National Teach A Librarian to Deadlift Day (Observed)

Posted: May 10, 2011 in Articles, Workout Reports

It was a cold and rainy morning today, hearkening back to the dreary months of March and April. Spring has had pretty spotty attendance thus far, and is on probation, as far as I’m concerned. My toe was swollen and painful last night, and I had an unexplained bout of uncontrollable belching that lasted a few hours. Something to do, perhaps, with the fact that I ate part of my orange off the floor.

My trusty gym companion had also been feeling a little less than Jake for the last few days, and so we made a pact to skip this morning. I was able to luxuriate in bed for an extra two hours, and that was not at all amiss, as I’d stayed up a bit too long reading “Mr. Monster” by Dan Wells. I’m in the final third, and it’s really starting to get good. Not that this information is in any way important to the story…

First, I was feeling better by morning. Even my angry toe had decided to cooperate with me. I got to have a leisurely run-up to work, with an un-rushed peanut butter sandwich and protein shake and plenty of time to watch my parakeet Jari engage in his happy bird moshing action.

I wasn’t too worried about missing my morning workout, as I had already agreed to work out and do some instruction for my friend and co-worker, Paul Musser, during our dinner hour. Paul’s a medium sized guy who wants to be in better shape and has run into a few sticking points in his training. He’s just finished a cycle of P90X, and it has thinned him out and probably gotten him in better freehand and cardio condition. I get the impression that he’ll go through the P90X program again, but wants to supplement it with a few exercises to alter his shape.

Paul has a naturally “barrel” chest, such that his pecs tend to look over-emphasized, while his arms, shoulders, and back lag behind. Most of us have parts that grow better than others. For me, it’s my gut. My table muscles are serious business. I had to stop training them so much, seriously. Okay, back to Paul. From talking to him, he wants to look more symmetrical, and part of that is packing some beef onto his back and shoulders. As some of you have witnessed, back/shoulder work tends to have some spill over into arms, since we’re involving them pretty significantly in most of our movements.

My diagnosis for Paul was:

  1. Basic pulling movements to grow those traps, rhomboids, lats and erectors
  2. Some classic overhead pressing to lay some beef on the delts

Yeah. Simple diagnosis from the caveman. Go figure.

First exercise: the deadlift. Anyone surprised? You shouldn’t be, if you’ve ever read anything on this site. Lifting from the ground, to me, can’t be beat. The deadlift is the king of pulling movements. Full body muscle activation, grip strength, the generalized effect of putting your body into an anabolic state, turning that useful posterior chain into iron…there’s no bad here.

I showed Paul some of the basic deadlift stances, including the standard, frog stance (heels within six inches of each other, toes pointed out), and sumo style (hands inside your thighs, back straighter, feet wide and splayed). I talked to him about squeezing off the floor, rather than jerking. I told him about driving through the heels and making sure that the legs drove first, then the hips rotated under.

Paul, either smart or lucky, elected to wear jeans for the workout. For the first time deadlifter, not a bad decision. You’re likely to drag the bar on your shins or hit it on your knees, and the jeans keep you from getting too bloodied up. Paul, like me, has a slight rounding in his upper back, and has been made to feel self conscious about it. Let me say for the record that when someone says “keep a flat back”, that doesn’t mean that you have to magically change the shape of your spine. You maintain your back at its full extension, with constant tension from your tailbone to the tops of your shoulders. You keep your neck in a neutral position, neither looking at your feet nor looking up at the ceiling. If, when your shoulders are back and tight and your back fully straightened, you still have a bit of roundness, that is no sin. You just don’t want the backbone to sag, or your butt to tuck under. That’s when you can hurt your spine. Part of this tightness has to do with proper breathing, too, and I mentioned that to my trainer/victim, as well.

Paul did really well with 135 on the bar, pulling it easily and engaging his legs when he was supposed to. At his request, we jumped up to 205 on the bar. He could clearly lift it, and it was good that he experienced more weight, because I was able to see that, like most people, his tendency was to get out over the top of a heavy lift, cheating himself of some leg drive and turning it into more of a straight leg affair. Still, he could feel what he was doing, and I’m sure that it would only take a few workouts for him to be repping with 225 with solid form and total safety.

I showed Paul a few of the other deadlift variants, like stiff leg deadlift and Romanian deadlift, and then we went on to rows. For the rows, I am currently head over heels for the Pendlay row, and so I demo’d that one first. I also showed him rows off the bench and Yates rows. I finished up with showing him the upright row, which is a great one for packing beef on the top of the shoulders. I know some people say that you shouldn’t do that movement, but darn it, it’s too good to put on the shelf, I think. I just tell people to pull to the top of the sternum, rather than to their chin or their nose, like we used to do it. We also discussed the dumbbell row along the way, as that is what Paul’s been doing already. It’s a good exercise, though I think that the barbell version allows for more scalability, since it’s tough to find really heavy dumbbells in most gyms, and super expensive to have them in a home gym. Chances are, if you have a home gym and do other barbell lifts, the row is not going to be as heavy as the bench, squat, or deadlift. It may be somewhere near your power clean. These are lifts where you might really benefit from having bumper plates handy, since you’re putting them down, sometimes slightly out of control. Just a thought.

From here, we talked about and performed some barbell overhead press. More than a few purists say that the bench press has gained prominence because it’s easy to hit bigger numbers, stresses the body less (you’re laying down), and has been suggested by equipment manufacturers who are able to make a lot of dough on the dedicated bench stations. Maybe they’re right. The bench press is a great exercise, though. The overhead press probably is a more accurate indicator of real strength, however, and sometimes we can’t handle the truth.

Some of us have beat-up shoulders, and find doing dumbbell presses allows us to follow a movement arc that doesn’t cause us flinch in pain and drop heavy things on our heads. I showed Paul an exercise that can do more than just beef up your shoulders, but can be a full body workout, including cardiac load. If you’ve ever seen the shoulder press for reps event in the World’s Strongest Man competitions, you know what I’m talking about. You pick the dumbbell off the ground with both hands, hoist it into position, and press it to lockout. You then put the ‘bell down on the ground and do it again.

Guys like Zadrunas Savickas do this with giant circus dumbells weighing 200 or more pounds. That’s just nuts. For the mortals in the room, though, you can still take a cue from them and do some shoulders this way. Switch hands every time, and make sure you stress your ability to get and hold lockout. This will not only let you press weight near your limit for several reps, but it will stress your body’s ability to balance and cope with a heavy object as you move it from the ground to as high as you can reach. It doesn’t get much more functional than that. Finally, if you keep switching hands, you can really find yourself blowing air like a buffalo stuck in a mudhole.

Paul liked these. I pointed out that an exercise like this can be used both for reps vs. weight, or for work over time, such that you keep working out with a set weight, trying to get more reps in the same time period. This is a great way to finish a workout with a bang, making sure that you’ve sapped your muscles and left them quivering. Instead of worrying about sets and reps, just look at the clock (or your fancy Gymboss timer), and challenge yourself to move at a safe but quick pace for a minute, or two minutes. I’ll tell you true–the first time you try, if you’re not used to k-bell style effort, you’ll think that two minutes is the longest of your life.

An hour goes by far too quickly, it seems. I feel like I covered a lot of the exercises that might help Paul get himself more symmetrical and in a happier state about his physique, but it seemed like we’d just begun. We didn’t talk about sets, reps, frequency of working out, or diet. Good thing I’ll see him across the hall in the next department most days.

That was National Teach a Librarian to Deadlift Day, and I’m the caveman, reporting in the aftermath, where no one is hurt or limping.

Happy Lifting!


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