Chase Strength, Not Numbers

The ultimate goal of any powerlifter or strength focused athlete is to improve their 1 rep max (1RM) over time. So, it appears contradictory when I say ‘chase strength, not numbers’.  Let me explain…

To clarify, by no means am I suggesting that your goal shouldn’t be to improve your 1RM, this would be Ludacris! However, what I am proposing is that in doing this, your focus should not solely be about loading a certain number on the bar but rather the process that will get you to the PR. You may be thinking, why would I suggest such a thing? The reality is, we are all human and unfortunately, this mere fact means that we do not have control over whether our body adapts or not. Sure, through training we can facilitate adaptation but we cannot force it to occur. Chasing numbers is a short-sighted perspective and not always the most optimal way to increase strength over time. In fact, it can sometimes be counterproductive to the goal of getting stronger. At some stage, most powerlifters, even the most experienced, will lose sight of this ‘process centred’ goal, only to have their minds hypnotized by the next PR. In order for a lifter to move their mindset from ‘number centred’ and shift it towards the ultimate goal of getting stronger, I propose the following four steps.

The first step is to hit your RPE’s. I repeat, hit your RPE’s. Your coach has stipulated your RPE for a reason, so stick to it. Overshooting is only good for one thing and that is stroking your ego. It has no place in the training of someone who genuinely prioritizes getting stronger. Although certain variables need to be considered when auto-regulating, lifters must understand that the goal of any given session is to hit the prescribed intensity or RPE, not to chase numbers. When a lifter constantly overshoots, not only do they run the risk of getting injured they diminish their chance of progressing throughout the training block. In this situation, the lifters only option is to push harder and harder as the week's progress, further running the risk of injury. What eventuates is a vicious cycle that seemingly has no end point, that is until an injury occurs. Intensity is what drives adaptation, so accept what can be done on that day, stick to the prescribed intensities and build momentum. The real gains are had when a lifter understands that training will fluctuate from week to week but the progression overall from mesocycle and macrocycle will remain consistent.

As a coach, I often see my clients assume their strength is not improving when the weight on the bar is not increasing. This forms the basis of the second step, which is to train with the intention of moving the bar better. By doing this, the lifter is practising how to express their strength more efficiently for the next time the bar is loaded for a 1RM. If the lifter doesn’t master their technique, they are setting themselves up for failure when the time truly matters. It is very easy to get swept up in the idea of chasing numbers and thus, lose sight of moving better each and every time you train.. The optimal movement should comprise most of our training; never underestimate this! Loads that allow a lifter to master their technique and also drive adaptation should always be considered and used. With this in mind, the lifters focus during any given training session, with any given weight should always be to treat it with the same respect as going for a new personal best. Fundamentally, this comes back to the saying, “control the controllable”. When you can’t control the RPE, focus on controlling the way you execute the movement.

The third step is for the lifter to move the bar with intent, but only when form is accounted for. More elaborately, this means the lifter should always move the bar with 100 per cent intensity to ensure they are recruiting the necessary motor units to drive strength adaptation. However, the ensure that technical execution is never compromised. There is no point for a lifter to move the bar so fast that their positioning during the lift is lost. By doing this, not only is the lifter exposing themselves to injury through poor movement patterns, but their RPE (step 1) is also compromised.  So if weight isn’t always increasing then how will moving the bar with intent still help to drive adaptation? We can thank the nervous system for this, specifically the motor units and their recruitment. Henneman’s size principle dictates that the smallest motor units will be recruited before larger ones. In order to recruit as many possible motor units, specifically larger ones as they produce more force, the bar must be moved as fast as possible. This means that theoretically without increasing weight from week to week, strength is still increased by the simple principle of recruiting more motor units. Try going into every set and every rep with the simple intent to move the weight as fast as possible.

The final step in the quest of chasing strength and not numbers is to simply show up. . We can’t always control life stressors and the effect they are going to have on our training but we do have the ability to get to the gym and ensure the work is done. Building strength is not made from one good session and isn’t destroyed after one bad session.  Strength is the accumulation of multiple sessions consistently over a given period of time, otherwise known as “stable gains”. It is unfair on yourself to expect that your ultimate goal of improving your maximum strength will materialize if you don’t show up in the tough periods of training. I personally learnt this lesson from Joey Flexx of Flexx Training Systems, who stated that getting strong is about showing up and getting the work done in the periods when training isn’t going so great. It’s vital for lifters to learn to love the process of training and to stop relying on the weight as the driving force of motivation every day.

There is no magic formula to increase your 1RM, but by adhering to my four proposed steps, there is a real chance of becoming a  better lifter every single training session, even when the number on the bar isn’t increasing. I invite you to approach your training with a different perspective and see what you yield over time. Repeat after me, “chase strength, not numbers”.

About the Author
Charlie Athanssiou, Head Powerlifting Coach at Melbourne Strength Culture
IG: @quantum_lifting
YouTube: Melbourne Strength Culture