Retiring From Powerlifting By Adam Davis (OR: How I learned to Stop Lifting Heavy and Love the Lunge)

I’ve rewritten this blog multiple times now. Originally I was just going to talk about lunges. A client of mine who’s a former trainer herself sent me an article regarding the common mistakes when both practicing and coaching lunges. This article upset me because it challenged how I’ve been coaching this movement for 6 years professionally. It was written by one of our favorite professionals in the industry to boot (Dr. John Rusin). I was forced to open my mind and accept new information. And for the first time since joining the OrthoCore Physical Therapy team, I told my clients I was teaching something wrong (well more like less efficient, we’ll say).

Now where am I going with all of this? Well first off, as a coach I have a policy that I never teach something that I don’t practice on my own, unless a client really needs something unique in their programming. I begrudgingly started to practice these new lunges. I’ve had a long love hate relationship with lunges since the first day I worked out my legs. I know their importance and the importance of unilateral work in general. But lunges suck. Or rather I sucked at lunges. So I avoided doing them for a long time during my powerlifting career. I wanted to focus on competition lifts like squats and deadlifts. Those were fun, short, and heavy sets that felt impressive. Lunges were long, grueling, and boring exercises that burned and used light weight. Not something a 23 year old powerlifter was excited to do.

Well now I’m 30 and have 3 notable prior sports injuries, arthritis of varying degrees in many joints, and a stability issue in my right hip. That issue is likely from years of ignoring lunges I’d wager. Well upon practicing these new lunges that better utilize the mechanics of the hip, I became more aware of this instability, as well as generally had better feedback from it. I had more control than ever before in this exercise when working on that right leg, and despite the muscles being stronger, it felt harder. My rotator cuff was working in ways it wasn’t before (yes your hips have a rotator cuff too).

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This newfound sensation with an old exercise blew my mind. How had I not come across this information on how to perform lunges in 6 years of training and 5 years of competitive lifting? My lower body program shifted to primarily focus on lunges first, and I began to go from heavy weight to lighter weight/higher reps. Now I perform them with unevenly loaded dumbbells to both challenge stability and engage the glutes even more than the original modification did. Compound movements like squats and deadlifts became ancillary lifts in my routine.

Ok so let’s get to the real point here. Ever since my shoulder injury 4 years ago, I’ve been out of the competitive lifting scene. It’s been somewhat of a rough journey as I was just months away from my first major competition (everything I had done before were unofficial amatuer meets that were a bit more loosely regulated). That really messed with me. I went through ups and downs trying to get back to the numbers I used to put up before that injury, never quite making it in any of the competition lifts. I even went through a period of depression because of it and gained a lot of weight.

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The last 2 or so years I’ve been getting back into consistent training and leaned out to a nice healthy level again. But I’ve still always been training for strength overall. So “going heavy” was my priority in a lot of lifts, even if I was sure to do things like care for my shoulder health and isolate where needed. I even got my bench press up to 235 lbs after rehabbing my left shoulder from an impingement! But even though I’m mechanically stronger than I used to be in my powerlifting days (I move weight more efficiently), the fact that the actual amount of weight I was lifting was so much lower continued to nag at me. That was until the last few months.

I’ve recently come to terms with the fact that I will never compete again, at least not in any ranked league, and even if I compete in an amateur meet again I know I will be far outclassed. I had instead been focusing on my clients’ programs, and exploring new avenues like yoga. I specialize in corrective exercise and movement after all, why not broaden my own training to include more avenues regarding it? And although I was initially hesitant to admit there was information that contradicted what I coached, these lunges were my final step to finding where I really need to be training wise for my body at my age.

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Let’s wrap this up as I tend to ramble when talking about my own experiences. Focusing on these lunges first basically meant a lot of my strength and energy would be sapped for the big lifts. So I did what powerlifters swear never to do. I lifted lighter weight. My squats were endurance and mobility focused sets of 10-15 reps. My deadlifts stayed at low rep sets of 3-5 (I personally believe the conventional deadlift is risky for high reps), but the weight I used was relegated to weight that was normally not a 3-5 rep max. I also started to superset multiple types of deadlifts, so it was more like one set of 6-10 when combined, again helping my muscular endurance more than my usual training used to.

And you know what? I’m seeing tons of progress. My hip feels stronger every week. I’m still adding weight to my lifts even if I use less weight overall compared to even a couple of years ago, nevermind my powerlifting days. My shoulder mobility is more consistent, and my core imbalance is improving faster. To top it off, despite lifting so much lighter, I have more muscle mass on my body now than ever before, which helps keep my metabolism well regulated so I stay leaner easier, and cushions my poor arthritic joints.

So after 4 years of frustratingly chasing the dragon of reaching my former glory days. I’ve finally accepted that I’m not living those days anymore. I’ve retired from heavy weight you could say. I still challenge myself, but in ways that are more appropriate for my body given my history and needs. And you know what? I’m happy with my programming, performance, and body for the first time in nearly 5 years. The new year just started, so I guess this is my “new me”. Perhaps something as simple as reexamining your training programming needs is all you need for a “new you” as well. If you’d like to try and don’t know where to start you can always contact me. Otherwise I wish you all luck in your endeavours in health and wellness in this new year. And remember, it’s ok to be a different kind of athlete than you were last year.

~Adam