I’ll be the first to tell you that getting stronger on big, compound exercises like trap bar deadlifts, presses, and chin ups is the biggest factor when it comes to building muscle. But if you’re like a lot of the guys I train, who are 35-55 years old, the tools that are used to do this become more important to keep getting stronger without getting banged up.
As Charlie Weingroff says, there’s a cost of doing business. Going hard on barbell presses and deadlifts all the time comes with a fair amount of joint and nervous system stress. This isn’t a necessarily a negative, after all that’s what we’re trying to do with training, but we have to make sure to offset this stress so we can stay healthy and feeling great along the way.
Listen, the barbell is a great tool, and there are a lot of great strength training programs out there that utilize them almost exclusively and get people strong AF. I get that. But barbells are a little bit like machines in that you have to move in a fixed pattern to some degree. Don’t misconstrue this: barbell training is vastly superior to machine training, but they do lock your joints in and don’t allow for natural ranges of motion as well as dumbbells or gymnastics rings.
This can lead to issues for people who have creakier joints than 20 year olds who are full of piss and vinegar and no wear and tear.
This is why I’m a huge proponent of bodyweight training. Exercises like TRX rows, pushup variations, and single leg squats give us a big bang for our training buck, providing plenty of stress on our tissues and nervous system, with significantly less joint stress than some of the traditional barbell lifts.
While I’m a big fan of tracking your big lifts and setting rep records on them, if your goal is to be strong, lean, and fit enough to excel in the activities that you enjoy, don’t get carried away with arbitrary number chasing. Just work to get better over time and don’t focus exclusively on barbell lifts.
I won’t lie, I love moving heavy weights around and seeing my clients do the same, but I’ve had 14 operations over the years and if I hammer the barbell too much, I feel it and old injuries reappear. For this reason, I like to begin each training session with a main lift, then supplement it with dumbbell and bodyweight exercises.
A sample strength training day might look something like this:
1A. Trap Bar Deadlift 4×6
1B. TRX Face Pulls 4×10-15
1C. Ab Wheel Rollouts 3×8
2A. Single Leg Squat 3×5
2B. Low Incline DB Alternating Press 3×8/ea
2C. Spiderman Stretch with Thoracic Rotation 3×3
3A. Stability Ball Leg Curl 2×8-10
3B. Feet Elevated Pushups with a Neutral Grip 2x As Many Reps As Possible
3C. L-Sit Neutral Grip Chin Up 3×5
You have one main lift that you can really load up, get a good amount of core, upper back, and mobility work in between your working sets, and use bodyweight and dumbbell exercises for some more joint friendly ways to round out your training.
It doesn’t mean that the trap bar is the main lift because it’s the most important, it just means that it’s the most taxing, so it’s done first, then we move on. Everything in the plan is of equal importance, and has a distinct purpose.
Balance doesn’t mean standing on a BOSU ball doing weird stuff with pink dumbbells, it means that you want to balance out the amount of stress you put on your joints to ensure that you keep getting better, not just better for awhile until your shoulder or knee starts acting up again. That’s how most people train, and it’s why most people aren’t happy with their current progress.
Look, training is a means to an end, and longevity should be your goal. Getting better at working out is stupid. Train to optimize your life, and utilizing bodyweight variations over the standard meathead training routines that you find on a Google search will be a big step towards making sure this happens.