We have all heard the dogmatic rules of lifting from misinformed “coaches” like:
There is no reason why you can’t deadlift
Squat or else
The bench press is the king of upper body exercises
The Smith Machine is worthless (my personal favorite)
As you progress through the ranks from beginner to intermediate to “I have xxx amount of years in the gym” you will find that you simply cannot do what you used to be able to do with ease.
Heavy squats may leave you aching for days in the wrong places.
Heavy deadlifts may become less heavy and more taxing to recover from.
Barbell flat bench pressing may stress your shoulders enough where the cost/benefit ratio isn’t worth paying for.
Smart lifters will find ways around the exercises that cause grief and work with what they have.
Stubbon trainees will try to keep smashing the proverbial square peg into a round hole over and over again while wondering why the peg won’t fit.
Let us take a look at the four coaching “tips” outlined above and analyze what you can do to move fast that roadblock in your head.
Jon Pall Sigmarsson shouted the phrase, “there is no reason to be alive if you can’t do deadlift”, after he won the deadlift event at the World’s Strongest Man. Jon Pall was a beast, no question, and he was a showman on the Strongman stage. His attitude brought a level of fun and brashness to the events and he was truly a fan favorite.
That quote of his resonated for years across the lifting world, where you will see it on tee shirts, painted on walls in gyms, and written about in blog posts extolling the goddamn power and wonder of the almighty deadlift.
I love the lift, it was my best lift when I was a competitive strongman and also one I enjoyed doing.
As the years wore on I realized that doing it was going to take its toll on me, and the benefits of doing it frequently were being outweighed by either not doing it, modifying it, or doing it less frequently.
Thus trap bar deadlifting came into my repertoire. One article, which does a job of explaining the benefits of a Trap Bar deadlift is eloquently (and scientifically) written by Greg Nuckols. In that linked article, Greg does into great detail about why the Trap Bar DL is a vastly underrated tool.
From my “user and coach” perspective, the TBDL is easier on your lower back due to the fact your are picking the bar up over your center mass and not in front of you, you are also squatting down slightly more instead of just a pure hinge, and you can use leg drive more effectively with the TBDL over having to micromanage form with a straight bar.
For the vast majority of us who have no intentions of competing, this is a preferred method to DL and Greg does a magnificent job explaining why.
To add to this, the DL is a poor muscle builder. It is not often performed as a primary movement by many bodybuilders. It is purely a strength movement over a muscle builder. That is not to say it won’t build muscle at all but there are plenty of other similar exercises that build muscle greater than the DL with a similar movement pattern.
Romainan DL for starters, Straight Legged DL is another, and DB variations of them both.
Those put direct emphasis on the posterior chain, along with the prerequisite stretch involved with muscle building as well as a controlled eccentric. Deadlifting heavy weight with a slower eccentric is not a weight room lesson I will teach anyone, but a proper eccentric motion with RDL or SLDL is something that is required.
Controlling the eccentric is critical for muscle growth.
Those with lumbar issues from years of gym abuse, or even other types of injuries, may find DL problematic while other hinge varieties pose no issues because they can control the impact on their back with a careful hinge, lighter weight, and solid form.
While we would all love to be able to DL until we are dead, that isn’t always the case and finding alternatives to a favorite exercise of many is a key variable in training until you are 70 or having to be in constant pain at that age.
Dorian Yates in an interview with Bodybuilding.com:
Well, I was a big squatter in my early days. That’s what everyone did and it was macho exercise as well. It was like if you don’t squat then you are not even a real man. That was the attitude in the gym. And, of course, Tom Platz was the big guy around back then, with his massive legs and his preaching about squats. But there were times when I was forced to look at
alternatives – from the free weight squat anyway.
I would always pre-exhaust before I got onto the compound exercises, but I did leg press, and hack squatting, or squatting on a Smith machine instead of going to squats. And I found I got much better development from these
exercises than from just heavy squatting. It depends a lot on your structure, but it (the squat) didn’t suit me. So hack squats, leg presses and pre-exhaustion with leg extensions.
I am sure you can look at his build and see that his philosophy treated him well.
Of course the n=1 argument will always apply and I will say that for most of us, the most efficient and best way to gain strength and mass in your legs is the simple act of barbell back squatting.
What if you can’t squat with a barbell effectively enough to get the benefits from it? What if you don’t want to squat? What if squatting does cause you knee pain, back pain, or hip pain?
Are you sandbagging (old school term that means not giving your all) it or do you have legitimate gripes?
If I use myself for an example I will tell you that I have knee pain right now from squatting with a barbell on my back. I can front squat fine, I can do goblet squats, landmine squats, leg presses, leg extensions, but that barbell on my back is causing me discomfort that I am not willing to work with but would prefer alternatives.
I am fixing it and using alternatives to the BARBELL BACK SQUAT OR ELSE to keep my legs growing and moving along.
Mike Boyle wrote a very controversial article some years ago called “Why we don’t squat” and outlined reasons for his methods. You are free to not agree with this, and that is your right, but he has found success with his athletes and clients doing it his way.
Ben Bruno, in 2010, wrote a blog about his single leg squat experiment which I found fascinating and I still refer to it as a training resource. Ben, in general, is a great resource.
You have three solid examples from three different people telling you, flat out, you do not NEED to have a barbell on your back.
Strong legs, big legs, powerful legs, and nice legs have been built without relying on the squat before and it will still continue to happen.
If you are at the point where you are training through pain stubbornly, take a look at the alternatives.
What is more important to your pride? Being able to squat heavy or finding a way to keep training hard without the frustrations?
That choice is easy but also difficult.
If you were raised with the squat being the cornerstone of any program, you will find it mentally difficult to move away from that rock and into a more ideal path.
As you start to hit your 40’s and 50’s that becomes more evident as the weight on the bar decreases and the pain last a little longer.
There isn’t a single exercise that you need to do, the squat is included in that list.
For some people, their leverages and leg length mean the squat is a poor muscle builder for them. Not everyone is blessed with the ability to grow like a tree trunk shaped weed with a barbell on their back.
Substitute it, try not squatting with a barbell but do other variations of single leg work, goblets, landmines, smith machine squats, leg pressing, hack squats, and give that dogmatic squat a rest for a while and see what you think.
Walk around for a while as a person who lifts and you will inevitably hear from someone, “how much do you bench?”
It is truly a lifting rite of passage.
Much the same as Monday being International Chest Day, people want to know, “how much do you bench?”
If you are a man, you probably started learning how to lift with the simple bench press.
It is ingrained into your soul as the king of the upper body exercises, but it is also not necessary.
Torn pecs, shoulder injuries, the inability to control the stretch and contract part of the exercise all mean the bench press is limited in what it can do for building a superb chest.
This isn’t to scare you away from bench pressing as I still perform this exercise, but I am not pushing the weight like I used to for a simple reason. Risk to reward factor.
If you aren’t competing in powerlifting, what is your goal? A bigger bench just to have it, or something else?
It can be argued that the decline bench press is a safer and just as effective muscle builder bench press and in my opinion the incline barbell bench is the best ‘bang for your buck’ upper body barbell lift and both are more shoulder and pec friendly over the flat barbell bench.
Both of these angles are arguably superior to the FLAT BAHBELL BENCH PRESS SIR for pure muscle development.
If your goal is simply to build muscle you can even leave the barbell bench press in the dust and tap into the arsenal of dumbbell work which is ideal for this type of work.
The stretch/contract action is magnified with dumbbells over a barbell since you can control each bell individually and maneuver your hands in a way to optimize both the stretching part and the flexing part of the lift.
When it comes to muscle building over strength, dumbbells win every single time in the chest press category.
For those of us with shoulder issues, a fixed hand position on a barbell could prevent you from performing this without pain but you can manipulate your hands with a dumbbell from a neutral grip, 45 degree angle, to full pronation to work around any discomfort you have.
That is simply not workable with a barbell and with a DB you can do all three bench angles easily with that hand position manipulation.
So, tell me again why the bench press is the king of upper body lifts when there are alternatives that challenge it’s bro-throne?
This one makes me laugh.
Let’s start out with a simple link to a Facebook video from someone who knows a few things about training for strength.
Let’s back this video up with a quote this pretty strong dude said about the Smith Machine:
“It’s much safer,” he says, “because during the competitions, you can’t risk… there were some bad accidents, so I don’t want that to happen to me.”
Find this quote here as well as more about the man we know as Savickas.
I mean, one of the best Strongmen the world has ever known is a proponent of the Smith Machine, so I am 100% sure some random kid on Facebook who squats 225 talking trash about “the Smith Machine is for pussies” knows what’s up.
Training dogma is overrated, use what works and the Smith Machine just straight up works.
Overhead pressing in a fixed groove is safer and a fantastic way to build overhead strength to accompany your barbell lifting.
If your balance is off using Split Squats, Rear Foot Elevated Split Squats, or you just want to focus on the movement and not the act of balancing the weight, the Smith Machine is your personal savior.
Yes… they are incredible. A great way to isolate your quads, or depending on your foot position hammer your glutes.
John Meadows is a huge fan of Smith Machine Barbell Rows
That same Meadows guy (you may have heard of him) uses JM Presses in a Smith Machine and also loves benching in one.
He built a world class stage physique using this machine.
The list goes on and your anti-Smith Machine principles are now full of holes with no gains.
Quite frankly, if you think the Smith Machine is worthless at this stage of the lifting game, I am sorry for your loss and the rest of us will gladly use it in your place.
Thanks for keeping that machine free for us. We appreciate you.
I was that guy, but as I am hitting my mid-40’s soon, I realize that guy was an idiot who was ill-informed and clueless when it came to efficient training.
That is the key word, efficient.
If something hurts, find an alternative. There are not must do exercises. There are no kings of exercises, only what works best for YOU. The gym is full of equipment that all has it’s place in your training, ignore what you don’t know at your own peril.
You can squat until your shit blows up from pain or you can find another fork in the road for lasting gains.
Get to it.
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