Strength - A Longevity Approach
By Matt Wenning
M.S. Sports Biomechanics
Multiple World Record Lifter
In my 23 years of training weights, I have learned a lot about discipline, desire, drive, and a willingness to succeed in not only lifting, but in life. As many may find it hard to believe, I was not the strongest kid in school – actually, I was far from it. My first few years of development in the weight room were tough due to my multiple leg fractures as a child. These ended up being a blessing in disguise. I learned early on that I was going to have to work harder, and more importantly, work smarter than others if I wanted to succeed. I realized at the age of 14-15 that I was going to have to last a long time since I wasn’t a lifting star right out of the gate. The only way I was going to reach my goals in lifting was if I was willing to work many years perfecting my craft.
Let’s face it – not one of us is going to be making a million dollars powerlifting, nor become famous to the average person, so training like a dumbass (which seems popular these days) is probably not in your best interest. The lifter that walks away with the biggest numbers and the fewest amounts of injuries is the winner.
There are some big tips that I’ve learned along the way. In sharing this article, I’m hoping that I can keep you from hitting plateaus. At 36 years old, and with a 2205 raw total with no wraps, I’m still getting stronger and smarter by following these rules.
Rule 1: Train Smarter, Not Harder
Do what it takes to get better – not an ounce more. Most times, in my past personal programs, I left a training session feeling beat up and sore for days, if not weeks. Being sore and beat up is not a good indicator of a good workout – making progress in trimonthly waves is. We all want to achieve our personal bests or some other record, but timing may be crucial to your success in the long term. This means that you need to be cautious in taking over your best meet maxes in the gym – even if you feel awesome that day. No one cares what you do in the gym.
In order to bench 611 lbs. like I did in this last meet, I actually did less work than previous years to get there. One of the key ingredients was to have my speed work lighter and not heavier. To bench 611 lbs., I only used 185-200 lbs. [when training] in weight (plus bands and or chains). When I benched 606 lbs. the previous year, I had my weight over 225 lbs. As you can see, I got stronger by doing less and maybe that’s what you need too.
Optimal programs should keep the body guessing at all times, and they should be filled with tons of different exercises to stimulate new growth. This may also mean that certain bars and positions will inhibit you from lifting your max weight (which is a good thing). I use positions and bars etc. that actually make me train at a deficit because the only day I want to feel awesome is on competition day. This leads me into my next rule…
“Optimal programs should keep the body guessing at all times, and they should be filled with tons of different exercises to stimulate new growth. This may also mean that certain bars and positions will inhibit you from lifting your max weight (which is a good thing)”
Rule 2: Attack Your Weak Points – STOP DOING SH*T YOU’RE GOOD AT!
Weak points are the key to a person’s long-term success. This means that if you have a weak lower back, eventually, the lower back will limit your progress. This is the issue with using programs that attack only the major lifts and do not include any accessories or have limited accessory work. The strengths will overpower the multi-joint movement and hide the weak points until something is so imbalanced that it breaks. For most lifters, this is a quadriceps to posterior chain imbalance of some sort (lower body).
I look at this obstacle like a chain – a chain is only is strong as its weakest link. It doesn’t matter if a few links can hold 10,000 lbs. – if the last link holds 100 lbs. then the chain holds 100 lbs.
The squat: I can work on my quads until I’m blue in the face, but if
my back cannot hold the weight that I attempt to lift, the lift will not be performed. At my last meet, I squatted 865 lbs. in a belt! In order to achieve this feat, I had to do tons of work for my lower back and hamstrings to balance out my anterior chain (quads).
The Bench: When I first started learning to bench on my own, as most of us do, I trained as if the bench press was a pectoral and shoulder builder more so than arms. this led my form down a sh*tty path and caused me to experience constant shoulder pain. As I learned later on in my career when I was working with the legend George Halbert (twelve times world record holder in the bench), my technique was terrible.
At 20 years old, he explained to me that my triceps were garbage, and that I needed to bring them up to par with the rest of my upper body. Instead of taking that information with a grain of salt, I was tired of being stuck at a 500 lb. bench, so I decided to give his ideas a try (since at that time, he was benching well over 600 lbs. raw at 230 lbs.
bodyweight). So I switched my training protocol for upper body to be predominantly triceps and upper back work. After applying this system, in about twelve to fifteen months, I was in the 545 lb. range. Then, four to five years later, [I made] a steady progression to the 600 lb. range. What’s my point?
My point is that my limitation was my triceps, and it was screwing my form over royally. Once I addressed this weak point, the lift started to move upward (keeping in mind that I was stuck at the 500 lb. range for two years). If I back off of my dominant triceps training, my pecs will take over in a matter of weeks – even at this stage of my career. So even though I was taught to use pecs and to do tons of front raises in order to build the bench, I learned and evolved, as did my numbers.
Rule 3: Be Adjustable With Your Training
Programs are not meant to be set in
“Programs are not meant to be set in stone - they are just guidelines. This means that if you aren’t looking at the big picture then you could actually be making yourself worse, not better, by destroying your body in the gym”
stone – they are just guidelines. This means that if you aren’t looking at the big picture then you could actually be making yourself worse, not better, by destroying your body in the gym.
That’s why I base most of my weeks of training on RPE (Rate of Perceived Exertion) versus a certain number that I have to hit. As my business grows, contracts come up for the military, and more clients need my help – I only have so much energy in the day. It’s all based on what energy you have left without over-stressing the body.
This means that if your job, family life, etc. are stressful, chances are your lifting is suffering immensely. If you’re completely destroyed after work then adjust your training! If your wife caught you looking at porn, then maybe back off the bench a little bit (not that I’m into that or anything!). My point is that the less stressful environments you are associated with then the better your training can be.
I have seen many people quit, retire, or lose interest [in lifting] because they can’t seem to figure out that strength is not linear short- term, only long-term. What does this mean? It means that every week will not be personal bests
each week will be filled with its own challenges and setbacks. The key is consistency.
Rule 4: Have An Off-Season And “Down Weeks” To Recover Mentally And Physically
This is a massive mistake that I see lifters making. they are in constant training mode for a competition, never letting the body get a mental or physical break from the toxic loading of heavy weights. this may get you accustomed to competitions and help you stay accustomed to big weights, but long-term, it’s a recipe for a short career.
It’s not what you can do, rather it’s what you can recover from. When I get done with a meet, the first week [afterwards] is a nice, calming break from the gym. this is mostly for my sanity, but it also has another benefit. the benefit is that it makes me hungry to train again. I could start back to training in a few days after competition, but I have always found that six to ten weeks into the next cycle, I’m fried. So I make sure that I include “down time” into my training after a meet.
After my week or so off, I start the cycle back up with one thing in mind – conditioning. It may sound crazy
to the beginner, but eventually, your conditioning will either help or hurt your progress with big weights. As most lifters train for bigger lifts closer to competition, the intensity and volume increases (especially as accessory work starts to fall). In the short term, this helps peak the body into massive strength gains, but for long periods of time, it actually causes one to become weaker and lose one’s base of training.
As a lifter or any competitor, you cannot keep specialized training for too long in your cycle without going back to generalized athletic training. this means that you can’t think that you can stay peaked all year round – wave your training.
Rule 5: Injuries Are Indicators – Not A Part Of The Process
How many lifters do you see that are constantly injured or retire early? They may have been the coolest things since the first Cadillac, but in a flash, they are out of the game. If someone is getting constantly hurt, it’s usually a sign of over-training, over reaching, or stupidity.
Anytime I’ve ever had a small pull or injury (which is fewer than I can count on hand), it’s usually because I was doing something wrong or not listening to what my body was telling me. Being tough and working through the pain or problem was not worth the two to four weeks I had to go easy because I wanted that last rep or last set. My point is that you need to start to slowly figure out when to put on the brakes.
The body is very good at telling you when it’s had too much – if you’re smart enough to listen.
Pec pulls, strains, tears, and shoulder pain:
This usually means that you’re not setting your lats back and using your triceps to do your pressing movements. When you are tired, or when you’re using a heavy weight, you’re allowing your shoulder to dominate the movement.
Knee pain or injury, lower back pain or injury:
[This is] usually caused by weak or non-engaged hamstrings – this is common since most people (including lifters) have distinct quadriceps dominance over the hamstring complex. An easy way to fix this long term is to ensure that 60-70% of your lower body training is posterior chain dominant.
If I had to do it all over again, I would have trained the balls off of my hamstrings, upper back, and triceps before I even learned any of the major lifts. I do this with my clients, as well as beginning lifters, and their form is perfect in a matter of months without even practicing the lift religiously. It’s
all because the muscles are working properly and are tying into motor patterns before the lifts are developed. This is also a great way to build a proper posture base.
I hope this article has allowed you to analyze your training or [your current] program and make some adjustments for the better. Remember a few key statements:
1) It’s not what you can do – it’s what you can recover from.
2) Injury/pain is an indicator that something is not correct with your posture or the movement.
3) You have to be in good shape in order to train hard, so make sure that some of your year is concentrated on just being a good athlete.
4) Strength is not a short-term linear process; it’s a long-term wave. PM