Flaws In Your Programming

by Lee Boyce T-Nation

Here’s what you need to know…

•  When deadlifting, you should “bend the bar before you pull it off the ground.” The elbows themselves, though, should never bend during a deadlift, not even before the pull happens.

•  Many common supersets, while being antagonistic in nature, end up doubling the stress on the spine. If one exercise in a superset compresses the spine, the other should decompress it.

•  If you work biceps before shoulders, you run the risk of filling up the subacromial space with blood, which is a recipe for pain.

•  Dead-stop deadlifts are overhyped. Tap-and-go deadlifts will build explosiveness and grip strength.

Advanced lifters usually aren’t making big mistakes in their training. If they were, they wouldn’t be advanced lifters. But small errors can still creep into even a well thought-out training program and wreck your progress. Here are the four most common mistakes I see:

Mistake 1: Jerking the Deadlift
It’s not uncommon to see lifters try to get pumped before attempting a heavy set of deadlifts. The token growl, a couple of double thigh-slaps, and maybe even a buddy’s honorary push and shove to get in the zone and it’s off to the races. A decent initial setup is followed by a wind-up and yank of the bar off the ground. Here are two videos to show what I mean. Watch closely:

And here’s Drake, popularizing it even more in the second half of this video:

But the weight got up to the top, and that’s all that matters, right? Wrong. You should “bend the bar before you pull it off the ground” when it comes to solid deadlifts. Simply put: the elbows should never bend during a deadlift, not even before the pull happens. Bending the elbows to “wind up” may add to a lifter’s confidence but it kills back tightness. The take home point is, if you want your back – especially your upper back – to contribute to your next PR, it’s going to mean lifting differently to keep those muscles involved. Stop jerking the deadlift!

Mistake #2: Choosing the Wrong Supersets
There’s more to a superset than just choosing a pair of arbitrary movements in order to make the body work harder with less rest. If you look closer at supersets, you’ll see that many of them usually take on an antagonistic nature. The push/pull style or “front of the body/back of the body” methods are both keystones in programming. The problem is, while the muscles being targeted may indeed oppose each other, you could be doubling up on the stress imposed on the skeletal frame. Here’s an example:

A1. Barbell Deadlift or RDL
A2. Barbell Standing Press or Push Press

We’ve got a pulling movement followed by a pushing movement, which is a common superset seen in many total body workouts. Even though the directions of force are opposite one another, both exercises place compressive load on the spine. As a result, the low back doesn’t get a break and this can lead to weakness, early fatigue, poor performance, and possibly even an overuse injury. It’s always important to think of the effects supersets have not only on muscles, but the bones in question, too.

A superior alternative involving both of these exercises in a total body workout may look something like this:

A1. Barbell Deadlift or RDL
A2. Bodyweight Dip


A1. Barbell Standing Press or Push Press
A2. Wide Grip Pull-Up or Lat Pulldown

In both cases, we have an example of an exercise that provides a decompression of the vertebrae after the compression imposed by the first exercise. This is a subtle change in thinking that your body will thank you for.

Mistake #3: Training Biceps Before Shoulders
Speaking of supersets, the muscle combos also matter. In the case of training the biceps before the shoulders, that can be questionable not only in pairing them up in a superset, but even in the case of training one of them after the other. The thing is, the biceps attach on the scapulae in two places by way of the short and long-head tendons. That means that to get to the scapulae, the muscle tissue and tendons have to pass under plenty of deltoid tissue and enter the space under the acromion process. With this in mind, filling up the biceps with blood via a good pump and a full biceps training workout could lead to bad news. You’ve ended up decreasing subacromial space just when you’re about to proceed to a shoulder-dominant pressing workout.

To add to this, everyone’s not the same. I’ve been speaking in general terms, but if you zero in on the issue even more, it would be smart to think of the variety in tendon and joint structures seen among people. Shorter tendon attachments means more thick muscle belly up higher towards the shoulders, which may create less space under the acromion process all on its own, let alone being inflamed from a biceps workout. It’ll just make the shoulder workout to follow that much more uncomfortable. It’s also important to think about the three common types of shoulder joints, seen in the figure below.

The sketch on the left would show an ideal environment for pain-free overhead pressing movements due to the large space underneath the acromion process. Unfortunately, not every lifter is built this way. In a worst case scenario, you’ll have a situation like the shoulder on the right of the image, where a beaked tip prevents most overhead movements from being safely doable. This atmosphere, plus plenty of blood and muscle tissue, is a recipe for abrasions, tendinitis, impingement, and other bad stuff that deserves no business in our programs. To play it safe, just train the biceps on a different day than shoulder day.

Mistake #4: Never Using the Tap-and-Go Method when Deadlifting
Dead-stop deadlifts are overhyped. If you’re not sure of the difference between a dead-stop deadlift and a tap-and-go deadlift, check out the videos below.

The first video allows for a complete stop in order to reset, ensuring that each lift uses no stretch reflex. The second video allows for continuous movement due to the quick bounce off the floor. Many view this method as a “cheat” since the floor rebound can help perform more reps. Sure, dead-stop deadlifts are good for strength training. They’re a great way to kill your momentum and tap into “true” lifts that determine your levels of absolute strength, but if you’re moving that weight with good form and you’re not a competitive powerlifter, I’m sorry, there’s only so much one could care!

My reasoning behind this is actually many layers deeper that. There’s a benefit to doing the tap-and-go method. For one, it improves your grip strength. A lot. The clients I’ve worked with who weren’t competing powerlifters regularly trained with the tap-and-go method and it’s done wonders for improving their wrist, forearm, and overall grip strength. Smaller muscles like the forearm flexors respond well to endurance work, which is why exercises like farmer’s walks and fireman’s carries work so well. In other words, holding anything without letting go for a long time works!

Plus, it’s not always a bad thing to incorporate the stretch reflex. Using it will have a great translation to your game if you’re involved in a sport that requires bursts of power, directional change, or speed. Think of the simple act of jumping off the ground in a game of basketball or volleyball. In those situations, it’s not done by squatting down and holding that squat for 3 or 4 seconds before taking off. Rather, it’s done by a quick load and fast explosion off the ground. Having an efficient stretch shortening cycle in the muscles in question will only improve your vertical or broad jumping capabilities.

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