It’s important to understand that progression in fitness is almost NEVER a direct flight from point ‘A’ to point ‘B’. If the end goal is thought about more like the destination at the end of a long road trip, rather than a direct flight, it will tend to make a little more sense.
Along the way, modifications WILL need to be made. Different routes may need to be taken to still make it to the destination based on things outside of your control. However, one thing remains certain; if you don’t keep moving toward the destination, you will NEVER get there. So, what are the obstacles that tend to cause people to deviate from the straight and narrow? Many times, at least in CrossFit the mindset becomes an all-or-nothing approach. Are you experiencing something that doesn’t feel quite right, or uncomfortable going overhead? Or, discomfort in the lower back/ knees when squatting ‘heavy’ for instance? Most times this is not an injury, it’s more like a caution light. When a traffic light turns yellow (and you know you’re right on the brink of possibly being just a bit too far to hit the gas), that DOES NOT mean speed up and try to beat the red light. If you do beat it, at best, nothing happens and you continue on. On the other hand, you risk a ticket and fine, or worse, significant injury, or death. In the training sense for some, injury IS death! So, what do you do when you get a caution light?
-Unload – Modify – Simplify-
The three principles above, when used properly will still maintain further progress toward your destination, even though you’re taking a slight detour. If lifting beyond a specific intensity/load is what is causing that ‘caution light’ but the lighter weights (assuming proficient movement) don’t, then that may be your first step; unload, or lighten the weight, and re-test. On any given day, stress, fatigue, mindset, or things beyond your control outside of the gym can affect your ability to lift (proficiently) what the program prescribes. On that day, your 80% may feel like 95% and it’s extremely important to be aware of that, and go by feel more than the whiteboard to avoid hitting the gas pedal and hoping for the best.
What if unloading doesn’t work? Try modifying the position. We’ll use the back squat (the king of the lifts) as an example. So, you’ve squatted 300lbs in the past, proficiently. Theoretically, 225lbs should be easy, it’s ONLY 75% of your best, and you’ve done sets of 10 before! So, why is your knee bugging you when you’ve only done a couple reps?! More times than not, your mind gets in the way and the thought process here becomes complete frustration at the fact that you know your capable with much heavier, so just push through it; commit, and hit that gas pedal! That is a caution light. Keep in mind that there’s a LOT more affecting your lifting ability on any given day, than just how strong you are, or what you’ve done in the past. Nutrition, hydration, sleep quality, and stress influence perception of intensity. Some days, it may be physically impossible to do what you’ve done before, not because you’re not strong enough, or fit enough, but your nervous system just can’t. So, you’ve unloaded. Still, something’s not quite right… 185lbs still feels the same. It could be mechanics; trunk position, proper bracing, glutes not doing what they’re supposed to be doing, etc. Test out the front squat, or goblet squat. Why? Because you’re using self-limiting, similar exercises that require a little more attention to a proficient position, than the original movement that’s causing the caution light. As a result, the loading is naturally lighter (self-limiting) though the perception of intensity remains the same. If no discomfort (and no caution light) you’ve found your temporary substitute! Lift as heavy as you want assuming no discomfort with the modified position, and the movement is proficient.
What if modification of the position or load doesn’t work? Simplify. If we’re still talking about a leg focus with the squat, move to a single leg variation; lunges, split squats (front or rear foot elevated). If these are the only thing that doesn’t turn on the caution light for lower body leg work, then most likely, you’ve found your answer for the time being. Does this mean that you’ll never squat again? NO! Just not yet. You’ve likely pinpointed some weak links, or imbalances in the chain that need to be addressed, but that are also holding back your ability in the squat! I know what you’re thinking now; ‘So, you’re saying that I will now be able to squat more than 300lbs by NOT squatting?!’ –In essence, yes. BUT, fixing the weak links first, and then properly building the squat back up WITHOUT turning on that caution light. This way, it still allows you to lift “heavy” for the specific movement, even though it may not be your movement of preference, and it will still keep you going in the direction of your destination with the same perceived intensity.
Focus on what you CAN do, rather than what you CAN’T.