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Testing Phase Training: Conquer Weaknesses Through Self-Awareness

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In this article, I’ll detail the components of a testing phase that I have used on a few lifters for whom I’ve programmed. First, a “testing phase” is simply a phrase that I use to delineate a mesocycle in which the lifter’s strengths and weaknesses are tested and evaluated. The developmental goal in this phase is in learning more about one’s training, rather than in building strength—think of this as a way to build towards a self-awareness PR. The goal is not to get stronger (though you need not get weaker while doing this) but, rather, to put yourself in the position to get stronger.

I wrote this testing phase as a (hopefully) helpful response to the methods currently used by beginning and intermediate-level lifters who lack the necessary experience and self-awareness to perceive weaknesses and address them. Weakness diagnosis is a fickle mistress. If lifter X has a flaw in his or her squat technique, and lifter X seeks out advice, the diagnosis—and the suggested remedy—will be different almost to a person. “You’ve got weak hips!” “glutes!” “quads!” “back!” “Drive with your hips!” “Keep your chest up!” “You should squat narrower!” “You need to squat wider!” “Abduct!” “Adduct!” “Do more special exercises!” “Do more specificity training!”

And so on. Most of the advice given out, even by very good lifters and coaches, ends up being the projection of personal experience. Lifter Y found one solution to be helpful for him or her, and so it becomes the solution for the lifters X of the world. While personal experience is extremely valuable in learning training, the relativist in me acknowledges that if we all respond differently to different training methods—and if all the major training methods work for at least someone—then projection misuses personal experience.

Evaluating weaknesses through movement variations helps to limit the variables and make diagnosis a little easier. Instead of trying to choose from a seemingly infinite number of possibilities why you’re failing your bench press two inches off your chest, you simply rotate through a number of different variations on that lift until you discover the ones you’re least good at. Afterwards, you develop those movements and see if your progress carries over to your competition-style lift. Oftentimes, it will.

So, here’s a simple short (three-week) training cycle that won’t project onto you, but will instead allow you to try and diagnose your own weaknesses. The theme of this article should be simple—instead of being beholden to another person for insights into your own weaknesses as a lifter, learn instead to self-empower through practicing—and perfecting—your own diagnoses.

I. The Movement-Based Split

For the testing phase, the training split takes place over five sessions per week—there are two squat sessions, two bench press sessions, and one deadlift session. This progression protocol for this mesocycle is from specific to general—then back to specific—over the course of a three-week training cycle. Each of the three main movements—the squat, bench press, and deadlift—follow this trajectory. Additionally, each week in the mesocycle presents the same theme for each of the three main movements. I’ll detail these for you:

I.I: Week One.

Week one consists of specific-general movements. I’m terming these “specific-general” rather than “general-specific” just to indicate that for most lifters, they’re closer to the “specific” side of the spectrum than the “general” side. In other words, these movements are closer variations to a competition-style technique than the variations that follow in week two. One of these movements will end up being a specific exercise for a particular lifter, as lifters will be asked to perform the following exercises:

Squat:

1.) Low-bar squat.
2.) High-bar squat.
3.) Beltless squat (using your normal bar placement).
4.) Paused squat.

Bench press:

1.) Close-grip paused bench press.
2.) Wide-grip paused bench press.
3.) Moderate-grip paused bench press.
4.) Bench press with chains.

Deadlift:

1.) Conventional deadlift.
2.) Sumo deadlift.

In week one, a lifter gets to cross-reference their typical lift with a variation on that main movement (either a low-bar or a high-bar placement on squat, a grip-width change on bench, or a deadlift style change).

For the squat, they also get to see how much—or how little—they benefit from using their belt, and get to see how they respond to an isometric component that eliminates stretch-reflex (a paused squat. For the bench press, they also get to see how their strength curve is affected by accommodating resistance. And for the deadlift, they get to cross-reference two different deadlift styles with one another.

kyle keough

I.II: Week Two.

Week two consists of general-specific movements. These movements are chosen to introduce lifters to different loading schemes and test for specific weaknesses. They include:

Squat:

5.) Front squat.
6.) Zercher squat.
7.) Specialty bar squat.
8.) Bulgarian split squat.

Bench press:

5.) Floor press.
6.) Two-board bench press.
7.) Overhead press.
8.) Incline press.

Deadlift:

3.) 2” deficit deadlift.
4.) 2” block deadlift.
On the squat, movements five and six test lifters on two different front-loaded squat variations; movement seven allows for another loading scheme to be introduced; and movement eight tests a unilateral movement. And if a specialty bar isn’t an option, simply choose another variation to test a perceived weakness. For example, you could substitute with a box squat if you felt you performed poorly on paused squats. Or, you could try a foot-width variation—a wide-stance or a narrow-stance squat could be employed. The important thing—and this is critical to having a successful training phase—is that a balanced variety of exercises are sampled.

On the bench press, movements five and six test lifters on two limited-range-of-motion exercises: the floor press and the two-board bench press. This will allow lifters to evaluate tricep and lockout strength. Movements seven and eight introduce different planes of movement with the incline press and overhead press. These will help test the lifter’s ability to adapt to different planes of movement and will help identify possible shoulder weakness.

And on the deadlift, lifters will have their biomechanics adjusted slightly by performing a shortened and an elongated range-of-motion variation. These variations can give some insight into how dependent a lifter is on bar-speed off the floor, as well as how much targeted training a lifter needs for developing a stronger lockout.

I.III: Week Three.

Week three consists of higher rep-range training, plus an evaluation/confirmation of previously-held beliefs regarding weaknesses. The goal of this week is twofold: first, lifters return to specific training and perform the main movement for a ten-rep set to test their performance with higher rep-range training; and second, lifters choose to either repeat or introduce new movement variations in order to evaluate or confirm previous results. The movements are as follows:

Squat:

9.) 10-rep competition-style squat.
10.) Perceived weakness #1.
11.) Perceived weakness #2.
12.) Perceived weakness #3.

Bench press:

9.) 10-rep competition-style paused bench press.
10.) Perceived weakness #1.
11.) Perceived weakness #2.
12.) Perceived weakness #3.

Deadlift:

5.) 10-rep competition-style deadlift.
6.) Perceived weakness #1.

II. The Use of Movement Variations

The testing phase uses movement variations in order to identify strengths and weaknesses. Each main movement—the squat, bench press, and deadlift—is substituted with a number of movement variations, and each variation is performed up to a specific protocol.

The testing phase I’ve written up here is only an example; it can be adapted to test a specific lifter’s needs. If and when modifications are made, it’s important that the following criteria are still met:

1.) The testing phase should diagnose changes to the performance of the main movement. This means utilizing variations that either have you narrowing or widening your stance (on the squat or the deadlift), or narrowing or widening your grip (on the bench press). The testing phase, in other words, should have within it specific variations to the main movements.

2.) The testing phase should diagnose weaknesses within the concentric phase of the movement. This means utilizing limited- and long-range-of-motion movement variations. A board press would be an example of a limited-range-of-motion movement variation, while a cambered bar bench press—or even just a dumbbell press–might be an example of a long-range-of-motion movement variation. It is important, when it’s feasible, to test the components of the concentric through these variations.

3.) The testing phase should diagnose muscular weaknesses through movement variations. There should be variations that exploit specific weaknesses—if you have weak triceps, for example, then you should have incorporated a movement variation that will demonstrate this weakness for you. This is why you’ll want to perform the main movement in several different ways and introduce different loading schemes and different pieces of equipment into this phase.

4.) The testing phase should diagnose weaknesses in the strength curve. If you are particularly slow coming out of the hole on your squats, there should be at least one variation—like a paused squat, or a box squat—that exposes said weakness.

5.) The testing phase should confirm weaknesses in the strength curve through an introduced isometric phase. So, if you’re weak at knee-height on your deadlift, there should be, again, a movement variation—a below-the-knee paused deadlift could be one; a low rack pull could be another; a low block pull could be a third—that confirms this by introducing an isometric phase just below this point.

6.) The testing phase is not designed to confirm flaws in mobility or general physical preparedness, but these might show up through different movement variations. A lifter might find him or herself unable to perform a correct front squat, which might lead to the realization that a particular muscle is tight and uncooperative.

kyle2

The Testing Phase:

Week One:

Bench Press A Session

Close-Grip Paused Bench Press
– Up to a 5-rep set at a RPE@7

Wide-Grip Paused Bench Press
– Up to a 5-rep set at a RPE@7

Bench Press B Session

Moderate-Grip Paused Bench Press
– Up to a 3-rep set at a RPE@8

Bench Press with Chains
– Up to a 5-rep set at a RPE@7

Squat A Session (all unwrapped)

Low-Bar Squat
– Up to a 5-rep set at a RPE@7

High-Bar Squat
– Up to a 5-rep set at a RPE@7

Squat B Session (all unwrapped)

Beltless Squat
– Up to a 3-rep set at a RPE@7

Paused Squat
– Up to a 3-rep set at a RPE@7

Deadlift Session

Conventional Deadlift
– Up to a 1-rep set at a RPE@8

Sumo Deadlift
– Up to a 1-rep set at a RPE@8.

Week Two:

Bench Press A Session

Floor Press
– Up to a 3-rep set at a RPE@8

Two-Board Bench Press
– Up to a 1-rep set at a RPE@8

Bench Press B Session

Overhead Press
– Up to a 3-rep set at a RPE@7

Incline Bench Press
– Up to a 3-rep set at a RPE@8

Squat A Session (all unwrapped)

Front Squat
– Up to a 5-rep set at a RPE@7

Zercher Squat
– Up to a 5-rep set at a RPE@7

Squat B Session (all unwrapped)

Specialty Bar Squat (SSB, Cambered Bar, etc.)
– Up to a 5-rep set at a RPE@7

Bulgarian Split Squat
– Up to a moderately difficult set of 8

Deadlift Session

2” Deficit Deadlift
– Up to a 5-rep set at a RPE@7

2” Block Deadlift
– Up to a 5-rep set at a RPE@7

Week Three:

Bench Press A Session

Competition-Style Paused Bench Press
– Up to a 10-rep set at a RPE@8

Perceived Weakness #1
– Up to a 1-rep set at a RPE@8
– Up to a 10-rep set at a RPE@7

Bench Press B Session

Perceived Weakness #2
– Up to a 1-rep set at a RPE@8
– Up to a 10-rep set at a RPE@7

Perceived Weakness #3
– Up to a 1-rep set at a RPE@8
– Up to a 10-rep set at a RPE@7

Squat A Session (wrapped/unwrapped for comp-style; unwrapped for #1)

Competition-Style Squat
– Up to a 10-rep set at a RPE@8

Perceived Weakness #1
– Up to a 1-rep set at a RPE@8
– Up to a 10-rep set at a RPE@7

Squat B Session

Perceived Weakness #2
– Up to a 1-rep set at a RPE@8
– Up to a 10-rep set at a RPE@7

Perceived Weakness #3
– Up to a 1-rep set at a RPE@8
– Up to a 10-rep set at a RPE@7

Deadlift Session

Competition-Style Deadlift
– Up to a 10-rep set at a RPE@8

Perceived Weakness #1
– Up to a 1-rep set at a RPE@8
– Up to a 10-rep set at a RPE@7

III. Evaluation of Results

Once you’ve completed the phase, how do you know what constitutes a strength, and what constitutes a weakness? Diagnosis at this level is in select occurrences blatantly obvious, but most of the time, it’s hard to determine whether you’re “good” or “bad” at a particular variation.

First, it helps to identify lifters who are like you—not only in age, strength, and training experience, but also in biomechanics—and compare numbers. The relationships between main movements and movement variations are not set in stone by any means, and there will be a certain amount of normal variance between lifters. But here are a few casual observations, placed into scenarios, which might help:

1.) In powerlifting, an exceptional front squatter will front-squat somewhere around 80% of their max back squat. A good front squatter might net 70%, and a really weak one might only be capable of hitting 50%. Part of your aptitude in this lift—or in any lift–is determined by biomechanics, but if you lie on the proficient end of the spectrum, you’ll probably benefit by discarding these, whereas if your front squat is really weak (relative to other lifters like you), it’s probably worth training.

2.) There exist rare cases of deadlifters who have such exceptional bar-speed that their 2” block deadlift is equal—or even worse—to their max deadlift off the floor. If you discover that this is the case for you, 2” block deadlifts could be a very useful training tool.

3.) And generally speaking, the average powerlifter is capable of overhead pressing somewhere around two-thirds of their max bench press. For some, it’s a little less; for others, a little more. But if your overhead press is nearly equal to your bench press, further developing it isn’t likely to carry over, whereas if you struggle to overhead-press 50% of your max bench press, chances are it’s a variation that needs to be introduced into your training in order for you to address a weakness as efficiently as possible.

In conclusion, a testing phase is still fraught with ambiguity—the answers derived from the data are never clear-cut—but it will certainly help many beginning- and intermediate-level lifters develop better self-awareness in training. Whether you’re programming for yourself or adopting another, proven program, self-awareness is the most critical component of success. This article is not exhaustive by any means—and there are many components to a good diagnostic beyond exercise selection that I’m not prepared to cover here—but it hopefully provides at least a starting point for you in your quest to be a more self-aware lifter.

Comments
  1. Good article Kyle, definitely a good read. Thank you so much for the sharing this.

  2. A well thought-out article with new (or at least under-exposed) ideas! High quality content right here. Good work, Kyle.

    1. Kyle Keough

      Thank you, Travis and Rjorg! I feel like calling the content of a strength-training article “new” (or even just under-exposed) is the highest compliment you can bestow on someone!

  3. Very well written and thought out, Kyle. Thanks for sharing.

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