Is Heavy Barbell Training Worth the Risk? 5 Ways to Challenge Yourself in the Gym without Increasing your Risk for Injury
Photo credit: fitness-science.org
I know that sounds like a crazy statement and that by the time you finish reading this sentence, I will be carried off to be burned at the stake. But hear me out.
If your goals are to move well, without pain, look good, etc., then do you really need to load 405 on the bar and see how many reps you can do?
Now, don’t get me wrong. If your goal is to do a powerlifting, olympic lifting, strongman meet, etc., then putting a barbell on your back or some other heavy implement is necessary to compete. You need to understand the risks by going down that road.
Is the RISK WORTH THE REWARD?
If competing isn’t one of your goals, you can still receive a training effect and make movements more challenging without having to increase the load on the bar . There are a multitude of ways to make a movement more challenging without directly adding weight to the bar.
Here are 5 Ways to Challenge Yourself in the Gym without Increasing your Risk for Injury:
1. Slow Eccentric Work
You can incorporate slow eccentrics into any movement. Whether it be squats, deadlifts, lunges, or bench press, incorporating slow eccentrics will not only make the movement that much more challenging, but also decrease your risk for injury.
In sports or in the weight room, most people get hurt because they can’t control the movements of their body. By incorporating slow eccentric work, this is working on that slow and controlled motion. Then, during the concentric portion, move the weight as fast as humanly possible with good technique. You may have to decrease the weight in order to perform slow eccentrics with good technique.
Slow Eccentric Push-Ups
Slow Eccentric Reverse Lunges
Slow Eccentric Goblet Squats
Slow Eccentric Single Leg Deadlifts
2. Ditch the Barbell!
Unless you are training for a powerlifting or olympic lifting meet, then maybe ditch the barbell and implement kettlebells or dumbbells into your training program.
By using a dumbbell, this forces your body to have to work harder to stabilize 2 separate implements (dumbbells) vs 1 (barbell). This is evident especially when performing dumbbell bench press as compared to barbell bench press. Most people cannot dumbbell bench press as much as they barbell bench press.
Also, by using dumbbells, this allows for more degrees of freedom when it comes to a movement. Instead of being locked into a pronated, internally rotated position as you would be with a barbell for benching or overhead pressing, the dumbbells allow you to move throughout various motions and are more shoulder and joint-friendly.
The same can be said for kettlebells. With kettlebells, the same holds true for more degrees of freedom and movement of the upper extremity as compared to a barbell. The kettlebell also offers the versatility to provide an offset load since the weight of the kettlebell is not directly over the hand/wrist.
With kettlebells, the option for using a bottoms-up position is also available to make the movement more difficult as well as work on dynamic shoulder stability.
Charlie Weingroff has stated that by using kettlebells, this creates a lower system load on the body, see here.
Basically, what he is saying is that by changing the implement, ie. using a kettlebell vs a barbell, it is a lighter load being used, but the movement may feel/be just as challenging as when being performed with a heavy weight with a different implement, ie. barbell.
The benefit of this is that by using a lighter load on the body, this can decrease the risk for injury. We can sit here and debate that heavy weights can or cannot increase injury risk, but eventually, the body will only be able to sustain a certain position until it cannot due to an increased amount of load and the risk for injury can and will increase.
By performing movements that are very difficult, but with a lower system load, this will allow for clients and athletes to train hard without increasing their risk for injury.
3. Unilateral Loading
By performing movements where the load is on one side of the body (offset), this can increase the difficulty and demands of a particular movement. Movements such as:
Offset Reverse Lunges
-Hold weight on the non-stance leg side.
1-arm Kettlebell Deadlifts
-Hold weight in the hand of the leg that is going up.
-Maintain a Neutral Spine.
-Don’t let your hips twist up or down.
By placing a weighted implement on one-side of the body, this will increase the demands on the trunk in order to stay neutral and upright. It will also challenge other stabilizing muscles that may not be as active during bilateral movements.
4. Single Extremity Training
Performing single leg movements such as:
Single Leg Deadlifts
Rear Foot Elevated Lunges
1-Arm Cable Rows
By performing a movement with one arm or one leg, will also decrease the system load as mentioned before and will also help improve any imbalances that have been created through heavy bilateral training.
5. Work Outside of the Sagittal Plane!
Often, when clients or athletes train, they are stuck training in the sagittal plane. They do what they feel comfortable doing or what they are really good at. The problem is that life and sports don't just happen in the sagittal plane.
Moving outside of the sagittal plane consists of performing movements that are not straight ahead or straight back. Some of those movements consist of:
Around the World Lunges, Courtesy of Jason Shane of Shane Physiotherapy
By also performing movements outside of the sagittal plane, this can help to decrease imbalances as well as decrease risk for injury.
I am not saying that heavy barbell training is bad or shouldn’t be performed, but implementing some of these variations into your training program or switching things up from one training cycle to another can improve your performance in the bilateral lifts, decrease your risk for injury, and keep you moving and feeling good for years to come.
Here I will be writing and posting about topics ranging from physical therapy, injury prevention/reduction, and strength and conditioning.