T Nation

Where to Draw the Line on Going Heavy?


At what point does heavy lifting become limited by physiology other than your muscles (joints, muscle attachments, bones)?

You hear stories of guys who injure themselves by going too heavy, not because their muscles can't bear the weight, but because of other physical limitations. You can have perfect form, but still end up with torn pecs, knee injuries, ruptured discs, even broken bones.

The few injuries I've had so far have been from sloppy form, so I haven't run into this yet. Just curious if I ever will, or if the problem is limited to the top 1-2% of lifters?


Most people on the planet don't have it in them to lift truly impressive numbers. Most will injure themselves before they ever reach a level considered "elite". That is a risk we all take in this because lifting to build "extreme" levels of muscle mass is NOT risk free.

If you are the type who can't feel when their body is telling them "no", then you will likely be injured much more easily than someone who understands his own physiology well and knows what his body is meant to do.

That is why most of these beginners would be better off learning from an anatomy&phys book than they would reading many of the articles on this site.

Also, everyone was not made to do every fucking exercise. I usually don't do free weight squats. It hurts my back. I have seen much better growth from hack squats (the ones with the pad, not the sled) and leg presses. Perhaps if I were foolish enough to listen to others and not my own experience, I may have had an injury by now from that movement. But I haven't...and my legs are pretty big.

The bottom line, injury is a risk. The smart ones anticipate it and try to avoid it while still pushing their limits daily. That is where this becomes an art...and those who can only see life through the lens of a spread sheet will fail every time.


I have to agree here with X; if you know your body, you will find the best exercises for you, decreasing injury risk.

Many newbs get hurt in the gym because of shitty form, or because they play macho someday and put on a weight that is not addequate for them; load calculation problems come from newbs too, increasing risk of injury and decreasing training effectiveness.

For X, I think the leg apparatus you mention is called the Perfect Squat Machine. I switched gym and found I can go heavy but more comfortable with it, I'm making it a staple for my leg training.


99% of the time there are stop signs that will appear to every athlete. It is the ability of the trainee to distinguish between these signs that is paramount since it is not always going to be obvious that a major trauma may occur.

The old adage that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure holds true in this instance. However, there is a very broad spectrum. There are some that disregard the signs until something major occurs or there are people who avoid everything associated with an exercise out of fear. Most lie somewhere in the middle.

Some "going heavy" injuries are unavoidable but in the educated athlete you will find them to be rare. As Prof X said - there some things certain people just can not and should not do. As we age we should be able to distinguish as to wither our personal designation of either one of these conditions is physical or mental. From there you can usually derive who is going to get hurt and who is going to make gains.


Please give an example of someone who got hurt because of physical limitations by lifting weights?


I like the point about customizing your training regimen to your particular physiology. After a few years of trying different lifts, I learned that certain lifts are a higher risk of injury for me, and that I can achieve the same or better results by using alternate lifts.

For example, I don't do overhead shoulder presses any more. Even with good form, they lead to neck problems for me, and I find that I can still make progress without needing to do that particular lift.

I agree it's important to listen to your body and know your limitations. In some cases, I can see choosing a lower weight for safety reasons, but still building muscle through greater ROM, slower timing, or higher reps.

Still, the temptation is always there to add another plate. At some point, you may reach an unnacceptable risk of injury due to the sheer amount of weight you are throwing around. I don't think most of us are anywhere near that point yet, but it happens. You can continually build muscle, but bone growth happens more slowly, and joints don't get any better over time.

The only lift I'm remotely concerned about right now is the leg press. My legs are strong enough to push the weight, but I worry about potential knee injuries. I can feel the cartilage crackling in my knees, but so far they have held up ok. It's a judgment call, I guess.


my guess is that this is an aspect that can divide the ones who progress substantially from the ones who don't.

what is your substitute for that exercise?

I have always sucked on squats; I have put up to 4 plates on them, that's nothing for about 25% of the people here I guess. The thing is that I don't feel the pump in my legs, my brother tried to help on my form for many months (powerlifter, but he would build his legs out of spinning classes), but always sucked. He has always tried to convince me to do the squat, you know "leg press is for pussies, freeweights or die, etc...". But my legs responded the best once I got to do deep leg presses, and bumped up the reps on my legs. Now I can see the distinction between the vastus lateralis, the teardrop, the rectus femoris, and even my hamstring/quad separation is coming up!!!

For lagging bodyparts this is the base for me. Once I focus on the contraction, increase the reps and lower the weight, I've had good results.

yes, but you have to distinguish when your ego is sacrificing good form and increasing risk of injury, instead of going for 'constant' progressive overload.

I've known of many memebers around here who have traded off loads for greater ROM because the weight they were putting had their joints and bones under tremendous stress, they know who they are, and they're muscular, gut wrenching, big intense mofo's.

Decrease movement speed at the beginning of your warmup, and extend your warmup time. This happens too because my knees suck.


Yeah, ego can be motivating, but also can be counterproductive when it leads to higher weights at the expense of good form, full ROM, safety, and ultimately building muscle. One of the best lessons I've had in humility was working through Ian King's Limping and Super Strength series. It taught me that good results depend more on the quality of the workout itself, than on how good you look while doing it.

To answer your question, for shoulder work I do dumbbell front and side raises, upright rows, and some machine work which makes it easier to stabilize the neck. I no longer do free weight overhead lifts like military and shoulder presses.


[quote]MEYMZ wrote:
forlife wrote:

I have always sucked on squats; I have put up to 4 plates on them, that's nothing for about 25% of the people here I guess. The thing is that I don't feel the pump in my legs...

Not to change the subject but I have to say something about squats since I have been seeing a few posts making similar statments. I think the main problem with squats, aside from the fact that not everyone is going to do naturally well with them, is that often your legs can handle a great deal more weight than your back and core can. For instance with a back or front squat my upper body fatigues from supporting the weight before my legs really start to go to failure. I can get a pump that wont allow me to walk from doing body weight squats to failure.

Squats are a great leg workout but anyone who has ever tried to squat a max weight can probably attest that they are difficult to do well and quickly bring out weaknesses in areas other than your legs. I don't avoid squats but I do recognize that to be any good at this lift I need a lot more strength and caution than with most leg work.

Everyone has different goals but it has been a core lift in bodybuilding and powerlifting for a long time and I wouldn't want to hear about anyone discounting them completely because of one bad experience.


I agree, which is one reason (aside from safety issues) that I prefer leg presses over squats these days. Squats are great for the majority of people that can do them without physiology getting in the way.


But you still do upright rows? That's unique, IMO. Especially if your neck is something you're concerned with.

Personally, I think you might be using physiology as an excuse to be tentative for doing certain movements, and you're looking to be validated by us for not doing them.

You want to be let off the hook, if you will.

It seems the big question here is are you physically limited from doing a certain movement or are you mentally blocking yourself from a certain movement. In my experience it's always been the latter, always.


I have to agree with this. If someone is some huge lifter who gained over 80lbs of muscle, I assume they know damn well which movements really work for them. They are "advanced". If someone is still a beginner or intermediate, they are still at the stage where they can TEACH themselves to adapt to a movement assuming it isn't truly causing joint pain or something to that effect...and assuming they are even doing the exercise correctly.

Even though For Life has made progress, I wouldn't exactly consider his stage of development to be at the point where he draws definitive lines in the sand about what he won't do from now on.


i hate all your posts.


That's a fair question. I never considered dropping overhead presses until my chiropractor strongly recommended that I do so, based on x-rays of my neck and spine, along with physical symptoms that I've had.

I actually enjoy presses and would be happy to do them if that weren't the case.

Now, lunges are another story...I wouldn't mind if you could let me off the hook for those :wink:


The reason I started the thread was that I was in the gym last Friday doing leg presses with 1,080 pounds on the machine. A guy walked up to me and asked if there was any risk of injury from pushing that much weight. It got me thinking that even when using good form, as you keep increasing the amount of weight, you also increase the risk of injury to your joints/tendons/bones, even if you have the muscular strength to push that much weight.

It's not about "drawing definitive lines in the sand about what I won't do from now on". I'm trying to assess how heavy to go in the future, while keeping the risk of injury to a minimum. My thinking is that I can still achieve muscle growth by increasing range of motion, number of reps, and time under tension without necessarily always having to add more plates.


My doctor recommended that I give up returning to athletics after I developed a brachial plexus injury. As the atrophy and muscle imbalances progressed, I developed spinal issues. Multiple symptomatic cervical bulges/herniations, thoracic herniations (including one that pressed directly on the spinal cord), spinal arthritis, and a screwy SI joint. That was 11 years ago. I've actually forgotten what it's not like not to hurt. Seriously.

I swam again, got past the 1st cut on the rowing team in college, and benched double my body weight, all with persistent nerve damage and atrophy, and with the spinal issues starting to develop.

Since I started training in an educated manner focusing on my physical weak points (which is pretty much the entire right half of my body and spine top to bottom), I've been able to squat ATG with 225, do overhead press with body weight (185), and deadlift a little over double bodyweight.

Objectively not that impressive. But I've busted my butt to be able to do them with proper form and safety. And you know what? My back is better than ever. I hurt less than ever. And I've even shown some improvement on MRI. In the face of all this evidence the doc still tells me to quit.

If an exercise is hurting you, and you aren't more messed up than I am, figure out WHY it hurts your neck. And address it. Use it as a wake up call to get healthier. Not as an excuse to wimp out.


As my chiro explained it, you can't heal damage that has already been done to your neck/spine. You can only take corrective actions to keep it from getting worse in the future.

Maybe he's full of shit, but I'm assuming he knows more about physiology than I do.

That said, I think you have a good point. Ultimately you have to balance common sense and experience to figure out what works best for you.


In general you cant "heal" joints either.

They never go back to being 100% no matter what you do or how long you give them.

Muscles arent a problem, joints and ligaments dont heal the same.


He probably does. And this is true. I haven't 'healed' anything per se. But I've slowed the rate of damage and improved things like joint spaces and curvatures (which CAN improve over time).

By addressing the various musculoskeletal issues that gave rise to these issues in the first place, I've reduced my joint pain. Haven't undone the fact that my dicss will forever be weaker, or the fact that there's already arthritis in my joints, but I've slowed down or even halted the process.

The point is that by avoiding things that tweak your neck, you're also avoiding making your neck less tweakable. Deadlifting has IMPROVED my back health because I chose to use it to address my MSK issues.