This year I will have been coaching for 8 years. In that time, I've butted heads with many clients, some more than once, about how they do not need to always be lifting at their heaviest or at their hardest. You will continue to grow with sub-maximal work, you'll continue to grow with rest and recovery and you will definitely continue to grow by changing things up a little bit.
I find that right now, May 2021, people are falling into two camps when it comes to their training.
They are either -
- Really surprised by how well their strength has maintained on their return to lockdown, or
- Trying really hard to make up for lost time with the gym.
The majority of people are experiencing the first one. Their body has thanked them for the forced rest and it has held on to the majority of their strength and muscle mass. If anything, they might feel a little fatigued when doing higher rep sets, but their strength is still comparable to when they left.
It's hard to gain strength, but luckily, it is also hard to lose it.
For me, I was competing quite actively between the end of 2014 and the beginning of 2016. In March of 2016, I got a pretty annoying injury, I kept trying to throw myself straight back into powerlifting but it never really worked again. I competed again in June and got somewhat close to my best, but not quite. I then got injured again, recovered, tried to come back, got injured again.
This cycle continued for a bit.
In 2018, I decided to take a step back and do more bodybuilding style of work. After a year, and a 22kg drop in weight, I then decided to pursue powerlifting again.
Between August of 2019 and January of 2020 I shifted my focus back towards powerlifting, but with a lot of bodybuilding elements. In this time my strength returned far quicker than I could have hoped for.
Despite competing 7kg lighter than my previous competition weight, I came very close to matching my old strength. A lot closer than when I focused purely on powerlifting with intense workouts and very little time to recover.
In no way am I saying that powerlifting = bad. What I am saying is that sometimes banging your head against a wall to eke out small improvements only leads to frustrations, sometimes it can be good to step back to rest, or step back to focus on the foundations.
What You Can Take From This.
If you're at a point where you're constantly trying to go a bit heavier or a bit harder with training but feel like you're not quite getting anywhere, maybe you need to step back and try something different for a bit.
You only have to look on social media to see a number of top powerlifters who step away from powerlifting to go into things like bodybuilding, or simply just don't compete for a while. This removal of physical and mental pressure can be crucial to bring you back to a sport you love, refreshed.
When it comes to diet and nutrition, you will often be told that it all comes down to calories, and the macros that makes them up. This isn't wrong - however, there is more to it than that.
On an objective level, humans do work on an energy goes in, and energy goes out basis. But humans aren't subjective and it's never that clearcut.
Food is Fuel.
Food is fuel, there's no denying that. But it is also more. They have social and emotional content too.
If you think of major holidays throughout the year, they are marked with meals - this could be Christmas, Valentine's Day, Easter, Thanksgiving or birthdays. This is because food is something that we can all share in, even if our diets and tastes differ, we can always sit down together and share the experience itself.
For the above reason it is also emotional, as it helps to bring people together. But for other people it can be a coping mechanism or an anxiety trigger. The full extent of this is outside my scope of knowledge but this is why diet and nutrition needs to be seen as more than just macros.
Calorie counting is just one possible tool you can use when building a diet. It is certainly not the be all and end all.
A diet might not be getting you to your goals because it doesn't suit you, or because your lifestyle or emotions are forming your eating habits.
(I just want to underline, that if you do have emotional issues with eating then you should talk to someone qualified about it - there are ways to help).
To help you have a better relationship with food a number of habits can be implemented. My blog has mainly been habits based this year hasn't it? And there's a good reason for that - the quicker you can do these things on autopilot the quicker they become part of your life.
These habits could be -
This list could go on, but it is a good one to start with. Incorporating most of these would lead you to eating a few solid, square meals with an adequate amount of protein and at times where you need to eat and it won't effect your sleep and every day life.
It's about habits again. This is how I coach, the more you can do without thinking about it, the easier the lifestyle becomes and the less likely you are to relapse into previous habits.
Be kind to yourself and be honest to yourself and make the changes where you need them.
Tomorrow is 2 weeks back in the gym after the most recent UK lockdown. A lot of people have returned to the gym, or started for the first time. I hope you're all really enjoying it!
You might be concerned with how well you'll stick to these things when your motivation, and the initial excitement starts to wane. There are steps you can take to implement to help complement these new habits, and a major one is shaping your environment.
Our environment is massive in forming our habits. We fit our habits, and our personality to the culture of the environment we occupy. When I did my Precision Nutrition course, one of the first things they suggest to help people lose weight is to change their physical environment - by removing foods that they would easily over eat, and replace them with lower calorie options.
What I'm suggesting here includes this kind of thing but also goes beyond that.
If you want to ensure that you stick to your new, or recently returned to, habits then you could surround yourself with like minded people, follow positive fitness accounts on social media or maybe sign up to fitness based newsletters. Yes, that is a hint.
This is the reason I created my powerlifting groups and also why I helped with making the group pages and helped organise the socials for Taylor's Strength in my time as manager.
My powerlifting group is filled with like minded, knowledgeable and equally inspired people who will help keep old hands and newbies focused on their powerlifting goals.
The community I've built within my group and within Taylor's as a whole is what I'm most proud of in my fitness career.
Sure, the national and international accomplishments of my lifters are brilliant, but these are made possible, and celebrated by, the group of powerlifters around them supporting them through it.
Keep your habits of the past two weeks going, and provide an environment for yourself in which you and those habits can flourish. Sign up to that newsletter, join that gym, sign up with that coach - any of these things. Find what keeps you motivated and supported and go for it.
In Case You Missed It - I have a new article up on Medium/Better Humans. You can find it here - The Powerlifter's Guide to a Bigger Bench/Chest.
When it comes to training, dieting or forming any new habit it can be easy to go either all or nothing in your approach. This can often lead to building up so much pressure to do everything 100% right that if one thing goes slightly off, the whole thing will then go out of the window.
This mentality is often seen when people first attempt a diet, or a training plan or any new skill. I'm sure everyone has given up on something after their first failed go - there's no judgment, I just want to explain how this is a regular occurence but also an avoidable one.
When acquiring a new skill, whether that be a new way of training, a new way of dieting, a new language or even a magic trick - what is needed is constant practice. It doesn't have to be perfect all of the time.
In Atomic Habits, James Clear uses the analogy of the ice cube melting. All the way from 0 degrees to 31 degrees nothing happens and that would appear to be 31 steps of nothing, of failure. However, as soon as it hits 32 degrees, it melts. That final degree was no more important than the other degrees, rather every step preceeding it was crucial, with each one building up to something more.
So if you're attempting a fat loss diet for 3 weeks and haven't seen any movement in the 21 days so far, it might not be that it's not working, it might just be awaiting it's own tipping point. (As a note, every time I've dieted I've gone through phases of 3-4 weeks with no movement which has then been followed by a sudden drop).
So, what's the alternative to all or nothing? Give yourself a grade - think back to university, sixth form/college or school, it was very rare that people got 100% marks in their work. They often got A, B, C's etc but once you had that grade, that was all people cared about in terms of your output.
So if you have a day where you've hit 90% of your goals, give yourself an A* for that. If you've had a day with 70%, give yourself a C but know that you're a lot closer to your goal then you would be with a 0%.
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I wrote an email to all of my clients in the first lockdown, the Lockdown to End all Lockdowns. But now here we are, in another lockdown. Who'da thunk it?
It sucks that we're back here again but we have done 4 months of this earlier in the year, the (hopefully) 4 weeks of this one should be easy in comparison.
The email in the first lockdown focused upon what you can do to make lockdown easier. The main one was - don't feel bad if you're not motivated right now. Getting through this lockdown without getting sick, without going bad is enough. You don't need to write a novel, finish all of those boxsets or start a new career as an artist just because you now have time.
The time is mixed in with a massive amount of stress. So, how you use it is your choice - be kind to yourself and get through it. That's enough.
The other main point was about training - as most people on that list were paying me to train them.
If you're worried about losing strength over 4 weeks - don't be, you won't. I know you've lost the mental break of training but don't add to it by convincing yourself you'll fall behind. It'll only make you feel worse.
It takes a hell of a lot more time to lose strength than it does to gain it. Your body will cling to that strength for now.
If you can do any type of activity - that will help you on your return. Every client of mine returned from lockdown a lot stronger and a lot fitter than I expected, and that was after 4 months. That was because most of them stayed active.
So, even if you just go for walks, jogs, do some yoga, walk your dog, or do loads of calisthenics and rehab/prehab work. That'll help.
We'll all come out of this okay, and that's enough.