Problems with Over-specialization

I’ve been slack with my blogging lately, I realize. I’ve been busy elsewhere, doing other Internet things and spending more time out in the Real World. I’ve not abandoned you, my five readers, I promise.

Specialized Training for Casual Lifters

The last six weeks or so I’ve been training for a powerlifting meet, which is in a little over a week.

To train for this, I adjusted my training away from the very generalized program I’ve been doing while trying to starve myself pretty (which I call MattFit to avoid trademark issues).

I’m now wondering if this wasn’t a mistake. My deadlift has gone up compared to my local maxima PR* of 230kg (506 lbs) at the end of September, as I hit 232 and 237 (512 and 523 lbs, respectively) the other day, and plan on at least 240 in the meet. This is good news, because it’s one step achieved in my plan to get back up into the 250+ (550 lb) range. The ultimate goal of course is to break 600 lbs, so the target is 272 hopefully before the end of 2010.

* Which means I’ve done more in the past, but these current lifts are my best post-trainwreck status

However that’s about the only good news. My raw benching hasn’t really gone down, but it’s not up any, either. That may or may not be a big deal, since I’ve been doing a heavier shirted bench session in my Titan F6 as well. Not much past data to draw on here, so I can’t really say either way.

And of course who can forget my obligatory pre-meet injury, which is awarded to my torn vastus medialis oblique (VMO). I’m not even sure how this happened to be honest. My squatting had been going just fine; I’d gotten back up to 140kg for 10 solid reps, no belt or wraps. Then I started working with slightly heavier sets with my loose knee wraps and a belt – I’m talking 150kg/330 lbs here – for sets of 5-6 reps. One day it just went pop, and that’s been the end of that.

It wouldn’t be a powerlifting workout if I didn’t blow something out, though, so I can’t say I’m surprised. I suppose this means another six months of non-squatting rehab.

Anyways, this wasn’t to complain about my exploding joints and muscles; it’s more to mention an insight I had that may be worth discussion. Before I began this PL routine, I was doing a fairly balanced mix of strength work and conditioning work, as I mentioned in the last post, with the goal of leaning out. I did pretty well on that, I think, going from 97kg down to a low of just under 89, and while gaining strength at the same time.

What’s interesting to me is that as it stands now, one lift has done OK (up at least 10kg from the last max-test), one may or may not be doing OK, and one is sidelined because it injured me. What I’m wondering is, did I screw up by moving away from my mixed-training MattFit workouts?

I was getting consistently and routinely stronger on the three-week low-volume wave cycle I was doing, and my conditioning was about as good as it’s ever been considering most of my training years have been devoted to lifting heavy things and eating a lot.

I’d dare say that the conditioning work was actually helping my strength out across the board, from the benefits to work capacity and recovery. Recovery, you ask? Well yeah; I’m not hung up on the “blow your legs to pieces” HIIT workouts in vogue these days, so I tend to do lower-intensity bike rides after or in between my leg training, which gets blood moving in there without trashing them.

The instant I went back to my old habits – i.e., lifting like a lazy fatass – things fell apart for me. The effects of the increased lifting volume was noticeable right off the bat. I adapted to it pretty quickly, but I think the stress effects never went away. Which, of course, nicely explains the effects on my appetite (I went from several months of great diet discipline to totally falling off the wagon) and the niggling injuries that keep popping up. The VMO tear is just icing on the cake once you start looking at it that way.

In fact, it’s gotten to the point that I’m actually ready for the meet to be over just so I can go back to a milder three-day workout schedule with a blend of strength and conditioning work.

The point of this diatribe, you ask? Well, it’s pretty simple. I’m not a competitive powerlifter and with my string of injuries, I never will be. I enjoy lifting in meets because it’s fun, but I’m under no delusions I’ll ever be good at it. So the question becomes, why go out of my way to over-specialize my training for it when, firstly, I don’t seem to have gotten any benefits from it and secondly, when it definitely detracted from my overall “fitness level”?

If you’re a hardcore powerlifter, I’m not speaking to you of course; you need to train for your sport. I’m talking to glorified gym-rats such as myself that want to be reasonably strong, maybe even gangsta-strong, but have other needs to account for. Frankly I’ve come to enjoy having a base of conditioning, and it’s suicidal for me to neglect my joint mobility and tissue-quality work, so those things need to be given their share of time in my routine as well. And of course those things dove-tail nicely with the real goal, which is to be PrettyTM.

So in a global sense, I’m talking to you bodybuilders too. The same applies – why are you copying the routines of a high-level pro bodybuilder when you’re really just a gym-rat trying to be PrettyTM?

The problem isn’t any given “kind” of training, like “bodybuilding” or “powerlifting” or “functional” [sic] training. The problem is over-specializing when you don’t have a sport to compete in. The ideal program for the recreational guy/girl would involve elements from all these things – heavy powerlifting, bodybuilding fluff, and general conditioning work.

As for me, I’m going back to the fun of mixed-quality training*. I’ll keep my hard-out strength workouts in there, since I’ve still got to break that 600 lb deadlift, but I’m also going to remember that I need (and even like!) my conditioning work, too. Plus I’ve got it in my head to get a 140kg power clean and get my chinfag strength back up to doing reps with two plates around my waist.

* Note that you actually can do this intelligently, vs. a string of randomly-programming strength-endurance sessions.

4 thoughts on “Problems with Over-specialization”

  1. Hey Matt,

    I'm with you. I like to be "on task" and "on time" with distinct goals to shoot for and definite timelines – quantifiable things such as lift numbers, vertical jump, 40 times, etc. It challenges what I think I know as a trainer. Can I get this done by this date? How do I set up the training?

    General fitness is hard(er) to quantify and as such loses a lot of appeal for me. Unfortunately, when you chase numbers, one of the first things that goes is well-rounded fitness. Injuries inevitably follow.

    Best of luck in your meet.

  2. I'm not a competitive powerlifter but the conjugate method works great for me,i work hard on the tree mean lift and the assistance and complementery exercise keep me balance.

  3. Thanks Steven. Di's gonna be doing the impressive lifting; I'm mainly just showing up to deadlift and socialize.

    Don't get me wrong, I love having a goal to chase, but my body just doesn't want to cooperate anymore when it comes to the things I enjoy – which is lifting heavy stuff. It's not so fun when something explodes every time you start making reasonable progress. The general stuff just seems to be more up most people's alley, if you really think about it – even the guys that claim they want to be "bodybuilders" when they really mean "want to bench and curl more weight while seeing my abs".

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