put out more when they know they're not going to be helped. 

The only time I ever use the behind-the-lifter spot is when there's no one else in the gym and no power or staircase rack. I've also noticed that people who use that type of spot never go very low. It's a good thing, because if they did get stuck in the deep position they'd be out of luck, for one person can't do much to save them. They'd have to dump the bar. So either squat inside a rack or use two spotters. You can have someone hug you later. 

Weight training isn't a team sport, and those who try to make it into one only limit themselves. In the final analysis you are alone with the bar. The only gains you make come from your efforts, not from those you train with. I believe that many people employ the all-you assistance on almost every single exercise so they'll never fail. In reality they don't succeed, since the spotter does most of the work. In their minds, however, at least they don't miss. 

I encourage pushing to failure. I believe in the concept of getting your misses up. How else can you really know exactly what your limits are on any lift? Failing is part of the overall process. Lifting without failing is like skating without falling. There's nothing wrong in failing. In fact, it's necessary. In most cases the failure serves to motivate you. You become irritated at missing a certain poundage and work harder so you won't miss it again. When my athletes miss a max attempt, they dwell on it for weeks until I let them take a crack at it again. In the meantime they're strengthening the weak area that revealed itself with the failure. Seldom do they ever miss the second time around, and in the process they move to a higher strength level. It also builds a more aggressive attitude, which I want to promote in my athletes. 

Fear of failure is also one of the reasons so many programs don't include singles. Some experts suggest that singles are risky, but I don't find that to be the case if lifters have been taught proper form. Certainly, the Olympic lifts are riskier than any weight-training exercise, and Olympic lifters thrive on singles. Instead of singles, coaches encourage high reps. They use them to test the relative strength of their athletes as well. That practice actually came out of professional football and has filtered down to colleges and high school. Take a given weight and do as many reps as possible. Proponents of high-rep testing say it's safer than trying a max single, but I find that the exact opposite is true. Typically, the lift of choice is the bench press. Once lifters tire, they revert to sloppy form in order to run the reps higher. They rebound the bar off their chest, bridge and/or twist -- anything to gain one more rep. That's much more stressful to the shoulder girdle than trying a max single. 

Another common practice that protects lifters from facing the horrors of failure is the conversion chart, which enables them to convert reps done on a certain lift to a max single. I've always hated that idea, for everyone who has ever lifted anything heavy understands there's a world of difference physically and, more importantly, mentally. It takes a certain amount of courage to deal with 400, and it fosters weakness to convert a light poundage to a calculated heavy one. 

When I first arrived at Johns Hopkins, the football coach, who left soon afterward, showed me the results of his off-season strength program from the year before. I was impressed because there were a half dozen players squatting more than 500. My job was going to be easier than I expected, I thought. When i did get the football team in the weight room, however, I discovered that only one player could even manage 315, and he wasn't going low enough. Then I found out the former coach had used a conversion chart. 

Why? It's easier, for one thing, but the primary reason so many use it, I believe, is because it boosts the numbers, even if they are artificial. I fully understand, for I'm in the same boat, but if you're serious about getting stronger, for whatever reason, then you need to include singles in your routine. You may not want to do them often, but the singles will help you break through the numbers barrier, and numbers are what strength training is all about. 
BIGGER NUMBERS. 

If, for example, the most you ever handle on the bench press is 275 x 5, and you decide to try 290 or 300, the odds are you'll fail. The reason for that is partly psychological, but there's also a physiological aspect.

Lifting a maximum single opens up totally new synapses in the nervous system and forces the tendons and ligaments to work harder. The true sources of strength are the tendons and ligaments, so you must stress them positively in order to make them stronger. 

Note: I've never been able to understand anyone who doesn't like the feeling of doing singles. They're so matter of fact, straight to the point, clean, pure, compressed and lacking in excess baggage. The shining diamonds of the rep kingdom. Consider also that Chuck Sipes may have been J.C. Hise reincarnate. I mean, a guy like Hise, with that much inquisitive lust for life, hey, throw his soul a rope down under and I guarantee he'll grab on and pull himself back up. And the same rope may have pulled him back under once the buggers down there realized he was missing. Anyone who's ever had the wind moving through the trees late at night call out to "grab that knife and do it" can easily see that. I figure. Without a doubt. No room for doubt with singles. It's truly all you.

Another advantage of doing singles is that they help hone technique. Doing 10's and even 5's or 3's allows a certain margin of error in form, but that's not the case for a max single. The line has to be very precise. Miss the groove even slightly, and you'll miss the lift. 

Note: How beautiful is that! Your whole being is either in that moment or that same moment sends you packing back in time, a beaten man. Being beaten can't be a possibility or an option with singles. There's no 8 to maybe 10 here. It's ONE. In more ways than one.   

By the same token, max and near-max singles (the fine family of Singles . . . Max, Near-Max, Cousin On-the-Minute, Uncle Rest-Pause . . . the lot of 'em) can help you locate your weak point. With a lighter poundage you can slide through your weak point, but not with a max single. Quite a few of my athletes power their squats out of a deep bottom position. Their starts are so powerful that they seldom have to worry about grinding through the middle range. Their hips and glutes elevate the bar so forcefully that they only have to be concerned with the start and finish -- that is, until the bar is loaded to a heavy single and the weakness shows itself. That's a Good Thing. You want your weaknesses to show themselves. 

Singles influence the numbers barrier in another way also. Some numbers, such as 300 and 400 are formidable. Many shy away from singles because they are fearful of dealing with big numbers. These men should not become investment bankers. If you include singles in your routine on a regular basis, though, you can slip right up to and over those numbers. Move your max to 285, then go back and work that lift until you can do the saame 285 for 3 reps. Then single out again. This time you will manage 295. Do the same thing again, work, work, work and get a triple with 295. The next time you go for a max, you'll vault right over the 300 barrier. 

Whenever I bring up the subject of singles, I'm invariably asked, "But are they safe?" Yes, if you satisfy two conditions. You have to learn good form on the lift, and establish a solid foundation. Those conditions apply to any lower reps, even triples. Nothing is really more important to people interested in gaining strength than perfecting technique on all the exercises. And I mean all of them, even small muscle movements like pullovers and dips. If you've been working out consistently for six weeks or more, your base will be sound enough for you to do some singles. 

Singles serve the strength athlete in much the same manner as sprints serve the runner. They trigger different responses in the body and make it stronger. You may only want to single once a month, and that's fine. Many people like to spend adequate time firming up their base and increasing the workload on a lift before trying to max out for a personal record. That's a good idea. Singles are fun, no, wait, SINGLES ARE FUN, since they allow you to set PRs, so people will sometimes do them to frequently, but here I am talking about a max single. Four weeks between max singles is often enough to get the desired effect.

Besides adding singles to your program, continue to incorporate newer, more demanding exercises as well. Once you've mastered the power clean, try doing full cleans. Do clean and presses instead of seated presses or presses from the rack. Try front squats. They're tough, but they work the legs and hips quite differently from the way back squats work it. Keep challenging your body, and it will grow stronger. 

Baby it and you'll forever remain weak.            










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