We all know the tried and true bodybuilding mantra, right? Go ahead, say it with me now..
Gotta lift big to get big!
Yeah, this was all well and good back in the day but now we know a lot more and there’s all kinds of evidence that shows that while this “lift heavy or go home” philosophy works, it’s not the only thing that works.
And the real problem is clear – the heavier you lift, the higher your risk of injury. The more time you spend injured, the more time you spend NOT growing optimally. And to be clear, that MAY just mean nagging little things that keep you at less than 100%, not necessarily a catastrophic injury requiring surgery.
Ok Einstein, what SHOULD I be doing then?
So what else works, if not lifting heavy? Brutally accurate form, for one. Slower tempos. Smarter high intensity protocols (like my Ascending 3’s protocol). Ignoring your pain response and pushing for extra reps. The list goes on.
All of those are going to necessitate lower-than-maximum weights, and that is ok. There’s a saying, lift smarter, not harder. Well, why can’t we do both? We should be smart about how we approach things, and then within THAT framework, we still go hard and aim to go harder.
So to celebrate this approach, let’s take a look at some of my favorite exercises that people go way too heavy on. You may be guilty of some of these as well – no judgment! The point here is to get you to identify those moves where you let your ego take over and hopefully change that pattern into something more productive.
#1 – Barbell Hip Thrust
This one’s for the ladies. For guys, it’s “how much ya bench?” And now for women, THIS movement has become the standard for bragging rights. But the thing is this: more weight doesn’t necessarily mean more muscle activation. In fact what I usually see is some seriously compromised form and reduced range of motion as the focus becomes a greater and greater load.
And this one is also a common target of the mod squad: modifying the movement by turning it into a floor bridge (no elevated back support) which reduces the useful range of motion and, yes, let’s you go heavier. Chill out a bit and focus instead on pushing your hips up as high as possible on each rep and getting a hard squeeze.
#2 – Rack Deadlift
This is a huge ego lift because if you cheat on the setup just a bit you can really go SUPER heavy. This usually means making zero considerations for starting posture and lat tension, and starting from a higher position so the travel distance gets shortened tremendously.
So of course if you pull from a starting height just below the knee and keep full tension in your lats throughout the set, you’ll move less weight but you’ll actually be doing something far more productive.
#3 – Standing Calf Raise
Not TOO difficult to rep out the whole stack for a set, but have you ever seen anyone do that who has decent calves?
Figure this: we take 10,000+ steps per day, with the calves being responsible for some work on every one of those steps. In order to get them to grow and respond, you need to throw a stimulus at them that is foreign and overpowering. A lot of weight seems like a good idea, but in reality you’re just going to bounce that shit up and down using your entire body, with your calves actually doing the bare minimum of work.
Instead, try some really slow tempos and play around with holding either the stretch or the squeeze (or BOTH, if you’re a true masochist) for an extended period.
#4 – Curls, any variety
You knew we were going here. In the past 4 days in the gym I’ve seen so many people with form on curls that can most kindly be described as dogshit. It’s a basic movement – you flex the elbow, work the bicep, squeeze, and release.
When you’re lifting that 35lb DB with your ENTIRE DAMN BODY, it’s a good sign that maybe, just maybe it’s a bit too heavy. Surely you can tell when you’ve lost that focus and mind/muscle connection, right? Start light, and work up slowly!
#5 – Any Kind of Pulldown
You’re in one of two camps here: right now you’re either saying “pulldown? Really?” or you’re nodding slowly in agreement, as you’ve seen exactly why this move makes the cut on this list.
Basically it’s like this: this is supposed to be a vertical movement. If, in the course of feeding your ego, you lean back so far that someone could turn their head sideways and it looks like you’re doing a horizontal row, you done fucked yourself up, bro.
Another common failure is to lift so aggressively on this that the cable actually develops slack between reps, which can be incredibly jarring and damaging for your shoulders.
And still another problem – lats can be VERY tricky to engage, and if you’re not in the Golidlocks Zone for weight (not too heavy…not too light…JUUUUUUUST right!) you’ll be wasting your time here. Too heavy and you’re brute-forcing reps to feed your ego with no activation, or too light and you’re turning it into an arm exercise because you’re not properly engaging the back.
#6 – Barbell Bench Press
Does this even need commentary? Probably not but I’m trying not to mail it in so here we go: in bodybuilding, no one gives half a shit how much you bench because it absolutely doesn’t matter. My chest is fairly dominant on my physique yet my bench is pretty weak (I think the most I’ve ever moved was like 255 for 3 or 4 reps), and you’ll see guys all the time who move a tremendous amount of weight but don’t have nearly the development you might expect.
The reason multi-layered. As bodybuilders we need to focus on activation first and foremost, feeling the muscle and making it work harder on each rep to generate blood flow and fatigue.
Also, a huge factor in your ability to lift heavy is bone and joint structure. Longer bones means longer levers which doesn’t mean you CAN’T go heavy, but it does mean you’ll have a steeper uphill climb to get there. Also, some people have joints and connective tissues that just simply aren’t cut out for moving the heavy stuff.
When I take the load of a heavy bar, you know where I feel it? My wrists. You know what feels like it’s failing first when I go heavy? My wrists and elbows.
Muscle’s got nothing to do with it!
#7 (bonus) – Anything That Makes Your Form Suck Ass
This is what I always tell my clients when it comes to trying to dial in an appropriate intensity level for your lifting:
If your form starts out perfect and ends a bit sloppy, that might be just right. If it starts out sloppy, stop immediately and learn to control the weight properly
You’ve got to know what a “perfect rep” of an exercise looks like and be able to execute that. But the counterpoint to this whole article is right here: if your first and last reps look equally perfect, it’s likely you aren’t pushing hard enough to really initiate growth and development.
But yeah – you’ve gotta be able to do it right first. Walk before you can run!
Bring it on home
I wouldn’t call this a comprehensive list, but for one reason or another ALL of these moves are ones where you’re often going to be much better off if you chill out, slow your roll, drop the weight and focus on improving your form and range of motion instead.
Remember, the name of the game is muscle activation, not just moving weight. If that’s your thing, sign up for a powerlifting meet and train for that.