Making a New Year’s Resolution? Think Like a Powerlifter.

Strength and conditioning might hold the secrets to success in more ways one might think. Yes, there is a growing body of research which aligns physical health and wellness with high performance outcomes across fields, but we have also found that strengthening the body is an essential metaphor for improving our lives, as successful processes can be cleanly identified within it, then applied to different arenas.

Read as many self-help books as you’d like (don’t be ashamed, we read a lot here at the Good Athlete Project), but there’s no need to look beyond the strategies inherent in strength training. And within strength training, there might be no better teacher that powerlifting. Why?

  1. Consistency. You have to show up. There’s no skirting the work. If you don’t train, you won’t improve. Consistency in training intensity is key, but showing up is the first step.
  2. Efficiency. You have to do it correctly. You can invent and get creative with your training, but poor technique is like smoking – though it might not hurt you right away, if you do it long enough, it’ll undoubtedly catch up to you in negative ways.
  3. Wellness. You have to recover. Performance improvement requires a balance of stress and recovery – without the right amount of either (poor effort or insufficient recovery), you won’t grow. Eat, sleep, hydrate, and take care of your body.
  4. Grit and Delay of Gratification. You have to show up, again, and again, and again. Oftentimes, you’ll have to persevere through busy schedules, sore muscles, and occasional malaise… still, show up. Angela Duckworth defines grit as “passion and perseverance for long-term goals” – that’s powerlifting. The peak is in the future, today might be difficult and still, you show up and work.
  5. Intelligent Design and Feedback. You have to have a plan, and you have to analyze your results when they are held up to that plan. To achieve high levels of improvement, a lifter will identify an outcome, plan for it (identifying the appropriate reps, sets and intensities based on a timeline) and adhere to it. Occasional performance check-ins will provide the feedback necessary to adjust the plan where appropriate. Adjust, and adhere.

To be purposeful, systematic, and enduring – this is the recipe for success. Ask Anders Ericsson, Professor of Psychology at Florida State University, who literally wrote the book on high achievement.

Coaches can use powerlifting, or strength training in general, as the platform to teach that approach. In doing so, they should be explicit about transferring that process into other areas of life: business, relationships, the general rigors of day-to-day operations. If we successfully teach for transfer, we will be equipping our student-athletes with tools of success for a lifetime.

And if we can take a step back and apply these lessons to our own lives, coaches, we’d be far better off.

So as we set our sights high for the coming year, we should look closely at ourselves, and look low, toward the bedrock concepts. Look at your habits. How well did you sleep in 2018? How well did you treat your body? Before you commit to a new diet plan, what are your habits of mind? Here again, we find a wonderful opportunity to use training as a metaphor.

Compensation patterns occur in the body when a weakness, injury, or poor technique occurs. For instance, if we have an injury to our tibialis anterior, the posterior chain will compensate, beginning with the glutes, so that we can perform the movement without aggravating the issue. To put it simply, when there is an issue or injury, stronger parts of the body compensate for that issue so the body can perform the desired movement.

It’s an incredible design. If we didn’t have this incredibly complex kinetic chain, we wouldn’t be able to function. If operations of the body were more static, a tweaked hamstring would shut down the entire system, like a broken or missing gear in a clock. Instead, we develop compensation patterns. They allow time for the issue to correct itself, at which point it would be optimal to properly realign the human vehicle so no area is stressed unnecessarily more than another.

The problems occur when an issue nags. When subtle concerns in the chain arise but go unaddressed, the compensatory mechanism becomes so strong that movement itself is thrown off. Imagine a squatter with the compensation pattern mentioned above. His glutes can carry some of the load, but what happens when they bear so much of the burden that they too become injured? Now there are multiple weak links in the chain, including a neuromuscular activation issue, and the body isn’t quite sure how to compensate without risking further injury. The system breaks down.

That’s our lives. If we ignore our issues, no matter how small, and develop compensation patterns around them, then our potential is limited. So address the small things.

If you have a bad habit of going on social media for thirty minutes before bed and find that it is slowly chipping away at the quantity and quality of your sleep, then stop. If it’s bad snacking habits, then cut out the Snickers bar. If you have a messy apartment, then clean it. Or make the time-cost decision to hire someone else to clean it. Either way, recognize the problem, and address it.

social media sleep

Getting off social media before bedtime isn’t as sexy as crushing a new deadlift record, reading a book a day, or traveling to every continent in the coming year, but it just might make a difference in your quality of life – improving our quality of life, after all, is what we’re all really after.

You never know what the results of these small habits might be. Maybe nothing. There’s no guaranteed success if you do them, no absolute failure if you don’t. But it’s safe to assume that you stack the deck in your favor one way or another as the subtle impact of those habits accrues over time.

If you’re not sure where to start, examine your compensation patters. Do you explain your way out of certain things more than others? Is there a reason you’re always late? Are Uber and Lyft both plotting against you? I bet there are small, subtle habits that might be worth examining.

Once you’ve identified where you want to work, think like a powerlifter: 1) Be Consistent, 2) Be Efficient, 3) Be Well, 4) Be Willing to Delay Gratification, and 5) Design Intelligently and Listen to Feedback.

And as always, in the coming year, Start Fast, Stay Focused, and Finish Strong.

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