If you want to get strong, you have to get comfortable with the idea of moving heavy weights. Powerlifting – a sport in which the goal is to lift as much weight as possible in a squat, bench press and deadlift – is the surest way to achieve that end. But problems arise when people apply the techniques specific to this sport to every aspect of their training.
To the untrained eye, all forms of weight training look the same. Bodybuilding, Olympic lifting, powerlifting – you lift weights up, you put them back down. Rinse and repeat until your hour is up. But this is not the case. As I’ve said in previous columns, there are different techniques and protocols for different goals, as well as different rep and loading schemes for building maximum muscle versus maximum strength. There are different tools too, of which the barbell – the standard implement of powerlifting – is but one.
Unless you’re a powerlifter-in-training, there’s no need to make barbells the first and last tool at your disposal. Don’t get me wrong – there’s a time and a place for lifting heavy, but the majority of gym-goers aren’t looking to set world records; they just want to look and feel their best every day. There are other variations on the powerlifting staples that will still deliver exceptional results without putting needless strain on your body. Let’s take a look at some.
Alternatives to the squat and deadlift
Although they’re different exercises that emphasize different muscle groups, there’s a lot of commonality between the squat and deadlift. In particular, the mobility limitations that would prevent someone from squatting properly (stiff ankles, tight hips, shoulder blades that barely move) will also make deadlifting difficult. This also means the solutions are the same: lose the barbell, focus on single-leg exercises.
Any gym worth joining will have a large hexagon-shaped barbell with handles on the sides, called a “trap bar.” Like magic, this tool all but eliminates the technical demands of the traditional deadlift while still allowing for maximum-effort exertion. The trap bar also allows for a more upright posture, which takes the emphasis off the lower back and puts it on the quads. Now you have the best of both worlds – a hip-dominant exercise that trains the quads as well.
Single-leg exercises are the perfect complement to the trap-bar deadlift, and my favourite way to train the lower body. Split squats, Bulgarian split squats, skater squats, single-leg Romanian deadlifts – there are all sorts of ways to modify and load these unilateral movements. Single-leg training offers the enhanced benefit of developing balance and co-ordination, too. These exercises force you to slow down and focus, leading to better execution and results.
Alternatives to the bench press
Nowhere is powerlifting’s influence more evident than on the bench press. The techniques that allow these athletes to press two to three times their own bodyweight – an overly pronounced arch in the back, shoulder blades pinned to the bench – have, unfortunately, become standard benching practice. I followed this same lead for years; once I stopped, the shoulder pain that had dogged me forever disappeared – this is not a coincidence.
Allowing the shoulder blade and upper arm to work in unison is the key to building a big chest without ruining your rotator cuffs. It all comes down to basic biomechanics: In order to create a stable and effective pressing movement, your shoulders need to be able to rotate around the rib cage. This is impossible if your shoulder blades are pinned to the bench, despite what the powerlifting crowd may say.
Dumbbells allow for greater control and a more complete range of motion, which is why veteran lifters often end up ditching the barbell when it comes to presses. Personally, I love push-ups for that very same reason. Partner either of those exercises with a cable or machine fly, toss in some dips, and you’ll soon wonder why you bothered with bench presses in the first place.
Paul Landini is a personal trainer and health educator in Kitchener, Ont.
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