Updated: Aug 6, 2019
Being on a short holiday back in Zeeland, the Netherlands - where I was born an grew up – I worked out at a local powerlift gym. Being in preparation for full meet a month down the road I needed to keep up my program.
When I started my session I was doing my warmup routine – rotary cuff movements, leg swings, knee-ups - good mornings with mini bands, air squats … - when a young athlete in the gym asked me whether a longer warmup is really a necessity. He told me that at the gym there seemed to be 2 different camps. The ones who walk in an get straight under a bar, and the ones who do a longer serious warmup routine before they get under a bar. He said that the first group “the walk-in and lift” group – were people who never got hurt yet during training. The second group where athletes who already lived through a major injury and ditto recovery phase after that.
Since I was focussed on starting my work out II just mumbled that a good warmup is always a good thing … and did not give it to much thought at the time.
Being back at ATC Sports – and being confronted with 2 of my Powerlift Team athletes being hurt – ischias/lower back problems – of which one 1 week out before the upcoming contest – I started to think about the questions and remarks of the young athlete.
Analyzing things – both my athletes hurt themselves during the ramp-up to their working sets in squats. The 2 hurt athletes are both guys that have grown to be strong lifters in the last few years – in effect over double bodyweight squatters – 225+kg. Why do these well-conditioned athletes start to get more prone to injury as they get stronger ? What is going on ? Reflecting further on the issue – I start to see some patterns here.
The reversed progression
When people start out to train, the workout is the warmup. Weights are low – and although people exert themselves – the weight are to low – and the athletes still to weak – to really be able to hurt themselves. It is very much possible to walk in take a bar with 50 kg for squat and start your 5x5 sets without a warmup and not get hurt. CNS (Central Nervous System) wise the athlete is just still not able create “power” that goes to the limit of his bodies muscles and tendons. The bodies CNS will still just not yet allow it – as inhabitation (the bodies / mind holding back in fear of all the bad things that might happen if you lift heavy stuff) is still very predominant.
As strength increase the athlete often still keeps the pattern of behaviour to “just get under the bar” and ramp-up to working weight very fast. Old habit die hard.. Many athletes get lucky and still don’t hurt themselves immediately – but at around double bodyweight squats this routine behaviour start to run havoc on the lifters body. The inhabitation effect starts to get less and less (no problem sofar eh.. so the bodies CNS keeps opening up the floodgates further and further)... and the ability of the CNS to really “push the limits” of the bodies parts strength (muscle, tendons..) is getting dramaticly effective. Of course, the athlete does not notice that this process is taking place – he just is happy that he is getting strong as fuck. His ramup weights are now far in excess of thîs maxes of yesterday.... and are a problem...
All this means that the margin of error is diminishing rapidly fast now. A small wrong move (look to the left to rack the bar) with a heavy weight (250kg) on your shoulder can get you hurt (trapezius strained). This happened to one my athletes. Starting out - with 50 kg on your back you can still very much move around like Michael Jackson under the bar and not get hurt at all.
Unfortunately athletes that are getting stronger and stronger – will actually draw the opposite conclusion - one of invincibility: “I am now very strong – so I will and cannot really not hurt myself.” … Been there- done that … got the t-shirt…
Not HURTING yourself
The second group the young athlete mentioned – the “I HURT MYSELF” group – figured it out all by themselves by going through the misery of rehab – and getting all the tips from physio therapists (or Bro-s) and reading up on things and/or self-experimentation.
I am convinced that eventually every serious (invincible) lifter will involuntary graduate to this second group overtime (or drop out of training all together … disillusioned) … if they don’t adopt proper habits prior to the HURTING happing. Some are luckier than others in being injury prone – its also about genetics - but there a limits for all of us. Believe me -- It is better to learn from others vs learning the hard way. I know that many of you out there will not listen to all this advice – because as you get stronger – you will still draw the opposite conclusion- One of invincibility – but being strong and stupid is not always the best mix.
The “I HURT MYSELF” group learned through disgrace that the keys of not getting hurt are:
- Perform a decent warmup routine
- Do pre-hab and recovery work.
- Rampup slow to working set weights
- Work with weights you can control and master (dominate the bar)
- Never cut corners on proper form in exercises & FMS
- Protect yourself
- excercise movements to avoid
What is a decent warmup up routine (and do I have time for it )?
- 5-10 minutes on an assault bike, rower of step-up with dumbbell thrusters
- Good mornings with mini bands
- Plank / side bridges
(of course you have time for it...just look less at your mobile and talk less to hunks or chicks during tghe training .. that saves up time)
What is pre-hab work / recovery work ?
- Perform regularly some work to avoiding upcoming injuries in rotary cuff, biceps tendons (getting beat up from squats, bench, deadlift..), lower back, knees … this can be part of the warmup – or on separate “rest day” mini workout
o Stationary bike or walks with the dog – good for knees and get stress of lower back
o Rotary cuff movements with light bands or things like scarecrows (google it..)
o Reverse-hypers (get stress off lower back and lumbars)
o High Volume work for biceps with small dumbells (2 sets of 25 reps ..)
o Standing leg curl with light ankle weights (sets of 2x50 reps..)
o Foam Rolling / peanut rolling (legs, back, chest..)
- Deep tissue massages & Electrostimulation (Compex) – both work small miracles in pre-hab and recovery… every serious powerlifter should own a compex … HINT: it is a great gift to ask for at Christmas from your beloved..
Ramp-up to work sets
- Always do all your warmup sets with strict form – you cannot practice strict form at those monster weights – the strict form must be there when you arrive at your work sets.
- 15-20 reps with empty bar
- 5x30%, 5x40%, 3x50%, 3x60%, 3x70% … keep it a warmup – don’t tire yourself with high rep work on the warmup sets – fatigue will only make the work sets more dangerous.
Master your weights
- Forced reps, negative reps, partial reps, heroic bro-supported reps (deadlift assists by someone holding your chin) are all useless and dangerous for powerlifters. Useless because your CNS does not really lift the weight and does not condition for the contest lifts – and will create an undesired inhibitation effect (your CNS will learn to distrust the weight your just failed on) – that will make you effectively weaker. Every wondered why a bodybuilder is pound for pound weaker in its lifts ? I was one for over a decade – I know .. too much heroic workouts with my partner yanking at my weights .. Dangerous because the weird movement pattern you will make due to the well-intended support will be “out of the ideal mechanical groove” and will put stress on supporting muscles and ligaments that will create injuries as sure as AMEN in church.
- Get a coach and do an FMS test (Functional motion screen) – learn to lift perfect and work on movement pattern deficiencies. You WILL hurt yourself overtime - as things get heavy at some point if you are sloppy or can’t move properly. Of course, you will not be able to progress to lift real heavy if your form is sloppy – so some risk is mitigated by that in itself – you will only break your back a little – not completely - but you don’t want to go that way.
- Go to a gym where they have real solid squat racks and bench press with safety guards.
- Work with a spotter if things get real heavy – not to get the weight up and do “screaming-in- your-ear” forced reps if you can’t do it – but to keep you safe and control the weight if you fail – which should not happen – since you follow a structured progressive program made by an experienced coach – right ?
- Use wrist wrap on heavy bench and squat work. Overuse is easily accumulated on the joints. And they look cool as well. Use the real stiff ones – not the cool looking panty material ones – but the one that really make your hand feel like blowing up and make them look blue – and you really want to take off after a lift.
- Knee sleeves – keep the knees warm and a bit compressed – prevents those small upcoming knee pains.
- Lifting belt – to help yourself get strong and not hurt – use it less.. only use it for lift over 85% of max or so. If you always wear it – you will get weak – not strong – and you will end up hurting yourself when you are carrying groceries to your car … always use a real lifting belt -- wide at the front and back. The nice looking ones with slim front make you look good while doing a biceps curl in the squat rack … – but are pretty useless for real lifts.
- Wear proper shoes… you want grip and no mushy air-cushioned soles … prevent wobbly knees at high weights,,, and some protecting from those plates that drop.. Chucks are an evergreen in the lifting world. Special squat and deadlift shoes are a good choice. Watch out for cross-fit hybrids. They look like lifting shoes – but are made to also run and jump... so a compromise. You don’t want to compromise… you don’t want to be able to run in real squat shoes
I have never been a fan of stretching as a warmup or cooldown immediately prior or after a workout. If I stretch before a workout - I first would / need to do a warmup -- before I do stretching comfortably - but I rather just warmup with ballistic movements for a workout and get into lifting vs interrupting thing sby stretching. If I stretch after a heavy workout - usually my muscles and tendons are already so tired, aggrevated and pissed off that stretching just seems to add to much stress after the workout - with the risk that I might overstrain some fibres. Of course - without a doubts - stretching and working on mobility (with foam rolling etc) is a very effective way to do pre-hab work -- but I prefer stretching as a separate mini-workout either on teh same day as a workout or on a separate day.
exercise movementa to avoid
In 2007 I started to develop pains in my right shoulder and though my heavy lifting days weee over. I shifted for a while to running full marathons and lighter weight training - but did keep thinking about why I had this problem. In the end I concluded that over the last decades I got stronger - but still did old school movements - upright rows with a barbell, press Behind the neck with a barbell, lateral raise with pinky’s up, guillotine Bench press... I eliminated these from my training regimes — and voila - I never had the (impingement) problem again. Habits - bad habits that can hurt you — are something to continuously rethink.
All in all – the trick of not getting hurt and have a long and sustained exiting lifting career with plenty of PRs and maybe some real world records - is really about sticking to basics and being smart - learn from others before disaster strikes ....
Nobody is that advanced that he can afford to violate the basics.
For questions or remarks – feel free to contact me !
Mark Notschaele – firstname.lastname@example.org