Should You Work on Your Weaknesses Until they Are Strengths? Maybe Not in Strength Training
For years now I have been saying something that flies in the face of conventional strength training and even fitness advice. Many say that in order to get stronger, you must identify your weaknesses and fix them. I say the opposite. I say you must identify your strengths, and play to them.
Many coaches believe something managers have been told for years, that they must identify and fix weaknesses in order for a trainee or an employee to be effective.
Those who tell you that you must strive to eliminate all weakness are also telling you that strength training is about some abstract concept for strength whereby you systematically seek out and destroy every flaw in your body and become something akin to a super-human. Few of us have the ability to become a strong-man. And few of us actually want to. Yet, we can all become strong.
What do you think is more efficient?
1. I make a list of strength training lifts, find where all my weaknesses lie and then figure out how to fix all these weaknesses until I can become strong in all these lifts.
2. I identify the lifts that I am best at, and I blitz the hell out of them until I am as strong as I can be in those lifts.
You have a lot more weaknesses than strengths. This may be a hard pill to swallow but it is true of most of us. Instead of viewing this as an obstacle, you can look at it as an opportunity. Being aware of your strengths and your weaknesses can help you decide how to prioritize your time so that you can have a more rewarding and productive strength training career. This, of course, is true of many other things.
This Applies to Strength More than Bodybuilding
This is not to say that you can get anything you want. I want you to realize that this post is primarily about strength training. I can imagine someone saying to me, “so you’re saying I can’t get my uneven looking deltoids fixed?”
Answer? It is somewhat easier to fix lagging deltoid size than it is to become a champion squatter when squatting is not your thing. Assuming that is, you have no severe shoulder problems, and normal, healthy deltoids.
Training for size is, at its core, fixing weaknesses. The entire motivation for muscle gain is to get bigger muscles. Therefore, to spend countless hours working on your biggest muscles may be what some people do, but many people want to be big in general, not just have big biceps and pecs, for example.
There is no corresponding concept in strength training, except those that have been invented by strength training marketers who actually WANT you to embrace strength as abstract concept loosely related to fitness or muscular size. These kinds of messages would just as well have you think of strength as “willpower” rather than actual muscular strength. But, there is an actual definition of muscular strength and anybody who tells you that “strength is anything you want it to be” is simply ignorant of strength training but wants to be part of the conversation.
Think of strength the same way you would think of other types of performance.
The Barbell is Like a High Bar To Jump Over
You see, you must be able to relate a heavily loaded barbell, for example, to a high bar placed way beyond your reach. The barbell is the external obstacle. If there is only one way to “jump over it” then there are those who will never be able to do it. Because, even though the barbell is the external object you are wishing to conquer, it is your distinct and inherited capabilities, to a large extent, that stop you lifting it just any old way.
Yet, the pop-psychology myths or pop-coaching such as you didn’t put in the effort, or you weren’t motivated enough or you didn’t fix your weakness (which might equate to not acquiring the proper skill level) will cause you to attribute the failure to something other than the cold hard reality of steel.
If You Succeed You’re a Winner, If you Try and Fail You Made a Mistake
Fans of strength sports are so quick to applaud big lifts and just as quick to condemn those who fail to get such a lift because they “fucked it up” or put too much weight on the bar. This persists even when its a perfect stranger on the interent, whom, for all you know, is capable of lifting the weight but just having a bad day. This is part of the same phenomenon that leads everyone to think that they can do anything if they just do everything RIGHT!
Those who succeed do so because they are winners and were able to overcome all the obstacles in their path, while applying just the right mix of mindset, motivation, and discipline. Those who fail have simply failed to do all these things. They are losers.
No wonder people give up so fast on things like strength training.
What you may not recognize is that a great many things had to come into place for the big lifter, and some of those things may be out of another person’s reach. For example, a person may simply not have the economic means to devote large quantities of time to a lifting pursuit.
30 Minutes a Day for Strength Training?
Why do you think books promising you success in 30 minutes a day are so popular? The reality is that the champions of lifting not only have a strength-ceiling most of us could only dream of, but they are able to devote resources to their passion that we cannot afford. Many lifters may be quick to tell you that they had to hold down a full-time job, and don’t have much money, etc. But, will they tell you they got strong in 30 minutes a day? Or only two times a week, etc?
We see countless supposedly motivational memes showing a person lifting a large weight with the caption “what’s your excuse?” In fact, a favorite Bruce Lee quote goes:
“If you always put limits on everything you do, physical or anything else, it will spread into your work and into your life. There are no limits. There are only plateaus, and you must not stay there, you must go beyond them.”
People misunderstand this quote, and he could have said it much more clearly. There are obviously limits to what we can do, both physical and external. Bruce Lee obviously did not think a human being could fly if he flapped his arms hard enough. He wanted to make a point about placing external limits on ourselves. He would have been quick to recognize that there are no rote methods and that we all have different strengths, and we must make the most of them. We ALL have internal limits. In fact, the way Bruce Lee taught his students placed heavy emphasis on their strengths and on them finding ways to make things work for them.
Don’t Be the Little Dutch Boy
I’m going to tell you something that many trainers will not. There are different kinds of weakness, weak points, sticking points, etc. in strength training. Continually trying to seek out and destroy those weaknesses is like being the little Dutch boy. You stick your finger in one leak and another one happens. You plug up that one, and here comes another.
But, it is behaviorally that playing to your strengths wields the most power. When you ruminate on your weaknesses and plan too much of your training around fixing them, you are actually subtlely shifting your behavioral goals, and thus, your satisfaction and longevity.
The question I would like you to ask is, would I do this regardless? When I say regardless, I mean, would you engage in an activity regardless of health, regardless of social standing, regardless of its role in your identity, regardless of whether it makes up for something else, regardless of whether they say you should, regardless of whether “you are supposed to…?”
I wrote about this in Is Passion All It Takes to Be Successful in the Fitness Industry? Finding things you are good at, and then becoming great at them, is one of those often ignored “keys” to success. You’ll find that these are more often the things that have a lot of intrinsic value to you. The things that bring you the most satisfaction and the things that you label “fun.”
Now, do you know anybody who does a bunch of funny looking assistance exercises so that maybe they can fix some weakness in their bench press, saying “wow, I sure do get a lot of satisfaction from this stuff?” I’ll bet you don’t.
But why discourage someone from doing what they want? I never would! I would, however, discourage you from spending a lot of productive years trying to be “great” at something that maybe, just maybe, you just weren’t meant to be great at. But…you WERE meant to be great at something else, and you could be doing that thing right now and having a blast!
I figured out a long time ago I would never be a great bench presser or presser in general. For one, I don’t have the shoulders for it, or rather, I no longer have the shoulders for it. Sure, I’ve had a moment of great success that never lasted, and usually coincided with a devastating injury….more weaknesses to “fix.” But those things I’m better suited for are the very things I enjoy the most. Funny how that works.