Coach Mac McGregor explores different ways lifting and programming can be sustainable and effective, even if it doesn’t satisfy a dogmatic approach.
By: Mac McGregor, BLOC Staff Coach, PBC
“It’s a bad obsession, it’s always messing’, it’s always messin’ my mind” Axl Rose 1991
Picture the scene: there you were, merrily running your program, dutifully adding a little load every session. You got lift x up to weight y but then body part z started to hurt—bad. Bad enough to stop you from adding any more weight. Bad enough that it affected other areas of your life. So, you reduced the load to where there was little or no pain and started progressing again. In the meantime, you read a few articles on managing injuries and watched a few technique videos to make sure you were doing the thing right.
When you worked up to weight y, body part z started to hurt again, so you de-loaded and grimly started to work your way back up. Again. You reckoned that you must be doing something wrong, so you doubled down on being extra strict with your setup and movement, read more articles, watched more videos, and even filmed yourself to see if you could spot anything that looked different from what you’d researched so far. After all this, body part z started to hurt when you hit weight y again. Dammit!
You obsess over technique, micro-managing every aspect of the movement. You resent your body and your training. You desperately need validation, so you submit a video for a form check on an online forum. The consensus is your technique is actually pretty solid with no blatant errors. You’re completely stumped and still stuck, in pain, at weight y.
I’ve seen it more than once. I think it is brilliant that people want to improve the quality of their lifts but many are almost blinded by a need to do the thing exactly like the picture in a book they flipped through once. Like my man Burgos wrote about in his recent opus on squats: “Your body doesn’t actually resemble a stick man diagram. You’re made of ‘stuff.’” If you’re a squat nerd, go check this out: https://barbell-logic.com/seeing-squat-mechanics/
“Once is an accident, twice is a coincidence, and thrice is a habit.”
If de-loading and ramping back up the same way still hurts after your third try, then maybe that approach isn’t working.
“But I’ve tried EVERYTHING 😢.”
Have you? I assert that what you’ve probably done is applied a zealot-like mindset and tried to shoe-horn your body into a particular way of loading a movement pattern.
Let’s assume that you are actually doing everything ”right,” all the way down to staying balanced over your base of support, breathing and bracing, eating, sleeping, lions, tigers, and bears, etc. Congratulations! You have correctly applied a model—but your body is telling you that it doesn’t like it. Rather than listen, you are preaching back at it: “THE POWER OF THE (insert dogma) COMPELS YOU!”
Trying to force yourself into a model might be exactly the thing that’s making you hurt. No model is perfect and no body is perfect. You are not special, but you might need to make some individual adjustments. That’s okay.
Here is an abbreviated list of examples of simple and perfectly legal experimentation you can try, regardless of the movement—even if it goes against your sacred model. All you will do is apply a small degree of variation:
Grip width: Narrower or wider. Even just a pinky-width of distance can make a difference.
Grip type: Thumbs over, thumbs around with a little extra wrist extension, or a bulldog grip. Maybe try a supinated or neutral grip if the equipment allows.
Stance: Just like grip width, a little change of heel width or toe angle can create space or change angles enough to resolve an issue.
Movement Variations: If grip and stance changes don’t cut it, you can limit ranges of motion, the speed of a movement, or try moving the bar or load position.
Implements: Maybe pick a different weapon. Swiss bars, safety bars, dumbbells, cable attachments, etc., all allow different positions at different points through a full range of motion.
If making a change gives the aggravated tissue the space it needs to sort itself out and allows you to make progress at the same time, isn’t that an option worth exploring?
Note: In a cruel twist of fate, not all pain is “bad” and not every painful movement needs to be adapted. You might just need to work smartly through it. Now, hear me out: you might even need to include some specific, targeted accessory work to help the situation 😱. But those are stories for down the line.
None of the above trumps getting things right in the first place, so revisiting the fundamentals is always a good call. But, if you’ve carefully executed a deload/rehab several times and keep arriving at the same situation, you know something needs to change.
This is not a “sell.” The next obvious line you might be expecting is “Go hire a coach. They can help you rebuild your movement, figure out what’s going on, and help you fix it”. Well, duh.
But, if you’re not into hiring a coach, you do you. That’s cool. Like I said, I love when people are interested in figuring this stuff out. So go figure it out! Free yourself from dogma, stop trying to crush your body into the textbook model, and go experiment. The fundamentals of specificity, general adaptation, progressive overload, minimum effective dose, et al, still apply. Consistency is still king. You can get stronger and more proficient in any movement pattern. It just might look a little different than the picture you had in mind.
Obsessing over details can be an incredibly rewarding quality in the quest for knowledge and professionalism. But it can also blind you. Sometimes, taking a knee and allowing a Hamlet moment to critically question your approach is what is needed. Maybe it’s something of a rite of passage that we all need to go through as lifters or coaches, so we can have our own personal and special epiphany. Maybe you can save some time, effort, and pain by understanding that some rules are more bendy than they appear.