Growing up and playing a wide variety of sports was something I have taken for granted over the years. From being exposed to so many different coordination patterns and athletic events, I can typically take some skill I had previously learned and transfer part of that experience over to the new endeavor. From typical youth leagues of T-ball, basketball, flag football and after school care at the YMCA along with my dad being pretty awesome at doing guy stuff, I played pool, threw darts, shot BB guns, drove go-carts, mopeds, and cars before I had my license (with and without my parents knowing) and learned how to drive bass boats and drive while towing trailers. I also participated in a good amount of manual labor throughout my youth. As I went much deeper into in a previous article, the sports I truly loved and that shaped me into the man and athlete I am today were Tae-Kwon-Do, wrestling and lifting weights. This profile will look different for everyone of course but you get the idea of my background.
This is how youth should be! Being exposed to the widest variety of stimuli possible in order to build a broad base. Then later in life, you specialize in careers, athletics, and hobbies. Plus, you have ZERO clue what you are good at until you experiment and try different things. This statement bodes true outside of athletics. If you have children or younger siblings please encourage and expose them to our world and its limitless potential. Find things to succeed at and enjoy.
Unfortunately, if you did not have such a wide variety of physical coordination and technical skills to learn from then we are already behind the 8 ball. Being in this position simply means more time building fundamentally safe and efficient movement patterns. I am sorry but we cannot load the barbell up and hammer heavy weights and high reps under fatigue when the motor pattern and coordination skills are not developed. We must regress and think beyond just the stage/platform and strength/physique goals. This is something I see often in the competitive and recreational new expanding world of fitness and physique sports. With such a rapid rise in popularity of CrossFit, NPC, and powerlifting, people jump directly into a challenging weight training program without knowing what it feels like to simply arch your back and squeeze your scapula together or even hip hinge. If they can’t squeeze the scapula down and back then they don’t have the ability to properly squat, bench, or do many upper body exercises. The mind muscle connection does not happen overnight; it takes thousands of repetitions and countless hours of practice.
While applying this spectrum I’d rather start off too light and have room to progress rather than fold them in half and break them off on day one. As Jim Wendler states “start lighter than you think you need and progress slowly”. We can move forward through this process by, over time, exposing the new athlete to a wide variety of exercises that are all fundamentally targeting the same issue, whatever that may be. Repeat the same exercise for as long of a training block as needed until the exercise stimulus is no longer worth the effort or the goal has been accomplished. Give them time to adapt and truly learn the movement pattern and the mind muscle connection. Cueing is going to be essential. Have as broad of a vocabulary bank as possible in order to effectively communicate to many different people with many backgrounds.
Many years ago, when I was about to begin my competitive powerlifting journey, I had learned that I loved squatting and seemed to be pretty good. One day I was training with my two best friends and we box squatted using the safety squat bar for the first time ever. Both of them weighed 20-30 pounds less than me and they both hit a heavier 1 rep max than yours truly. Mind you I had always out squatted them and I was livid. How the hell could they do more than me with this barbell?! Why did I suck so bad at it? Well, this bar exposes the upper backs strength and if the thoracic spine is weak or out of position it humbles all that leg strength rather quickly. They knew how to achieve and maintain a certain position and I didn’t. My back was not extended enough and or I couldn’t maintain that extension throughout the lift. I was biomechanically beaten. Well within a couple of sessions I got the hang of using the SSB and started taking it to them in the squat per usual. To this day the SSB is one of my favorite lifts and I can regress in its execution if I’m not careful because it’s a thoracic position I do not naturally find with ease under my own free will. Its usually somewhere in my training because it is such an ally to me in building my weak points and forcing me to not be lazy in technique. This is a great example of taking advantage of exercise selection to purposefully teach motor pattern and strengthening the deficit area simultaneously.
You might be thinking yeah but some people have been able to build amazing physiques without having to use compound free weights? Why take the time to learn these motor patterns when they can just hop on a machine? It is my humble opinion that these athletes have learned that using free weights for them exposes them to a higher risk of injury. Simple risk vs reward. If they can get better without a higher chance of injury that’s a no brainer. Typically, though, once they learn this, they already have accumulated quite a high base of muscular strength and hypertrophy from years of doing free weight compound lifts. They can then maintain the already hard fought for and achieved muscle mass with less direct time and effort and focus on bringing up smaller details in their physique.
Even with these higher-level physique athletes, they may not have a high level of experience in compound free weights and or general athletics/movement. Potentially skipping some of the base building and never learning how to properly move through time and space because all they ever learned or cared about was how to isolate a muscle. They skip directly into too high of specificity and learn how to feel squats solely in their quads instead of learning how to use all the major muscles of the torso, back, glutes, quads, and hamstrings. Once they learn this then they can progress to learning how to isolate the quads with squats. At that point, the athlete knows just how far they can deviate from normal and can now begin to build up capacity and push into higher positions of higher demands on joint and soft tissue. Such as positions like benching with arms out wider to target pecs and squatting with more forward knee travel for quads. These movements are still not totally ideal in my opinion but it’s much better than only learning compound lifts in an isolationist lens. It is my belief that it’s safer in the long term to utilize all the big muscles together and training them to function as a unit. Then perform more muscularly specific targeted compound or isolation lifts. Or vice versa and utilize the compound lifts at the end of the muscularly targeted training. The point remains that the intention of big compound lifts is based towards holistic development of the body. While choosing exercises that target weak areas are based on their effectiveness and safety of the joints and soft tissue compared to the potential high load from compound lifts in disadvantageous positions. I think this is a safer route to take for the long-term athletic development of the physique athlete.
Speaking of isolation exercises I’m not really going to dive too deeply into this topic because let’s face it everything we ever learned about isolation lifts is from bodybuilders. This is their bread and butter and an overwhelming contribution to the strength world in my eyes. They seek out and find weak muscles or groups of muscles and bring them up to par. They are highly successful at this and have taught all other athletes how to apply this concept. Finding the weak points in large movements is a little more difficult so finding what you’re good and bad at through isolation exercises helps give the athlete clues to lagging or underdeveloped muscles. You can also look in the mirror if you’re objective with yourself (we usually aren’t) or ask the opinion of a trusted resource or brutally honest friend. For beginners just don’t believe you can skip the fundamentals and use only isolation lifts. If everything is weak, everything needs work. The isolation exercises light shines brightest when paired with compound lifts that complement the individual athlete’s deficit area in the compound lift. Which will be different for everyone based on anatomy and genetics.
I admittedly have bias for free weights and compound lifts but it’s because they are so effective at what they do. They build muscle mass indiscriminately around the body, they increase bone density as well as tendon/ligament strength and when applied properly, can improve almost all energy systems if you choose to do so. I do not want athletes or training partners of mine skipping directly to advanced bodybuilder or powerlifting work without any base. They may or may not be successful in the sport and may or may not participate in it for many years to come. They might not even remember much about where they placed or how they looked without referring back to pictures. You know what they will remember? If their knee is aching or back always hurts because they never took the time to learn how to deadlift. To this day they still do it wrong and still question why they even bother to perform the lift. While this would be the case if I threw 4 sets of 8 reps at them and just go on blindly about my life because they obviously already know how to do it right? Without looking at execution and listening to what they tell me regarding how they feel I could make the most technically sound program in the world and hit all the trendy details such as how many sets per muscle group on average it takes this muscle to grow and all this shit but if they cant execute the lift they will always have the same nagging issues over and over. They will never truly improve over the long term without eventually regressing from pain or injuries. All because they were so focused on sets x reps x weight that they didn’t take the time to learn how to move. That’s when the power lifters, CrossFit athletes, and bodybuilders that love to perform the big compound movements migrate over into the machine only bodybuilder crowd and reminisce and think back to once upon a time.
At the pinnacle of the pyramid is sports specificity. We can not live here as athletes year-round and cannot expect the beginner athletes to jump directly to the top. We must build a solid foundation based on movement and coordination then a solid base of muscular strength and hypertrophy for all areas of the body. Target current weaknesses and monitor for weaknesses to turn into strengths while keeping an eye out for any new weaknesses that may develop over time. We only covered physical movement qualities in this article but there may be deficits in all kinds of things such as flexibility, coordination in posing, adherence to nutrition or sleep and life style habits or stress management and perception. Analyze where the athlete currently is and take one step at a time towards balancing the needs of sports specificity and general athletic development.