All too often, I get a new sob story from fellow gym rats complaining about the pain that they’re in. They claim they’re doing everything right: pressing before flies, static stretching between sets, jogging for five minutes on the treadmill before they hit the weights, drinking a liter of water during their workout…all the good stuff, right?
So what the hell is the problem?
The problem is that all that stuff is (virtually) worthless. It’s not the 90s any more, folks. We’ve learned some new methods and it’s time to accept and implement them.
The term “prehab” has been around for a while now, and yet, all I see from weightlifters is rehab. Waiting until a joint or muscle is so torn down that you have to take three months off to heal isn’t smart. I don’t know about you, but I like lifting weights. In fact, I like it so much that by the time I’m 50, I’d still like to be doing it and not be bitching about how bad everything hurts.
With that in mind, let’s talk about the things you may be screwing up that may be screwing you!
Common Mistakes That May Cause Big Problems
Most weight lifters have a few things they could do differently in their training that would allow for better strength increases, more hypertrophy, increased range of motion, and increased stability.
A few of the most common mistakes I see are discussed below. I’ll identify the problem, give a few reasons why it’s a problem, and then offer a solution.
Mistake: Poor Range of Motion
Poor range of motion at either the bottom end of the eccentric phase, the top end of the concentric phase, or both.
Consistently reducing the range of motion of a specific movement pattern over and over again for a course of several weeks, months, or years can have a devastating effect on the length of the muscle(s), and the way that the muscle functions and repairs itself.
Over time, these muscles may become shortened while opposing muscles become overly elongated or atrophied. Obviously, this results in poor stability across the board and makes an individual much more prone to injury.
- Properly warm up your muscles and stimulate your CNS (Central Nervous System) prior to starting any loaded movement. Warm up with movements similar to the lift you intend to perform, but not with the actual movement. For example, if you intend to do heavy squats, warm up with spiderman lunges, single-leg bodyweight RDLs, goblet squats, bodyweight good mornings, and box jumps.
- Always lift with a complete range of motion relative to your body’s ability. If you’re squatting and your hips don’t allow you to move “ass to grass” without rounding your lower back, then you’re well beyond your proper range of motion. Start the squat higher and gradually increase the distance you travel. When pressing and pulling, always maximize the range of motion. You’ll recruit more overall muscles, even though you may have to significantly reduce your weight.
- The less range of motion and stabilization strength, the lower your ceiling for overall strength and growth.
Mistake: Poor Technique
This is easily as common as the previous issue. Very few lifters take the time to learn proper lifting technique and are in way too much of a hurry to start stacking plates on the bar. Once again, without learning proper technique, you’re overstimulating some muscles, understimulating others, and probably not even hitting certain little muscles.
Over time, you’ll develop too much strength in one area, too little in another, and may even develop a problem with muscular balance and symmetry.
Also, certain movements were designed to be executed in a specific manner. You’re not smarter than the folks who created these, so don’t try to manipulate them because “it feels better”.
Finally, many compound movements are difficult to “feel” when you’re lifting properly (or improperly, for that matter). This can cause poor movement patterns even with good intentions of lifting correctly.
- Take the time to learn the movements you want to perform, but don’t just do the lifts you like all the time. Study, watch experts, and practice the movements with zero weight. Tape yourself so you can see what you’re doing wrong, and have someone critique you
- Stop focusing on how much you’re lifting, and focus more on how well you’re lifting.
Mistake: Stupid Training Programs
Improper warmup is still among the top issues with most current training programs I see.
Poor frequency of muscular stimulation for a given week of training is another one. Your typical chest and triceps routine requires recovery for only 2-4 days maximum, leaving you in a state of zero growth for the remainder of the week until Monday strikes again.
Poor exercise selection, inadequate recovery times, improper workloads, and lack of intensity round out the biggest culprits of crappy programming. Too many routines revolve around isolation exercises, don’t specify recovery periods, include improper volume, and don’t have adequate loading parameters.
- Don’t get your training programs from “I’m Jacked Magazine”. Get them from Wannabebig! (Check out HCT-12)
- Start learning proper warm-up methods, and allow yourself 15-20 minutes to perform a good warm-up each time you’re in the gym. Your warm-up should be a powerful gateway to your routine. You’ll have stronger lifts, improved mobility, and better recovery between sets. Nick Tumminello happens to have written a couple of good articles on warm up routines for Wannabebig (Upper Body Warm-Up and Lower Body Warm-Up).
- Get help! Seek out a strength coach, or get advice from some of the pros (professional strength coaches) you know of online or offline. Sometimes it’s just a matter of sifting through all the BS till you find a great program, but once you start and stick with it, you’ll be happy that you searched.
Common Gym Rat Weaknesses and Solutions
We’ve all made mistakes in the gym. More than likely, we didn’t do much about it until there was a problem. Let’s get into how to correct some current weaknesses you may have developed from past mistakes, or how you’re going to prevent them from happening if you’re not dealing with them now!
Shoulder and Thoracic Mobility
Probably the most common issue I see among lifters is severe tightness in the anterior shoulder, and weakness in the sub-scapular muscles, lower trap, and the thoracic extensor muscles. The culprit of such problems is typically too much pressing, poor pulling, and poor stretching.
Forget the assessment; your shoulders and posture could probably use some love.
Getting the tension out of the pecs, rhomboids, and traps will help to alleviate the stiff rounding of the upper back, which will help keep the shoulders open, the pecs/traps/sub-scap muscles working efficiently, and the shoulder blades moving properly:
Poor hip mobility is next in line in the “I have no idea how to warm up” department. Obviously, over time, this lack of attention can create some serious problems with mobility of the hips, as well as the strength and stability of the knees and lower back. This lack of mobility can destroy your squat and deadlift and leave you sore for much longer than you should be.
Get these puppies opened up and moving correctly, and you’ll see big gains in your lower body pushing and pulling, along with a large reduction in back stress and knee pain:
Posterior Chain Strength and Hip Activation
You don’t see a lot of deadlifters anymore, and you certainly don’t see a lot of good deadlifters. Neither do you frequently see the clean, snatch, proper RDL, or SHELC. What you do see is a little lunging, a lot of poor squatting, and a good deal of Smith machine activity. Oh, and lets not forget the leg press, leg extension, and seated hamstring curl!
A weak posterior chain will do a great deal of damage to your movement patterns and your joint health. Along with mobility of the hips, you also need strength! Isolation exercises have their place, but when it comes to really creating a strong posterior chain and pulling strength, you need to activate small muscles in the hips and perform larger compound movements to stimulate the synergy of the posterior chain.
Here are a few movements to help you wake up your backside and put it back in the game:
Anterior Chain Strength
If you’re not familiar with the term “anterior chain”, let me explain. The anterior chain includes the muscles (and their relationships to each other) of the pecs, abdomen, obliques, hip flexors, quads, and tibialis anterior.
I still see a lot of guys doing floor sit-ups, decline sit-ups, leg raises, and cable crunches. Let me ask you this: do you frequently target the lower back, or do you increase its strength with movements that target the rest of the chain (in this case, the hamstrings, glutes, and mid and upper back)? I’m going to assume that it’s the latter. Why wouldn’t you do the same for the anterior chain?
Mid/Upper Back Strength
Along with mobility issues of the thoracic spine and shoulders, you’ll see some weaknesses in the mid/upper back. The problem isn’t that most weight lifters aren’t pulling, it’s that they’re pulling incorrectly, using mostly biceps and minor lat recruitment while not focusing on thoracic extension (upward tilt of the chest cavity) and scapular retraction/depression at the start and end of each repetition.
Here are a few possible problems with your current movements and how to fix them:
Putting It All Together
In the end, we’re all lifting for a specific goal, right? Whether it’s to look better, feel better, or be stronger than your ex-girlfriend’s new boyfriend so you can kick his ass, we all have a goal we’re trying to achieve. When it comes to your training, the smarter you train, the faster you’ll reach your desired results.
So the next time you go the gym or outline your workout for the week, ask yourself these necessary questions:
- What are my strength and mobility weaknesses?
- Why am I weak in those areas?
- Does my program have movements to help me with my weaknesses?
- Does it include an efficient warm-up?
- Does it include any post-workout stretching to accommodate for the stress I’ll have put my muscles through during the workout?
If you can’t answer the first two questions, consider getting some help or taking some time to figure out your strengths and weaknesses. If you can’t answer ‘yes’ to the rest of the questions, get a new program or dramatically modify the one you’re doing!
Written by Mike Scialabba
Discuss, comment or ask a question
If you have a comment, question or would like to discuss anything raised in this article, please do so in the following discussion thread on the Wannabebig Forums - WEAK: Five Lifting Problems Solved! discussion thread.
About Mike Scialabba
Mike is the Director and Owner of the Missoula Underground Strength Training Center located in Missoula, Montana.
He’s an Expert Strength Coach and has been in the business for nearly a decade working with hundreds of individuals utilizing conventional and unconventional training methods.
Michael has sent over a dozen kids to collegiate football and basketball and has spent endless hours in the trenches getting dirty with real training and real results.
Be sure to check out his blog!
Programs that won’t address topics such as these are a surefire way to get yourself into an early rut and guarantee an appointment at your local physical therapist’s office.