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Why Your Weight Lifting Routine Won’t Make You More Athletic

Updated: Jun 18, 2021

By Conor Millstein

Bench press. Barbell squat. Deadlift. Bent over row. Dumbbell curl.

Most modern fitness professionals consider these exercises crucial to improving strength, and therefore, health. So I got good at them. By age 18, I could bench press 375 pounds, squat 600 pounds, and pull 415 pounds. Yet I couldn’t perform simple bodyweight exercises without feeling unstable, or run a mile without my legs turning into lead bricks. Despite being very strong, I didn’t feel healthy.

The fitness industry leads us to believe that performing certain movements with large amounts of weight will not only make us look better but also improve our overall health. But I found that being strong in these movements did not make me look or feel more athletic. Instead, my workout routine was inhibiting my ability to move well in everyday life, often causing pains, aches, and strains rather than preventing them.

I realized the most athletic people--not only those with a body I admired but also those who stayed pain-free the longest--were the ones who moved well in and out of the gym, adapting to any situation without injury. This observation shifted my training focus; instead of focusing my workouts on lifting a certain amount of weight in an isolated movement, I started focusing on how well my training translated into my ability to perform everyday movements like picking something up off the ground or climbing a flight of stairs. This focus eventually resulted in a training method that prioritized functional, adaptable, and balanced patterns and deprioritized isolated movements.

Understanding Everyday Movements

To determine how to best translate workouts into everyday life, I first had to understand the basics of how humans move on a daily basis. All human movement can be categorized into a finite number of fundamental patterns. For example, opening a door recruits the same general pulling pattern as rowing a boat or pulling a wagon. Similarly, all human movement can be broken down into one or more of the following patterns: push, pull, squat, hinge, lunge, and rotation. On a larger scale, these fundamental patterns form the building blocks for basic human evolutionary patterns like the gait cycle, running, and throwing.

Once I understood the finite nature of human movement, I started thinking about how athletic people utilize these patterns in everyday life. The first thing I noticed was that athletic people have a natural tendency to minimize risk within these patterns, meaning that they perform them in a way that prevents injury and maximizes alignment and stability. An example of this might be maintaining a dynamically aligned or balanced posture in their gait cycle to minimize the possibility of low back pain while walking, or pulling a door open using anchored abdominal rotation rather than jerking the arm and shoulder.

Athletic individuals also easily adapt these patterns based on context. For example, they know that the squat pattern used to pick up something like a couch requires more core stabilization and bend in the knee than the squat pattern used to pick up a backpack, and can adapt their movements accordingly. Performing optimally in everyday movements means adapting to these potential differences without injury, which, for most of us, requires unlearning our bodies’ instinctive way of moving in response to environmental stimuli, then retraining it to respond in a functional way.

Everyday movements also require integration, meaning they require the balance of different muscle groups through multiple planes of motion. Walking, for example, requires the balanced coordination of postural alignment, abdominal pressure, rotation around the spine, strength in the posterior, and foot mobility, among other things. Walking also requires movement through multiple planes of motion, meaning that it requires the body to simultaneously move forward and backwards, rotationally, and side-to-side. Athletic individuals are able to easily balance and integrate these complex elements.

A Better Way to Train

The reason my training wasn’t working was that it promoted the exact opposite of athletic, everyday movement. Rather than making me functional, it forced me to sacrifice integration and stability in order to lift more weight or get more reps. Rather than increasing my adaptability, it trained my body to move in hyper specific pathways that weren’t applicable to my biological patterns. And rather than promoting balance and integration in patterns, it disproportionately strengthened some aspects of patterns while neglecting others.

If you want to be athletic and injury free in everyday life, stop equating isolated strength exercises with health and longevity. Instead, focus on training functional, adaptable, and balanced patterns--not only foundational patterns but also compound evolutionary patterns like running and throwing. To start training patterns, stick to the following training rules.

Remove Dysfunction

My previous training method promoted dysfunction because it prioritized performing a certain amount of reps in isolated movements. Emphasizing performing at a high level in isolated movements teaches the body that these isolated movements are the way it is “supposed” to function. Once this happens, the body adapts to make this function more energy efficient. To make movements more energy efficient, the body will often sacrifice the alignment of the skeleton to get more reps or lift more weight using less energy. This sacrifice of alignment in order to perform isolated exercises leads to poor biomechanics over time and an increased potential for injury.

A house can’t be built on a shaky foundation. Likewise, integrated, adaptable, and sustainable movement patterns can’t be built on dysfunctional mechanics. To remove dysfunction, start by focusing on alignment and awareness within the foundational patterns using bodyweight only (squat, hinge, lunge, push-up, pull-up, gait cycle). Then use that awareness to uncover weaknesses (aka dysfunction) in these foundational patterns. For example, if doing the foundational movements with bodyweight makes apparent your tendency to round the upper spine and shoulders, then all training after that point should be centered around strengthening that weakness. If trained properly, this focus will force the body to adapt to a new way of moving, reducing dysfunctional tendencies.

Train Versatility

My training also lacked versatility because I was primarily training one variation of a pattern. The barbell back squat, for example, trained my body into thinking that the specific placement of my hands, feet, and barbell were the only possible environment for a successful squat pattern. This did not result in a body that was adaptable because I was training one instance of a movement, rather than preparing my body to squat well in any environment.

To improve adaptability, train foundational patterns in their fullest versatility, accounting for that movement’s ability to be explosive, stable, balanced, and strong through multiple planes of motion. For example, instead of just training a back squat with weight, train your squat pattern’s ability to be explosive (a squat jump), balanced (single side load), strong (squat with weight), and transitionable through multiple planes of motion (squat to side lunge). This versatility will prepare your muscles to not only squat in a controlled environment but also adapt to any situation that requires a squat pattern.

Stay Balanced

My old training routine lacked balance, meaning I often performed a disproportionate amount of one movement pattern. This hindered my ability to move well because it promoted muscle imbalance, which leads to bio-mechanical dysfunction and eventual postural distortion. Muscle imbalance occurs when the muscles on one side of a joint become too tight, causing the muscles on the other side to become weak from lack of use. Since back squats made up a large proportion of my lower body training, I was disproportionately tightening certain muscles around my hips and knees while compressing my spine. After a while, this training focus affected my gait cycle; I started seeing aspects of my squat pattern (curved shoulders and turned out feet) in my walking and running patterns. It looked like I was walking and running with a barbell on my back. This change in my gait cycle demonstrates the danger of imbalanced training; it changes the positioning of joints, hindering their ability to move functionally and thus increasing the likelihood of injury.

To combat imbalance in your patterns, train in a way that accounts for all possible human movement patterns. Instead of squatting for 60% of your leg workouts or exclusively bench pressing to strengthen your chest, expand your workouts to include all foundational movement patterns, eventually integrating them into more complex movements like running and throwing.

One effective way to train versatile patterns in a balanced way is by combining movements. Rather than doing a squat and press with weight, for example, do compound movements like a medicine ball squat and press with a lateral jump and burpee. This switch will allow more muscle groups to work in a single exercise, increasing not only the variety of exercises you perform but your ability to integrate them into complex movements that mirror those of everyday life.

Training adaptability and focusing on your ability to move in everyday life results in fitter, healthier, more athletic tissue, thus preventing injury and increasing longevity. To determine whether your training is working for you, set up a free consultation today.

Edited by Taylor De La Pena

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