Your Own Personal World Records Are The Only Thing That Matter
By Charles Staley
When I was still relatively new to lifting, I can remember thinking how incredible it must be to break a World record in sport. I remember in particular watching former Soviet weightlifter Leonid Taranenko break the clean & jerk World record in the late ‘80’s with a monstrous 586-pound effort.
Fast forward to today, and despite decades in the gym, I’ve come nowhere close to breaking any kind of World (or even National) record in any sport, but I can tell you that I have achieved things that I never would have thought possible for myself, and these achievements have brought me tremendous satisfaction, as well as continued motivation to continue my favorite pastime. A big part of why I’ve done as well as I have is that I’ve always been laser-focused on bettering my own “PR’s” (personal records) in the gym.
Sorry, Most People Will NEVER Be The Best
Now you might think that I’ve been selling myself short my focusing on my own personal records as opposed to setting my sights on actual World records, so allow me to take a moment to explain why I’d vehemently disagree with that notion:
Imagine that you could somehow identify the sport that you had the most potential to succeed at, and then somehow managed to dedicate your entire life to that sport. Further, you also had luck on your side — meaning, you managed to find fantastic coaches, avoid serious injuries, and all in all, the stars aligned perfectly and you managed to achieve the highest possible result that your genetics will allow. In a case like this, what do you imagine your chances are at breaking a World record in that particular sport?
My guess: less than 1 in 100,000.
Some sports, such as bodybuilding, don’t involve World records of course, but there’s only one Mr. Olympia each year, and many thousands of guys gunning for that title. So clearly, there’s a reason that World records (and similar athletic achievements) are held in such high regard: it’s because very few people ever get there.
It Doesn’t Matter Because You Can Be YOUR Best
However, even if you are that special little snowflake, guess how you’re going to arrive at that coveted World record one day? By doing the same thing that I’m arguing for in this article: establishing, documenting, and committing yourself to breaking your own PERSONAL World records. Regardless of your personal potential, this is the only mindset that will take you to your genetic potential, whatever that happens to be.
I’ll re-state this, because it’s important: your own personal records are every bit as noble and meaningful as World records. Your PR’s are the only things that really matter.
You Can’t Master It Until You Measure It
When I was a competitive martial artist back in the Reagan administration, I never felt completely satisfied with the small number of victories that I managed for myself, but it was only years later that I fully appreciated why: winning point karate sparring matches is largely subjective. Much like competitive fencing, the kicks and punches are pulled short of heavy contact, and each clash is followed by a break in the action, where the judges would assess which competitor scored a “point.” The bottom line is that winning and losing had less to do with what you REALLY did and more to do with what the judges thought you did. Further, even if the judges were 100% accurate, it might be that you won because your opponent was having a bad day, not because you were having a good day.
Weight training of course, is far more objective and quantifiable, which is one reason so many people find it so appealing. The first time you hit that coveted 300-pound bench press (just as an example), it’s incontrovertible that you’re a different (and better) person than you were before it happened. You’ve made real progress, and no one can take that away from you.
New PR’s are also indicative of new physicality as well: as I always tell my clients, “when your numbers improve, YOU improve.” Imagine, for example, a novice 18-year old lifter who’s max squat is 225 pounds. Then, 6 years later, he squats 585 — do you think he might be carrying a bit more muscle at that point?
Monitoring PR’s Ensures Progression
It’s called “progressive resistance training” for a reason: while the application of stress (in the form of lifting weights) is a critical component of the equation, it’s isn’t the only thing that matters: constant, gradual progression is the other half of the equation. Think about it: if you brought yourself from curling 85 for 10 reps to 105 for 10, you’d experience a commensurate growth in arm size and strength. However, if you never pushed for heavier weights and/or more reps, you’ll stagnate at that level of adaptation. And trust me, your body is subject to the law of entropy — unless you keep pushing the limits, you’ll always revert back to your former self.
If maximum strength is your game, your attention should be fixed on improving new single rep PR’s for your key lifts, but “rep records” have a critical place in the process as well. Hitting new 3, 5 and even higher rep PR’s serve a few important functions:
• Confidence: Any time you’re able to perform more reps with a given weight, you know you’re on the path to progress.
• The “Bleed-Over” Effect: Even if you’re a powerlifter who only cares about new 1RM’s, new 3 or 1RM PR’s will, in time, “bleed over” into new single-rep PR’s. That’s because new bests in higher-repetition performances create improvements in support systems, such as anaerobic endurance and muscle hypertrophy. Think of it like this: imagine that you needed to create a pile of sand that reaches 36 inches in height. You keep piling more and more sand at the pile’s apex, but as you do so, it simply spreads out in all directions, adding little to the pile’s height. But eventually, if you persist, you’ll get that sand pile to a height of 36 inches. This is what coaches mean when they say that “a peak is only as high as it’s base is wide.”
If hypertrophy and body composition is your primary interest, you still need to focus on new 1RM records, but just as importantly, you’ll need to establish and track higher RM records, and there are at least two ways to approach this:
• Track rep records for a given load. As an example, if your current best with 225 on the bench press is 8 repetitions, you should be constantly seeking 9 or more reps with that weight.
• Track load records for a given number of reps. In this case, you’re looking to increase the amount of weight you can life for a given amount of reps. So as an example, if the most you’ve ever benched 8 reps with is 225 pounds, you’d be trying to lift 230 or more for the same number of reps.
• Track and constantly attempt to improve training density. An important component of body composition training is limiting rests between sets. This creates metabolic stress — an important pre-condition for hypertrophy and, by extension, improved body composition. So while seeking improvements in loads and reps is important, it’s equally effective to seek improved training density, which means increasing the work/rest ratio of your training sessions. This can (and should) be done by attempting to complete all sets of a given exercise in less time, and/or by completing the entire workout in less time.
Put Yourself In A Position To Win
No single method I just mentioned is necessarily superior to the others. Hitting a new 1RM squat PR is just as important to a lifter interested in hypertrophy development as a new 8RM rep record is to a competitive powerlifter. For this reason, and especially the more experienced you are, you need to remain open to hitting any type or new PR you can on a given training session. In fact, the longer you’ve been training, the more important it is to stay open to new “indirect” PR’s. Powerlifters need to enthusiastically destroy existing rep record and training density PR’s, and physique athletes need to push the boundaries on establishing new 1, 2, and 3RM records. Doing so is analogous to pouring more and more sand on that pile, until eventually, it’s height rises to a taller peak.
Desperate Times Call For Desperate Measures
If you last long enough in this game, you’ll get to the point where new PR’s of any kind are harder and harder to come by. As depressing as that sounds, it’s for your own good as it turns out: there are finite limits to your physical potential, and the closer you get to breaching those limits, the more protective your body becomes in an effort to preserve your own safety.
When you get to this stage, achieving new PR’s requires not only patience, but imagination as well. One clear reason for this is that the longer you’ve been lifting, the harder it is to “surprise” your body with new challenges. Now, if you expect to continue your growth (or in worst case scenarios, prevent decline), you’ll need to think outside the box. A few of my favorite tactics include:
• Reducing Creature Comforts: Try to achieve a great performance with less support gear (belts, straps, etc), less advantageous equipment (thicker bars, etc.), on an empty stomach, and/or by using bigger jumps in your warmup sets that what you generally prefer.
• Increase Technical Difficulty: Use more range of motion, implement pauses, and/or use stricter technique.
• Pre-exhaustion: Instead of “saving yourself” during your warm-up sets new a new PR, why not see if you can meet or beat an existing rep record in the face of fatigue? I’ve been using this method lately with satisfying results. A few workouts ago I equaled my 1RM bench press PR after grinding out a very taxing triple with a slightly lower weight. So no, I didn’t beat my existing PR, but I did repeat it under adverse conditions.
The Final Solution: Select New Goals
Look — this might sound like a compromise to some, but if you’re just absolutely stuck in your tracks despite consistent hard work, it probably means that you’re either at your ultimate potential, or as close to it as you’re going to get.
In my own case lately, I’ve been pondering about what it’ll “cost” me, at age 54, to bring my deadlift PR from 510 to 550. Sure, the idea of pulling 550 has a great ring to it, but when I think about it carefully, the time, effort, and risk involved might not be worth it in the long run. My efforts might be better spent in other directions, such as improving my body composition and/or improving my short-term endurance and mobility. And, because it requires far less energy to maintain than it does to gain, I could probably retain most of my pulling strength in the process or pursuing these new goals. This might strike some as a cop-out, but there’s a fine line between reaching your full potential and pushing a bit too far and experiencing a huge setback in the process.
Take Control And Make It Your Own
I hope these insights and suggestions have been helpful. The continuous drive for excellence is a path littered with pitfalls, but smart lifters know how to make the appropriate adjustments. If you’ve picked up a few tricks along the way that I haven’t mentioned here, please share your insights below. I look forward to your input!
About the Author
“One of the signs of a great teacher is the ability to make the subject matter seem simple. Charles Staley is one of these rare teachers. After listening and talking to him, you suddenly achieve a new awareness of training. You go to the gym and, suddenly, everything makes sense, and you wonder why you haven’t been doing it his way since day one.” – Muscle Media 2000 magazine August, 1999
Prominent both the United States and across the globe, Charles is recognized as an insightful coach and innovator in the field of human performance. His knowledge, skills and reputation have lead to appearances on NBC’s The TODAY Show and The CBS Early Show, along with numerous radio appearances. He has also authored more than a thousand articles for leading fitness publications and websites, and has lectured to eager audiences around the World.
Charles is not only a thinker, but also a doer: At age 54, he competes in the sport of raw powerlifting, and is a 2-time World Champion (220 and 198-pound weight classes). Find Charles online at www.TargetFocusFitness.com. For distance coaching opportunities, email Charles at firstname.lastname@example.org.