Most training articles are all about getting strong, staying strong, and preventing injuries. That implies that most people are starting their training journey with a clean slate.
What about lifters who have contraindications before starting their quest for more strength and size? What about someone who started out with a clean slate, got great results and great strength, but then got injured? Or maybe you're broken because you lift poorly, and you lift poorly because you're broken?
I see this vicious cycle all the time, especially with lifters who are married to the "big three" movements: the deadlift, squat and bench press. It blocks them from doing exercises that may work better for them or do them some actual good.
Such movements or techniques can be engineered into a program so that you can train pain free during the workout while promoting positive change over the long term. Here are seven things the broken lifter needs to do.
1 – Use Smart Supersets to Decompress Your Spine
Pairing exercises needs to go beyond simply choosing two movements that aren't related to one another. If you've got a history of back issues, your first priority needs to be keeping your spine healthy.
Pairing a strict overhead press with a deadlift may be a great idea (even from a push/pull perspective), but it's worth noting how much cumulative spinal compression these paired exercises can cause. Remember, a superset isn't just a one-time deal. If you're doing 4 or 5 rounds, that's 8 to 10 sets of compression that can leave your lumbar region very unhappy – even with adequate rest in between each round.
Instead, focus on movements that involve traction or decompression so that the spine doesn't have to endure stress forces for 20 straight minutes. Exercises like hanging leg raises, chin-ups, pull-ups, dips, or pulldowns are great decompressive movements to pair with heavy spinal-loaded exercises like strict presses, deadlifts, squats, or good mornings.
2 – Bring Back the Bodyweight Exercises
If you have severe mobility restrictions, it's time to get good with your bodyweight. Most bodyweight exercises won't light up your cranky joints, but they do facilitate mobility, trunk strength, and muscular endurance. I haven't met too many people who are fantastic at bodyweight work who have a laundry list of chronic pain-points.
That's because they're not handling heavy external loads day in and day out. With all of the benefits heavy lifting provides, we can't overlook the potential collateral damage that it can cause to joints, especially if you've got unfavourable freak leverages.
Push-ups, dead bugs, chin-ups, sit-outs, unloaded squats (overhead with a dowel, pistol, split, or bilateral stance), planks, inverted rows, and other movements are just what the doctor ordered to make a bad situation better. Plus, add some volume to any of these bodyweight exercises and you may get muscle development benefits you didn't think were possible.
3 – Step Up Your Lateral Game
Ninety percent of weight training is done in the sagittal plane. Only 10 percent is done in the lateral plane. In English, that means doing lateral movements with load usually takes a huge back seat to common lifts like deads and squats, and it can explain why you're in a world of chronic pain and injury rehab.
For any joint to function correctly, it has to have relative balance between the muscles on both of that joint's sides. Squats, deadlifts, and even split squats are universally applicable and have tremendous bang for their buck, but we're tricking ourselves if we think that sagittal plane movements like this are all we need for truly healthy knees over the long term.
Exercises that can take your hip health, knee health, and even lumbar spine and sacral health to the next level are probably the adduction and abduction-based movements that you have been neglecting for years. Here's one of my favorite lateral plane movements.
Side Lying, Leg-Elevated Adduction
This movement combines working the adductors with oblique activation. Don't cut your range of motion short, though.
4 – Reset your PR's
If you're still trying to match your double bodyweight, wobbly-legged PR squat that you hit back when you were 24, it's time to put that goal to bed and train smart. You've been injured. You can't move right. Your ROM sucks. Your joints hurt.
Place PR's on the backburner and focus instead on hard work, the training effect, and steering clear of re-injury. Use a smarter lifting tempo – slow down the negative component of your reps. Not only will that improve your eccentric strength, it'll also make an honest lifter out of you.
Most PR's take a big hit when you have to control the lowering phase for 4 seconds and pause before lifting. If you used to squat 405, but can only squat 275 with that tempo, guess what your new PR is? That's right, 275.
Here's an example of me doing a narrow-stance squat with a controlled negative and a pause at the bottom:
You may also have to come to terms with the fact that you're force feeding a movement or pattern that your body no longer agrees with, or never agreed with in the first place.
Things like barbell deadlifts, low-bar squats, power cleans from the floor, and barbell bench presses can easily be replaced with trap bar deadlifts, high-bar squats, hang power cleans, and football bar or dumbbell bench presses. You're not any less of a lifter just because you're not including powerlifting moves exactly as they're seen in contests. Oh, and for the record, powerlifters are often broken too.
5 – Always Do Mobility Drills
You won't see any forward movement in your quest to be a normal lifter again if you don't prioritize mobility work. And I don't mean just for a phase, either. Mobility drills should be a way of life. Ten minutes daily can be a huge game changer for someone who never did them before, or who rushed through them in a cursory manner. Go-to movements include the following:
Squat Mobility Drill
Spiderman Walk with Thoracic Rotation
Foam Roller Extensions
If you don't have a good handle on your T-spine mobility, then say hello to imminent problems with your shoulders, mid back, lower back, and potentially more areas.
To give you an idea of what state your T-spine extension is in, use the medicine ball tomahawk as a guide.
Medicine Ball Tomahawk
Grab a med ball while lying face down and simply touch it to your upper back with wide elbows and a tucked chin. It's okay to raise your feet.
If you make medicine ball tomahawks look like hell, it's time to work on your T-spine. Take that same medicine ball and trap it under the knee of the top leg as you lie on your side. While maintaining that tension, twist your upper body to the other side. If your arm can't reach the floor or come very close, there's a problem that needs addressing.
Side-Lying Thoracic Twist
The good news is, practicing both of those drills will help address the problem.
6 – Respect the Shoulder Flexion Spectrum
The closer your arms are to the toes, the easier the press will be on the shoulders. Once your shoulders are okay at one angle, you can graduate to the next, closer-to-the-head angle. In other words, decline pressing will rarely create havoc on bad shoulders. Overhead pressing probably will.
Use this tip to your advantage while manipulating elbow and wrist position at the same time (using dumbbells, football bars, Landmine bars etc). It can allow your shoulders to avoid further damage. Give the incline press and strict press a time-out while you train smart.
7 – Start Using Isometrics
Joint pain and injury come from too many forces at different moment arms within a force curve. We can't avoid movement, but we can do something to temper it, and that involves isometrics.
If you think about a heavy deadlift, the hardest part of the pull will always come when the bar is lying still on the floor. After the bar is put into motion, the lift has the advantage of kinetic energy. But this scenario also opens the door for irregularities in bar path, added shear forces, technique breakdown, and greatly increasing the chances for injury.
It makes sense to devote some of your time to isometric training. In the case of the deadlift, that could mean setting up a very heavy bar at various points within the deadlift curve (on the floor, on blocks at knee level, on blocks at thigh level, etc.) and then applying maximum force against it for sets of 10-15 seconds.
Unless you set up like an idiot, you'll drastically lower your chances of getting hurt while enabling yourself to apply a true 100% of your max effort force against an object you can't budge. Just remember to load the bar to 150% of your normal 1RM.