Do you Even Lift (Well)? Keeping the Cart behind the Horse.

June 18, 2016

There is an old saying about putting the cart before the horse. This idiom, first used during the Renaissance period, is used when someone has gotten ahead of themselves and is trying to complete a task against conventional logic. 

 

 

 

Common use would look like this:

 

"Joe is really putting the cart before the horse; doesn't he know you need to turn on the stove before you try to cook the meatloaf?

or

"Jane bought a wedding dress before the first date! Talk about putting the cart before the horse!"

 

Both of these examples illustrate that someone is looking way too far down the road considering their current location in time and space. They are overlooking critical steps towards their success in their efforts to get to the end point faster.

 

Yet, in fitness, more specifically the conventional and Olympic barbell lifts, there is a general assumption that going to the barbell faster will get you results faster. There is a rush to start bench pressing and deadlifting loaded barbells to exhaustion. The Clean and Jerk is done even though the mechanics aren't clean and the movements are jerky. 

 

In lifting, much like the previous examples, there are consequences to putting the proverbial cart before the horse. It could be a significant lack of progress over time, or worse, an injury from incorrect form.

 

Lifting form, like any other physical discipline, takes a long time to master. There isn't a "fast-track" to elite barbell mechanics - no matter how great a coach says they are. There is a time and place for a barbell lift to be introduced into an exercise program. However, there are significantly more times where it should not.

 

Like this fail video could show you:

 

 

 

Often times regressing a lift into its pieces or adjusting the equipment with which it is performed is the best course of action. Excluding the capacity for higher loads - there is nothing intrinsically better about using a barbell for an exercise. In fact, most will benefit most from the use of dumbbells, kettlebells, their own body weight, and even resistance bands prior to working with a barbell. 


An invention in the 19th century, the barbell was created to significantly increase the load a lifter could hoist because of their ability to unify their limbs into one singular movement. The bar allows for better force production. 

 

Better force production doesn't mean better movement quality.

 

Better force production doesn't make a movement appropriate for someone. 

 

It just means that the individual is capable of exerting more force into the barbell, which can increase the likelihood of a successful lift (and in time - progress).

 

Progress in fitness; however, is a significantly more complex occurrence. Force is only one variable in a large formula that leads to success in the gym. Other factors such as training volume, heart rate, oxygen consumption, muscle-fiber recruitment, neural drive, hormonal reactions, and so much more all play a role in progress. 

 

Understanding that success in the gym requires much more than just lifting a barbell like your friends, family, or a magazine suggests is imperative. Just as understanding that putting a pack of ground beef in the oven doesn't produce a meatloaf if you don't season it, shape it, and turn on the oven. 

 

Crossing the finish line doesn't mean you've ran a marathon. You actually need to run the race - all 26.2 miles of it. And, much like training for the marathon - you often need a plan in order to be able to properly perform the barbell lifts. 

 

Training mobility, core stability, movement patterns, breathing patterns, head position, and the location where force is best applied are all critical elements of any major lift. Each of these factors are building blocks of the greater movement that can be trained with appropriate regressions and variations. 

 

Training these elements does not mean sacrificing intensity in an effort to "correct" everything. It is a mistake to think that correcting imbalances,and training technique is slow and mundane. In fact, training regressed or varied exercises at maximum intensity will most likely advance progress significantly faster than mediocre barbell work. 

 

An individual with poor barbell squat form would do well to introduce wide-stance dumbbell goblet squats into their program for a period of time. Super-setting in some thoracic and scapular mobility exercises in between sets can help secure bar position. RKC planks can strengthen the transverse abdominus to aid in resisting collapse under load. 

 

Mastering triple extension in a Olympic clean can be accomplished by working in squat jumps and medicine ball vertical throws. Programming Kettlebell front squats can help overload the quads to assist in "sitting down" with the bar. Box jumps, hip thrusts, and sprints can train the explosiveness needed to grip and rip a loaded bar from the floor. 

 

A barbell bench press that finishes with uneven hands could benefit from unilateral dumbbell work. Putting the barbell away and benching with dumbbells can aid in mastering the movement, build new muscle tissue, and strengthening the shoulder joints to support the load in both directions. Cable face pulls, planks, and hip thrusts can strengthen muscles required to develop tension under the bar. 

 

All of these examples are nothing more - examples. The appropriate pathway for every person may be a little bit different. However, it is certain that you'll achieve greater success in the long run by focusing on these building blocks, or the building blocks like them, prior to moving into the barbell lifts. 

 

 

 

It is far too easy to take too many scoops of pre-workout and roll into the gym ready to crush all of the weights. It is easy to let one's ego carry you through the doors of your fitness facility and towards the closest barbell that fits the day's plan. 

 

A final shot of pre-workout and the headphones get plugged in. Hardwell starts bumping in the speakers. A trip to squat rack and an immediate jump to 135 is the beginning of leg day. Not to be outdone by the bro in the sleeveless - more 45's are added. Two-twenty-five becomes two-seventy-five and knees begin to buckle. 

 

One hip feels crazy tight and the lower back begins to spasm. Knees become achy and even the elbows and wrist aren't appreciating today's workout. One more shitty set and squats are done - it's time to deadlift. It is time to further breakdown the body with another barbell lift that isn't quite understood. 

 

This short narrative fits a lot of people at my gym, your gym, the gym, any gym. There are no limits or boundaries on poor decision-making in selecting exercises. Ego will trump logic, especially with males, most of the time. 

 

It can be hard to avoid the barbell, but mustering up the discipline to work up to it will lead to greater success in the long term. There is just something satisfying about loading plates onto a iron bar and slinging it through space. There is something even greater though. It's loading that same barbell and moving through space with precision and intensity - at the same time. 

 

If you aren't shown the correct form or alerted to the shortcomings of your movement patterns, then it can be nearly impossible to discern whether or not you need to master other exercises. Most individuals probably fall into this category. Therefore, a small checklist of sorts should exist to help decide if you are ready for a barbell lift. 

 

Here are a few considerations:

 

Can you do the lift pain free?

 

If there is a noticeable pain, then something is going wrong.

 

If every set of deadlifts leaves you grabbing at your lower back and wanting to stretch backwards, then chances are you are compressing at the lumbar spine at the bottom of the lift and using your spine, and not your hips, to pick up the bar. 

 

Pain is not necessary and it isn't prescribed. If there is pain in your barbell movement, then move away until you have mastered the movement or addressed your issues.

 

Do you "Get" the movement, or are you just throwing the bar through space?

 

Do you find yourself having pauses or "hitches" in your movements as though you are Charles Barkley trying to tee off on a golf course?

 

 

 

If you do, then chances are that you aren't sure exactly what you are supposed to do and are resorting to hurling the barbell around from start to finish. You understand where you start and you know where you should end up, but you have no idea of how to get there appropriately.

 

Having someone coach your form, or teach you variations of the movement will allow for the mastery of your body, the barbell itself, and a better idea of where a resistance should be traveling for optimal benefit. 

 

These considerations are short and sweet ways of determining whether or not you are ready for an advanced barbell movement. The bench press, squat, overhead press, deadlift, and all of the Olympic movements are complex in nature and require tremendous understanding of your own body, the barbell, and the bio mechanics of the exercises themselves. Filter your lifts through these considerations and determine whether or not you are prepared to keep going with them.

 

Closing

 

The cart has a tremendous ability to get beyond the horse in fitness. The rise of Crossfit and ten second Instagram clips has everyone thinking they can do everything - right now.

 

This couldn't be further from the truth. It is imperative for long term success and injury prevention to crawl before you walk, walk before you run, and run before you sprint. If a crawl is very challenging to you currently, then what benefit is there in trying to sprint? Make the most of every step along your path to fitness success and you'll be able to achieve greater heights than you thought possible. 

 

There is a process to all of this. It is an order of operations if you will.

 

Don't plan your wedding before the first date, and don't serve raw meat and call it meatloaf. Most importantly though, don't go chasing waterfalls in your training by racing to complete barbell work before you are ready. 

 

Stick to those rivers and lakes for a little while!

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Kevin Mullins is an average guy doing above average things. He wakes up each day with the intent to put his best foot forward, to help others, and to have a little fun.

 

He is the author of the popular book Day by Day: The Personal Trainer's Blueprint to Achieving Ultimate Success, which is available on amazon.com now.

Kevin is a certified strength and conditioning specialist, Equinox Master instructor and trainer of ten years. He has over twenty thousand hours of experience under his belt. 

He has been featured on the PTDC, PTontheNET, was named a Men's Health Next Top Trainer in 2014 and 2015, contributes to NSCA PT quarterly, and speaks at a variety of conferences.

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