Quite often, we're so busy concentrating on reaching certain strength goals that we overlook the obvious. It's a version of the can't-see-the-forest-for-the-trees syndrome. That's certainly true for any sports activity but in strength training it can lead to injurious results. Most trainees fully understand the importance of working the larger, major groups, for therein lies the foundation of real power. In the process of setting up weekly and monthly routines, however, the smaller areas are sometimes left out. Trainees reason that since the smaller groups aren't nearly as critical as the larger muscles, why spend valuable time on them?
Enter the weakest-link concept. Everyone who trains regularly and seriously is very aware of this factor, but many don't consistently apply the knowledge in their programs. You may rest assured that the smaller groups are involved in the weakest-link concept just as much as the larger ones are.
When I suggest to a powerlifter that he might be wise to include some calf work in his routine, I typically get this response: "Why? I don't see where they're involved in any of the lifts I want to improve." But, in fact, they are. Very much so. To prove the point, try doing heavy squatting or deadlifting when you have an injured calf. It's simply impossible to pull any amount of weight off the floor or go into a deep squat. So what does that tell you? It tells you that the calves are very much involved in any movement that affects the legs and even more so for Olympic-style lifters and weight-trained athletes who do any form of explosive exercises such as power cleans or power snatches, movements that force them to rise high on their toes.
One winter I stayed in a little town in California and trained with some friends. I didn't provide any training information unless I was specifically asked for it, since there were plenty of trainers available. In fact, it seemed as if there were more trainers than trainees.
One afternoon, however, a stout lifter in his late 20s asked me to watch his form on the deadlift. No one else in the gym did the lift, and he knew I had competed in power-lifting. It was immediately obvious that his greatest problem on the movement was in breaking it off the floor. I asked if he did any lower-back work or perhaps some low pulls to help that portion of the deadlift. He said he did pulls off blocks at least every other week and did both good mornings and stiff-legged deads. When I inquired how much weight he was using on the various movements, I knew the problem wasn't in his lower back, for he was lifting impressive poundages on all the auxiliary exercises.
"How about calf work?" I asked. He shook his head in the negative, stating that he didn't see any relationship between having strong calves and moving a heavy weight off the floor. After a few words of persuasion he agreed to try a set on the seated calf machine.
The guy was so pitifully weak in his calves that I knew I'd found his problem. He used 100 pounds for his initial set, certainly a moderate poundage for anyone deadlifting in the mid-500s, but he was only able to do 15 reps. I'd told him to use high reps, 30s, so he lowered the weight to 75 pounds. Even so, he barely managed to get out the required number of reps.
"I think we found your weak point," I told him. He didn't say anything, as he was visibly embarrassed. He considered himself one of the strongest member of the gym, which he was. He also had some weak calves.
"You actually believe that if I make my calves stronger, it'll help my deadlift?" he asked incredulously.
"Can't hurt," I replied and suggested that he start doing calf work three times a week for three sets of 30. I also recommended that he alternate between the seated and standing calf machines, which work the muscles in slightly different ways. By doing both, he'd get more complete development. I should mention that his calves were not small. On the contrary, they were rather impressive. Yet they were far too weak.
The lifter diligently followed my advice and within a month he was handling 150 on the seated calf and 350 on the standing. As I expected, the newfound strength transferred directly to his deadlift. He increased his load by 40 pounds on the lift without altering any of his other exercises. Also, to his pleased surprise, he added 20 pounds to his squat, for his new calf strength converted positively to that lift as well.
Not every situation like that has a dramatic conclusion, but improving a weak area always has some form of positive results. In some cases strengthening a small group can help prevent an injury. It's extremely important for all athletes to maintain a high degree of strength in their calves, since they use them regularly and dynamically. Often, the weakness doesn't reveal itself until it's too late, and everyone who has ever had an injured calf knows it's a royal bitch to rehab.
Another small muscle group that's often neglected is the abdominals. Whenever I comment to competitive weightlifters or strength athletes that they should always include some sort of abdominal exercises in their weekly routine, they often counter that they aren't plan-fling on entering a physique contest. They just want to move the big weights, and if they aren't cut in the midsection, they really don't care. But the truth of the matter is that strong abdominals are essential to anyone who seeks a higher level of strength. Most strength athletes understand the importance of having strong lumbars. The muscles of the lower back must be maintained at a high level, for they are critical to the transference of power from the hips and legs upward and vice versa. The point that many overlook, however, is that the lower back and abdominals are closely linked. The midsection is not really two separate planes but rather a continuous girdle. That means you have to keep your strength in proportion to your lumbar strength or there will be
Trainees who are just getting started on a serious strength program often learn this rather quickly. Invariably, when I start a sports team on an off-season program, at least a dozen athletes come to me complaining of pain in their lower abs, specifically, in the groin area. They experience the pain after heavy squats or heavy pulling movements. I immediately ask if they've been doing any ab work. If they have, it's been too mild to be useful for the amount of weight they're handling, and in many cases they've been doing all their ab work at the end of their workouts. It usually turns out that several have, in fact, been doing ab work before they lift but have only been hitting their upper abs with crunches or situps, and the lower abs need some form of leg raises.
Once again, the factor of proportionate strength comes forward. If you only work your upper abs, they move ahead of the lower abs and add to the problem. So I have the athletes do one set of high-rep crunches or situps followed by a high-rep set of leg raises before they touch a weight. For good measure, I also have them start doing one high-rep set of back hyperextensions to cover all the bases. If they follow this routine religiously, the pain in the lower-abdominal region always goes away, unless of course, they've already dinged the muscles. In that case, it takes some time to recover.
It's a smart idea to do something for the upper and lower portions of the abdominals even if you aren't experiencing any signs of weakness. Ab work is ideal for warming up the body, and strong abs are extremely critical for strength athletes who are trying to build herculean lumbars. I've had football players who pushed their good mornings up to 250 for eight but failed to lean on their abs during that time. Sure enough, they came to me complaining of lower-ab pain after a heavy session. Once they started working their abs harder, the problem disappeared.
Yet another neglected muscle group is the neck. Now, you may ask, How in the world do those muscles have anything to do with my lifting heavy weights? The answer is, they have a great deal to do with it. All of the muscles that form your back, from the lower tip of your spine all the way to the crown, must be maintained in relative degrees of strength. I like to look at the back as having three segments, although I'm fully aware that it isn't anatomically correct. It's merely a way for me to build a more systematic program, including exercises for the lower, middle and upper back. Trainees usually organize their routines that way, but the high upper back is sometimes missed, and the neck isn't even given token consideration. That's a mistake.
More often than not the weakness reveals itself in rather unexpected movements like the bench press or, more frequently, the incline press. The act of locking the neck tightly and bridging back onto the bench often results in a white-hot pain and I happen to think that pain in the cervical region is the absolute worst back pain of all.
There was a time in strength development when every program included at least one neck exercise. There was even a theory that the well-developed man should possess a neck, upper arm and calf that were all the same size. That ideal is long lost, but I always believed it to be valid, for it meant the athlete had to do something for all the smaller bodyparts and on a regular basis.
That's the reason I advocate doing one specific exercise for the high traps as well as something that directly helps strengthen the neck muscles, the ones on the sides and the front of the neck that aren't so directly affected by trap work. It's also the reason I have my athletes do the explosive form of shrugging rather than the more deliberate form of merely lifting the shoulders upward. Dynamic shrugs hit the traps very high, where they actually climb up the back of your skull. That builds powerful rear neck muscles, so essential to anyone engaged in any contact sport.
What about the other areas of the neck? Naturally, if you have a neck machine available, use it, making sure you work all four parts. Most people don't have that equipment at their disposal, however. I don't. What else works? The old-fashioned neck harness is good. So is having a partner apply pressure to the various parts while you lie on a bench. Even so, I don't like to have to depend on a partner. There's a very effective way to work the neck that's been around for eons. It's the old dynamic-tension form of exercising. It's simple, but it does work and you can do it on your own.
Merely apply pressure to the various parts of your neck with your hands. Work a specific area until it gets tired, then do a kind of isometric hold for a few seconds. Each time you do it, try to increase the pressure or the reps or the amount of time in which you do the isometric hold. One of the great things about the muscles of the neck is that they respond to exercise very quickly.
Several years ago I had a football player who seemed prone to dinging a neck muscle about once a month. He did the deal with a partner for a bit, but as is usually the case, he got in a rush and skipped it more often than he did it. I told him to start doing dynamic tension every morning as soon as he got out of bed, 50 reps for every angle and then a short hold at the end of each. It became a part of his daily routine, and it worked wonderfully. Not only did his frequent neck problems go away, but he built a bull-like neck in virtually no time. His neck became his pride, and he ordered a neck harness to further his development.
The final bodypart I'm going to discuss may not seem to be neglected at all. In most cases, in fact, it's woefully overworked. I'm talking about the biceps. The fact is, however, many competitive lifters and strength athletes shun any sort of biceps work because they believe that only bodybuilders are interested in those showy muscles. Not so. The biceps and connecting forearms play integral roles in moving heavy weights. As a rule, strength athletes and Olympic-style weightlifters get plenty of biceps work in their programs, since they do lots of cleans, high pulls and shrugs. That, however, is not 100 percent true, for I've had several Olympic lifters ding their biceps simply because they allowed them to fall too far behind. Some specialized work for the biceps remedies the weakness rather quickly.
Powerlifters and those who include heavy deadlifts in their routines are a different story. Their upper-body exercises include plenty of work for their deltoids, triceps and pecs, but often nothing for the biceps. Their reasoning is that the biceps do nothing for the deadlift or for the squat or bench for that matter, so why bother with them? The weakness usually doesn't show itself during training because they typically use moderate weights during the training cycles, often only 70 percent of max. During competition, however, or on that day when they want to try a new PR. the weakness will pop up. In mild cases the biceps only tears slightly, leaving an ugly discoloration. That can be handled rather with ice, lots of supplements and perhaps some zymes. In cases of severe weakness the biceps tendons give way, and that's serious. An ounce of prevention goes a long way in this case. I prefer chins for the biceps, but curls once or twice a week will also do the trick.
The theme of this discussion is that anyone who is honestly striving to achieve a higher level of strength, whether or not he or she is interested in competing, must constantly pay attention to the small points, like being aware of any muscle groups that are falling behind. How can you tell? Examine your routine to make sure you're working all the smaller groups, and listen to your body, for it will tell you if there's a weakness. If you start having small muscle tremors, the kind that make the muscle quiver during the night after a workout, that's a clue. If that same group begins to cramp frequently, that's a bigger clue. If you do something about strengthening a weak area right away, chances are you wont have any serious problems. If, however, you continue to neglect the signs of relative weakness, you can rest assured that you'll eventually have problems.
It's been said time and again that your body is no stronger than the weakest part. Everyone knows this to be true, but merely understanding the truth and doing something about it are often two very different kettles of fish. You must constantly evaluate your program and make sure that during any given week you're working all your bodyparts big and small. If you have problems in one area, such as your lower back, make sure you hit it more than once a week. Gaining strength is an ongoing process, and it changes from month to month, year to year. If you don't pay attention, an area that's strong today may be your weak area in six months.