Many athletes forget their goals. They mistake the markers of improvement for improvement itself, and they mistake the hallmarks of a champion for an actual champion.
Nowhere is this better exemplified than in the weight room. Amongst the barbells, kettlebells, dumbbells, pull-up and dips bars, amongst the iron that is used to forge the raw elements of excellence, it’s easy to mistake the journey for the destination. And a journey without a destination is just wandering around.
Unless you are a power lifter or an Olympic lifter – someone whose sport measures weight moved in specific ways – the amount of weight you can lift, pull, push, and overall move, doesn’t matter. The difference between a 100lbs bench press and a 500lbs bench press is thoroughly academic for a football player, sprinter, cheerleader, boxer, MMA fighter, firefighter, soldier, weekend warrior, or stay-at-home parent. Oh, the strength represented makes a difference! But not the actual weight.
Unless you are one of the aforementioned exceptions (power lifter or Olympic lifter), it is strength you are after, not weight. Strength is both sport-specific and vague, however. A heavy bench press does not a powerful punch make and a bar-bending clean-&-press does not guarantee a successful tackle…though that’s not a bad way to bet. You’re better off perfecting technique and maximizing potential than doggedly trying to add a wheel to the bar.
That isn’t to say that general physical preparation is valueless. Quite the opposite. A century and a half of documentation in sports, and the anecdotes of untold millennia of oral history before that, have established the unmitigated value of physical preparation. But it needs to be strength you are building with that barbell, not weight moved.
Amateurs and the over-enthused will look at their 200lbs squat and recognize the improvement in their chosen sport, and think ‘imagine how much better I’ll be with a 300lbs squat?!’. And they’ll spend more time in the weight room…and less time in the ring/on the field/whatever. They’ll take on ambitious training protocols that leave them exhausted and stiff (resulting in even less time pursuing their sport). And they’ll achieve their 300lbs squat, and lose the edge their 200lbs squat gave them. And likely, lose more still.
Training damages the body. An athlete cannot push themselves to their physical limits without exacting a toll. Smart training can minimize that cost, however. Using less weight to gain the same weight is one such insurance. Slow down and perfect technique. Move up in weight when you truly own the lift, not just when you manage to complete the movement without failure. As athletes, we must temper our determination to not surrender to weakness. The seductive thinking of ‘a little bit is good, a lot must be better’ is almost inescapably wrong in every sense.
It is hubris to mistake exertion for productivity, just as it is jealousy and insecurity that leads us to chase greater and greater weights, especially in the face of real productivity of our chosen pursuit. The truth is that if you can build strength with a 5lbs dumbbell, you’re doing better than everyone else. It shouldn’t be more weight we pursue, but less. Because it’s not weight we’re after, it’s strength.