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How I increased my strength by decreasing the weight

Damn it feels good to be back squatting what I used to.



This post will be more of a personal story than the usual science based post, but there is still lots to learn from it if you're interested and I think it will be relatable to most of you.


I used to enjoy squatting, coming from a lower-body dominant sport: soccer. But as my weight started to go up I started feeling pain in my lower back which would limit how heavy I could go rather than the strength in my legs. The worst part about it was that there wasn't an overbearing injury which I needed to rehabilitate, this pain was a malevolent phantom that only appeared when I was squatting and disappeared if I tried to find it. It wasn't a super intense pain that would have me yelling out but something just felt... wrong at the end of my sets.


I recorded a video of myself squatting to see if there was any glaring issues in the technique and even got fellow personal trainers' advice but on the video and in real life the squat looked fine, it didn't look like anything was going wrong.


Now, since I work in the fitness industry there is a certain expectation that I should be bigger, stronger and lifting more weight than my clients if I'm going to be teaching them anything (which to a certain extent is based on fiction, I'm not going to be stronger than every single client - we all have different goals - but they will still benefit from receiving coaching. Tiger Woods still has a golf coach but he sure can't play as well as Tiger, it's the same principle with fitness professionals.) {With that being said, there is still merit to developing practical and personal experience with lifting bigger weights. Okay back on topic}


So I did what anyone else would do. I kept on pushing through the pain and crossed my fingers hoping the back pain would magically disappear and go bother some evil corporate CEO as part of their bad karma.


Somehow, that didn't work...


So a couple of months ago I pulled my finger out and stopped banging my head against a brick wall. I reduced the amount of weight I was lifting on the bar. I brought myself right back to square one and I essentially retrained myself to squat under heavy loads. I watched countless videos of fit pros teaching a squat and found that focusing on creating high levels of whole body tension could make even an empty bar feel gassing. Sure I could have done squats with more weight on the bar but then the pain would come back as it always did and the brick wall would not have any dents in it.


These are the cues I use to create full body tension. Each of these probably deserve their own explanation but that's for another article.

Grip the ground with your toes, twist your feet into the ground, drive your knees out, keep your pelvis in a cannister position, point the logo on your shirt towards the wall in front of you, grip the bar like you're trying to snap it in two.


After adding all these cues to my squats to create full body tension I couldn't feel any pain in my back, it's a miracle! (No wait, it's just proper technique).

Although, because I couldn't lift anywhere near my previous weight because I had to focus so hard on remembering all those cues, I probably wasn't making huge gains in strength but I could build my way back up to those weights slowly. If you ask any physio or exercise professional how to do any exercise pain-free the answer will always be to start light and slowly build your way up. If you ask any athlete or bodybuilder how to get better the answer will always be to stay pain-free so you can train as often as possible. If you're having pain, drop your weights so you can stay pain-free and your performance will end up much better off for it.




That's not to say it's easy, I was putting on the bar the same weight as some of the lightest people at my gym as a young, fit male. Some of my clients had their mums squatting more weight than me! (and boy did they let me know that.) What's harder to deal with than other people looking down on your training? Looking down on your own training. I like to think my ego is quite manageable but it can be a very frustrating experience to go back to square one on something you thought you were proficient at. If you have played a team sport and ever had an injury you'll know what I'm talking about, it sucks and you feel useless.

But you've got to learn to brush off the internal and external banter because working with a wide variety of age groups has taught me that everyone is coming from somewhere different. Everyone is coming from different genetic starting points, different activity levels, different upbringings and different ideal end points, there is no point in comparing yourself to the other people in the gym when you know nothing about them. I've seen young, athletic-looking clients who have a list of injuries longer than their age and older, businessman-looking clients who can outperform me in almost every way, you can just never know what someone is capable of when they walk in the door. To judge someone purely on what you think they should be lifting is ignoring who they are and where they've come from. Recognising this is how I can brush off any criticism, including from myself. So putting your weights down is not something to be ashamed of, you're simply acknowledging where your body is currently at. Called it mindfulness if you like, being aware of what your body is telling you and reacting accordingly in your own best interests. Not only that but it can also be the best thing you can be doing right now for your strength and your mental state so it's not a waste of time at all.


And last week when, after months of building my squats from the absolute ground up, I squatted my bodyweight on the bar with no pain I was filled with pride and elation. It was all worth it.

1.5 times bodyweight here I come!


Remember why you go to gym, it's to get fitter, happier, stronger and more resilient, not to move higher numbers (unless you're a competitive power lifter!). Don't get so focused on the process of lifting weights that you forget why you're doing it in the first place. Putting more weight on the bar may make it seem like you're stronger, but the end goal shouldn't be making it seem like you're stronger by pushing through pain, it should be actually increasing your physical capabilities.


Next time you're at the gym take a look at everything you're doing in your workout and ask yourself could you benefit from dropping the weight and focusing on technique? If so it may be time to tame your ego and do what's going to give you the best results.


Happy Lifting!




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©2019 by Daniel Rockman. Always consult your medical professional before commencing exercise. Any statements made are general advice.