You’ve been in the gym, training hard, and seeing results to boot.
That’s commendable, and it shows that your hard work has indeed paid off.
Now that you’ve spent time under the iron and made yourself an intermediate trainee, it’s worth considering what your next steps will be.
The truth is, many articles on the ‘net are geared towards the idea of continuously getting stronger until you’re a beast in the weight room with beyond impressive lifting numbers.
It’s worthwhile to put a few things into perspective, and that’s where I come in.
When we really think about the motivation and ‘push’ that most commercial sources provide a lifter, it’s kind of unrealistic. Most of us are guilty of drinking the kool-aid also. We simultaneously want a ton of muscle, a physique of a sports athlete or fitness competitor, the strength of a powerlifter, and the athleticism of a gymnast.
In truth, it’s impossible to achieve all of those things at the same time – and when it’s attempted, it usually opens the door to the potential for plenty of injuries. This very mentality can contribute to poisoning the mind of a lifter with good intentions, who’s done his diligence in building muscle, adding strength, and becoming a more capable and functional human being.
It’s useful to shift the mindset from constantly “getting bigger and stronger”, to just plain staying big and strong once you’ve gotten there. At the end of the day, there will probably be much less collateral damage by taking this approach.
That’s where training to maintain your gains comes in mighty handy.
You’ve Got Nothing to Prove
I only realized this as a lifter myself when I reached my late 20’s. If I had done so sooner, I’d probably have avoided a few injuries in my training journey. It’s plain and simple: If you don’t compete in a sport that relies on elite numbers, then you should be lifting for your health and fitness – both physically and mentally.
If you are intermediate or advanced as a lifter in such a category, then setting new PR’s in the hundreds of pounds is a pursuit of recreation, not of necessity. Bob from accounting doesn’t need a 650 pound deadlift to have a healthy trunk and spine. And he doesn’t need to squat 500 to see the benefits of a well-muscled, healthy and strong lower body.
In my previous article, I touched on this counter intuitive topic: How strong is “strong enough”? In it, I listed some adjusted strength goals to gun for, before re-evaluating your motives in the gym. To expand on this, it’s worthwhile to consider what to do when you’ve indeed reached those goals.
You can still get big. You can still lift heavy. You can still be strong. You can still train hard. But what should come above anything is the ability to do this for the long haul, and maintain your hard-earned muscle and strength as the years pass.
There are 3 reasons why training to maintain your gains rather than push past them can be the smartest thing you do in the gym.
1. Your Connective Tissue Health
No matter how you slice it, the law of diminishing returns definitely comes into play when you’re lifting a lot of weight day in and day out, and year in and year out. Pushing your PR’s on the regular means that you’re getting real close to the limit for the structures of your body including your joint complexes – not just your muscles.
That may be incredibly necessary when you’re weak, but it infringes on injury risk when you’re strong, simply because the implements being imposed on the joints are much heavier. A simple case in point would be to look at the gait mechanics of any former competitive athlete who relied on heavy lifts to perform at the elite level in their sport (think football, powerlifting, and so on).
If they haven’t been acutely injured, they’ve definitely been victim to plenty of joint trauma resulting in chronic pain and gait compensations, hence the labored movements. Remember, your goal should be to last the test of time.
2. Your Nervous System
Though this has more to do with the short term effect than the long term effect, it’s still worth mentioning. The central nervous system is the most major player when it comes to lifting heavy weights and strength training.
It has to be in its finest form to nail a PR squat or deadlift, crush an Olympic lift, or do basically anything explosive in nature at a high level. It’s important we treat our nervous systems with care to avoid a burnout and the effects of overtraining (which can actually include muscle atrophy and increased recovery time).
Long story short, lifting heavy all year round is an easy way to overtax the CNS and put injury risk higher than it used to be. All the more reason to take things down a notch when you’re in the right place to, and hit up a maintenance phase (or 3) instead.
3. Variety in your Training
When you’re training for either strength or size all year round, it can cause you as a lifter to default to movements that produce the most bang for their buck and are the most worthwhile for your goals. All of a sudden, excellent training tools like the use of sandbags, kettlebells, or even instability when smartly applied take a backseat and collect dust in the corner of the gym.
Constantly making gains in the same few movements will only become more and more specific to the skills required for those particular movements, and do less to contribute to your overall health and wellness.
Having a 600 pound deadlift doesn’t make you that much better at hinging than a guy who deadlifts 315. Alternatively, implementing moves that exploit your mobility, unilateral strength, balance, stability, and general conditioning can prove invaluable to your health, and also can now be made possible since training to maintain your gains doesn’t require as much volume or time spent weekly chasing those goals.
Maintenance Made Simple
So I’ve really pumped the maintenance training tires here, but still haven’t given an example of what this would look like when you put it all together. I’ll keep this as succinct as possible. To maintain your hard-earned gains, you need to only follow a few rules.
- Test your 1 rep max twice per year
- Decrease your strength or size training volume
- Keep the big lifts in your program
On my first point, lowering the amount of PR attempts you do per year creates room for you to train submaximally for longer. That means you can experience different rep ranges, tempos, and programs. It’s an easy way to own weight and make light weight feel heavier. You’ll truly develop your skill of weight training.
On my second point, you no longer have to do 10 sets of 3 on the pin press, deadlift, or squat. Remember what I said earlier about the nervous system? Stimulating it just a bit is certainly all you need for your fast twitch muscle fibers to remain acclimated to dealing with heavy loads.
In other words, cutting down to half the volume won’t make you weaker. And it’ll free up time for you to move on to other lifts too. On a similar note, if your goal was to add size, you won’t magically lose it all by substituting your 10x10 squat day with 4x12 instead.
You’re still stimulating your muscles and getting a solid pump in the process. Especially when coupled with the right dietary tweaks, you’ll be just fine.
My third point is the most important. The way to get weaker in a lift is to stop doing it. Just because your goals have changed, it doesn’t mean you have to avoid the big stuff. Programs, for the most part, should still contain the primal movement patterns, like squats, deadlifts and presses, regardless of the rep range or variation of the lift being used.
A workout program that includes front squats, chin ups, Romanian deadlifts and push presses all done submaximally for lower volume (while exploring several other possibly new exercises) is probably a fantastic recipe for a body to be muscular, strong and able.
If you’re a newbie, adding muscle and getting strong should be the name of the game.
Once you’ve done that, staying strong takes an ego-check and a new approach.
That’ll ensure you’ll still be at this years later, and not on a hospital bed wondering why you didn’t listen to your body.