Achieving a higher level of strength fitness is a constant, everchanging challenge. The program that enabled you to reach one level may no longer be as effective when you try to move up another notch. To some this is quite frustrating, for change is bothersome and requires you to adapt by learning new exercises, altering the order of exercises or even switching the set and rep sequence. To me, however, this is what makes strength training so intriguing. It's also one of the main reasons that there aren't many genuinely strong people in this country.
Outside of the Olympic lifters, powerlifters and other strength-trained athletes, you can count the number of strong trainees you see in the average gym on two hands. This is partly because strength training requires lots of serious effort, both physical and mental - and people who say they're trying to get stronger often just don't follow the basic principles of strength training. Consequently, their progress comes slowly, if at all.
One of the basic tenets of strength training is that you must work for proportionate development. That means that if you let one area of the body get too far behind the others, you'll have problems. Proportionate training is closely related to the concept of working weak points. They're really two sides of the same coin.
Bringing up a weak area or areas should be a logical step for people who are interested in improving their strength. It only follows that the body is is strong as its weakest part. There's certainly nothing new about that idea, but in practice it's either ignored or neglected more often than any other principle. It seems that aspiring strength trainees dread doing any exercise on which they don't excel. The same stalwart egos that prompt them to want to get stronger also prevent them from working their weak areas. It's just too ego deflating to struggle with poundages on some exercises that others in the gym can handle with ease - even if those people are considerably weaker on all the other lifts.
In most instances self-esteem takes precedence over good judgment, and lifter stop doing the much-needed exercise altogether. It hurts, they explain, so instead they're going to do another, equally beneficial exercise to improve the weak area. They never do, though, for such people invariably have problems with the new exercise as well.
When I was still a fledgling in the sport of Olympic lifting, I got to train occasionally with a world-class 198-pounder. At one contest he cleaned a world record three times only to fail with the jerk on every attempt. A week later a fellow 181-pounder and I were working inside the power rack, doing jerk lockouts. The veteran joined us, for this was a movement that would help strengthen the very position at which he was losing his jerks. He found, to his dismay and embarrassment, that he couldn't use as much weight as two local unknowns. It was just too much for him to handle. He stopped doing jerk lockouts with us, and I never saw him work them again. At the next meet he once again cleaned a world record and failed to jerk it. In fact, he never jerked it in his career.
Failure to bring weaker areas in balance with stronger ones has implications beyond its effect on the ego. If you don't strengthen a weak area and the adjacent muscle groups continue to improve, two things will occur: You'll hit a sticking point on any exercise that involves the weaker area, and, even more important, unless you address the problem with some specialized work, the disproportionate strength will result in some sort of injury. If you're lucky, the initial injury will be a slight one, but if you're using heavy weights, it could be severe. That's one of the risks of moving big weights. When something gives, the damage is much greater than when you use light weights.
A successful strength program is designed to focus attention on the major muscle groups in a balanced manner. True strength originates at the center of the body, the hips and the glutes, then radiates outward. The father from the seat of power a muscle group is, the less potential strength it has. For example, the biceps and triceps aren't as strong as the lats and traps. (If they are, you have a serious problem!) . so it logically follows that a strength program should concentrate on the larger groups, specifically the three major areas of the body: the shoulder girdle, back and legs.
Unfortunately, the current trend is to build the entire routine around a host of upper-body exercises, nearly excluding movements for he back and legs. This is a mistake. As I've already pointed out, the center of strength is in the hips and glutes. The shoulder girdle stands in line behind the back and legs when it comes to potential strength, so no matter how diligently you work your chest, shoulders and arms, if you don't train your legs and back, you'll never be strong.
True, you may have high bench press numbers, but that's a far cry from being functionally strong. You may also not realize that the chest-shoulder-and-arm area is quite fragile and is not designed to handle the same kind of stress as the back and legs. Even so, lifters often subject their shoulder joints and elbows to 10 times the workload they give to their back and legs. That's exactly why there are so many chest and shoulder injuries.
It's important to use a balanced program from the very beginning. If you let one bodypart get too far behind the others in the early stages of training, the odds are great that it will never catch up. That's why a beginning routine should include some variation of the big three - squats for the legs; power cleans, high pulls or deadlifts for the back and inclines or bench presses for the shoulder girdle - so the three major muscle groups get equal attention.
How can you know if you're working the various bodyparts proportionally? By calculating workload. By figuring the amount of work performed, you can quickly see where you're actually putting your priority. You may believe that you're using a balanced program but, after putting pencil to paper, discover you really aren't. The numbers don't lie.
Since the back and legs are stronger than the shoulder girdle, either your back of legs should be handling the greatest load. For beginners and intermediates it's best to put more emphasis on the legs, followed by the back and then the shoulder girdle. Actual percentages vary as people get into more advanced training, but at any level, it the shoulder girdle is receiving more work than the other two groups, the program is out of sync.
Note that everyone is stronger in the area of his or her body than another. In fact, I don't recall ever meeting anyone who started out with equal strength in all major muscle groups. That point makes it important to identify your relative weakness and give it extra attention until it comes up to the other bodyparts - or close to it. Sometimes, the process goes on forever. My legs have always been m most difficult bodypart to get and keep strong, so I have to maintain a higher workload on them or they quickly fall behind.
It's also true that a strong group may at some point suddenly become a weak one. For example, say you're naturally strong in your back, and you don't bother working it seriously but instead spend your energy trying to improve the strength in your shoulder girdle and legs. Eventually, your legs and upper body will become considerably stronger than your back. When that happens, you must attend to the new weak area right away, or it will be difficult to catch up.
As you become more advanced in your training and your strength increases, you must give your weaker areas increasingly more attention. At this point the strength-production process becomes more refined, while, as a beginner, you only had to be concerned with keeping the three major muscle groups in proportion, as an advanced lifter you have to consider the varios parts of these larger groups.
Take your shoulder girdle routine for an example. As a more advanced lifter you must make sure that you're working all the muscles involved from a variety of angles and that you're giving all the smaller groups equal attention. It's no longer a matter of whether you're hitting your deltoids but whether you're working your rear deltoids hard enough or exercising all three heads of the triceps equally.
The same principle applies to the back and legs. When I put together a back program, I find it useful to think of he back as being divided into three segments; the upper, middle and lower. This is obviously an oversimplification, since there are underlying muscle groups, and most overlap each other, bit it's an easy way to organize an effective back routine. Include a specific exercise for the traps, like shrugs or high pulls; one for the lats and rhomboids, like bent-over rows or snatch-grip high pulls; and one for he lumbars, such as good mornings, hyperextensions or stiff-legged deadlifts.
A weakness in the back usually shows itself quickly in form of some degree of pain. If this happens, you should attend to it immediately by giving that area priority in a workout and also by upping the workload. Typically, the lower back fails because it's tough for it to keep up with the powerful hips as they become stronger. You must make the effort to keep your lower-back development in proportion because the lower back is the universal joint of the strength system. It it becomes weak, the strength-building process comes to a grinding halt.
The legs are another area to watch. It's usually the hamstring group or the adductors that lag behind the more powerful quadriceps, and the primary cause of this disparity of strength is the current tendency to do partial squats rather then full ones. Partial squats work the quads but neglect both the hamstrings and the adductors to a great extent. To add to the problem, even with partial reps most people can handle relatively huge amounts of weights, which makes the quads move ahead of the other muscles even more.
Accuctor weakness is rather easy to identify. If your knees turn inward when you perform a heavy squat or deadlift, you have weak adductors. The good news is, the muscle group responds very quickly to direct exercise. The adductor machine is great, but if you don't have one available, doing wide-stance squats, going very low, also works.
Hamstring weakness isn't as easily spotted, but a quick test on the leg extension and leg curl machines will tell you if your hamstrings are relatively weak. They should be at least 50 percent as strong as the quads. If they aren't, you should add some direct leg biceps work to your program immediately. The same exercises that benefit the lumbars work the hamstrings equally well - good mornings and stiff-legged deadlifts. Leg curls also help, but there's not enough weight on he machine for advanced strength trainers to the maximum exercise effect.
If you think you have a weakness in your adductors or leg biceps, it's a wise idea to start doing full squats rather than partial ones right away.
While the principle of proportionate strength usually refers to the balance between the three major muscle groups, it has other applications a well. There's also the relationship between the strength of the front of the body and the rear. In programs that concentrate on the chest and arms, the front of the body gets five of six times the work the muscles that support the rear of the shoulder girdle get - the traps, rhomboids and those critical smaller muscles such as the infraspinatus, teres major, teres minor and supraspinatus - get.
This is especially true for bench press fanatics. In a given week they do countless sets of benches, handling heavy weights at two or three workouts while giving their upper backs only token attention. They usually do a few sets of dumbbell shrugs - and use moderate weights even on those. As a result the muscles that form the front of the upper body become so much stronger than those that form the rear that they force the shoulders forward unnaturally. The first sign of this problem is a pain right at the crown of the shoulder or father back, at the crest of the rear delts. If you neglect this early-warning sign, you can expect severe complications, including even more pain, and eventually you'll be forced to stop doing all upper-body work for a time.
The muscles of the upper back have the potential to be extremely strong, and you can exercise them dynamically with heavy heavy weights. A lifter who benches 300 pounds should be handling no less than 500 in the shrug, and more is even better. I've never known anyone who's had traps that were too strong. The stronger the traps, the more the shoulder girdle is stabilized.
The front and rear balance factor also applies to other areas of the body. With the midsection, for example, many strength trainers, knowing the importance of having strong lumbars, work their lower back diligently but neglect their abdominals. The abs and lower back form a girdle - they're not two separate planes. Therefore, as lumbar strength increases, so must abdominal strength.
The smaller muscles need front and back balance as well. Spend too much time training your biceps while neglecting your triceps, and problems occur. The most typical problems occur in the elbows and shoulders of lifters who go nuts over curls but don't give their delts sufficient work.
Then there's the often-overlooked matter of lateral strength balance, which is only recognized when an injury occurs. Make sure you work both sides of your body equally. That may seem a bit silly, but nearly everyone is weaker on one side. Many people know this because they can do more dumbbell presses with one hand than the other or they can do curls more easily with one hand.
Lateral imbalance is harder to spot in the legs, however, for the body has a way of compensating during squats. There's one leg exercise that will show a relative imbalance quickly - the lunge. That's one of the main reasons I include it in my program. If I see a lifter leaning to one side while doing a heavy squat, I have him do some lunges. The weaker leg displays itself on the very first set. Lunges are also excellent for bringing the legs back into balance because you have to give the weaker equal attention.
If one side of the shoulder girdle is stronger than the other, it will be likely to show up when you do bench presses or inclines. Typically, a person with shoulder girdle imbalance will twist in order to complete the lift. Once again, continually favoring one side will eventually result in some type of shoulder problem, so it's important to correct the weakness as soon as possible. Dumbbells are useful for this purpose. Perform flat-bench presses or inclines using a slightly heavier dumbbell on the weaker side, or do a few extra reps with the same weight.
A weakness on one side of any part of the back is more difficult to remedy. One trick we used to use was to put a small plate on the weaker side for all pulling exercises, and over time it did help. Using dumbbells for more reps on shrugs and one-arm rows on the weaker side can also improve the traps and lats, respectively. The lower back, on the other hand, must be worked evenly, for any attempt to place more stress on one side only creates more problems. In that case you just run the reps up on hyperextensions or reverse hypers.
As indicated above, any injury necessitates paying even closer attention to the principle of balanced development. Take care to bring the damaged area back to full strength before charging ahead on any exercise that involves it.
The stronger you become, the more attention you must pay to finding your weak areas, for even the slightest weakness will adversely affect your progress. In some cases the weak area may be very small; for example, the upper-middle back. The power rack is the ideal piece of equipment for both identifying and strengthening such minute weak areas. By testing all the pressing, pulling and squatting positions you can quickly learn whether you need more work at the start, middle or top. Then you can isolate that weaker position inside the rack and proceed to make it stronger.
Initially, these discoveries of weak areas aren't so rewarding. In fact, sometimes they can be downright discouraging, but if you continue to ignore them, you're bound to experience a halt in overall progress, if not an injury. So it only makes sense to take some action as soon as you make the discovery. It also makes sense to reevaluate your program constantly - to determine what areas need specialized work and, ultimately, to reach your goals.
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