A few years ago I got interested in powerlifting. I remember at the school gym I was one of the few that did below parallel squats. Fast-forward a couple years and it was a norm, along with heavy deadlifts. Don’t neglect “leg day” they say.
The pursuit of strength and functionality started to rise in popularity. As I’ve been learning lately, society tends to take trends too far, before forming a new one. Lifting heavy is a trend, and no more than that, because people formed beliefs around it, backed up their beliefs with science, and came to conclusions that were overly reductionist and incorrect. Below is a quick run through of the good and bad.
The merits of training these lifts:
- Increased muscle mass and strength
- Greater recruitment of type iib fast-twitch muscle fibers
- Increased testosterone
- Hits muscles harder than isolating them on machines sometimes
- Requires activation of stabilizers such as trapezius muscles, rhomboids, and core musculature
- Improves heart wall thickness (any weight training tends to do that)
- “Functionality” (meh)
- Whole body effect
- Hypertrophied adrenal glands: improved response to a stressor
- Improved athleticism (sometimes, meh)
- Requires high physiological preparedness (you need to be amped, recovered, warmed up)
- Can become an addiction in trying to set PRs
- Extremely high blood pressure, intra-ocular pressure, and intracranial pressure during a lift (reference)
- Abnormal diurnal cortisol rhythms
- Elevated cortisol
- Blunted response to stress
- Lower testosterone levels
- All the symptoms of overtraining syndrome
- Shorter telomeres (Dr. Jack Kruse noted in a podcast how when he measured telomeres of many crossfitters he found that people’s telomere’s reflected an age 15 years older than they actually were)
Confounders to this theory:
- A properly designed powerlifting program that does not cause chronic stress
- unlike Crossfit where many exercises are performed in succession
- A negative energy balance (not eating enough)
- Stress from other sources (e.g., improper sleep schedule, and other exercise training)
A program that involves only doing bench press and front squats probably won’t cause problems. A well-designed program will also avoid maxing out too often (except in olympic lifting). For some the threshold is different, but there will be a point where a certain training load will cause problems. The mechanism is pretty simple and it involves elevated glucocorticoids among other things, but let me share my experiences.
When I was squatting really heavy regularly (probably 85% upwards of 1RM) I certainly was not following any program besides my own instinct’s desire to inform me when I’m recovered and ready for the next workout. This method is imprecise, but it’s an attempt at exercising voluntarily, which is less stressful usually than involuntary exercise, such as in a planned program where you have a set schedule. I was more fatigued after my workouts whereas years ago before my obsession began, I was usually more excited afterwards.
A blunted response to the stressor (heavy weights) may be the cause of that, as the body will produce less cortisol to the same stimulus despite elevated ACTH levels. I did doubles and triples for several sets, sometimes only a few sets, but usually I was very close to failure. If I did sets of two reps, I did it with a weight I could do a maximum of three reps with. This low volume approach wasn’t supposed to be stressful, but I was fatigued for sure. My eyes were burning and were very red after each set: that’s probably the high intra-ocular pressure. I did end up squatting two times my body weight but I wasn’t running much faster so I decided to stop.
So despite whatever health benefits exist to squatting, deadlifting, and bench pressing, they disappear if you are stressed out. The testosterone increase males seek for example will be reversed if stress is too high, just like in endurance training. The fitness community has given endurance training a bad wrap, and it’s true that too much is bad, but too much of the opposite, HIIT and anaerobic training is just as bad because it involves the same thing: stress.
Health aside, the “strength” gains you make in the gym are a bit dubious as well. Being able to squat a lot of weight makes you strong by the definition of strength, being able to produce more force, but that strength in the squat may not transfer to other activities. This is where the term “functional” comes in. If you can squat say 2 times your body weight, but are too slow to run away from a predator and climb a tree for instance, your two times body weight strength in the squat didn’t transfer to running. Strength involves more than just the muscle’s ability to produce force against a load; it involves the rate at which that force is produced, the relative strength (a 100 pound guy who can squat 200lbs versus a 200lbs guy who can only squat 350lbs), and the pattern muscles fire together in. If you train a certain movement, your muscles will become better at firing together in that movement: that’s why when you start strength training you may see quick improvements in “strength” but not muscle size; those gains are neurological. So the guy who runs a lot may be able to produce more forces while running per pound of body weight than the guy who squats two times his body weight.
You can squat, deadlift, and bench press all you want, but you can get bigger, stronger, leaner, faster, and healthier without it. You don’t need to lift weights in a gym to be healthy. This is a realization that took me a while to accept. I was so biased in favor of heavy weight training I thought it was the best form of exercise for everyone. What I’ve realized is that for some, intense physical activity provides a release. For others, intense physical activity is a chore and they can live long and healthy without it.
As far as athleticism goes, being strong can help depending on the sport. Bobsledders for instance tend to train very heavy, all for the initial push of the sled where extra strength and power allows them to accelerate the sled faster. But even for sprinting, there have been many world-class sprinters who didn’t emphasize heavy weight lifting that much such as Carl Lewis. It’s clear that it can help though, along with steroid use.
As far as muscle mass, packing on mass will definitely come easier with squats and deadlifts, so go ahead. But just squatting or deadlifting heavy will fatigue your CNS and take away energy from other exercises that provide volume to the muscles for added hypertrophy.
As far as health goes: there is absolutely no need. I’d recommend against squats and deadlifts with a barbell in an environment where you are pushing for a personal best and thus require a high degree of physiological preparedness each session. It’s hard to just squat light too if you’re like me, because you’re going to be tempted to really push yourself. I find it harder to back off so I had to stop completely. Some squats are good for flexibility but if you’re going to do it with a barbell make sure to have a sound plan or don’t do it at all.
Even though squats and deadlifts and bench press can make us stronger, build a booty (I’ll make a separate post on that), and make us bigger, it’s a trend that can be taken too far.
So go outside and get some moderate exercise in, but don’t be fooled by trends. Maintain your ground as the whims of society ebb and flow.