Stop Missing Lifts!

op4n-7331Spring 2001
Ball State University Powerlifting Practice

One of my favorite guys on the powerlifting team is having a rough go at it.

He’s in what he calls a “squatting slump” and he’s bound and determined to work his way out of it.

We’re less than 1 month out from Collegiate Nationals; now is not the time to be going through a slump!

He squeezes himself under the bar, unracks it, and descends into the depths. He pushes up, straining with all his might, only to succumb to the weight.

We get the weight back up, and he insists on taking the weight again.

“I’m going to get it.”

chalkHe takes the requisite 5 or so minutes to recover, and then heads to the chalk bowl with a ferocity in his eyes that I hadn’t seen from him before.

He grasps the knurling on the bar, feeling it dig into his flesh, lets out a growl from the depths, and proceeds to head butt the bar.

Now, with blood running down his face, he unracks the bar. He walks it out, gets tight and descends into the depths, only to miss again.

We’ve all seen it – the lifter who is constantly missing lifts.

It’s frustrating to watch. And it’s even worse to go through.

Trust me, I don’t preach from my high horse here. I learned the hard way.

In those first 1-2 years of powerlifting, I missed more squats than I care to remember.

But luckily I learned from my mistakes, and over time, got smarter.

As I matured and missed fewer lifts, not only was I a more confident lifter, but my numbers went through the roof as well.

Consistently missing lifts will fast track you, at best, to your local sports psychologist.

In a worst case scenario, it’s more likely you’ll be visiting the neighborhood physical therapist or orthopedic surgeon!

Tons of coaches and lifters whom I admire share this same sentiment. Both Dan John and Jim Wendler have discussed numerous times their disdain for missing lifts.

pocket-herculesJim Laird, coach of the Miss Fits, hates it when his ladies miss lifts. As such, he routinely undershoots their lifts in training so they have oodles of confidence when they step on the platform.

Olympic lifting great Naim Süleymanoğlu would rarely miss more than a handful of lifts in a training year, and that included practice and competition.

Let’s take a look at the various ways missing lifts can thwart your progress, eroding both your physical prowess as well as your psyche.

The Physical Side of Missing Lifts

Missing a lift is rarely a good thing.

Whether it’s a squat, a bench press, a deadlift, a snatch or a clean-and-jerk, when you miss lifts it puts your body into precarious positions.

From a powerlifters perspective, squatting and benching are the most worrisome. Squatting can be remedied to some degree by setting up the catches, but even still, this isn’t a great idea.

I actually got myself pinned underneath a 2-board press with chains 7 or 8 years ago. I was so pissed that my training partners bailed on me that I was bound and determined to hit a PR without them.

The cool thing was, I did hit a PR that day!

The bad thing was when I decided to go up again, and proceeded to get pinned.

Trust me – even if you’re by yourself it doesn’t look cool when you have to dump a bar!

Missing liftIn Olympic lifting, part of training is learning how to miss a lift. I get that.

But missing lifts due to poor technique, and/or too much load, can get you injured and put you on the sidelines with a quickness.

Instead of missing lifts (i.e. muscular failure), focus instead on working close to technical failure.

Just to make this easy, let’s throw around some numbers. You’re squatting on a given day, and your “muscular failure” would occur at 300 pounds.

Now if you’re ok with missing weights, you might hit 300 (albeit in a sloppy fashion), and then go up to 315, and miss promptly miss that lift.

Instead of going this route, work up to technical failure. Maybe you can hit 275, 285, or even 290 with really clean, crisp technique, but if you went up any further, things would get sloppy.

That would be considered technical failure, and you’d either drop down a bit or call it a day on that lift.

Training in this fashion will not only dial in and perfect technique, but you’ll be optimizing your training as well.

The Psychological Side of Missing Lifts

brainWhile there’s always the inherent risk of getting injured when missing lifts, I think the psychological side is far more injurious, both for the competitive and recreational lifter.

Every time you get under the bar, you want complete confidence that you’re going to make the lift. There’s nothing worse than being under a really heavy lift and thinking to yourself:

“I’m not really sure if I can get this.”

Instead, all of your training should be focused on attacking weights that you know you can make.

I think there’s a ton of substance to the old saying, “practice like you play.”

If you’re constantly missing lifts in practice, what do you think will happen when you get to the competition?

For the recreational lifter, this is just as important, if not more so

You come into the gym to get stronger, push yourself, and most importantly, enjoy your training.

But if you’re constantly missing lifts, are you really having fun?

Last but not least, I think from a psychological perspective most of us are more prone to focus on the negative versus the positive. It’s not ideal, but it’s true.

So what if you have this huge archive of negative experiences (i.e. missing lifts) to draw from and focus on outside of the gym?

Does that sound like it’s positive in any way, shape or form?

Not to me.

Instead, build positive momentum.

Consistently lift weights that are within your capability.

Groove awesome technique.

And as you repeat this process, I guarantee your confidence (and strength) will come along for the ride.

The Competitive Side

If you’re a competitive lifter, let me tell you a little story.

It’s 2005 in Killeen, Texas, and I’m watching some of the best lifters in the United States go to battle on the platform.

jason-beck-squatIn the 220-pound class there were three lifters all vying for the title: Charr Gahagan, Tony Succarotte and Jason Beck. This was an incredibly competitive class and the lead seemed to go back and forth all day.

Somewhere along the line, though, Gahagan and Succarotte both missed lifts. My memory isn’t good enough to remember if they were technical errors or if the weight was just too heavy, but they left a crack in the door.

Beck, on the other hand, didn’t miss one single lift the entire day.

And as a result, he won the National Championship.

First and foremost, going 9-for-9 is an amazing feat for any lifter, but especially at a Men’s National championship where the judging is beyond strict and the pressure is monumental.

But even more impressive is how well Beck and his coach, Robert Keller, must have communicated on that day. It’s impressive to not only pick the numbers that are in range, but to also hit them in that competitive environment.

It may sound simple at first blush, but if you’re a competitive lifter and you can consistently choose the right numbers and make lifts, those numbers are going to add up to something impressive.

Too often we get focused on the lifts we could hit on any given day, and assume that’s going to be our total.

Unfortunately, it rarely works out that way.

Remember, being smart and hitting as many lifts as possible is not only going to give you the best feeling after your meet, but also gives you the best chance of winning a medal in the end.

Should I Just Train Light?

Now I know what some of you are thinking, and what some of the haters will undoubtedly focus on.

“Mike Robertson says you should just train light.”

Please keep in mind, that’s not what I’m saying.

What I am saying is that you should train on the edge of your ability, and sometimes push past it.

To be more succinct:

This doesn’t mean you get to be a pansy! You still have to lift heavy things.

But instead of constantly trying to pick things up that are on the edge (or well beyond) your ability, you pick and choose your battles.

I think this is easier as you get older. Naturally, you’re more in tune with your body, and you’re not going into the gym every single day trying to show the world what a bad ass you are.

Remember: Push the edges of your limit, creep up on them with the stealth of a ninja, but only cross that line when you’re either feeling amazing, or you have planned for it.


Missing lifts isn’t cool. And it definitely shouldn’t be touted like some strange badge of honor.

Instead, focus on grooving and perfecting optimal technique.

Lift weights that are close to your edge of ability.

Do this consistently, and I know you’ll be pleasantly surprised with the results.

Now get in the gym and lift something heavy!

Stay strong



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  1. Practice Makes Perfect: The Role of Spatial Recruitment in Improved Performance

    Justin Seltzer

    Strength is a straightforward concept, usually correlated entirely to size. Simply, the bigger the muscles are, the stronger they are. To a certain extent, this concept is true: increased muscle size and density is a long-term positive consequence of exercise. However, the process of actual muscle development takes much more time than what is shown to be necessary by the gains observed every day in gyms across the globe. Thus an alternate, more quickly adaptable mechanism must allow for these gains. One leading idea is known as spatial recruitment, a type of neuromuscular reorganization that helps the body utilize what it already has in a more powerful, efficient, and coordinated way. By utilizing increased coordination and greater efficiency, the body is able to make more out of what it already has in the short term.

    The concept of “spatial recruitment” first requires an explanation of how nerves and muscles come together in the first place. In the body, motor (muscle controlling) nerves exit the spinal cord, traveling and branching until the smallest terminal nerve fiber reaches what is known as the neuromuscular junction. This junction is where the nerve interacts directly with the muscle fiber, transitioning its signal into a chemical reaction that causes the muscle fiber to contract. All individual junctions that can be traced back to the same nerve are grouped into a “motor unit.” Each motor unit responds to the same signal simultaneously.

    However, this arrangement is not static. Motor units themselves can be altered in response to an outside force. This process is what we refer to as “spatial recruitment.” As demands on certain muscles increase, the neuron’s motor unit expands its number, placing more muscle fibers under the same control mechanism.

    Increased spatial recruitment can have two key effects. First, more force can be produced due to increased numbers of motor units responding to the same nerve signal. Second, it can lead to greater energy efficiency due to less metabolic demand on each individual motor unit. Given this, consistent exercise gains in the short term can be considered as a remodeling of the relevant neuromuscular landscape. In other words, as the body responds to the exercise, it seeks to maximize efficiency by changing its motor unit arrangement to better reflect what is demanded.

    As you may have noticed during that explanation, nothing about the muscle cells themselves change. In other words, the body doesn’t really gain any more strength capacity than it had originally. Instead, the increases in efficiency and coordination of muscle contraction allow that same strength to be used more effectively; strength stays the same but power output increases. Power, as you may or may not know, is a measurement of force (F) when applied in a given distance (d) over a certain period of time (t), or P=F•d/t. Increased coordination allows the force to increase due to more simultaneously recruited fibers, leading to an increase in power. This adaptation is why Olympic lifts at the same weight seem to feel “quicker” with consistent practice.

    One of the best and relevant (to CrossFitters) examples of this process is the muscle up. It is a movement that is dynamic and requires much more than simple strength. Many people can do the strength elements (ring press up, dip, pull up) individually but still cannot do the actual muscle up. To get there requires consistent practice to gain the necessary adaptation. However, once the desired coordination is achieved, it is not uncommon to have a rapid progression in muscle up capacity and frequency.

    Unfortunately, this is a double-edged sword. Spatial recruitment is effective, but unfortunately not particularly sophisticated. It cannot discern good form from bad form, and so this is also the mechanism by which bad habits are created. Because of this, the mechanisms for becoming better are clear: consistent practice and proper coaching. Consistency will allow for this increased coordination to take hold. It is impossible to gain the necessary stimulus doing something once every few weeks or even once a week. Thus, if you are weak at cleans or pull ups, get out there on your free time and work consistently. Even better, do it with someone who knows what they’re doing–proper coaching makes sure that the bad habits and shortcuts we naturally try to take do not take root.

    So, if you’re having trouble with something, keep working hard and let your body do its thing!

    Justin Seltzer is a CrossFit Level 1 instructor, graduate of USC, and author of the science and medicine blog The Weekly Paper. He currently does medical clinical research and will be attending medical school in the fall.

    Almeida, G. L., D. A. Hong, D. Corcos, and G. L. Gottlieb. “Organizing Principles for Voluntary Movement: Extending Single-joint Rules.” Journal of Neurophysiology 74, no. 4 (October 1995): 1374-381.

    Bodine-Fowler, S., A. Garfinkel, R.R. Roy, and V.R. Edgerton. “Spatial Distribution of Muscle Fibers within the Territory of a Motor Unit.” Muscle & Nerve 13, no. 12 (December 1990): 1133-145.

    Conwit, R. A., D. Stashuk, M. McHugh, W. F. Brown, and E. J. Metter. “The Relationship of Motor Unit Size, Firing Rate and Force.”

    • I’m confused – is this a comment or did you just want to post your whole article here? You could always just link to it 🙂

      • Just came across this doing a google search of my name. The guy who posted that isn’t the one who wrote that (I am). Sorry if that was posted out of context/spammed, not really sure why it got posted without explanation.

  2. Good post Mike! I too run into the same problem with my new clients. They don’t understand the concept of using submaxes. I just keep telling them it’s better to set PR’s on the platform, not the gym.

    • Jason – Agreed 100%. I see too many young coaches as well pushing the clients beyond what they’re capable of.

      I love Coach Kenn’s saying of “slow cooking” your clients and athletes.

  3. This resonates particularly well with me right now as I approach my first Oly lifting competition.
    Thanks Mike!

  4. This resonates particularly well with me right now as I approach my first Oly lifting competition.
    Thanks Mike!

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