Written by Coach Sam Smith
- What are they?
- Why are they the key to success?
- How to raise them?
In part one, we discussed what are maximums, the foundations for maximums, what it means to express a maximum, and how to perform a maximum. The groundwork laid in the first part helped open our eyes to the enormity in prerequisites to truly express and perform a maximum. In the second part, we are going to discuss what are minimums, why they are the key to success, and how to raise them. To reiterate, when we are discussing minimums and maximums, we are referring to weightlifting and powerlifting activities. However, this concept can be applied more broadly to gymnastic volume minimums per week, aerobic volume per week, training volume per week, etc.
Focusing on minimums to raise maximums is a principle that applies to all areas. For the sake of our discussion, we will focus more so on its applicability to lifting weights.
What are minimums?
Minimums refer to the weight you can hit on a regular basis. Objectively speaking, minimums lie in the range of 85-90% of a maximum lift. This is a load that is moderately challenging but within your grasp if required to lift it regardless of the day in the week or location in the training cycle. Minimums are the weights that we become very accustomed to as we will spend a respectable length of time performing them before they are, ideally, bumped down into the 75-80% range. I like to think of minimums as the ground floor whereas maximums are the ceiling, the peak of the mountain. A large portion of training is spent accumulating repetitions at the ground floor. This is in part due to the lower intensity and demand on our system to lift the load allowing us to revisit it quite often. While in comparison, maximum loads, the ceiling, require far more resources (see part 1 for more details). As a result of spending a large portion of training here at the ground floor, the quality in which we are performing these repetitions becomes a very important measure in our ability to raise our ceiling over time.
Why are minimums the key to success?
Build confidence when lifting
Due to the fact that minimums are below the point where failure and large inefficiencies are on the table, they allow the lifter to accumulate repetitions within a larger bandwidth for error. By doing so, refinement of the movement becomes more attainable allowing for greater efficiency, confidence, and consistency in the lift. Acquiring these three attributes allows the lifter to look forward to practicing the movement each session. This creates a positive feedback loop where seeing that movement come up in the training plan excites the lifter to perform it more often whereby efficiency, confidence and consistency are continually built. All these attributes become instrumental as one approaches maximum loads.
Collect wins through practice
When we think about Olympic lifts as compared to the power lifts, there’s a greater demand placed on the lifter via complexity, timing, accuracy, and precision to perform them. As a result, it can become frustrating when practicing them due to the strong likelihood of error. By staying below one’s ceiling and focusing on minimums, you open the door to “practice.” When we frame the training as practice, we soften the perception. It allows for error and success to thrive at the same time. This shift creates a space where we can collect more wins through quality repetitions which reinforce our confidence and efficiency in the lift. When we accumulate wins, we reinforce the desire to practice more which continues to refine and improve our execution of the lift.
Greater consistency in trainin
As mentioned in part one, one of the Key Performance Indicators (KPI) for a coach is client training consistency. Cultivating great consistency in the training plan is a key for both the client and the coach. This is another way how minimums can elicit progress and growth. When we stay below our ceiling and hone in on our minimums, we allow for more success in training through less systemic fatigue and a lower risk of injury. Flirting close to our ceiling, maximums, too often increases our susceptibility to failures and injury. Both are at odds with the ability to cultivate consistency in the training.
How do you raise minimums?
There are two pieces I want to focus on when discussing how to raise minimums: improved movement efficiency and decreased perception of effort. First, we will define what each term means in the context of lifting.
Movement Efficiency - The ability to lift a load at full speed using less energy than an inefficient counterpart. (The physiological component)
Perception of Effort - The sense of effort associated with lifting the load. (The psychological component)
When thinking about movement efficiency, the first thing that should come to mind is repetitions. The refinement of movement is commensurate with the number of repetitions. The more we practice something the more capable we are of improving the efficiency in which we perform the activity. Biologically speaking, we are hardwired to find the path of least resistance possible. To perform a task more often with less cognitive load we must improve the efficiency. This ties back into the previously mentioned point around why minimums are the key to success. By staying below our ceiling and limiting the risk of failure, systemic fatigue, and potential for injury we allow for greater practice (repetitions) and consistency where movement efficiency can be cultivated.
We can also look at efficiency from a different angle. If we examine the Olympic weightlifting champions or world record powerlifting holders, we see great efficiency in their movement. Nearly no extra energy is wasted in each repetition they perform whether it’s a warmup lift or an attempt at a world record. This masterful level of efficiency has been cultivated through years of practice and repetition. Part of the equation in being able to accumulate that many years of practice and repetition is dependent on lifting loads that we would classify as minimums. When we stay below our ceiling, we give the brain space to learn and refine the motor sequence. As we push closer to our ceiling (maximums), the brain switches from “refinement” mode to “doing” mode. When we are in doing mode, we are expressing the patterns we have built from the accumulated repetitions below our ceiling. The quality of efficiency we built will become the rate limiter in our performance.
Shifting from the body to the mind, the perception of effort we experience when performing tasks plays a large part in our ability to recover and repeat the task. There are a multitude of factors that go into how we acquire our perception of effort for a task. To stay consistent with our discussion thus far, we are going to look at perception of effort through the lens of movement efficiency and repetition. The difficulty of a task will impact the level of demand placed on our brain to perform it. Part of what makes a task difficult is the amount of familiarity and exposure we have had to it. One of the simplest ways to decrease the difficulty of a task is to increase the number of exposures to that task. This opens the door for learning and upgrading the cognitive processes we use to perform the task more easily the next time. Think about tying your shoes. When you first learned it was quite a struggle to complete the sequence in a timely fashion; similar to when you first learned how to brush your teeth. Over time, through exposure and repetition, both tasks have become nearly automatic for most adults. The cognitive sequencing has become efficient and requires very little effort to perform. And as a result, the perception of effort required for the task is very low. This same process takes place with everything we learn. The degree to which we lower our perception of effort will be determined in part by the number of exposures and repetitions to the task. The more often we are lifting below our ceiling where we can learn and refine our movement efficiency, the better able we are at lowering our perception of effort to perform the task.
As we wrap up this deep dive into one of my training pillars, “Focus on minimums to raise maximums,” I hope it has become clear to you what that statement means and all the insights that can be pulled from it. Most notably, how important minimums are within the training process.
When you embark on a journey, you imply an investment in time; time to traverse the distance you are seeking to cover. Training is no different. And in order to successfully traverse the distance you seek, understanding what minimums are and how to leverage them in your training will be one of your strongest assets. Focus on minimums to raise maximums.