Things That Matter More Than The Weight You Can Lift

Intent. Mental wellness. Range of motion. Tempo. Taking care of your joints. End-range strength. Of course, if you can lift heavy, that’s awesome. I’m not knocking that. But I tend to get lost in this when I’m at the gym and I can see girls who are really skinny and small squat more than me. I put on muscle pretty easily, I guess, it just doesn’t really transfer to my strength (or at least I think so, I haven’t really tried to test my 1RM because I don’t really need to, I’m not competing or anything. I just track my 4RM for squats, for example). Anyway, it’s easy to lose sight of how far you’ve come when you constantly compare yourself to others. These things bring me back to the reality of where I am, and that it’s ok to be there.

  1. Training with intent — something Michelle Byer (instagram @ iffym_meesh) always talks about. If you’re just training because you have to through it, because that’s what you’re supposed to do (there are days like this for everyone…but if this is you all the time, then maybe something needs to change) — that’s fine, but you’ll get so much more out of the workout when you push your body to do everything as best as possible. So this means fully engaging your muscles — another thing Michelle talks about is the mind-muscle connection. The neuromuscular system is INCREDIBLE. Most “gains” in the initial phases of training are neuromuscular. Your body is trying to get used to the movements (aka neural grooving/improving motor control), and it will slowly become more steady, but only in the specific moments (specificity principle). Your brain is what starts the muscle contractions, right? That connection should be fireproof, it should be strong and you can train that by making sure to be fully involved in each lift, every single movement.
  2. Mental wellness is extremely important to me. I’m still fearful of hurting my back whenever I go through a lift just because my chronic pain was such a big part of my life for so long (and I’ll carry it with me forever). So I suppose I tend to increase weight slowly, but I’m very much ok with it. I’m ok with admitting to myself that I can’t increase a weight just yet, especially since I only squat for strength 1x a week (other day is hyper/front squats). I’d rather do the absolute best I can with every single individual movement and I’d rather be safe and happy with knocking out 4 really clean squats in a set. Today, for example, I could notice myself tipping forward or tipping to one side (my right ankle has consistently had more dorsiflexion than my left so it really messes me up sometimes) and it was extremely frustrating. But when I really REALLY focused, I got some really good reps, and I was proud of myself. And that always feels good.
  3. The range of motion you’re working in is really important. I was always a big fan of working through the full range of motion (and I was a stickler for this!), which means going back to the original position in which there is basically no muscle activation (ex. allowing your scapulae to elevate back up during the lat pulldown, before you begin the pulldown phase again). But then I began to understand that if you’re training for hypertrophy in which muscle fatigue/breakdown is going to lead to improvements, the time under tension is what matters! AKA, let your muscles be under tension the whole time instead of fully releasing. There are times for both, of course. But for example, during lateral raises (I’m trying really hard to grow my delts, they’re so stubborn!), instead of lowering the weights all the way down and touching them to each other, stay in the range of muscle activation. And here’s the thing — in your assistance exercises, you’re probably not lifting for strength because that’s just difficult to do. Most of the time, it’s higher reps and lower sets, and that’s where time under tension matters. In strength exercises, maybe you don’t want to be fully engaged the whole time. There’s obviously an exception to the “rule” I described above, which is that with a lot of the major lifts, getting the full range of motion is important. Quad activation is max at parallel in the back squat (and apparently, it’s safer to go below 90! For the majority of people, at least, I imagine knee surgeries might affect that), so it would probably help to get down there. Besides, working through the full ranges of motion increases your flexibility in the long run due to the eccentric phases — again, not applicable to every movement, but really important for me in lat exercises/stiff-leg deadlifts, because I’m trying to grow those while keeping my flexibility.
  4. Lifting while considering tempo is a huge way to work out the muscles without lifting really heavy. The force/speed continuum basically shows that the slower you go, the more force you can produce, but of course that disappears past a certain point of reduced speed. So I’ll do tempo squats some days with a 20 pound kettlebell (slowly lowering for 5 seconds, coming up fast. Or sometimes I come up for 5 seconds, it just depends how I’m feeling that day), and it’s absolutely killer! You don’t always need to be lifting heavy. Plus, you shouldn’t be lifting to failure all the time. You can still get amazing gains with submax lifts when you consider tempo or time under tension — which are safer, won’t result in overtraining and won’t absolutely destroy you for the next few days.
  5. Your joints are so important! I know that as I get older, I’ll have to pay more attention to my joints. I have extremely mobile patellas (to the point where a coworker of mine was actually a bit disgusted and I don’t blame him), for example, and I have no clue how I haven’t torn my ACL (but not playing land sports probably helped), and this isn’t necessarily a problem, but it’s a bit scary in my head. And I have pretty bad internal hip rotation, and a very stubborn right big toe in terms of extension because I broke a sesamoid bone. These things are all fine. I’ve accepted that there will be some days where they hurt, but I can slowly work on them and get them better. I have some active requirements for work, and I need to be in good health, so I am not going to unnecessarily stress my joints at the gym. I’d rather feel really good in my everyday life than constantly be sore (beyond the normal soreness that I kind of oddly enjoy) or in pain. Take care of your joints, give them nutrients — which is done with using full ranges of movement and slightly pushing the limits.
  6. End-range strength: I pretty much talk about this all the time (also helps with joint health). Your optimal position for max muscle contraction is the mid/resting length of muscles. At the most lengthened and the most shortened positions, it’s just more difficult because of the cross-bridging changes — too much or not enough overlap. I love considering this, which is why I believe training in the full range of motion is good, but it’s also good to consider training the end-ranges. That results in really weird-looking exercises where sometimes, you’re just working on muscle activation without any movement. So pretty much, isometrics. It just makes you more “functional”, as much as I hate that word when it’s overused, because it means that you can produce more force in random positions. It can apply to sports, or even getting activities of daily living back — like getting out of a chair.

Now I suppose there are always exceptions to these ideas. But this is just what I’ve learned recently and I’m really happy to think about these things. As graduate school decisions come closer and closer, I’m trying to distract myself from the anxious thoughts, and I do that best by creating or writing, and learning and even teaching others, so I hope this helped if you read it. This kind of stuff is my passion, and the thought of missing out on using this stuff/working with strength coaches in grad school terrifies me…but also motivates me. No matter what happens, I’m going to be ok.

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Jen Xu

Jen Xu

Athletic trainer, coffee lover, looking for a hobby I don’t have time for. I write about fitness, mental health, being Asian-American, and personal growth.