Ego trip: a journey to nowhere.
Squat, bench, and deadlift are staple exercises for lifters of all ages. They are the three main lifts performed in powerlifting competitions, so they are a “must do” for athletes. They are also compound movements that work out different muscle groups at the same time, which is ideal for anyone who wants to build strength, sculpt their physique, and improve their body’s efficiency performing everyday tasks. Lastly, they’re the best exercises to show off and ego lift.
Good old ego lifting. I’ve been there often, trying to push a weight that was way out of my league because my workout log said so. But what does actually happen when you lift too much?
Having had a bad case of ego lifting at least once on each of the three lifts mentioned above, I noticed different consequences. And no, it wasn’t only injury. There are also less obvious outcomes, ranging from hampering your gains to developing bad form habits.
Ego Lifting on the Squat
A quick side note: there is no universal best squat depth. If you can squat deep without developing a “buttwink”, lifting your heels, or leaning so far forward you end up doing a good morning, then that’s your best depth. If your squat doesn’t seem very deep compared to others, but you have good form, it could be that you are very tall and have longer femurs than your torso, for example. In any case, you should focus on squatting as low as possible in the correct position, not as low as possible at all costs.
I once tried a very hard set of squats, despite the fact that I had barely got the same number of reps with a lighter load the previous weeks. I realised right away something was off. I usually have a rather deep squat, but on that set I barely got to parallel. I was also going too fast, without much control, and my body was folding and unfolding like an accordion. A smarter idea would have been to stop the set, reduce the load, and repeat. I was not smart.
I didn’t see the full extent of the damage I’d done until the following day, when I found some ugly purple bruising on the inside of both knees. The skin was swollen and tender to the touch. I only felt pain if I pressed on the bruises, which was lucky, but my legs felt stiff from the swelling.
Reflecting back on it, I realised my accordion-style squat had caused my knees to cave in, which in turn had placed too much stress on the knee joint. Fortunately, the bruising went away after a few days of RICE (Rest, Ice, Compression, and Elevation), but I might not be so lucky next time.
Moreover, cutting off a squat above your usual depth is actually counterproductive if you’re trying to lift heavy. If you don’t squat as deep as you could – and don’t take the muscles through a full range of motion – you can’t take advantage of the stretch reflex.
When you stretch a muscle, your nervous system triggers a contraction in the same muscle to prevent overstretching. The faster the stretch, the more forceful the initial contraction. For this reason, the stretch reflex gives you momentum at the bottom of a squat and helps you push the weight back up. (Yes, I can see the dramatic irony of my mistake.)
Lastly, shallow squats don’t provide the same stress to your muscles as deep squats, meaning you won’t grow as big and strong as you could otherwise.
Ego Lifting on the Bench Press
Another reason why we’re not actually working our target muscles as hard as we believe when we’re pushing or pulling too heavy a load is that we cheat through the reps and recruit other muscles to help us through the movement. Months later, the target muscles are still lagging and we don’t understand why.
I definitely got way too anxious to increase the weight on my bench press at a fast pace. I often watch videos and compare them to my own sets. On one of these form checks, I realised I’d been stopping the bar too far above my chest, so my pecs wouldn’t come into the movement as much as they should.
During my next upper body session, I let the bar travel all the way down to my chest, it crushed me, and I had to reduce the load. I then used that lighter weight as a starting point to make real progress.
Here is my full personal form checklist for this exercise:
There are more elements to take into account, but checking out these essential boxes before beginning each set has led to my best performances and moments of mind-muscle connection so far.
Ego Lifting on the Deadlift
I love heavy deadlifts. If I get carried away with that, however, my back will round as I fight to pull the bar off the floor. This increases the risk of developing spinal disc problems, because the discs get squeezed too hard on one side and stretched too far on the other.
I also fail to take a deep breath and hold it throughout a rep, so my core isn’t braced correctly and can’t help stabilise the spine. If the spinal erectors – the muscles on either side of the spine, whose job is to extend your back – pull the load without core stabilisation, eventually you may damage them with excessive weight.
Both issues are a matter of wear and tear that takes place over time, so you may get away with mild lower back pain now and injure yourself months or years later.
Moreover, when ego lifting, I tend to lower the bar without much of an effort to resist the weight. In fact, I’m pretty relieved to let gravity take the reins. However, bringing the bar back to the floor is still a portion of the exercise and, more specifically, its eccentric phase.
During an eccentric, your muscles lengthen and produce less force; during a concentric, your muscles contract and generate more force to lift the weight. If you drop the bar, it’s the equivalent of doing a shallow squat. It’s a half rep, so you’re getting your muscles to do less work. Moreover, hitting the floor will damage the plates on the bar and shows lack of respect for your equipment.
Cons of Ego Lifting: The main reason why ego lifting isn’t recommended is the increased injury risk. Although this alone should be a pretty good deterrent, sometimes it isn’t.
In addition, lifting too heavy could subject your muscles to less stress, reducing your gains, and cause you to develop bad form habits. Both consequences make these exercises more dangerous and hinder muscular and strength development.
Pros of Ego Lifting: You get a fleeting ego boost because you’re lifting heavy shit. That’s it, really.
Load plays a role in your workouts, but it’s far from the most important of your training goals. Now go and lift heavy shit mindfully.
In Future Episodes:
How can you tell if you’re making a rational choice or relapsing after recovery from obsessive-compulsive behaviours? I’ll cover my personal strategies next week.
Have you ever observed any dire consequences from your own episodes of ego lifting? Share your experience in the comments!
A personal trainer who likes superheroes, bread, lifting weights, and studying “fitness stuff”.
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