There is an old saying that when under stress you will never rise to the occasion only fall to the level of your training, and I believe this is very true in the world of strength and conditioning. This is what makes the practice of technical precision of the lifts so important.
The title of this article is a quote from a great in the iron game, Marty Gallagher, and Pavel of StrongFirst has discussed this same idea several times, In fact, Russian lifters spend much of their time lifting between about 70-85% of their max efforts in order to improve build integrity with heavy loads.
Consider this point carefully; the focus in training is to groove the path of each lift with a load that is heavy and stressful on the system but not so heavy where deterioration in technique may occur.
Your brain will develop a quality motor pattern for a certain lift if it is practiced under a reasonable load with consistent effort. A lot of time can be spent in this range while manipulating the volume, intensity, and density of training over time and I can personally attest to this from my recent experience training for the Beast Tamer Challenge.
My Experience With The Beast Tamer Challenge
For those unfamiliar, the challenge entails performing a press, a pull-up and a pistol with a 48kg kettlebell.
During the training leading up to the challenge, I only touched the actual 48kg kettlebell a few times. The vast majority of the training was performed with kettlebells ranging from 32-40kg and the challenge ended up being a foregone conclusion. What was important was the idea of heavy frequent work with no failed attempts.
Here's how that challenge ended up for me:
The key part of the above paragraph is the development of a quality motor pattern under stress (for the sake of this article the stress we refer to is load or intensity). If you have ever attended a course put on by StrongFirst you know a considerable amount of time is spent on power breathing and the use of high full body tension to remove leaks in force production.
These concepts, along with the ability to dial the tension up and down depending on load, are to be practiced with your grind lifts. You have to be able to make every repetition look identical, like a robot, no matter what the load.
The tension needed will change depending on the load, but the pattern you groove should be identical.
Why 70-85% Works For Building Movement Integrity
If we look critically at this we see why the 70-85% range becomes so important in training the grinds. It gives you a broad range of intensities to pattern a specific motor pattern while only changing the tension necessary to complete the task.
Not only is the technique of the lift a skill in and of itself, but creating the necessary tension to match the intensity of the lift is a skill as well. I know this seems like a round-about way to get to the point of the article but I wanted to give context: if practicing a skill is important to patterning the technique, what should a true max effort lift look like? Beyond that, what should a failed true max effort attempt look like?
Failing with integrity means even at maximal loads, if you have grooved a quality and consistent motor pattern under load and practiced your ability to dial up and down your tension, a missed attempt looks exactly like every other lift you have trained except it does not go up all the way.
You reach a sticking point, try to push through it without changing to some other position, and then safely return the weight to the rack if we are talking about the press.
Do not be afraid to struggle but do not be tempted to change to an ugly shape to try and finish the lift. There is no value in it. What you have done is thrown away all the practice you have put in to tell your brain when things get hard, just do whatever it takes.
I was recently talking with Chris Duffin of Kabuki Strength and I learned that every attempt he takes in a deadlift from 405 (when you are as strong as him you start at 405) to 900+lbs looks identical.
Even if an attempt fails there is a brief isometric period when the weight ceases to move and then it is returned to the floor. Here he is pulling a mutant amount of weight for demonstration of my point:
There are more people than ever writing all over the internet on the subject of training with weights. One point not being discussed very often is the pursuit of technical mastery; that is, treating your training as a practice where you are constantly refining your skills.
When you are technically sound, even your failed attempts look good; they just did not have enough strength to be completed.
Losing position to try and finish is where injuries occur. Failing with integrity is safe. Take note of where the attempt failed, look back at your training and start again.
If you consistently allow yourself to adopt different positions and motor patterns when lifts get difficult in competition you are going to revert to the pattern you practiced under the most stress. If you have some joint or mobility restriction keeping you from obtaining a quality position, seek coaching to determine the cause.
The point of training is to make everything seem automatic when competition time rolls around; success should almost feel like a foregone conclusion.