Death by Monotony [Staleness]

Do you ever get bored in training? Do you ever get stuck and wonder why it’s so hard to get any stronger?

Sometimes it comes down to repetition. You do the same things over and over, to the point that the monotony alone brings on staleness.

You get stuck because you aren’t doing enough to stimulate your body into new development. Here’s a few ideas to shake you out of your rut.

Have an Off-Season

You’d never know it to read around these days, but GPP — which stands for general physical preparedness — is not about conditioning circuits or extra recovery workouts.

A long time ago, Russian sports scientists broke up their athletic training year into rough off-season and in-season programs. GPP was their off-season, and used for similar purposes — namely, giving the athletes a break from the maximum contest-specific performances.

Not only do you get a break from going all-out, you spend your training time working on things you wouldn’t normally do. This can mean sets of 10, instead of heavy singles. This can mean doing cardio. It can mean going outside and getting activity that way. GPP is anything that doesn’t directly help your sport, but provides a mental break and works on all the fitness elements you wouldn’t normally worry about.

Of course, having an off-season only applies if you have a competitive season in the first place. If your sport has a less clear schedule, or competitions spaced year-round, you won’t get too far using the split-year model. What you can do is build in smaller GPP phases throughout the year. Throw in two weeks after a meet, or whenever you’ve got a long break.

Your GPP phases don’t have to be months long. Throw them in whenever you feel beat up or just need a change of pace.

Don’t treat the lifts like lifts

A couple of years ago, I decided to do a powerlifting meet, my first one in quite awhile. During the entire winter I’d been training with a low-key strength program and roughly equal parts conditioning. I’d gotten my numbers up reasonably high, and I was in shape to boot.

Then it came time to peak for the meet and it wasn’t two weeks later that I tore my right quad. This pattern — deciding to go for a meet, then having a muscle pop — has been consistent for me as long as I’ve been lifting. Why is this?

I always came into meet preparation with the belief that I had to change everything around compared to my normal training. Push those numbers up. Get time under the bar, learning to strain. This is mostly true, mind you, but I think I came at the problem wrong.

The training I was doing before this last meet was working just fine. I was getting stronger, and I was lifting heavy weights one workout out of every three. If I were to do it over again, I wouldn’t have changed anything.

The training was enough to drive progress. If I’d left it alone, maybe done a simple taper at the end, I’d have been just fine. But I had to be hard-headed and change everything.

Why do that when you can let your regular training carry you? Your baseline performance, your hit-that-any-day strength, the strength that you’ll always return to if you take a few weeks off training, that will always be determined by your overall preparation.

I find that no matter what I do, I can always pull five plates (I’m listing my deadlift because it’s my least embarrassing number; there’s no shame in that). I can train hard and push that up. I can not deadlift for six months and, as long as I’m squatting, you can throw 500 lbs on the ground and I can pick it up.

You don’t get to own a weight like that with lots of specialized focus and the quick-fix strength of neural gains. Owning a weight comes from changes in tissue, rebuilding your anatomical structure over years as you condition yourself to stresses and strains.

Likewise, you’re not going to make yourself that much stronger with preparation cycles. Why spend 12 weeks to get 5kg on a lift, when you could do as good or better without the “peaking plan”?

Don’t underestimate the strength-building potential of normal training. Still peak, of course, but I’m getting away from the idea that you need to spend eight weeks or longer for a meet. Train hard, and then come up with a six-week peaking plan. More time spent on productive training, less time getting hurt.

And newbies, you need to pay attention to this most of all. I think that if you want to train with razor focus, whether that’s for powerlifting or any strength sport, you should balance that specialization with GPP or some equivalent to an off-season.

I think the worst mistake a newbie can make is to jump into a specialized training process with both feet. A newbie means less than 2-3 years of general training. You need to train your back and your shoulders; ladies, this especially applies to you and your bench desires. Men, especially you long-armed lightly-built men like myself, you need to do this so you don’t make hash of your shoulder joints.

The newer you are, the more weak-points you’ll have, and training specialized, including suits and wraps, month after month isn’t the best way to get that development. It’ll work just fine over the short term, but you’re short-changing yourself over the long run.

Train at a Disadvantage

Fred Hatfield called for using the OL-style high-bar squat for most of the year, only switching to the “sumo” low-bar squat in the last 6-8 weeks of prep for a meet. I like that strategy. The low-bar squat is great for hoisting weight, provided you’ve got the right levers, but it’s not such a great development exercise.

When you train how you compete, month after month, you get stuck in that pattern. Contrary to popular belief, the low-bar PL squat isn’t all that great of a developing exercise. The idiosyncrasies of technique make it great for hoisting weights, but this comes at a price.

Developing the quads, and torque around the knee joint, is just as important as the strength of hip extension in the posterior chain.

The same principle applies to supportive equipment. Even the seemingly innocuous, things like old knee wraps and belts, can take away from the essential loading that builds muscle and tendon strength. Throw these on to support you through intense phases of training or leading into a contest, and you’ll see a huge boost. Train with them year-round, and the effect is diminished.

I often advise people to train without gear as much as possible, especially as beginners. When you get pretty strong without support, you can expect a big gain when you finally do throw it on. Train in it year-round and you neglect weak-points, losing any kind of “reserve” you might get out of equipment.

Even pre-workout stimulants can become a crutch. Training on “nerve-power” as Bob Hoffman said almost guarantees that you’ll feel worse the next day. Use stimulants sparingly, when you want to improve training.

This is a personal belief, but I’m of the opinion that you should be ‘in shape’ strong — strong beyond the technicalities of competition — even if you have a favored sport. Powerlifting has become focused on training to the rules, with people using equipment and techniques that, while legal, don’t reflect a genuine and balanced development of strength.

Before I get nasty comments and emails, let me remind you that this isn’t a criticism of competing powerlifters. When you compete you do what you have to do to win. I’m only suggesting that non-competitors, and lifters with no meets in the next 6-8 weeks, should think twice about emulating the powerlifter’s contest training methods.

Train to improve your baseline, the weights you can handle calm and without support. Leave your secret weapons in reserve and train with a disadvantage most of the time. You’ll reap the rewards when it’s time to bring the pain.

Cover All the Bases

Powerlifting, in the sense of heavy low-rep training, focusing on the three lifts and only minimal diversity of exercises, is not a good plan for beginners. There’s too much focus on narrow rep ranges, too much focus on specific exercises, and not enough general build-you-up exercise.

There are so many aspects to physical conditioning that straight powerlifting doesn’t address. I don’t mean conditioning as your work capacity or aerobic fitness level. Conditioning means things like muscle balance, like supporting tendon and ligament strength, like hypertrophy in the muscles that the three lifts won’t target.

If you’re Mike Bridges, you can maybe get away with training the three lifts heavy and doing little else. If you were Mike Bridges, you’d also be lifting near world records on your first day in the gym.

Train the lifts hard, but focus on bodybuilding for assistance work. Lots of volume, more diversity in rep ranges and exercises. Leave the gear at home until you’ve got a meet looming. Build up the body. Create that “muscle armor” as Dan John calls it.

It feels good to see the numbers jump, but it feels even better when you can handle the weights cold with no question of your ability.

6 thoughts on “Death by Monotony [Staleness]”

  1. I love that you are of the opinion that people shouldn't train in a lot of gear most of the time. I always found it strange when people put on so much "stuff" before they lifted… it just seemed unnatural and would not allow certain muscles to get trained like they needed to.

    For all the newbies out there, make sure that you don't get too caught up in getting to the next weight that you start to rely on gear, lose your form, or use weights that are too heavy for you. Also know when to take a break, and the idea in the first part of this article is a great way to do it.

  2. Everything you're writing lately has fit perfectly with my training situation right now. Almost without fail, whenever I have aggressively altered my methodology or piled weight on in pursuit of a particular date/target, I end up injured. Trying to master progressively higher weights, cold, over a period of months and years has allowed me to heal old injuries while setting PRs.

  3. "You don’t get to own a weight like that with lots of specialized focus and the quick-fix strength of neural gains. Owning a weight comes from changes in tissue, rebuilding your anatomical structure over years as you condition yourself to stresses and strains.

    Likewise, you’re not going to make yourself that much stronger with preparation cycles. Why spend 12 weeks to get 5kg on a lift, when you could do as good or better without the “peaking plan”?"

    Hey Matt, I enjoyed this blog post. I think I understand most of it. I, however, am struggling to wrap my head around the above quoted section. Do you think you could elaborate a little here? Is this sort of like the difference between testing your strength and building your strength?

    I'm not even sure how to phrase my question. I guess one way to clarify things would be to lay out (in brief, of course) the training you were doing before you decided to enter that meet, and how you changed things in such a way that led to tearing your quad.

    Okay, enough with the written flailing about. I appreciate your writing and take you very seriously as a source of information. I know I'm not alone.

    take care.
    C

    • CJ,

      I think I'm being a bit murky there. What I'm getting at is that some folks will spend a good part of their time training effectively, getting stronger with a simple program, but when it's meet-time they feel like they have to change everything around to "peak". I think there's something to be said for spending your time in the effective zone, instead of changing your whole training around 12 weeks out and doing a focused peaking cycle.

      Keep with the effective stuff as long as you can, and then spend as little time as possible doing what you need for the contest.

  4. Matt,

    First off, thanks for your response.

    Second, I'm still not entirely sure I follow what you're saying, which is interesting in part because I understand and agree with almost all of what I have read of yours. Hence, the questions.

    Anyway, i don't imagine you're referring to equipped powerlifting. If you are, then that explains my confusion.

    Other than that, maybe an example would clarify things. I realize you're busy, but please take it into consideration. I would be interested to hear more.

    Thanks again, and stay healthy.
    -C

    • I wouldn't worry about it. I'm sure I had a point in mind when I wrote it, but it's escaping me right now.

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