For many of you, this is a very busy time. Clients are getting short notice on gym reopenings, there are new guidelines for how and when equipment can be used, and there will be an increased demand for your services as people crave guidance on the right way to get back under a barbell. This could be a make-or-break time for your business. How you navigate the situation could net some pretty incredible results for your clients, too. And the trick to getting it right is not necessarily something that’s intuitive.
You’re just coming out of a two-to-three month period when your clients had minimal access to a barbell. If you were able to prepare those clients for switching up their regimes under lockdown, they’re probably healthier, better conditioned, and moving better than before the crisis hit. The question now is, How can I make sure they keep these gains as I reintegrate the barbell into their routines? The answer is so simple that it might have escaped you—don’t abandon the movements and principles that got them to where they are in the first place!
Training with variations of barbell lifts such as squats, bench presses, deadlifts, strict presses, and rows are absolutely necessary if your clients are training for a strength sport. Along with the benefits these bring to strength gains, these movements can also create some specific imbalances within the physique when relied on too heavily. This might be the reason your lifters went into the lockdown beat up in the first place. Some common bottlenecks occur at the shoulders, midback, and hips due to an overreliance on these barbell lifts. These bottlenecks can result in a lack of range of motion (ROM) at certain joints, which in turn creates overcompensations and/or weaknesses in other areas. The expression “If you don’t use it, you lose it” comes to mind.
Here are some examples of what I’m talking about:
- Hands fixed in a pronated or supinated position: This results in an incomplete arc of rotation about the shoulder. This often results in a loss of shoulder external rotation, upper cross syndrome, and an exaggerated kyphosis of the thoracic spine.
- Fixed scapular position: Squatting, bench pressing, and deadlifting all require a fixed scapula on the ribs. Furthermore, in a bench press, the scapula are fixed on a bench. This can lead to a loss in coordination in the movement of the scapula on the rib cage.
- Fixed spinal loading: The spine, like any tissue, will adapt to the stresses placed on it. Consistent axial loading can result in rigidity of the discs, which is ideal for supporting maximal loading but can also result in a loss of thoracic ROM. This loss of range can impact the movement of the scapula and/or impact the load-bearing forces of the lumbar spine.
- Moving exclusively within the sagittal plane: All the traditional barbell movements occur within the sagittal plane. The deep stabilizers of the hip and shoulder act in a helical arc to create torque about those joints. By staying within this singular plane, you introduce an artificial stability within the hip and shoulder. This can lead to reduced capacity of the stabilizers to do their job of, well, stabilizing the joint.
- Bilateral loading: Each side of our body requires the capacity to move independently of the other. Case in point, the human gait cycle. With an overreliance on loading bilateral movements, we can lose this capacity and develop a disintegration of the oblique slings of the body. (Your oblique sling is a line of musculature that runs from your shoulder to the contralateral side of your pelvis. In other words, right shoulder to left hip and left shoulder to right hip)
- Conditioning: We need a base level of conditioning to be able to perform more work within a training session and to recover as optimally as possible between sessions. There is a time and a place to eliminate most conditioning work, as maximal strength and aerobic conditioning are competing adaptations, but the noncompetition season is not that time.
If you think back to what “at-home training” required from your clients, these imbalances were almost certainly addressed. Free weight and bodyweight movements are more attuned to a full ROM at the shoulders and a freely moving scapula on the rib cage. The spine was unloaded and was allowed to move safely within different ranges. Many movements were performed with unilateral loading to increase difficulty, and if done right, many of these movements included a lateral or rotational component. Finally, to ensure that your clients worked hard, there was likely an increased reliance on aerobic work, even if it was just walking. These modifications to their COVID-19 training are the reason your clients probably feel so much better now—so why would you eliminate them?
The trick will be to integrate them into gym training along with the reintroduction of the barbell. You want to begin to reintroduce the traditional barbell movements, but if you want to keep your clients healthy and moving well—again, you’ll want to keep the things in there that got them that way in the first place. So how do you do that? This period of training should be general, so the mantra of the moment should be lower volume and intensity. This lends itself to more emphasis on the assistance work, which can remain primarily bodyweight, free weight, and ground based—meaning that the lifter must stabilize his or her own body on the ground rather than on a machine. Within this framework, you slowly get the lifter back under a bar, but you also continue to reinforce active and stable ROM at the bottleneck joints of the shoulder and the hip.
As you progress the training toward a competition, you make the assistance work more and more specific to the competition movement in terms of pattern and loading. Using the bench press as an example, a simple progression of the second movement in the session could be:
- Deficit Pushup for sets of ~20 reps
- Weighted Pushup for sets of ~15 reps
- DB Bench Press for sets of ~10 reps
- Close-Grip Barbell Bench Press for sets of ~3–6 reps
The muscles worked are the same, but as you move closer to the competition, the loading increases and the pattern more closely resembles the barbell bench press. This strategy sets your lifters up for success, as they are much less likely to lose much ROM about the shoulder/scapula, because they now have better stability as they transition into the more competition-specific movements.
The overwhelming tendency once your clients are back in the gym and looking around at all they missed will be to abandon the stuff that isn’t glamorous (like bodyweight movements) in favor of fancy machines and heavy barbells. The reality is that those modalities are what left your clients moving poorly, in pain, and deconditioned when the gyms closed. So during the lockdown you worked to rectify any imbalances within their physiques with the implementation of strategic-movement variables. Set yourself apart from trainers who just want to make their clients happy and discourage them from reverting to the things that set them back in the first place pre-lockdown. They’ll be healthier, better conditioned, and stronger—and more than likely will remain that way for much longer—if you do. The strongest people are the ones who can train the hardest for the longest time without getting injured. Use what you learned during the lockdown to set your clients up for success.