Some fitness pros prefer to call weaknesses in our kinetic chain as “weak links.” I prefer to call them “energy leaks” which occur through deficiencies in movement quality, tissue quality, structural integrity or programming, not just muscles. Energy leaks tend to evolve. At best, such leaks hold us back from optimal movement and performance. At worse, they create more energy leaks that lead to injury, plateaus or the kind of frustration that make us quit our favorite activity.
Developing a baseline of strength and athleticism in the average Jane (or Joe) is an effective means to reaching basic health and aesthetic goals. In doing so, however, energy leaks are bound to show up.
How Energy Leaks Hinder Strength and Athleticism
A common energy leak among general population trainees and strong lifters is the lack of stability around the shoulder. Even if an individual can hoist a 100lbs over her head, an energy leak around the shoulder girdle makes her more prone to injury and likely to present a barrier for progression. She can mobilize all she wants, but if the leak is around stability, all that mobility work does little to develop her strength and athleticism.
Let’s look at an average Jane’s profile.
- Early 30s
- Corporate desk job
- Loves indoor/outdoor rock climbing
- Lifts weights occasionally
As a former runner, average Jane has strong, overdeveloped quads and the endurance of her college running days. As a climber, she may have developed energy leaks like shoulder instability, an excessive anterior pelvic tilt, and a loss of anterior core stability due to excessive sitting at work and commute. A previous injury also makes her incredibly stiff around the ankle joint. Though average Jane is strong enough to climb giant boulders, her energy leaks are preventing complete movement efficiency and athletic progress as a climber.
So how can we plug the energy leaks, so to speak, while allowing Jane’s strength and athleticism to improve?
Assuming Jane is healthy and her energy leaks are just minor dysfunctions (not serious anatomical issues or injuries here), we can start developing her strength with breathing and muscle activation drills in her warm-up. Her programming will aim to have her fire through the appropriate muscles she uses while climbing, working through neutral spine and developing anterior core stability. Warm-ups aside, I’d also have Jane train her shoulder stabilizers with light spring tension rather than weights, have her move slowing through movements to feel her core muscles activate and address the ankle stiffness with lots of footwork to strengthen her ankles and feet.
My Crossfit and powerlifting athletes have similar energy leaks to Jane despite being incredibly strong lifters. A short lifter with a strong squat may still be deficient in the glutes, which could affect performance in the long-run as the quads and spine erectors take the brunt of the work. This seems like a minor detail but the difference between a beginner and an intermediate lifter (or general athlete) is that the intermediate-level person wants longevity. As we progress in our sport or activity, we can create new energy leaks or exacerbate an existing one, thus needing a different approach to training than what we did as beginners.
Replacing heavy loads with light spring tension and slower movements allows the athlete to grow increasingly more aware of how they’re firing through their body. The lighter tension places just enough stress on the muscles to get them to fire, but isn’t so heavy that they must white knuckle their way through the movement (this often leads to compensating with other muscle groups).
Key Elements That Affect Energy Leaks and Strength
Before you start freaking out about energy leaks and spend an hour on corrective exercises, know that these “leaks” won’t necessarily destroy you. As a fitness industry we’ve steered away from basic strength training and conditioning principles and focused too much on correctives and mobility work. In order to get strong, we need to train, not spend 30 minutes on the foam roller.
However, we should smarten up about the energy leaks that crop up as we develop our strength and athleticism, and find smarter ways to address them before we get hurt or hit a plateau. Here are few key points I find integral to addressing energy leaks in the average Jane:
1.) Do more of what you need, not what you want
It’s no secret I prefer squats and deadlifts over bench pressing and snatches. Due to a former shoulder impingement, it takes twice as long to warm-up for pressing days and I must practice diligence with my set-up and technique. I also require more soft tissue work around the scaps and pecs to address the compensation problems I tend to have from overhead pressing.
Energy leaks are information. Use that to inform how you approach your training and recovery. For example, knowing scapular stability is an energy leak of mine, I know that accessory work with dumbbells requires 1) Moderate loads 2) Neutral grip when necessary 3) Steady tempo. In exercises like lateral raises and incline bench presses, it’s far advantageous to perform them one arm at a time to avoid compensating with my stronger arm. It’s not always fun and at times, very tedious. Prioritizing what we need can make all the difference in our strength and performance levels, as well as longevity.
The kind of consistency I’m talking about refers to the other work you do outside the gym and in preparation for a training session. The most common inconsistencies I see are shoddy warm-ups, zero cool-down periods and questionable recovery mechanisms. Average Jane can’t possibly address her energy leaks if she targets them once a week during her warm-up but then skips it the rest of the week.
You have to do what works for your lifestyle, of course. After a two-hour lifting session, the last thing I want to do is recovery work. Yet I make it a priority on non-training days with 2-3 hours per week of Pilates (when in competition prep). When I was consistent with the unsexy, outside work, I saw my bench go from 85lbs to 100lbs, and my squat from 180 to 190lbs.
3.) An open mind
I’m a firm believer that there’s always more to know regarding strength development, and that it won’t always revolve around lifting weights. Consider the fact that anatomy, injury history, body type and a host of other factors play a role into what exercises will work out well for you or not. A great example is the deadlift. I’m a huge fan of pulling and while I train between conventional and sumo, sumo tends to work better for me. A tall person may do better with sumo due to the positioning of the limbs and the bar, but it doesn’t make sumo superior to conventional. The arguments between high bar vs. low bar, HIIT vs. LISS cardio, high reps vs. low reps is irrelevant in some cases. Be willing to experiment with a different approach or rep schemes. You start to learn what your body responds to best as long as you keep an open mind.
4.) Make the weight room your classroom
A client recently asked me what to substitute one of the rowing exercises I had in her program while she traveled because there wasn’t a TRX available. It was a fair question, yet as we go from beginner to an intermediate we should start acquiring knowledge about training so we can become independent thinkers in the weight room. Using the client above as an example, rather than ask “What’s another alternative to the TRX row” we could think “Well, this is a rowing movement pattern. I have done several types of rowing before — seated rows with cables, chest supported DB rows, Batwings, and one-arm rows. If rowing is the ultimate movement pattern then I can substitute the bodyweight version for a weighted dumbbell version.”
You may think that’s ridiculous given that this person pays me, but thinking for yourself takes seconds and costs nothing. I expect every client to learn something by working with me. I give my clients homework. I send them articles to read. Whether they learn or not is on them, but acquiring knowledge about training creates independence. You may not always want to pay a trainer or have one available to answer every questions. How do you manage if you don’t ask the right questions and start thinking for yourself? Treat the weight room like your classroom. There’s a lot more to your strength development than just a carefully detailed program.