When I started my physical rehabilitation process – and really started weight training in 2016, the first lesson I learnt was that I had to earn the right to progress. When you are recovering from an injury you have to take measured steps during recovery in order to let your body heal and then work hard to reduce the chances of it recurring. Often this is guided by a doctor or a physiotherapist and they may give you certain markers that you must achieve before the rehabilitation can progress any further. It might involve hitting a minimum range of motion or returning to (or even achieving in the first place) a certain level of strength that will safely allow more complex movements or loading on the joint or muscle.
Immediately post surgery to tidy up a fractured L1 vertebrae, my movements were restricted to walking, sitting and lying down. I couldn’t bend forward to pick anything up off the floor, or even put my own socks on so it stands to reason that running was out of the question. As the weeks went on and I hit certain goals my movement allowances increased and eventually I was given the all clear to try my first 5k run. I was ecstatic that I had got this far even if it was the slowest 5k I’d run in my life, simply because I had set a goal and respected the process. I was rewarded with zero pain – just the buzz of being able to run again. Recovery accelerated after this point and a year and half later I played rugby again.
Integral to my successful rehabilitation was learning to weight train properly. Given my injury and physical aspirations there was an element of caution but under the guidance of an experienced Strength and Conditioning Coach I gained strength quickly, which in turn protected my spine from further damage.
I think that this method of ‘earn the right to progress’ is something that coaches should always apply to their clients – irrespective of whether they have an injury. That doesn’t mean that they are patronised and only allowed to do the very basics for weeks and weeks on end, but before I put a barbell on a client’s back I need to know that they can perform a high quality bodyweight squat. If they can’t control their own bodyweight then what will happen when we introduce an additional load? Most likely the movement pattern will deteriorate and something (a joint/muscle) will bear the brunt of that. That is when we see injuries. Instead, every time a client becomes competent – and perhaps equally as importantly, confident, in that exercise then it is added to their ‘exercise vocabulary’. This is essentially a selection of exercises or movement patterns that they have mastered that a coach can then select from and look to progress when writing programs.
Two common examples of this are: anti-extension exercises such as aleknas or ab-wheel roll outs; and deadlifts – specifically conventional barbell deadlifts. If I had a pound for every time I’ve seen one of these exercises butchered I would be pretty well off!
Aleknas are a great tool to demonstrate levels of anterior core strength. If a client cannot complete the exercise without their lower back arching and their rib cage flaring upwards then there’s a fairly good chance they’ll also slip into hyperextension during a squat – if left untrained, this can lead to lower back pain. One or two reps are all that is needed to make an assessment and then appropriate progressions/regressions are made so that the individual can perform the exercise optimally – reinforcing a good movement pattern and gaining strength. Obviously as the individual gets stronger their range of motion will increase and the exercise is added to their ‘exercise vocabulary’. From there a coach can look to progress to a more advanced exercise in order to apply progressive overload and be confident that the client will be able to perform it properly.
Conventional Barbell Deadlift.
The deadlift is definitely the most common exercise I see performed with bad form and it makes me cringe thinking about the potential damage people are doing to their lower backs, all for the sake of lifting as heavy as possible or keeping up with their peers. There is a certain glory associated with being able to deadlift heavy – and rightly so, as it is a great demonstration of physical strength. However, when the ego takes over and quantity takes priority over quality then form breaks down and you see people rubbing their lower backs immediately after they finish a set.
Let’s be clear now, pain in your lower back whilst deadlifting IS NOT NORMAL. I think part of the issue is coaches describing deadlifts as a back exercise. Yes you use several muscles in your back but to suggest you are lifting with your back can quickly lead to a rounded posture and a huge amount of strain on the lumbar spine. The deadlift works the entire posterior chain but predominantly the glutes and the hamstrings – something that I think is important to point out whilst they learn the movement.
An individual in the gym, client or otherwise, should earn the right to perform a conventional barbell deadlift. Ideally they can demonstrate a quality hip hinge unloaded and then loaded perhaps with a barbell or a dumbbell in the form of an RDL and only then should they be lifting anything off the floor. The RDL is a fantastic tool for reinforcing the hip hinge movement pattern and also very quickly highlights whether the individual’s physical proportions require some slightly different cues – for example those with long femurs will need to keep their hips slightly higher to avoid just doing an uncomfortable squat instead of a hip hinge.
Following a successful RDL with sufficient loading, I would generally progress onto a trapbar/hexbar deadlift as this offers slightly less loading on the lower spine. Then conventional deadlifts with the barbell as a progression from this. This generally ensures that the client understands the mechanics of the movement, knows what good form looks like and also knows what good form feels like. Once they’ve absolutely nailed these, then we can start complicating things.
It’s fairly well accepted now that more isn’t always better and overcomplicated certainly isn’t always better. More often that not, a client will benefit most from a simple program that applies progressive overload in a range of movements, rep ranges and loads. It’s only when you have the privilege of training more advanced lifters or athletes that you need to apply more complex techniques and by then both the client and the coach will have earnt the right to do those things.
So in the meantime, focus on a perfect technique and respect the weights you and your clients are lifting. If you aren’t sure about weight training, invest in a personal trainer and take advantage of the fully qualified coaches available to you. But don’t run before you can walk and don’t let your ego get the better of you next time you hit the platform.