by Bret Contreras April 17, 2012
If you’re an old-time lifter like me, then chances are you’ve fallen into this pitfall. If you’re a younger lifter, I’m sure you’ll fall into this trap several times throughout your lifting career. I’m talking about the pitfall of progressive overload, and it works like this:
The Progressive Overload Pitfall
This has happened to me time and time again throughout my lifting career. For example, I’ve never been a good squatter or bencher. I was able to achieve a 405lb squat and a 335lb bench once in my life – I was eating like a horse and finally achieved these feats at a bodyweight of 250. And I looked like crap. In fact, I remember filling an entire blender each night with whole milk, oats, 8 scoops of whey protein, flax oil, peanut butter, and a banana each night and guzzling down half of it before I went to sleep and the other half when I woke up in the middle of the night to relieve my bladder. I was consuming an extra 1,700 calories while others were sleeping!
I’m sure I could easily reach my current goal to deadlift 600 lbs if I quit caring about my looks. All I’d need to do is get up to 250 lbs again and I suspect I could pull it off (I deadlifted 565 in January so I’m pretty sure gaining an extra 25 lbs would do the trick). But this wouldn’t make me happier.
Your Physique Goals Should Keep Your Strength Goals in Check
When I looked the best I ever looked, I wasn’t that strong. I was in amazing shape but I think I weighed 215 at the time. And I was much happier with my image than I was when I weighed 250 lbs but was much stronger. Time and time again throughout my lifting career, I’ve looked in the mirror and realized that it’s time to chill out in the strength department and drop back down in bodyweight to bring my bodyfat levels back to ideal ranges.
If you’re a powerlifter and you don’t care about your weight class, or your sole goal is to get strong at any cost, or if you’re a skinny beginner with a fast metabolism, then eat all you want. But if your goal is to look good, then you need to keep your bodyweight in check.
The “Stay the Same” Weight Myth
Right now I weigh 225 lbs. I’m not quite satisfied with my belly fat and want to drop some fat in that area. Guess what I tend to say to me to make myself feel better without having to be hungry? Something like this: “I’m gonna get strict, eat clean, focus on my workouts, and get a lot stronger. This will allow me to lose 5 lbs of fat while gaining 5 lbs of muscle which will make me look much better.” Reality check – unless you’re relatively new to lifting, this won’t happen overnight. Simultaneously gaining 5 lbs of muscle while losing 5 lbs of fat can be done, but it’ll probably take a year of doing everything right (unless you’re new to lifting or haven’t been training very hard).
It’s more effective to drop down in bodyweight while attempting to hold onto your strength as much as possible. The biggest problem in the physique-enhancement world is people’s inability to accurately gauge what weight they can reside at and still be lean. For example, I’d love to weigh 245 lbs and be ripped. I’d love to look like The Rock. But I can’t! I’m not genetically gifted like that. No matter what, if I weigh what he does I’m going to carry much more bodyfat than him and my arms will never be as jacked as his.
After 5-10 years of heavy training, gains are very hard to come by. I can be big, or I can be lean, but I can’t be both. If I weigh 240 I look big and intimidating in clothes and my absolute strength is great, but when I take my shirt off I have a gut. If I weigh 205 I look ripped with my shirt off but I’m weak and look really skinny in clothes. So I tend to hover in between 215 and 225, which is the range that represents a perfect happy-medium in terms of looking good with and without clothes on.
Pick Your Ideal Weight and Try to Be as Strong as Possible at that Weight
Last December, I returned from New Zealand and trained incredibly hard at a sweet gym in north Scottsdale. The gym allowed me to perform my favorite five lifts repeatedly: squats, deadlifts, hip thrusts, bench press, and weighted pull ups. My weight stayed the same, but that month I went up 30 lbs in my deadlift, 20 lbs on my bench press, 20 lbs on my pull-ups, and 40 lbs on my hip thrusts. I hadn’t been training or sleeping optimally before this so my body responded very well – I stayed the same weight but lost an inch around my waist. Key point – I stayed the same weight while getting stronger, and I imagine that during the month I lost 1-2 lbs of fat while packing on 1-2 lbs of muscle.
I know that my ideal bodyweight in terms of looking good naked and looking good with clothes on is around 220lbs. So if I want to look my best, I make sure I’m hovering at around 220 and I try to be the strongest I can possibly be at that weight. What I don’t do is chase strength goals while allowing my bodyweight to rise indefinitely. I’ve learned from past mistakes that while this route can allow you to initially look better, after a few weeks of pigging out it will catch up to you and backfire.
If you’re like me and you like looking good (your primary goal is aesthetics with strength/power/etc. serving as secondary goals), then don’t fall into the progressive overload pitfall. You should definitely try to get stronger over time. But don’t do so by eating like a horse week in and week out, as chances are your bodyweight will continue to rise and all of a sudden you’ll look in the mirror and not like what you see. Most of us normal and natural lifters can’t exist at 250lbs and 8% bodyfat levels. A 200lb man with 10% bodyfat is a pretty good starting goal, so keep that in mind. Chinning 100, military pressing 200, benching 300, squatting 400, and deadlifting 500 are excellent goals too, but you’ll appreciate these goals much more if you stay relatively lean throughout your journey. Always remind yourself that you’re training to look good first, and strength gains that come along are an added benefit.
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