Mo’ Better Lifting


Don’t look to set PRs in the gym, set them on the platform.

That’s very much a competitor’s outlook on training but it holds merit for all trainees.

A big mistake I see happening in the gym is seeking out big numbers – now.

I get it. We all want progress. We all want to get stronger. Moving more weight evinces that progress, so why not lift the heaviest weights we can handle?

The case is made here in an exploration of what we mean by “handle.” Most often “handle” is interpreted to mean complete the lift, i.e. move the weight through the prescribed range of motion by whatever means necessary. Often this results in a very ugly lift; the path of the bar is not smooth, it jerks and stops, and sometimes one side moves more quickly than the other. By contrast a beautiful lift is one where the weight travels smoothly, the lifter “owns” the rep by being in complete control throughout the totality of the lift.

Why is this important? Beyond the obvious reason of safety, it’s important because growth and development, i.e. getting stronger and growing bigger muscles, are functions of the nervous system. The circumstances under which we lift affect how we respond to that lift.

Our Autonomic Nervous System is subdivided into two categories called Sympathetic and Parasympathetic.

tigerThe Sympathetic Nervous System handles the functions of “fight or flight.” This is flat out survival. When this kicks in all other functions are sidelined as energy and resources are channeled into not getting eaten by that tiger. Growth doesn’t happen here. Hopefully, not dying does.

The Parasympathetic System handles digestion, procreation, rest and growth. It’s nice here and it’s usually where we want to spend most of our time.

It’s true that working out is a form of stress for the body. Ideally it’s in the form of eustress, or positive stress, the kind that elicits a growth or positive response. All too often though I find trainees push themselves into distress, negative stress that negates all the gains they’re striving for.

Dan John in Intervention offers this golden maxim, “Always strive for a quiet head, efficient movements, and a sense of calm while training.”

A quiet head. Focus. One of the things I love about lifting is its ability to remove all other distractions. In the moment of the lift there is nothing else but the lift. All of my attention is zeroed in on the effort.

Efficient movements. Grace. Graceful movements are naturally beautiful movements and bodies that move gracefully are naturally more attractive. Over the years I’ve been misinterpreted as saying we should not strive for aesthetic beauty. I don’t believe that at all. I seek out beauty just as much as anyone else. What I do believe is that beauty is not an end in itself. Beauty is a symptom, an indicator of other qualities. Beauty in movement belies grace. Grace is efficient. It indicates a “rightness” of form and function.

Derek Wooten tireA sense of calm. I like to lift heavy. Panic and heavy do not make good dancing partners. A sense of calm is crucial not only to the success in the current lift but future lifts as well. Lifting is as much a mental function as it is physical. Confidence is key. PRs, when they are set, happen as the result of a long chain of successful lifts. You approach the weight confident you’ll make the lift.

Clearly this is an argument for quality over quantity. As dear Uncle Chip says, “Do better before more.” Three reps of a weight you own trumps one rep of a weight you barely manage. Over time those three reps of control will result in greater gains than the sloppy one ever will.

And herein lies the rub. Growth and development happen over time. To get there you have to set aside the immediate needs of your ego. What’s funny is that only by doing this, by checking the ego now, can you truly satisfy its needs.

To our perfect imperfection,


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