By Mark Robb 02 February 2019

In the quest for strength, it seems that I (we) sometimes lose sight of the big picture, and the importance of various factors unconsciously shifts, without notice. This may not be an issue for some, but I think that I can safely theorize that anyone that is goal driven, that has numbers in mind, is susceptible to what I’m about to explain. If you’re a competitive athlete, this probably includes you.

My training paradigm was re-aligned and corrected after a Godsmack at ’18 USAPL Raw Nationals, where I went 5/9, making only my opener squat and bench. I made 3 deadlifts, which was the real wake-up. I couldn’t simply blame it on a bad day. I had trained squat and bench very hard and my lifts were better than ever, right up to about 3 weeks out when the wheels came off. Deadlift, on the other hand, I had trained very sparingly due to tendonitis in both elbows, which had caused me serious grip issues at ’17 Nationals. So the lift that I had trained the least showed up the most for me on that day, and was actually only 5kg off my World Record. I went into Nationals beat up and with a “just want to survive” attitude. So what happened?

Several weeks after Nationals, I realized something that I had forgotten; you can’t force gains. This is a basic fact that I had learned many years ago. This forced me to go back to basics as far as how I approach training. After many years of weight training and overtraining for the vast majority of it, I realized that you cannot force your body to grow and get stronger. You have to be able to recover, over the long term, from whatever stimulus you are giving your body. You have to set yourself up for success, just as anyone that grows any kind of plant knows; the right amount of sunlight, the right soil composition, right amount of water, you get the picture. Providing richer soil, more water, more sunlight, or any other attempt to force growth will likely result in the opposite effect, over the long term.

The RTS saying is “take what’s there, and build momentum”. Notice, there are two parts to this statement, which by the way I feel is 100% true. We are saying that you should take what’s there on any particular day, while keeping in mind that the overarching theme is to build momentum. If you are taking what’s there, every possible ounce of it, and setting yourself up for a situation in which it will be nearly impossible to continue building momentum, then you are defeating the purpose. You are trying to force growth. To frame this differently, you must focus on the process, not the numbers. Training is for building strength, not a contest to see how much you can lift on that day. That comes later; that’s what meets are for. In short, I am saying that focus should be on chasing strength, not numbers.

This may seem a subtle distinction, but it makes a huge difference over time. Chasing strength shifts focus from external (weight on the bar), to more internal (physical/mental state). If you are not recovering, you are on a slippery slope. How is your appetite? Good, or has it dropped off? How about sleep? Can you get a good night’s sleep, or are you tossing and turning all night and waking up feeling tired? Do you feel like kicking everyone’s ass that comes into your line of sight? Probably a good idea to not do that, but don’t discount that you are irritable and short-tempered. Pay attention to all that, it’s important. This was made pretty clear with the results of one of the past Project Momentum’s that we did. Those that felt the most recovered during the cycle fared the best gains-wise.

When I haven’t lost sight of what I should optimally be doing, I like to train hard, recover, maintain a good mood, attitude, diet, and generally keep things on an even keel. And here’s the important part; let the strength and the momentum build.

Notice I said “let” it build, not make it build. Let it build kind of like an ocean tide. The question that I use as an acid test is “what will give me the best progress today? That often comes down to a decision as to how much weight to put on the bar, based on as much of an objective point of view as I can muster.

If one of my lifters was describing how they feel, what would I advise them to do? Add 2.5 kg? 5? 10? Go light and just go through the motions? This is the whole point that I’m trying to make; you can’t give up your intuition and good sense in favor of weight on the bar, or whatever a tech tool tells you. Your brain is the most complex piece of training tech that you could possibly possess.

You have to take care of yourself first, #1, then #2 is pushing the numbers up. I’m not saying that pushing the numbers up isn’t important, because obviously it is very important, but if you don’t take care of #1, then #2 won’t be sustainable. This absolutely includes pain and injury; take care of yourself first, then worry about getting the work done.

In summary, focus on the process of getting stronger. That’s the solid foundation. Focusing on weight on the bar is short-sighted and not sustainable.