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Form and Function: Barbaric Barbells

When weight training goes medieval on your body

Aside from several on-field contact-sport injuries, the most intense of the spinal and joint-related injuries I’ve experienced were the result of my misuse of a barbell. Many of the training routines we followed in the 1960s involved the Olympic lifts’press, snatch and clean and jerk’which eventually evolved into the power moves’squat, bench press and deadlift’that are still at the core of many bodybuilders’ training today.

My early approach to training consisted of heavy basic exercises. I combined Olympic lifting and powerlifting, with an emphasis on substantial warmups and what I believed to be proper technique. My hard training paid off with exceptional collegiate performances of a 365-pound bench press with a two-second pause, a 222-pound squat snatch and a 415-pound full, below-parallel squat with a pause. I weighed 180 1/4 pounds.

Though I had proceeded cautiously with my training, my choice of exercises caused structural damage that would manifest itself in chronic pain in my 20s: disk herniation throughout my neck in the cervical spine, a reversal of my lordotic curve and spinal stenosis at C7 and degenerative lower-back changes as well as disk herniation at L4-5 and L5-S1.

When your lower back hurts and you have muscle spasms in adjacent bodyparts and numbness and tingling down your limbs from nerve impingement, you think of little else. Your quality of life degenerates rapidly.

Through trial and error I finally learned what to do and what to avoid to get strong safely. What you think you can handle in your 20s will catch up with you later in life. Joint stress accumulates silently. Injuries you suffer later in life may be caused by today’s mistakes.

Sadly, trainees are still making the mistakes I made 35 years ago. Rather than finding out what does and doesn’t constitute safe, result-stimulating exercise, they’re adopting dangerous training regimens. Regrettably, strength training and sport conditioning in 2001 are, in many instances, fields in which common sense is anything but common.

Strength-training programs, in all cases, should strengthen the muscles, improve function and never damage the skeleton. Training should prevent injuries, not cause them. Experts espousing ballistic movement under load and fast, heavy lifting are dismissing common sense and ignoring the less-than-herculean bone makeup that most weight-training enthusiasts have.

I finally woke up to the fact that if you’re going to lift weight to improve functional ability and build stronger muscles, you should do so in a slow, deliberate manner’and choose exercises wisely. Follow sound routines that emphasize quality rather than quantity, and don’t leave the overall system depleted and ripe for injury.

Fast movements do not build fast muscles’and even if they did, they would never be worth the risk of injury. You can probably never move resistance too slowly, but you can easily move it too fast. Perhaps we should ask the fast-movement experts to demonstrate fast movements under load for the neck and lower back. Violently extending your neck under load just once might be the last exercise you ever do. Similarly, the function of the muscles of the lumbar spine is to extend the spine with the pelvis anchored. Lumbar extension can and should be part of every trainee’s workout. Weekly exercise on a lumbar-extension machine will go a long way toward substantially strengthening the lower back muscles while preventing many lower-back injuries. IM

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