Updated: Sep 10, 2019
One of the questions I get asked the most is, “How heavy should I be lifting on this exercise”. Well, as any good fitness coach should tell you, the answer is it depends. Or honestly, probably less. 🤓
A threshold is defined as the magnitude or intensity that must be exceeded for a certain reaction, phenomenon, result, or condition to occur or be manifested (I stole that definition from Google). Now, if you want to elicit a change in your body, you need to exceed your threshold to convince your body it needs to adapt to be able to handle the new stimulus/challenge that your training has provided it. This is well known, and quite easy to understand, but what is less clear is what/where that threshold is. I believe it should be dependant upon your goal or why you lift in the first place.
In this post I want to explore the idea of threshold and how it applies to your training based on your reason for training.
In lifting there are really three kinds of threshold that one may experience. Which threshold you should lift at is going to depend on your reason for training and what value you place on lifting heavy vs. longevity and balance.
#1- Complete failure. Lifting to complete failure is getting stuck in the bottom of a back-squat, having the bar stuck on your chest in a bench press, or not coming anywhere close to hitting the lift like in the video below. You simply are trying to lift more weight than you can handle on that given day.
#2- Technically unsound threshold. Lifting to your technically unsound threshold is when you may still get the weight up and complete the lift, but you had to sacrifice some technique to do so. An example of this could be knees knocking in on a back squat, loss of midline integrity on a deadlift, or one arm locking out in a barbell press before the other. One could also reference “bar muscle-ups” where the athlete lands on top of the bar with their chest, rather than catching and supporting themselves with slightly bent or locked out arms. Below is an example of a successful lift, but also technical failure as the knees knock in significantly.
#3- Technically sound threshold. Lifting to your technically sound threshold takes a lot of ego-control, and I can admit it took me close to a decade and a lot of injuries to figure this one out. This threshold involves pushing yourself only up until the point right before your technique starts to slide. In a back-squat this means that there is no dip forward, no knees knocking inwards, and midline integrity is maintained throughout. Warning: this can be humbling.
Although you may not be lifting as much, you will still be challenging yourself, as forcing yourself to lift with strict technique is often a greater challenge than heavy weight/lazy technique lifting. You are also still providing enough of a stimulus to elicit change. Take the squats below for example, these are definitely difficult enough to elicit a change, but I am able to adhere to strict technique. I can definitely lift more, but would need to sacrifice technique to do so. How often are you scarfing technique for some extra weights or reps?
A- Are you a competitive weightlifting, powerlifting, or sport of fitness athlete? Furthermore, by competitive I mean you train daily (or close to it) and success in your sport is one of the highest values in your life. You are willing to risk injury, sacrifice relationships, money, and a whole lot else to WIN! 🥇
B- Are you someone who has specific strength and fitness goals, trains 3-5 times a week, and enjoys the process of training in and of itself? You may compete, but you do not change much of your lifestyle to do so and accept that you may be able to place higher, but you are not willing to make the sacrifices to do so. You place a high value on fitness in your life as a conduit for higher functioning, but are not so concerned with winning. You are on the long road of mastery, concerned more with the process than achievement.☯️
C- Are you someone who exercises 2-3 times/week on your own or in a group class to stay healthy and look better naked. You like fitness and working out, but like the social aspect just as much as the training and honestly you don’t really care how much you lift. Fitness is part of your life, but much further down on the totem pole of your priorities than then A & B’s mentioned above. 😅
D- Are you a competitive athlete but use weightlifting to improve your performance in another sport? This could be an NHL player lifting weights in the off-season. 🥅
Now time for some soul-searching. Are you an A, B, C, or D?
Got er figured? If you are unsure, I can tell you. 🤓
For the A’s (top few percentile in ability)...
I would say that to some extent the old adage of “they don’t ask how, they ask how many” applies here. Lifting to complete failure will surely be part of your training, and most of your lifting will be technically unsound or flirting with it because you need to put up numbers.
Surely you don’t want your training to be so reckless that you are injured all of the time, and as a result you end your career before your time, but you will have to let technique slide a bit if you want to lift as much as possible. In fact, if you are too focused on being perfectly balanced and have perfect movement you may hinder your results if your goal is to win and lift/complete as much as possible. It is worth noting that you are risking yourself here in terms of joint health, adrenal health, and perhaps your ability to train and enjoy your physical self later in age, unless you are lucky and highly physically resilient.
For the B’s….. (around that 80-95th percentile in ability)
If you are a B, then you may need to check your ego more than anyone, and exercise some acceptance and patience. You place a high value on fitness and likely want to perform well at everything you do in life, but you need to consider the risk vs. reward ratio of lifting past your technically sound threshold. A lot of B’s train like they are A’s despite having careers, families, or other interests that pull on their energy. When B’s try to lift like A’s eventually something goes awry be it a joint or nagging injury that gets worse and worse over time.
Sure, if you lifted to absolute failure and technical failure more frequently you may progress quicker in terms of how much you can lift (# focus). But, you are risking your joints and longevity for a simple number. I urge the B’s to focus much more on how their lifting looks and feels. I promise you that you will still be able to progress and get stronger with technically sound lifting. It just might take a little bit longer, but you will also likely be able to enjoy your fitness much later into life. The vast majority of your lifting should be at your technically sound threshold, and only on occasion (testing) should you push past the point where your technique slides.
If you walk into a gym and see two people squatting, which is actually more impressive? The young meat-head lifting 185# who had to warm up for 45 minutes, has a strap or wrap for every joint, and as she performs the lift it just looks wrong and painful with a rounded back? OR, the more mature lifter who warms up for five minutes and lifts 135# with perfect technique, full range of motion, and does not appear to be in physical pain despite pushing herself.
Food for thought...
For the C’s…. (the average exerciser)
If you are a C, then you should always be lifting to your technically sound threshold. You may be part of group class fitness or a crossfitter, so the peer pressure might urge you towards lifting more than you can handle, but that really isn’t a good idea. If you are a C you likely have a shorter training history, less experience with the movements, less mobility, less core strength, and your lifestyle likely does not support lifting like an A or a B.
As a result, if you try to lift like and A or B, you are at the most risk for an injury if you lift beyond your technical threshold out of any avatar I have described here. Despite what popular media tells you, or the energy of the class, you do not need intensity to make changes, and certainly not every time you train.
James Fitzgerald, founder of Opex Fitness and winner of the first Crossfit Games says, “Know pain, know short-term gain”. Take these words seriously if you plan on being active for many years to come.
What also often happens in ‘high intensity’ training situations is rather contradictory. With the goal of getting as many reps done as possible, momentum is often used far more than the actual muscles we are trying to train to achieve this goal of more. An example of this is bouncing out of the squat on a wall ball, or bouncing a barbell off of your chest in a bench press. If you want to grow muscle, do not rely on momentum or technically unsound movement just to get a # on the board.
Also, know that any coach who is pushing you to lift more considers lifting heavy to be the highest value in fitness, whereas your own values might be looking good, feeling good, and being able to lift for many years to come and have high physical function into old age. Decide for yourself what is important when you lift. You may value beautiful movement more than kilograms, and that is 100% ok.
*I must provide a caveat here. I am not picking on the C’s. I think group class fitness is great exercise, and without it, a lot of people wouldn’t exercise at all. I have CrossFit to thank for my career in fitness, but after ten years teaching people how to squat, bend, push, and pull, as well as furthering my education in strength and conditioning, certain aspects of the Crossfit model of fitness need to be re-considered, such as the intensity and number chasing. 🤓
For the D’s…. (professional athletes, college level athletes, or young men and women with serious goals to become the former).
I have been fortunate enough to spend a significant amount of time training elite hockey players and many of these athletes get paid significant sums of money to be in good shape and good at their sport. While working with these athletes it became clear straight away that I was in the midst of a herd of unicorns. Not only do they work Hard AF, they are also genetically gifted in a big way. Having said that, they are not invincible, and have to be careful in the gym.
If you are a professional athlete training for your sport, or a young fire breather trying to make it to that level, it is important to remember that your training in the gym is there to compliment your performance in your sport of choice.
You are not going to get signed as a hockey player based on your squat numbers. It is 100% not worth risking an injury to lift a bit more in the gym.
I did not know this as a junior hockey player, or college lacrosse player, and my off-ice/off-field training actually made me worse at my sport because of the energy requirements my training had, loss of range of motion, and resulting injuries from over-training. Be smarter than I was.
A professional hockey player and salt of the earth prairie boy has a funny line that he uses in the gym which I believe is actually rather wise.
“I’ve never seen a bench press score a goal”. -Gards
One more thing...
Most sports require a high level of speed, and the only way to increase one’s speed is by increasing stride length, or stride frequency. We increase stride frequency by increasing strength and power, generally with plyo-metrics and weightlifting. Most training programs/centres focus the bulk of their training on increasing speed and power to such an extent that range/mobility is often lost, or at the very least, not improved. So, even though you may have increased your stride frequency over a summer of lifting heavy, if you sacrificed a full range of motion just to lift more, you may have decreased your stride length, and in turn may actually be slower. It is likely a far easier road towards become faster by focusing on increasing stride length through movement, yin yoga, and stretching.
Well, that was wordy. I hope you made it this far.
Personally, this is one of the hardest lessons I have had to learn in life, and it literally took me over a decade to control my ego to the point where the bulk of my lifting in a month is technically sound. Of course once in a while I load up a bar and lift beyond my threshold to test myself, but my training looks far different than my testing.
The last time I Pr’d my backsquat was around three years ago."Oh no" you say, "you must suck, you haven’t progressed in years".
Well, after that lift I decided to find out where my technically sound threshold was in the backsquat. I found that my technical threshold was nearly a 100# lighter than the PR I had just set. Wisdom was forced upon me in that moment. Could that be the reason why I was throwing out my back every few months, needed a half hour to warm up to squat below parallel, my hips were sore, and my system felt stressed overall?
It took awhile for it to sink in, but soon after my idea of progress changed. For the previous five or so years progress had one definition: more. More kilograms on the bar, more reps completed. Now my idea of progress is feeling better, moving better, needing less time to warm up to perform at a high level, and placing as much importance on longevity and balance as performance.
The changes have been extremely noticeable. I squat less, but I squat with zero pain, have a more full range, and I am ready to perform physically at any time throughout the day. My overall physical stress feels much lower and I feel more like a willow rather than an icicle.
Now, if I heard these words at age 24, I would have thought the writer was soft, so it may take some time or an injury for this idea to make sense. Furthermore you may need to expand your idea of progress to include more than just numbers. I have often heard people say what is the point of training if I am not getting better. I whole-heartedly disagree with this statement. If you are only lifting to increase #'s, you are missing the point.
No one wins a dance, and yet it is still worthwhile.