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  • Jesse Irizarry

You're Not As Strong As You Could Be

I took my singlet off, changed into my shorts and t-shirt, and started whipping my back. I used dumbbell presses for my cat o’ nine tails. I probably was exhausted physically, but my racing mind wasn’t going to recognize that. I needed to punish myself.

I just bombed out of a bench-press competition. I’d gone into it with blinding aggression, but I wasn’t physically ready. The last few weeks of training before the competition was focused on handling near max loads and cutting down volume. I did that part right, that’s the point of a peaking cycle before competition.

But I wasn’t ready for that peaking cycle because I hadn’t done enough to prepare myself for it. My base of powerlifting fitness needed to be much bigger for a training cycle focused on training the skill of doing a one-rep max. It wasn’t, and I lost what little fitness for the task I had. So instead of getting stronger during the peaking cycle, I lost strength and recovered less and less each week, and I knew it.

You’re an adult, or I’m assuming so. Why do you still think it’s cool to say, “I don’t do conditioning” or “doing more than three reps is cardio”? It’s not clever, you’re acting like a kid who fails math class on purpose because all his friends think it’s cool.

I’d say the same things in my early twenties because I was a kid. I hear Olympic weightlifters and powerlifters, quite a bit older and more experienced than a twenty-year-old kid, still saying it, though.

So let me reply. You’re not as strong as you could be. Why? You don’t have enough conditioning. It’s why I bombed out of that competition. And I knew it too, as soon as I walked off the platform with my tail between my legs. It’s why I went straight for the dumbells. I probably weighed around 275 pounds for that meet, but all that mass wasn’t made of enough muscle.

I hadn’t built enough muscle before I started that peaking cycle. Building muscle is part of a powerlifter’s conditioning. And to build more muscle, particularly after training for years as I’d already done, you need volume. A lot more work than I was willing to put myself through at the time.

You’re not going to build any more muscle when you’re doing heavy singles and doubles leading up to a competition and sometimes you can even lose some. I couldn’t afford to lose any, I didn’t have enough to support the heavy training and to bear the weight I was trying to lift at the competition.

Conditioning is a word with more meaning than is given to its credit. This won’t be a lesson in biology or physiology but it will be a reminder that, if you’re trying to be the best strength athlete you can be, you need to understand how you need to be conditioned and what it means.

Building muscle is part of your conditioning, periods of time, far enough away from competitions, concentrated on building muscle is part of building a base of conditioning.

Conditioning for barbell sports also means improving your ability to work and handle the stress it brings. This means making changes to the vascular system to bring more oxygen to working muscles. This means stronger.

Building and keeping some level of conditioning won’t look the same for everyone. A very heavy, very strong, elite level lifter who’s been at it for decades needs more specific work. They can’t be running hills or doing prowler sprints, even if they’re nine months from any planned competition. But they could do sets of twenty rep squats or a lower-body or upper-body circuit where they continuously rotate through exercises like split squats, leg press, push-ups, overhead dumbbell presses, and lateral lunges.

What you do for conditioning is based on what you do and who you are, but you need to do something. Strength won’t keep up without conditioning. Figure it out.

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