Written by Coach Sam Smith
When I think about my pillars for training, there’s one that stands out above the rest: focus on minimums to raise maximums. Getting my clients to understand how focusing on minimums is the pathway to further growth in lifting (which is synonymous with weightlifting and powerlifting henceforth), and training in general, has been a very helpful tool in creating greater buy-in and enjoyment in their training pursuits. If there was only one Key Performance Indicator (KPI) for a coach it would be client training consistency. And when we think about lifting and developing consistency, we must discuss maximums and minimums.
Maximums get the limelight; they attract followers and likes along with getting attention. So naturally, they become the target to aim for. However, aiming at maximums is a recipe for disappointment, burnout, and injury. When the focus is solely on the “ceiling” it becomes easy to forget how the ceiling is built in the first place: from the foundation upwards. To paraphrase the great coach John Wooden, success is the culmination of small habits over time. If the aim is to improve maximums, don’t solely focus on lifting more weight. Instead, focus intently on the training for the day while aiming for perfect execution of all the small details that go into each repetition. Allow the culmination of quality work (minimums) to give rise to new levels of performance (maximums). And this leads to the paradox of lifting.
Paradox of Lifting:
When you aim solely at a new maximum you move further away from it. When you aim solely at raising your minimums you move closer to a new maximum.
To better understand why this paradox has merit, we must discuss the differences between maximums and minimums. Our starting point will be at the end with maximums, followed by working back to talk about minimums. To begin, we need to understand what are maximum lifts and the pieces that are required inside of them. I have broken this down into 3 sections: Foundations, Expressing, Performing. Each section builds upon itself to create a comprehensive picture behind what is needed to perform a maximum lift.
A maximum lift (for example a clean and jerk) is the heaviest amount of load you can lift in that movement. Before we go any further, we need to pull apart the term “you.” Not all maximum lifts are created equal. Let’s use an example to further illuminate this difference. If a 25-year-old and an 85-year-old were to both perform a maximum lift in the clean and jerk, at face value, those would be very different expressions of a maximum. One of those would be a true maximum while the other would be a challenging load for that person in that movement. So, why is there a difference between the 25-year-old and 85-year-old if they both performed a maximum lift? Let’s discuss that further. When we think about a maximum lift, we are referring to the fullest expression possible by a person. To do that, the person needs to have the prerequisites required too actually fully express. So, what are those prerequisites? I want you to think about 3 things:
- Training age - How much training have they done? How intense (relatively) was that training? The types of contractions inside that training history matter.
- Chronological age - How old are they? Have they passed their years of peak hormonal expression (25-35 years of age)? Have they not yet reached their peak years of hormonal expression (under 21 years old age)? Have their nervous systems fully developed yet (24+ years of age)?
- Biological age - Do they have the internal scaffolding to support maximum expressions? Or have they been living a life that isn’t optimally maintaining their biology?
Having these 3 “ages” gives us context around where someone is relative to their ability to truly express a maximum lift. If they haven’t trained enough with enough intense contractions, they are too young or too old, and haven’t been taking care of their system through poorer lifestyle habits then the idea of a maximum lift isn’t on the table yet or might never be. This is the starting point to fully understand what a maximum lift is and how capable, or not, someone is in being able to perform one.
Now let’s talk about what is required to “express” a maximum. As mentioned above, we are going to utilize our 3 “ages” to give insight into what is required for true expression. First, training age will be the most important age to consider. If someone hasn’t accumulated enough training volume that has progressively gotten increased in challenge over time, then they won’t be capable of truly expressing a maximum. This is an important point, going to the gym for 15 years walking on the treadmill and doing some light dumbbell work is not the same as going to the gym for 10 years performing resistance training on a weekly basis that is progressively increasing in load and intensity over time. We can’t look at total training time in isolation, the types of contractions within that time frame are just as important.
Second, chronological age is giving us insight into where their hormonal system and nervous system are at in their respective life cycles. Hormonally speaking, we know girls peak earlier than boys having their first menstruation in their early to mid-teenage years while boys move through puberty around mid-teenage years (granted, those age ranges have been dropping over the last few decades). Now when we shift to the nervous system, our prefrontal cortex doesn’t fully develop until we are 24-25 years of age. This is important to note as we know all strength increase is initiated by neuromuscular stimulation. So, to fully express a maximum, we need a fully developed and functioning nervous system.
And finally, biological age. When you want to call upon a maximum expression you need the scaffolding in place to warrant the necessary usage of energy and effort that is required. There are exceptions to the rule (think: regular mom lifts part of a car off the ground to get her child out from underneath it) but in general the quality of care we are giving to our bodies each day, which is compounding overtime, through our circadian rhythms, food selections, hydration, environmental stressors, and emotional stressors (this list is not exhaustive) will all impact our body’s ability to have the resources required and warrant the usage of them, when wanting to express a maximum.
Once we have all of these pieces in place, we are now ready to express. However, are we able to “perform” a maximum lift? Let’s dive into the next section to discuss this further.
Now that we know what the foundational pieces are when thinking about maximum lifts along with what is required to express a maximum lift, we can now discuss what is required to perform a maximum lift. There are 3 key pieces that are needed to fully express a maximum lift. Those are the following:
- Biochemical ability - cortisol, adrenaline, electricity
- Mechanical strength - tensile, connective, muscle fibers
- Belief - confidence, commitment
Biochemical ability speaks to the physiological ingredients we need internally to elicit a maximum lift. Without these chemicals, mainly cortisol, adrenaline, and electricity, we won’t be able to fully cultivate our resources of strength and energy to express the lift. This ties back into our point around the hormonal system and nervous system development. Without the proper development of these systems, we won’t have the biochemical ability to express a maximum.
Mechanical strength is the by-product of years under the barbell accumulating thousands of resistance repetitions. The progressive increase in strain and load on the system over time has helped create the necessary tensile, connective, and muscle tissue strength required for expressing a maximum. This path is akin to building a garden where initially the root system is very shallow, and the selection of plants is limited. But over time we keep adding and deepening our garden turning it into a magnificent panoply. To be capable of performing a maximum lift we need the depth and width in our muscular system and skeletal system. This is where mechanical strength fits into the equation.
Belief is a bit more abstract. This is the category where “magic” lies. When you are aiming to perform a maximum lift, it might be a load you’ve never lifted before. As a result, uncertainty lies in the attempt. If you go into it allowing that uncertainty to overwhelm you, failure will be inevitable. There must be a level of belief in knowing you “can” lift this load, committing to the attempt, and maintaining the confidence that the ability IS there for it. This might be the least tangible of the 3, but this is by far the most important when aiming to perform a maximum lift.
Now that we know what is required to perform a maximum lift, we can recognize there is a lot more to it than just walking up to the bar and lifting it. All these prerequisites highlight how expensive and rare true maximum lifts are for those who can perform them. By fixing our gaze on the unicorn lift, we subject ourselves to a greater level of fatigue and burnout from pushing the gas pedal too much and too often. Having a better understanding around what goes inside a maximum can help put it “in perspective.” So, if we aren’t going to focus on maximums, what are we going to do? We are going to focus on raising our minimums.
Stay tuned for part 2 where we will dive into what minimums are, why they are the key to success, and how to raise them.