How Building Your Total Can Provide A Base For Health And Well-Being
You Should Read This Post If:
- You’re considering taking up powerlifting
- You want to be stronger
- You want to be leaner
- You want to look, feel, and be healthier
- You have a solid 10 minutes to read this long yet exquisitely-written post
Often, we think of powerlifters as an obese population that just happens to be really strong. Very rarely do we consider powerlifters to be the picture of health and wellness, instead charging distance runners with that burden.
Maybe this is because cardiovascular disease is the #1 cause of death in the United States. You don’t often see people dying of low squat numbers.
But there’s more to your health than just your cardiovascular ability – body composition, strength, and mobility can all have an impact on your overall fitness level and, consequently, your health. Luckily, training as a powerlifter has the potential to address each of these components.
But only if you do it correctly.
This post is not meant to prepare you to tackle IPF Worlds as a world champion powerlifter. Powerlifting is like any other sport and it takes sacrifice to become elite.
However, if you aren’t training with the goal of becoming an elite powerlifter, working on your total is a great way to build a foundation of health. Combining the elements of strength, mobility, injury prevention, and even cardiovascular ability, training as a powerlifter can help prepare you to tackle the challenges of life, both physical and mental.
Muscle & Strength
No, not the magazine.
Perhaps the most obvious benefit of training like a powerlifter is the awesome strength #gainz. Performing compound, full-body exercises (e.g. squat & deadlift) is a great way to load every muscle and bone in the body.
Not only does this provide us with an excellent stimulus for building and maintaining lean mass, but it also provides us with a surge of growth hormone and testosterone production and an increase in bone-strengthening processes. As we age, these activities become increasingly important to the conservation of an active and capable lifestyle.
Being strong helps you carry your groceries inside in fewer trips, perform work around the house and yard more easily, and fight small bears in your backyard to protect mankind from a hostile takeover.
Having more lean mass keeps our metabolism running hotter and therefore keeps us leaner as well.
And don’t forget, growth hormone and testosterone will keep you more energetic. That energy will translate to all of the activities you have room for now that you’ve built bunk beds out of your regular beds.
Do you know how much mobility it takes to squat really deep in flat feet? Probably more than you currently have, that’s how much.
Squatting and deadlifting both require ample ankle dorsiflexion, thoracic spine extension, and 360 degree hip mobility. The act of sitting, hunched over a computer, for 8-10 hours each day minimizes the amount of time we spend in these positions, facilitating the emergence of joint immobility, pain, and dysfunctional movement patterns.
Furthermore, this same act of sitting prevents us from retaining the glute and deep core strength that we worked so had to obtain when we were toddlers. The neurological consequence of this can be further immobility due to the body’s propensity for replacing lost strength with inconvenient muscular tension.
Powerlifting gives us a basis for working on regaining this basic strength and mobility. If we don’t, we won’t be able to lift safely or effectively.
Keeping the ankles, hips, and thoracic spine mobile help us spare the cervical & lumbar spine and knees from the repetitive trauma of dysfunctional movement.
For years, I’d always followed and accepted the joint-by-joint approach as a standard movement guideline for the entire body. If you aren’t familiar with the joint-by-joint approach, here’s a summary.
Although I still use the joint-by-joint approach as a general guideline, I feel that the idea of controlled mobility is the lens through which I’ve recently been viewing mobility and stability demands in the body.
Although the ankle, hip, thoracic spine, and shoulder generally need mobility in many clients, too much mobility can cause a whole host of different problems. Without the ability to control movement at the hip, for instance, we can find ourselves with issues like labral irritation or impingement.
The opposite occurs with the knee, lumbar spine, and scapulae. Although their primary need might seem to be stability, immobility at any of these joints could cause issues. For instance, a shoulder blade that does not move very well on the rib cage might predispose someone to issues at the shoulder.
You see, the body is meant to be mobile. But that mobility is only as good as your ability to control it.
Powerlifting forces you to not only be mobile, but to control that range-of-motion in order to stabilize under a heavy barbell.
More Than Just The “Big Three”
Powerlifting is more than just squatting, deadlifting, and bench pressing. While a person would undoubtedly be able to maintain their current strength and fitness levels using these movements exclusively, a well-rounded lifter and athlete makes use of single-leg, pulling, core, and carry variations in their lifting programs.
For instance, one of the keys to a big powerlifting total is the lats. These large muscles run from your shoulder, across your back diagonally, and attach at the lumbar spine and pelvis – and they are essential muscles in powerlifting. They’re are best built through full range-of-motion rowing and chin-up variations.
Powerlifting is certainly based in the Big Three, but it provides a rationale for building structural balance within the body. Powerlifters should be careful to balance their pushing and pulling, adding in some single-leg and core exercises to keep themselves injury-free and stronger on the platform.
Cardio – It’s Not Spanish
You’ve probably seen the memes. They display large lifters and/or monkeys confused about whether sexual activity counts as cardio.
Actually, I believe it’s a proven fact that 83% of memes are pictures of monkeys confused about sex.
But even before the “Cardio Enlightenment” (as I believe this time will be designated in official powerlifting history), we all knew deep in our heart that a little low-level cardio wasn’t going to hurt our #gainz. Bodybuilders have always performed low- to moderate-intensity cardio, even during contest prep phases where they are low-calorie, hangry, and vulnerable to gains goblins.
Low-intensity (i.e. 50-70%) cardiovascular activity not only helps us recover between sessions, but also between sets. A great cardiovascular capacity means you can replenish your energy stores more quickly between each set, allowing for quicker and more intense workouts.
Performing low-intensity cardio is a great way to switch on “recovery mode” throughout your body. And now for the good news: you don’t need to jog three miles a day.
Foam rolling, mobility work, light technique work, incline treadmill walking, hiking, biking, rowing, and a whole multitude of other activities can all be considered cardio – just as long as they elevate your heart rate into the proper range.
But cardio doesn’t just benefit us as lifters, cardio also has a greatly positive effect on our heart and (obviously) cardiovascular system. And if that wasn’t enough, a little extra work in the “fat-burning” heart rate zone might help take off a few extra pounds.
You see, you can kill four birds with one stone. You can become bigger, stronger, leaner, and healthier at the same time.
You could argue that the #1 fitness “goals” are weight loss and body recomposition. Most people would probably rather hashtag their Instagram photos #ripped #fit #fitness #abs #fitspo #fitspiration #beachbody #shredded #sixpack #aesthetic #cleaneating #success #motivation #noexcuses versus #squat.
Most people just want to be able to take good mirror pics in the right lighting. Or at least take their clothes off comfortably in front of their significant other.
The sad truth is that many people don’t think about their mobility, strength, or overall capacity to do everyday things until it’s too late.
But these things are not mutually exclusive. You can be strong and lean at the same time.
To be lean, we must do a few things. We must be moderately to highly active and eat a mostly clean diet. We must make sure our diet is bursting with the right nutrients (e.g. proteins, fats, carbohydrates, H²O, vitamins, minerals). When it comes to exercise, some of our activity should be lifting in order to preserve and build lean mass. We must be sure to get quality sleep and attenuate stress.
To be a good powerlifter? It’s pretty similar. It doesn’t require surplus calories and an ever-expanding waistline, just the right combination of nutrients. And as for exercise, powerlifting requires lifting anywhere between two and five times per week. Add in a few days of cardio and we’re considered highly active. A powerlifter carries plenty of lean mass and stress management & sleep quality are paramount to performance.
Don’t these sound similar? Of course they do.
Often, we think of powerlifters as an obese population that just happens to be really strong. But powerlifting can do much more than just make you big and bulky.
Here’s a quick description of the modern powerlifter:
- Strong & capable, not just under the bar but in everyday life
- Mobile and mostly free of the afflictions of the traditional desk-jockey
- Healthy and balanced through the entire musculoskeletal system
- Cardiovascularly efficient
- Lean and therefore probably attractive
Most importantly, powerlifting (like many other weight-room based sports) gives us something to focus on other than the number on the scale. It gives us a reason to focus on nurturing our body instead of starving it to get the “results” we think we want.
If any of those bold words above sound like something you’re reaching for, you should give powerlifting a shot, even if it’s just for fun. Because it is fun.
What could be more fun than testing how much dead weight you can pick up off the floor for one rep?