by Tony Gentilcore T-Nation
Train smarter and avoid these common injuries
Here’s what you need to know…
- Don’t swap real training time for excessive foam rolling. It could make you more injury prone.
- Increase your aerobic capacity. If you fatigue too quickly while lifting, your form will suffer and increase your risk of injury.
- Set up for each lift and create tension in the body. Using lazy form, like relaxing in the bottom of a squat position, can make your lifts riskier.
- To avoid back injuries when deadlifting, use your lats and position your armpits over the bar at the start.
- Make sure your lats aren’t tight, which can cause lower back pain.
- Take a day off. The pros do it, why shouldn’t you?
Lifting weights isn’t supposed to tickle.
No one who’s ever performed a set of 20-rep squats or worked up to true 1-rep max on the deadlift has ever thought to him or herself, “Wow, that was fun. Let’s do it again!”
If so, you’re a sadistic bastard. And I want to hang out with you.
It’s well accepted that in order to make consistent progress in the gym – whether your goals are more strength related or aesthetic – you need to push the body to levels and extremes it’s never been to before.
Along the way your body is sometimes going to hate you. You tweak your knee one week, your shoulder flips you the middle finger after bench pressing on another week, and let’s be honest: you haven’t been DOMS-free since season one of Game of Thrones.
It’s all good. It comes with the territory.
However, it’s one thing to nix your squat session one day because your lower back is “a little tight,” (you’ll make up for it later in the week), and another thing altogether to be hurt and unable to train all the time.
Some people always seem to be hurt. Whether they’re doing programs too advanced, not getting the technique right, always training to failure, or not knowing the difference between discomfort and injury, the list goes on.
Here are the lesser known reasons. Which one have you been overlooking?
1. You’re Foam Rolling Like It’s Your Job
- Pet Peeve: Telling people I co-founded a gym and them following up with “So, like, what, a CrossFit gym?”
- Pet Peeve: Poodles. I just don’t like them.
- Pet Peeve: People who live on a foam roller.
Foam rolling is great. I do it myself, and I include it in just about every program I write for my clients and athletes. Tissue quality is important and foam rolling works. I don’t know why it works, but it just does.
That said, whenever I start working with an athlete with a history of injuries I’ll often stand back and watch him warm-up. Almost always he’ll spend a minimum of 30 minutes on the foam roller hitting every muscle with painstaking detail.
Let’s call it Delicate Flower Syndrome. Don’t bother searching on PubMed. I made it up.
Some people have gotten so used to being hurt and have been so programmed into thinking the foam roller will solve all their problems, that they’ve become gun-shy and apprehensive to actually train and lift weights. “They’ve gone corrective” is another term that’s used for them.
Use the foam roller, it’s a tool, but if you find yourself spending more time with it than your significant other, you need to change your priorities.
2. You Have No Aerobic Capacity
Okay, deep breaths. Relax. No one is trying to steal your gainz and say you have to go out and run a half marathon.
But a lack of work capacity (which ties into aerobic capacity) may be a reason why you’re always hurt. Fatigue matters, and it will affect your performance when lifting – especially when training with high(er) reps.
The sooner someone fatigues, the sooner technique is going to break down. And having poor aerobic conditioning is going to be a factor, even if you’re a powerlifter.
Developing a base level of aerobic work – sled/Prowler, repeated tempo runs, Airdyne, mobility/movement circuits – during the week has value.
Not only will you improve your conditioning and help to offset technique breakdowns, but it will also aid in overall recovery, assuming you don’t overdo things.
And if you don’t believe that aerobic conditioning has its place, just take look at coaches like Alex Viada who, on top of having elite level numbers in powerlifting (705 squat, 465 bench press, 700 deadlift) can also run a 4:15 mile while also competing in triathlons and Ultra Marathons. And he’s jacked.
It may take some finagling on the programming side of things, but there’s no reason why most lifters, most of the time, couldn’t include some form of aerobic work 1-2 times per week. Don’t worry, guys, you can keep your man card.
3. You Lack Tension
Going back to the whole “technique breaking down” point, most of the time you can attribute it to one thing: a really poor set-up.
- Falling forward too much on a squat? Your set-up is crap.
- Hips coming up too fast or rounding your back on the deadlift? Set up. Crappy. Fix it.
- Getting stapled at the chest on a bench press? The weight’s too heavy. And your set-up sucks.
Let’s look at the squat.
Getting (and maintaining) tension is going to be a game-changer for a lot of people. If you’re someone who just kind of “hangs out” and relaxes in the bottom position of the squat, and as a result places more stress on the passive restraints such as the tendons and ligaments, is it any wonder your back always hurts?
There really is no such thing as one right way to squat. People are different. Anthropometry, leverages, training goals, anatomy, and experience will have an effect on how one person squats compared to the next.
But far too often, people approach the bar with a nonchalant attitude and nonchalant technique. Not surprisingly, they have nonchalant numbers to show for it.
Many overlook the importance of the tripod stance. They can’t differentiate between an active foot and a passive foot.
Something else to consider is the upper back. When the barbell is on your back don’t think about the shoulder blades. Think about pulling down on the bar and then pulling your elbows towards one another.
This will ensure rock solid upper back tightness, and not coincidentally prevent falling forward.
4. You’re Not Connecting Your Lats to the Bar
Now let’s give some love to the deadlift.
Yes, your hands are grabbing the bar. But it’s where your armpits are located – in relation to bar placement – that plays a huge role in deadlifting performance. Your armpits are where the lats insert.
I’m a decent deadlifter. I’ve pulled 3x bodyweight: 570 pounds at a bodyweight of 190. I’m no Andy Bolton, but not many people are.
For years I’ve set up with my shins as close to the bar as possible, and while it led to some success it also led to some pesky back issues. Why?
When setting up as close as possible to the bar (during a conventional pull), think about what’s happening.
- My shins are more vertical.
- And because my shins are more vertical, my armpits are in front of the bar creating an awkward line of pull I have to overcome (as shown by the arrows inserted into the picture above).
This puts me in a mechanical disadvantage, forcing me to recruit my lower back to a higher extent, and has been the impetus of more than a few back injuries on my end.
I’ve had to overhaul my setup so I’m a little further away from the bar (bar is located more mid-foot). In doing so my shins can translate forward a bit more, which then allows me to get my armpits directly over the bar (I use the bar as a counterbalance to “pull” my chest up), which places me in a better line of pull.
My hips will push back a bit (so I feel tension in the hamstring), and then it’s go time.
Much like squatting, there’s no one right way to deadlift, but this concept of “armpits over the bar” has a universal carry-over to most lifters.
5. Your Lats Are Tight
Your lower back hurts, so it must be something wrong with the lower back, right?
This happens a lot. Random guy comes in with a history of lower back injuries and he assumes it’s due to lack of hip mobility, weak core, or any number of other things. Blame it on global warming for all I care.
Point is, without going through a thorough assessment, we’re just going to be clutching at straws. And even then, it could be a litany things causing the issue. It’s never really ever one.
But here’s one thing that often gets overlooked: stiff or tight lats.
The lats internally rotate, adduct, and extend the shoulder. What do you have to do in order to lift your arm above your head? The exact opposite: externally rotate, abduct, and flex the shoulder.
If you’re someone who performs a lot of overhead pressing, what is the body going to do to compensate for a lack of shoulder flexion?
- Head will protract forward.
- Lumbar spine will hyperextend.
So, is your lower back pain caused by a weak lower back, lack of hip mobility, or whatever? Or is it because your lats are stiffer than a corpse?
Some quick fixes: Add some bench T-spine mobilizations into your programming. Maybe even include some dedicated static stretching too.
Avoid exercises (at least for the time being) that will engage the lats to a high degree and/or pull you into excessive lumbar extension (stiff lats will pull you into a more extended posture): deadlifts, back squats, chin-ups, heavy farmer carries, single leg work with dumbbells in hands.
Front squat; perform goblet, bottoms-up, or racked carries; perform goblet single leg work.
It wouldn’t be a bad idea to get some manual therapy on the lats as well.
6. You’re Not a Pro, and Even Pros Take Time Off
It’s amazing how elite-level athletes will perform deload weeks, periodize their training to match their competitive season, rarely ever train to failure, and otherwise place a premium on the quality of their training rather than the quantity.
Yet Bob from accounting considers a day where he heads to the track to perform “a few” 400m runs an off day.
Likewise, as much as I appreciate CrossFit for the camaraderie it encourages and for getting people excited to lift weights, it’s gotten to the point where people now judge the effectiveness of a workout by whether or not they crap a spleen or can feel the left side of their face after that day’s WOD.
So if elite level athletes understand the importance of taking a day off and not training to failure day in and day out – what makes you so special?
Far be it from me to tell you not to work hard. I dig it. Really, I do.
But if your idea of a rest day is to perform a bench press Tabata, and you’re someone who includes a budget for “physical therapy visits,” take a freaking day off, just like the pros do.