Michael McNally STACK
Since you’re already on this website, chances are I don’t need to convince you of the value of heavy lifting.
However, although strength training has a myriad of benefits for weekend warriors and athletes alike, focusing too much on the numbers on the bar can be counterproductive and downright dangerous.
When you let the pursuit of a bigger number cloud your judgement or cause your technique to slip, this is referred to as “Ego Lifting.” Ego lifting runs rampant in high school weight rooms across the country, as teens build bad habits at the exact time they’d benefit most from focusing on strong, solid technique.
There’s no doubt that hitting a big PR is a blast, but what athletes need to realize is that your performance in a given exercise only matters to the extent it helps you with your sport or your goals.
Poor technique is a slippery slope, and you are doing yourself a disservice if you allow yourself to go down that path.
But it’s not just teens who ego lift. Everyone knows the guy at the commercial gym who struggles through sloppy reps using weight that’s clearly too heavy as onlookers cringe. Don’t be that dude.
With that in mind, here are five tips to help combat ego lifting and keep your technique pristine.
1. Use External Feedback
Know the guy who claims to have a 400-pound Squat only to use a laughably small range of motion when you ask him to prove it? That guy could benefit from some external feedback.
External feedback simply means having an objective method to gauge the quality of your form.
Three of my favorite pieces of external feedback are:
- Squatting to a box
- Touching your chest with the bar on a Bench Press
- Letting your arms hang straight at the bottom of a Pull-Up/Chin-Up and then touching your chest to the bar
External feedback helps ensure every rep is the same and there’s no ambiguity as to the outcome.
If you squatted to the box, your depth was good. If not, you may not squat as much as you think.
Placing a cone or a similar object on the athlete’s back during certain exercises where you want them to keep a neutral spine and stable core is another example of external feedback.
2. Try Tempo Sets
A tempo set involves using a slow eccentric, isometric, or concentric phase of the lift.
Slowing things down is a great way to ensure you’re not cheating, and the increased time under tension gives you a nice hypertrophy boost.
Most common is to slow down the eccentric (lowering) phase, but you can use a hold at the bottom or a slow concentric (lifting) phase, as well.
A few simple tempo schemes are 2:0:2 (2 second eccentric, minimal pause at the bottom, 2 second concentric), 3:0:3, and 5:1:1. Tempos can work with any set and rep scheme, but in general, the longer the tempo, the less reps you should program.
Using a longer eccentric on a move like a Back Squat can quickly humble you!
3. Train Unilaterally
I love unilateral (single-arm or single-leg) training.
In most athletic settings, we are rarely in a perfectly symmetrical situation—usually one arm or leg is doing the bulk of the work at any given time.
Sprinting, throwing, cutting and jumping are all essentially unilateral movements, so it makes sense to incorporate some unilateral work into your training.
And for whatever reason, people don’t seem to get as caught up in the numbers for most unilateral exercises (perhaps in part because they’re often much harder to cheat), so the temptation to go too heavy tends to be a lot lower.
There are a lot of directions you can go with this, but Split Squats, Lunges, Single-Leg Deadlifts, Single-Arm Dumbbell/Kettlebell Presses and Single-Arm Rows are some staples. In addition to their carryover to athletic situations, the unilateral lifts are great for your core because of the added stability demands.
4. Utilize Higher Rep Ranges
You can still build strength with weights in the 6-15-rep range (especially if you’re still relatively new to weight training), but the temptation to cheat is a lot lower.
Additionally, strength is a skill, and higher rep ranges get you a lot more practice with a given lift.
While I still encourage most athletes to regularly lift heavy, balancing it out with higher rep sets can be a great way to reinforce proper technique with less stress on the joints.
The one exception is that I typically do not program high rep sets of Deadlifts, as it can be rough on the low back.
5. Test 3RM or 5RM
A final strategy to beat ego lifting is to test 3- or 5-rep maxes instead of 1RMs.
I know it’s fun to find out exactly how much you can possibly lift, but the risk is very high compared to the reward. I have found 3RM and 5RM tests to be much safer, and likely more useful, since most sports require some strength endurance rather than pure, single-effort max strength.
It’s also a lot easier to cheat your way through one rep with bad form than it is three or five.
If you really want to find out how much you can lift, I would encourage you to sign up for a powerlifting meet, where you can test with the aid of experienced spotters.
Strength training is very much a long-term endeavor. Don’t let your ego derail you from making sustained progress!