Is Your Intensity Costing You Gains?


By Todd Bumgardner ProSource


In the literature of fitness and bodybuilding, the philosophy of super-maxed-out, balls-to-the-wall effort on every lift is everywhere. And there’s something to be said for that philosophy. After all, if you don’t try hard, you won’t get anywhere.


But believe it or not, there’s such a thing as being too overzealous. Bodybuilders are familiar with the notion of overtraining, and in this article we’re going to investigate the negative space of the new, exploratory strength training realm. Rather than tell you what to do, I’m offering four ideas for what NOT to do.


There are sound practices and principles that improve barbell training skill and increase training career longevity. The practices below diminish skill and turn what could be brilliant training careers into sad after thoughts. In short, they won’t get you better at barbell lifts.


Training Fail #1

Training to Failure / Max Effort Every Week

I’ve combined and listed these two maladies first because their misconceptions are the most destructive. Their outcomes are also similar; they wreak ruin on the nervous system in earnest, limiting skill and strength development.


Skill and strength are developed with consistent exposure to submaximal weights while attempting to replicate the desired lift execution. Progress is dependent upon developing good habits that enhance skill and upon the ability to recover from the work you’ve asked your body to do.


Both paths to progress are obstructed by max effort and failure-happy training. Each places a load on the nervous system that’s not easily reconciled. Since recovery is limited by max effort and failure-based loading, training frequency declines. This means less practice, less skill development.


Skill sabotage is further perpetuated by bad habits learned through consistent failure and max effort training. Training to exhaustion, and to hoist as much iron as possible, reinforces compensations. Rather than engraining a good movement pattern in your brain, you engage survival mode and give your body free license to accomplish the task via any means necessary.


Each barbell lift is idiosyncratic in nature, requiring a technical attention to detail that’s not possible in the heightened threat state imposed by the maladies at hand. Technical skill is developed in an exhaustion-free environment. If you’re constantly testing your capacity with a given lift without mastering the lift, skill advancement is nearly impossible.


There are, however, always caveats. There are a few gifted (or pharmaceutically enhanced) folks that can frequently max out and train to failure. Chances are you aren’t one of those folks.


Build skill before you worry about capacity. Capacity is dependent upon skill.


Training Fail #2

Making Every Session a Competition

This subsection is intimately related to the previous one. It’s often that the problems we discussed before are the product of the ‘competition every day’ mindset. It’s unfortunate and damaging.


Improvement requires an objective needs assessment and a focus on the task at hand. A task focused on improving the small things makes you better at the big things. Competition thresholds our thought process past skill acquisition to skill display. We’re back to the ‘constantly testing capacity’ argument. It’s impossible to improve if you’re constantly testing the limits of your skills without devoting time to further skill development.


Training has a simple definition. It’s a process by which someone acquires skills and prepares to display them. Assess your skills needs and train to improve them while focusing on a single, minute detail during each training session. You’ll garner the focus necessary to compete, and, in turn, you’ll create a challenging “self-competition” that doesn’t wreck your progress.


Training Fail #3

Thinking All Lifts Are for You

We’re immersed in a training epoch pervaded by the idea that every trainee should apply themselves to every lifting discipline. It’s a misguided thought process.


Every human frame is different and the discrepancies are innumerable. Some folks don’t have the shoulder range of motion to overhead press. Others don’t have the hip mobility to squat. While I believe that all iron-athletes should train to obtain greater levels of mobility, some lifts just aren’t in the cards.


So? What do you do? Find the lifts that fit your frame and train them like hell. There are a few ways to accomplish this end. Self-experimentation is always commendable. Try movements out and if they don’t feel right, or don’t seem to replicate what a good movement looks like, nix them.


Best practice, however, is to get evaluated by a professional that examines movement every day. These folks are able to objectively appraise your strengths, weaknesses and needs, while comprising a training strategy. If a lift won’t work for you, they’ll let you know; but they’ll also find the lifts that will make you a monster.


Training Fail #4

Constantly Rotating Exercises

P90X, and other fad programs, propagate a constant rotation of exercises to ensure that your body maintains vitality while constantly adapting. The folks that publicize this pseudo-science are fantastic marketers, but they’re dead wrong about training.


Acquiring strength and barbell skill is akin to any worthwhile endeavor. It takes time and quality practice to amend bad habits and solidify performance. Time under the bar while accumulating thousands of reps that incrementally increase in quality is the only path to break the bad and build the good. Constantly rotating exercises defiles the accumulation of quality practice. Rather than filing in new exercises at a fever pitch, find unique ways to load the exercises that increase barbell skill. You’ll keep your mind fresh while holding true to the process of mastery.



Removing injurious efforts from our training is as important as installing productive actions. By examining training saboteurs from an objective, negative space we’ll increase our skill and evolve strength into a positive habit. Scrupulously survey training information and consider, will this make me better?



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