By Carl Valle
The weight room is a near-magical place, figuratively turning iron into gold with Olympic athletes and sweat into tears of joy with team sport. Yet most of the mistakes I have made in the weight room were the result of not connecting tradition and science in a way that showed up on the field or track. Transfer is the ultimate metric to me, since increasing vertical jumping may not make an athlete run faster and improving an exercise of choice may not reduce injuries, either.
I have and will continue to make mistakes—the same as everybody else—but I don’t usually make the same one twice. For us to get better, we need to learn from collective wisdom, not only from personal experience. In this article, I outline the seven common mistakes coaches commonly make in the weight room and share ways to fix them with simple strategies that can instantly boost any program.
You Use Barbell Velocity and Not Barbell Path
While there is no bigger fan of velocity-based training than me, I have learned since the early days of Tendo, technique isn’t getting better than what I saw in the late 1990s when I first got started in strength and conditioning. The core problem is that measuring technique is far more complex than measuring barbell output. Barbell tracing is excellent on video analysis or even systems like Gymaware, but many coaches want an instant feedback approach when working with large numbers. Technology is perfect if you want science to analyze the data, but having a coach worth their salt is the primary way the athlete is going to lift better.
Two weightlifting exercises—the snatch and clean—require the barbell to be in harmony with the body. Keeping the bar as close as possible improves the efficiency and effectiveness of the exercises. At lighter loads, athletes can get away with a slight forward swing of the barbell, but as the load gets heavier the error is an issue.
One of the most common reasons athletes have great Olympic lift numbers but poor transfer is that as the CoP (center of pressure) becomes biased towards the toes, the mechanical strain leaves the hips at the wrong time. The more mechanical loading there is, the more potential for power development. Many coaches who focus too much on bar speed alone will have good numbers, but the loads will be less and the transfer will decrease.The more mechanical loading there is, the more potential for power development. Click To Tweet
The answer is not so much a technological solution with bar velocity tools, but more of a technique change during training. Much of the issue is the athlete timing their movement strategy, and not the coach cueing what the barbell should do.
Solution: The shoulder and pelvis are easy visual clues to use when performing lifts from the ground, blocks, or hang positions. In the past, I made the mistake of drilling the problem instead of coaching it. Usually, the athlete is impatient with the lift and needs to time their transition later. When a movement is more efficient, it may speed up the timing duration, but the earlier slower speed will seem strange.
You Train With Medicine Balls
It may seem like heresy, but I don’t think medicine balls are the best training options for power. Perhaps they are the most brilliant teaching tools and smartest testing options for athletes, but they lack a clear loading benefit. My concern is that medicine ball training is seen as a quick fix to bridge force to power with higher velocity movements.
Medicine balls provide a more sophisticated way to help athletes learn and gather information about their abilities. Doing medicine ball throws with a 6-pound ball is like jumping with a football uniform: It’s a load, but it’s not doing anything a heavy set of barbells couldn’t do or what real plyometrics can potentially improve. I made a good argument for the way that medicine balls can be used incorrectly previously on SimpliFaster, so I will skip further explanations and go into a smarter approach.Medicine balls aren’t tools to develop power as much as tools to express power you already have. Click To Tweet
Medicine balls are bridge tools to help transfer, but in my experience, they rarely deliver that transfer. Does that mean we shouldn’t use medicine balls? Of course not. It just means we need to use them with a tighter and more-specific strategy. Some people see medicine balls as upper body, trunk, and lower body tools to develop power, but they are more like tools to express the power you already have.
In the research, some sports have seen ball velocity changes with implementation of medicine ball workouts, but most of the controls were the absence of a specific training option rather than an alternative exercise as a comparison. Classic weightlifting or the sport itself should always be considered a direct way to improve performance, not just exercises that seem to visually meet in the middle. It’s logical to think low load and high-speed movements connect heavy barbell work and very high-speed actions, but so far the studies show it’s very limited, if it happens at all.
Solution: Use medicine balls to teach or reinforce great fundamental movements and condition the body, but use more-extreme loads on the other sides of the force-time curve. Classic strength training is important at all levels of sport, and fresh speed sessions do more than slower and less-specific medicine ball exercises. Medicine balls can help accelerate access to the abilities of an athlete, not raise their ceiling.
You Use Strength-to-Weight Ratios
I am in favor of simple ratios of lifts or exercise loads for an athlete for early purposes. This means, if they have a poor training age, just getting more weight on the bar is a good start. The problem is that, as an athlete increases their strength, a point of diminishing returns exists and the general exercise becomes a futile attempt at raising maximal strength for speed or agility. Two common mindsets are those that love powerlifting and tend to keep pushing heavy loads when they have already reached a sufficient level, and those that have weak athletes and are not obeying progressive overload.
Even power-to-weight ratios are not helpful, as most coaches will use a barbell wattage number or a calculation of power from a jump test. Improving the functional mass calculation further with adjustments to body composition helps a bit, but the issue is not how explosive an athlete is with weights or jumps (isolated)—it’s how they move in space or time. Some teams use a watts/kilogram metric that I favor, but speed or momentum values are far more interesting with athlete profiling. As performance increases, general measures stop showing up as ways to unlock an athlete’s potential.The issue isn’t how explosive an athlete is with weights & jumps but how they move in space & time. Click To Tweet
Other simple measures are good to see, such as acceleration ability based on body mass (momentum) and height relationships. Yet, even power measured concentrically isn’t a solution, as eccentric abilities usually rule with change of direction and reduction of non-contact injuries.
Solution: Use the Raptor test to leverage the Eccentric Utilization ratio along with a full acceleration profile and change of direction test of choice. A comparison of the way an athlete redirects momentum, as well as expresses early force and terminal acceleration, reveals how they are more likely to perform from training factors.
Your Eccentric Training Is Dated
The rise in the popularity of flywheel training is a great step forward in understanding the potential in eccentric training, but flywheels are not technically eccentric exercises. Flywheels redirect momentum from concentric actions; they don’t create an accentuated eccentric overload. It’s possible to receive higher eccentric forces using flywheels, but the difference is small unless the athlete is using a technique or switches to a unilateral eccentric exercise after a bilateral concentric start.
The use of flywheels doesn’t mean you are preparing eccentrically; it just means the resistance is essentially coming down eccentrically at a different speed than typical. Some eccentric benefits exist from just adding a flywheel machine, but it’s more than just switching from barbells to iso-inertial machines.
Slow tempos are just eccentric time-under-tension approaches, as the weight doesn’t change during the exercise movement. Depth jumps and other activities that use greater-than-volitional heights are overload options, but they rarely produce a good risk-to-return benefit. Coaches have pursued eccentric training for years and most of the responses have been hit or miss. This is because weak athletes respond poorly to eccentrics because they are alarmed physiologically after a small bout. Advanced athletes tend to get hurt because they push their connective tissues or muscles beyond their strain limits, thus forcing coaches to move on to something more conservative.
Solution: Eccentrics are potent, so they need to be in super small doses and follow the same principles of progression as plyometrics and potentiation. This means don’t worry about including them until the athlete has a sufficient strength base. While it seems overly simplistic, eccentric training usually just needs one purposeful exercise or movement that overloads the body per high intensity day. Attempts to aggressively attack eccentrics just impede the recovery process, and actually slow down the adaptation rate.
You Forgot About Bilateral Facilitation
Another emerging problem with single leg training is that, when loads become heavier, the asymmetrical forces recruit areas that help stabilize the joints instead of helping create propulsive forces. Increasing the stability of joints is a great thing, but if the joint needs to have propulsive forces at specific time frames, stability is not what is needed. Stability is reducing unwanted motion, not providing the motion the athlete needs. Amortization or eccentric deceleration of forces is fine, but many single leg approaches misinterpret the bilateral deficit and use fuzzy math to avoid comparable exercises like the squat or deadlift.
Much of the popularity of single leg exercises comes from proponents who have fearmongered the risk to spinal injuries or have used lousy arguments about running as being on one leg at a time. While the promises of safer training and more direct means of positive athletic adaptation are great on paper, we have yet to see (as with many theories) bilateral deficit exploitation being superior. If it were, the naked eye would detect performances from the legion of single leg trained freaks. The truth is, single leg training is a valuable part of training and valuable alternative to double leg training, but it’s not superior.
The bilateral deficit can confuse coaches who struggle to comprehend why an athlete who can do ten pullups with two arms can’t do one pullup with one arm. Where is the bilateral deficit there? Most of the research is on jumping and leg activities, where the anatomy and neurological influences are apparent in athletes. Sure, an athlete can do much more weight with a split squat than half a conventional squat, but when velocity is added to the equation, how are the single leg jumps nearly equal to the vertical jumps?
Mechanically, when running and jumping with single leg actions, the body is naturally efficient, such as with the long jump or dunking on a breakaway. As you can see by the examples shared, the bilateral deficit is not a secret benefit of single leg training, it’s a reason the body is good at expressing unilateral forces specifically based on the task at hand.
One final point is that peripheral and central fatigue are hard to treat separately. Going back to back with heavy loads for double the duration is exhausting to the muscles that isometrically support the spine. Ironically, trying to reduce the absolute load is good in theory, but having to do twice the number of repetitions doesn’t manage fatigue to the trunk musculature. Coaches pressed on time can benefit from simply doing more work by complexing bilateral exercises versus doing them unilaterally.
Solution: Single leg exercises are a misnomer in many cases, as they often require double foot support in split squats, and are thus not true single leg actions. Additionally, the recruitment of bilateral muscles of the hip and trunk shows they are increasing stability, but not necessarily helping with propulsive adaptations. Include double leg exercises for the neurological adaptations and choose any exercise you need for the muscular development.
You Train for Power Endurance
Some programs may incorporate power endurance training with some benefit, but the majority of programs ruin very good training plans at the end by forgetting what got them there. Endurance in the weight room is not a good fit: While capacity is a good line in the sand, passing it in repeated bouts of submaximal work is not the answer. Many strength and conditioning coaches need to polarize training more than ever as access to time gets more limited than ever, yet we still see repeat sprint ability workouts on the field and this mistake is poisoning the weight room.
The ability to repeat power is usually an adaptation from aerobic training, such as running programs in rugby or practice volumes in other sports like international soccer. Boo Schexnayder says it best in his presentations: You want to send a clear message to the body to become what you want it to be.
As soon as programs start getting athletes better by raising strength and power levels, they cut off what works and move towards a strange hybrid of sloppy exercises done for time or reps. At first glance, the work looks encouraging because the athlete is challenged, but they are not getting better at their sport—they are just getting tired. The old but wise adage that if you want more ketchup you need more tomatoes, not tomato juice, rings true in this case. The best way to improve power reserve is to attack the spectrum of power by addressing both ends concurrently or in some sort of block form (if you have time).
Solution: Muscular endurance is a very weak adaption, as it doesn’t help systemically as well as other, specific options. Coaches should look at the decay of power specifically in light of what they need, and look at absolute power and relative power based on their conditioning tests and benchmarks. Athletes usually have better results from practicing with more density or volume than from reducing the power or strength in the weight room by adding more repetitions and fatigue.
You Are Not Distributing Training Elements Properly
The last issue I see with many programs, including my own at times, is the timing of types of elements placed into a periodized plan. Errors in sequence, progression, intensity, mode, volume, and even mental pace of training can ruin athlete power. Power is also a broad topic and usually seen as a summary of one exercise test versus a composite of athletic needs.Too much volume is too much volume, regardless whether it’s aerobic or weight training. Click To Tweet
My focus on jump testing and speed testing didn’t ruin my understanding of power; it just narrowed what was needed to keep improving it over a career. Periodization is not programming, but it is planning based on training theory. I had problems with periodization because coaching theory and real-world planning didn’t jive with both the theoretical science and real-life practice. I feel I could have had better results if I simply knew what was popular coaching fiction and what was solid reality.
As more and more coaches start looking at their own data (something I had to do myself, recently), a pattern emerges with power. Sometimes a short period of stagnation means improvement, and sometimes rapid improvement is an error in tapering volume too much and peaking too late. I could go on and on, but it’s important to nail down the most useful and most common principles.
Too much volume is too much volume, regardless whether it’s aerobic or weight training. If a volume error occurs, reducing the total output and keeping the percentage of work type should alleviate injury and plateau.
- Sequencing training is not an enigma; it’s just putting in order that which requires prerequisite and loading systemically. Focus on teaching, speed, and power and strength, in that order. Sometimes reversing the order helps as well, so just decide what is best based on what the athlete is not getting from past or current practices.
- Block training is about emphasis, not the isolation of one element, and concurrent training is similar to fine cooking. When working on power, the “stove” is always on with development, just at different levels at different times.
- Don’t be afraid to stick to exercises for long periods of time, as comparison requires a consistent variable. Only change exercises that are staples when the well is dry, but come back later as a break will fill up that resource.
- Condition year-round and think long-term. Many athletes will make dramatic improvements in power when conditioning is dropped, but when added back in they take a few steps back. The key is to polarize training and keep the intensity and volume at wellness levels during early training phases, and then let practices rule the roost during competitive phases.
Some of the principles above are unique to me, but they come from coaches who have more experience and better results. Keep focused on the most straightforward principles that factor in over the entire season, as progress is about seasons, not sessions.Focus on key principles that affect the whole season, as progress is about seasons, not sessions. Click To Tweet
Some Parting Advice on Weight Training and Transfer
It’s easy to worry that training isn’t working well or to chase the next best idea to get better results. For about a decade, I tried to experiment on concepts that were heavy on socially popular training theory and light on the more logical and reasoning areas of my own brain. The key is to look at power as something that is multifaceted and slow-moving.
Power is only one area of performance and usually responds well when a program isn’t forcing or ignoring it. Transfer is about targeting the right areas of the athlete’s body with appropriate overload and rest, not special exercises or workouts that look good on training montages. The timeless calendar and knowledge of when to push and rest will be the primary drivers of improvement, but avoiding the common pitfalls will reap big benefits down the road.