I didn't have the hip mobility or core strength to safely perform the exercise.
The sumo deadlift is a variation that uses a wider stance and more upright posture.
Generally, it's easier on the lower back. And a popular option with people who've experienced a low back injury or lack flexibility.
It also gets flack from traditionalists, who say it's not a "real deadlift."
But here was this guy — clearly he had some experience picking up heavy weights — and he was telling me the sumo deadlift would be ideal for my body type (long-limbed and lanky).
I was confused.
"Shouldn't I learn the conventional deadlift?" I asked.
"Nah, don't fight your physiology on this one. Just do the sumo. Load up the bar and get after it. You'll be huge."
So I listened. Focused on improving my sumo deadlift. And eventually graduated to a narrower stance, executing a more traditional deadlift.
Which I credit with helping resolve my lower back pain and improving strength through my whole body. With noticeable translation into the sports I was playing at the time.
It was a formative experience. I had basically worked around a problem.
Avoided addressing a weakness. And it worked.
It got me started. And helped novice-me avoid certain injury.
On the flipside, it actually did address my weakness, though indirectly.
It allowed me to develop the necessary coordination and stability I needed to advance.
That example illustrates the dissolving gray area of these two-sided coins.
What initially seems like either “working around a problem” OR “addressing a weakness” is actually both. And neither at the same time.
Even still, some weaknesses should be addressed head-on.
For example, if you have tights shoulders and terrible posture, you should work on those things. They have cascading negative effects on your movement and overall health. And they don’t get better on their own.
But how much of your time and energy should be dedicated to resolving these kinds of weaknesses?
And how much time should be dedicated to performing safe, effective exercises that you can do right now without risking injury?
After all, there's quite a bit that my shoulders still can't do.
I can't perform a barbell snatch, for example. An Olympic lift that involves picking up a barbell off the floor and pulling it upward, then “catching it” in an extended overhead position.
If I was a CrossFit athlete, I'd have to address it. Because it’s a common movement in the sport.
But I’m not. So should I care?
Maybe. Because it illustrates flexibility and strength problems.
Maybe not. Because there isn’t a good reason for me to care. It doesn’t align with what I’m trying to accomplish. Not to mention, it’s an inherently risky exercise.
So how do we know when it makes sense to stop fighting our physiology and move on, and when we should address the weakness (even if it means taking a step backward)?
Tim Ferriss makes a great case for leveraging our strengths:
“It’s far more lucrative and fun to leverage your strengths instead of attempting to fix all the chinks in your armor.”
But Arnold believes in attacking weaknesses. Turning them into strengths.
A good argument can be made for both sides.
But as far as I can tell, the main focus should be on establishing a baseline level of competence that prevents injury, enables longevity, and allows you to do what you want to do.
If you love to compete in obstacle course races, but you’re prone to shin splints, you don’t have to quit your passion to focus exclusively on yoga and shin rehabilitation.
Instead, do what you have to in order to get back to baseline.
From there, split your time between doing what you love (or doing what creates progress) and addressing your weaknesses.
The amount of attention you give each depends on an infinite number of personal factors. Which only you will know.
One of the key factors is how much influence you have over the weakness.
If we’re talking about a physiological characteristic, like flat feet, then there is only so much you can do to compensate for that.
If it’s a skill based movement. Or a soft-tissue problem like muscle tightness, then you have greater influence. And it deserves more attention.
The key is to not get locked up with dogmatic thinking.
And remember why you’re doing all this in the first place.
coun·ter·bal·ance (noun): a weight that balances another weight.
2. Pushing Through Discomfort vs. Recognizing a Problem
I’m the poster boy for this one.
As I’ve gotten older, I think a lot more about injury prevention. Staying healthy.
Mostly because I realize that if I injure myself and lose 6 weeks of training time, my progress will be shot to hell.
It won’t have mattered that I pushed out a few more repetitions on some exercise.
Any gains from overreaching will be totally lost.
At the same time, you can’t just leave the gym or go home anytime you feel a twinge in a joint. You’d never get anything done.
And older athletes will tell you that you’ll never be completely pain-free.
Discomfort is part of the deal.
Especially as we age.
But how do you know when to push through discomfort, and when to stop and recognize a problem (i.e. injury)?
Training experience is the most important factor.
Experienced athletes know their bodies.
They can tell the difference between a healthy muscle “burn” feeling, and a strain.
Soreness from tendinitis.
But the lines between all these sensations is thin.
So you have to be careful.
Again, there’s no easy answer here.
But usually, healthy discomfort — be it the burning in your chest when running sprints or pain in your legs when performing a high-rep set of squats — subsides when you take your foot off the gas.
It may not go away completely, but it lets up.
So if you notice something that doesn’t feel good while you’re working out or doing any intense physical activity, take a short pause.
See if it lets up a bit. If it does, that’s a good sign.
And in the case of an annoying hip pinch, shoulder twinge, or stiffness in your lower back — these little ailments tend to loosen up with activity.
If you can start slow and work your way up to full function without causing a major flair up, then you’re in good shape.
But if the pain doesn’t let up after warming-up thoroughly, it’s time to give it some respect.