Chewin’ Fat: Body Transformation Blog

Back Off, Deadlift

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by Carter Schoffer

There’s a concept that winds and weaves its way through adjustment psych concerning the importance of subjective cognitive appraisal, or how one interprets something, as a primary determinant of whether, or at least the degree to which, a stimulus is positive, negative or neutral.  In the loose and admittedly often misinterpreted and overindulged sense, mind over matter and similar trite argot.

Exercise, to some, is interpreted as a fun, enjoyable enterprise. To others, the exact same act is on par with being eye gouged while at a proctologist appointment.  And unless we’re dealing with masochists, the former will likely get more than the latter out of exercise, if for no other reason than the increased likelihood of adopting exercise as part of their normal routine.  Furthermore, what, and not just how much, each respective group specifically gets out of it will likely be different too.

The take away being that different people will interpret and respond to similar stimuli differently and how we respond can shape the ultimate outcome(s) of our interaction(s) with those stimuli. No, the universe is not going to pull for you just so long as you remain positive (and deluded) but how we think about things can often change what we focus on and how we act.

Now with a forced a hop, skip and a clumsy leap of a segue, let’s transition to the real matter of interest: the deadlift and low back injury.

From what I’ve observed, how one appraises and, in turn, applies the deadlift determines their likelihood of a resultant back injury. Specifically, if the deadlift is thought of and treated as a “back exercise” and is thus programmed and performed as such, it’s much more likely to be injurious to the back than if it is thought of, treated and programmed as a hip movement.

Why?

I can’t say for sure but I can speculate, and what come to mind are two main reasons.

(1) A lack of respect regarding how deadlifts are worked into a training week and training day.  As a back exercise, they’re often programmed in without proper respect paid to their overall demand in relation to other movements. For instance, for many of the most common training splits, as a “back” exercise they’re often programmed in the day before or after a “leg” day.

Why is that a potential problem?  I can think of 3 reasons.

The first is that one’s “core” will be compromised by fatigue.

The second reason is very similar to the first in that like one’s “core,” one’s CNS takes a concomitant beat down when moves like squats are performed on days back to back (no pun intended) with deadlifts.

The third reason, again related, is that as much as one might think of the deadlift as a back exercise, there’s no way around the fact that it involves the hips and legs. By treating deadlifts as a back exercise and instituting them too close to a “leg” day, one’s hips and legs are going to be too tired and likely too tight to function properly.

Deadlift the day after you squat and your low back is likely to take on much of the job that the hips should be doing.  Squat the day after you deadlift and you’re going to end up folding forward instead of dropping down and you’re going to be doing it with a compromised “core” and a less than enthused central nervous system.

If that weren’t enough, related examples of lack of respect are the common occurrence of placing deadlifts near the end of the back workout, after the onset of fatigue, and/or utilizing the higher rep set and rep counts often associated with “back” movements.

Mental exhaustion and muscle fatigue + deadlift = bad idea.

(2) The trainee’s focus.  Categorize and think of deadlifts as back exercises and you’re going to treat them as such.  You’re going to search for the low back strain and pump under load. You’re going to overemphasize the involvement of the low back as a prime mover and underemphasize involvement of the hips for the same task. You’re not going to pull your hips through or fully engage your glutes but you are going to make up for the lack of ROM by hyper-extending your low back.

Tony demonstrates this horrific technique here –

 

Alas he can’t quite manage the rounded spine that almost always accompanies this appalling pulling.  For that, we need to turn to this classic -

 

And if that weren’t enough, since you’re thinking “back exercise” and not hip exercise, you haven’t warmed up properly so your hips are tight, your glutes are “switched off” and your form will be forced to be poor – even if you know enough to try to evade the aforementioned execution errors.

The result of this lack of respect and misdirected focus: A trip to the chiro at best and to the surgeon at worst. Not to mention immense mockery should your efforts be at a public facility or, lord protect your soul, published to the web.

Conversely, if you treat the deadlift as a hip movement and respect it as such in your programming, it’s much easier to account for all of the above and implement and execute the movement properly without nearly as much lower back stress.  How might you do this?

  1. Acknowledge that as much as it may work your “back,” its central action occurs about the hips and involves lower body musculature.
  2. Perform as a primary movement. That is, perform while fresh and anchor your workout around it as the main, or at least a main, exercise.
  3. Incorporate into a “leg day,” or perform sufficiently away from the main lower body workout of your split.  If you insist on maintaining a “back day” upgrade it to a posterior chain day, extend your work to below the waist and keep it away from your other lower body day.
  4. Don’t search for the back pump or burn.  It’s not a bloody biceps curl.  Be content to know that the upper posterior chain is getting plenty of stimuli as a stabilizer while the hips, and to some extent the knees, and the respective below waist musculature, do the moving.
  5. Focus on form and proper execution before you worry about anything else.  You can get away with some sloppiness elsewhere but with the deadlift you need to nail form.  Sparing me the need to type out coaching cues, punch “deadlift t-nation” into Google and you should be fully equipped. When in doubt, your lower back better be neutral (flat) to slightly arched throughout and your butt better be directing traffic.
  6. Hang out in the 3 to 8 rep per set range. Multiple, relatively light singles, allowing you to reset and gather yourself between reps can be useful for patterning form, as well.
  7. To paraphrase Eric Cressey, superset, giant set or circuit it with rest.  That is, it’s involved enough that you arguably don’t need and most often shouldn’t pair it with other movements.  And please, for the sake of your L5 to your C1, if you do pair it with something, don’t even think of putting it with an ab movement.

Now some Q & A -

Q – Can this blog be construed as a scientific statement?

A – No.

Q – Am I implying causation?

A – No.

Q – Is this simply a commentary based on my observation of a few dozen lifters that happened to have back problems “from deadlifting” and also happened to treat deadlifts as a back exercise?

A – Yes.

Q – Could it be that some of the lifters that don’t know any better than to think of the deadlift as a back exercise are also doing other things that are causing the back distress?

A – Yes.

Q – Am I saying that deadlifts don’t “work” the back?

A – Of course not.

Q – Can they be used as a back exercise?

A – Yes but their full demand and proper execution pattern need to be respected.

Q – Can one appreciate the deadlift as a hip exercise and still have back problems?

A – Of course.

In summary, in working with a number of lifters and talking to a number more, of those that have had back pain and have blamed it on the deadlift, the overwhelming majority have thought of and treated the movement first, foremost and in a number of cases, exclusively as a back exercise.  In many of these cases, when they’ve switched their focus from back movement to hip movement and subsequently shift their execution keys, back pain has disappeared and poundage pulled powers upward.  And maybe most interestingly, for a number of these trainees, though they had understood the deadlift to be a back exercise, form was actually pretty good; the real shift, and subsequent breakthrough, were from the mental switch in appraisal from back to hip.

Taking from cognitive appraisal theory, it’s been my experience that how one appreciates a movement will influence how one executes it and thus will also influence what they get out of it.  If you’re deadlifting and what you’re getting out if it is back pain, instead of scrapping the movement, it might be time to re-evaluate your appraisal of the lift.

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Faux Foods

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by Carter Schoffer

Faux foods stick in my craw.

What am I talking about?

Mashed cauliflower masquerading as mashed potato; flour free pastry pretenders; protein powder puffs conned off as cupcakes; dough and dairy free “pizza;” bean curd cloaked as all sorts of otherwise delectable animal products; ice cream without the cream; and the list goes on. I’m talking about foods that pretend to be something they’re not.

As well intentioned as they may be, to me, they’re not unlike playing a game with a child whereby you force yourself to suspend reality in order to accept some absurd fictional premise. Or like the land of make-believe of grown up “games” whereby we feign to ignore big, fat, loud, and smelly room-inhabiting elephants and fail to call BS where and when it really is due. From tofu “burgers” to protein “pancakes,” and every imposter in-between, whether for lack of imagination or a poo-poo attitude, I really can’t suffer playing this kind of pretend.

Taking both my lack of imagination and poo-poo attitude for given, there is, in truth, more to my disdain than a lack of creative cooperation. That more reasoned disenchantment being comprised of the following objections –

  1. Routine consumption of these faux foods preserves and reinforces the focus on the real versions. Calling something a pizza makes me want pizza. I don’t conjure up the faux version, I conjure up the torrid love affairs I’ve had with real pizzas and fiend for more. Bring up her delicious name and I’m a slave to hedonism not health. From a state of being perfectly content with my veggies and grass fed, cruelty-free bison, to hankering for hand tossed pizza in seconds at the mere mention of the trigger.

  2. These foods rarely do anything more than resemble the real food in appearance. Sure, sight is an important sense but if just looking at food was enough, we wouldn’t have famine or obesity. Clearly, in our calorie-aplenty part of the world, we prize the foods we eat for taste first and foremost and these faux versions rarely deliver. Now don’t get me wrong, some of them can taste great in their own right but, so long as one remains connected with reality, it’s not very often that they confuse the pretender for the real.

    This overpromise / underdeliver, or at least mis-deliver, disconnect invariably leaves one feeling less than fully satisfied (psychologically), even if fully satiated (physiologically). That is, the food may be filling and may taste good but if in your head you’re set on pizza but you don’t actually get pizza, you’re still going to want pizza. Whereas if you ate real pizza, instead of the faux version, you’d be both satisfied (psychologically) and satiated (physiologically) and could move on with your life and real, healthy, and productive food eating.

  3. Often, these faux foods are as or more “empty” than the originals. They’re combos of low kcal and low nutrient components and thus their nutritional value is minimal. This absence of kcals may appear favourable on the surface but it reinforces empty, mindless eating. That is, eating for eating’s sake and not eating for nourishment.

    Similarly, getting off to a quick aside, adding protein powder to something isn’t all that different from the practice of adding “goodness” or enriching otherwise empty foods – a practice that is often railed against by those in the nutritional-know. A pig wearing lipstick is still a pig.

  4. When these faux foods do come close to their mark and manage to impart a strong, pleasurable sapour akin to the original, it’s at the risk of reinforcing an uber rich palate. The eater then continues to appreciate and expect rich foods and shun the more subtle flavours of whole foods.

  5. Closely related to point 4, it furthermore reinforces an attitude that demands that everything we put in our mouths for succour must also be super sweet or savoury to be tolerable.

Maybe it’s the biology grad in me but I just can’t abide the abuse of the nomenclature and associated implications. The self-foolery may very well be, and often is, well meaning but for the reasons just given, it falls short.

Should these faux foods be purged? No. Or, at least, that isn’t my point. The point, rather, is a call for a reconnection with reality. Let’s be honest with ourselves. Mashed cauliflower is a dish in and of its own right. We don’t need to, and it’s my contention that it isn’t productive to, pretend that it’s the same as mashed potatoes. Got a great tasting and/or healthy recipe that when assembled looks like a pizza? Great! Take the next step and name it. Be inventive. Just be sure to be sincere. If you’re in North America in the 21st century and it doesn’t have a base of dough with cheese on top, you better not call it pizza. It’s lazy at best and disingenuous at worst.

Once you’ve said the magic “P” word and tickled me with that craving, you better deliver.

Similarly, if you have a gluten-free or sugar free, or some other “free” recipe, good on you. Just be honest about how well it matches up with original. It’s okay if it doesn’t taste as good or exactly the same. Just don’t pretend that it does when it doesn’t. We do much better when our expectations match up with outcomes.

Want to put someone off from selecting healthy, productive food choices? Give them a piece of cardboard, that tastes like chalk and then tell them it’s a cookie.

When you make the switch to eating to be productive (health, performance, body comp) and away from eating only for pleasure’s sake, do so knowing that you’re going to make the acquaintance of a whole lot of new foods. You get to fall in love in ways and with foods you’d never heard of. However, it’s not a free lunch, you don’t get to have and eat your cake too, and all other fitting food related clichés. By making the switch, your old food relationships will change. You will miss them. You’ll go back and visit them every once and awhile and wax sentimental over the days of yore. However, if you insist on the ongoing enlistment of impersonators that may have a few less kcals or a bit more protein than the originals, you’re doing yourself a disservice. Demand authenticity in others, in food and in yourself.

 

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