Working Class Fitness: You Really Wanna Get Better? Stop Focusing on Your Max!

December 12, 2012
3 Comments

Working Class Fitness LogoThis one is gonna rub a few people the wrong way…

…but give me a few minutes to hear me out, and maybe it’ll change your outlook on a few things and exactly what type of strength and conditioning you should be doing at the gym.

Almost anybody that hits the gym with any kind of regularity (or at least anyone who is even moderately committed to their workouts) is consistently try to get better.  This means they’re trying to get stronger or faster or build more muscle or drop more body fat or develop better cardio or whatever.

Point is that they’re better today than they were a week ago, but not as good as they’ll be a week from now.

Makes sense, right?  Sure it does.

After all, there’s no point in going to the gym and working your ass off if you’re never getting better.

But, before we can get better, we have to first figure out how we’re going to determine and/or measure it.  In other words, we have to define what exactly constitutes “better.”

And this will vary from person to person, as everybody has different goals.  If a skinny guy goes in with the purpose of putting on some size, but ends up dropping body fat, he’s “different” than he was when he got started, but not necessarily “better.”

Or if a guy knows he’s slow and has to work on his speed and explosiveness, and while he’s able to put 20 pounds on his max squat, if he can’t jump any higher, he didn’t progress in the right area.

That sort of thing.

But not only do you have to define exactly what characteristics you want to enhance, you have to figure out how you’re going to measure them.  And therein lies the problem for so many people.  They’re usually worried about improving their “max.”

By that, I mean they’re usually concerned with whatever their maximum ability is for a given physical quality.  How much weight they bench press.  How many chins in a row they can do.  How many burpees can be done in 10 minutes.  How fast they can run a mile.  How far they can jump.

Now there’s nothing “wrong” with any of these benchmarks – as long as they’re being looked at the right way.

The problem with using your “max” as your sole method of measuring progress is that a “max” doesn’t always tell you the whole story.  Just because your “max” improves (in whatever fashion – depends on the test), that doesn’t mean that your ability has – or hasn’t – improved proportionately.

So in other words, I’m saying if you add 20 pounds to your bench press max, that doesn’t necessarily mean you’re any stronger?

Yup. That’s exactly what I mean.

Let’s continue on.

If you’re able to add 20 pounds to your bench press max, that’s an indication of an improvement in performance.  In other words, you’re able to do better at the bench press.  And this isn’t a definite indicator of strength improvement – at least not always a proportional one.  It’s an indicator of potential.

First off, I have to mention technique.  Any improvements that come about as a result of improving your technique just don’t count.  I’ve said this several times in several places, but guys like Dave Tate and Jim Wendler could take the average trainee and put 15-30 pounds on his bench press max inside of 20 minutes, simply by improving their technique.

That’s not a strength improvement.  That’s an improvement in expressing the strength the trainee already had.

Massive difference.

That aside, you can’t always take a max into account unless you’re talking about what I call an “everyday max.”  This means what can you go into the gym on any given day and make happen?

On certain days, you’re just going to “have it.” You’ll feel good. Energetic. On point. The weights will be light and things will just flow.

You know what that’s like – we’ve all had those types of days.  Those are the days that you walk in and bust through all your old maxes like they were nothing.

On the flip side, you’ll have days where you’re tired or recovery is off.  You’ll feel slow, sluggish, and like somebody put more weight on the bar when you weren’t looking.  You could never come close to hitting your maxes on those days.

Both of those are at opposite ends of the spectrum, and we don’t care about either one.  What matters is what you can do day in and day out, at any given time.

Sure, going in and having an awesome day, or building up to a specific peaking cycle or event so that you can hit some new PRs and records is awesome. It shows improvement, what your potential is, and is definitely an awesome stroke to the ego. I’d never say any different.

But you’re not going to be able to go in and do this every time you hit the gym.  And really, that’s all we care about.

If you’re a fighter busting his ass (either prepping for a fight or just improving your skills between camps), hitting a new PR, while cool, is ultimately meaningless if the strength, speed, cardio, etc. you develop can’t be called upon every single day when you’re drilling takedowns, hitting the mitts, practicing subs, grappling, sparring, etc.

Of if you’re just a regular guy who wants to be in badass shape, being able to tell your buddies you put 20 pounds on your bench max is cool, but if you’re not any stronger (or faster or whatever) in normal day-to-day life, then who cares?

PRs or new maxes you hit on one special day where everything was just clicking – or even planned out to attain weeks/months in advance – are cool as hell.

But the real progress you want to make is when you can be stronger, faster, have better cardio, and whatever else your goal is on a normal, ongoing, everyday basis.

That should be the type of improvement you’re chasing.

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Before you go to the gym again, you owe it to yourself to find out what kind of MMA workout pro fighters, boxers, recreational MMAists, or just the “regular guy” who wants to be in shape like his favorite fighter *should* be doing.  (HINT – it’s not the crap you see in the magazines.)  To discover the truth, hit up Wiggy at www.workingclassfitness.com or on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/matt.wiggy.wiggins.

(Physical exercise can sometimes lead to injury. WorkingClassFitness.com and MMAWeekly.com are not intended to be a substitute for professional medical or fitness advice. Please consult a physician before starting any exercise program, and never substitute the information on this site for any professional medical advice or treatment you may receive or the assistance of a fitness professional.)

  • 1standarduser

    Please state some goals that have meaning.

    I feel that if I can run a mile 30 seconds faster, spar another round, or do a few more pullups without getting sore the next day, that I am going to be a better fighter.
    I’m looking at a variety of factors here that you make sound irrelevant. Please state some goals that matter more.

    • Matt Wiggins

      There’s no way to “state some goals that have meaning” across the board, as different goals will have different meaning to different people.

      Either way, the point is still the same, regardless of the goal – the ability to hit a PR is cool, but unless it’s something you can do on a near-daily basis, then it’s pretty irrelevant. Just because you have a great day at the gym and are able to squat 20 pounds more than normal, if that’s a performance that’s not repeatable, then it doesn’t make much difference in the long run.

  • Steve Polykranopolis

    Know it all Neddy…