Powerlifting Injuries and Muscular Imbalances
Powerlifting injuries are inevitable. Powerlifting is a sport where the athlete is required to perform three exercises which are the squat, bench press and deadlift. In a competition, the individual is allowed three attempts on every exercise, making a total of nine lifts throughout the event.
A Breakdown of Each Lift
A squat is a lower body exercise where the athlete must squat down until their hip joint is lower than the knee joint. Different emphasis on muscle groups are generally dictated by the stance and variation of the squat. For example, a low bar squat mainly utilizes the posterior chain (hamstrings, glutes and lower back) whereas a high bar squat will primarily target the quadriceps and spinal erectors. Read my other guide on the importance of proper mobility here
The bench press is the only upper body exercise in a powerlifting competition. The athlete must bring the barbell down to their chest to a pause, followed by pressing the barbell back up into a locked out position. The primary muscle groups that are recruited in a bench press are the pectoralis major (chest), anterior deltoid (front shoulder) and triceps (back of the upper arm).
The deadlift is another lower body exercise in powerlifting where the athlete must lift the barbell from the ground to the hips. Similar to the squat, depending on the stance and variation of the lift, the deadlift can place emphasis on either the posterior chain muscles (conventional, sumo deadlift) or the quadriceps and spinal erectors (Olympic Weightlifting “Deadlifts”).
Why do Powerlifting Injuries Happen?
As a manual therapist and coach, most powerlifting injuries happen for a number of reasons – they are either from technical errors (form), volume overload and general overuse. Powerlifting is a very physical demanding sport and if you were to look at a general powerlifting program, it would consist of high percentages of weight/intensity along with volume.
It is also important to note that a large percentage of powerlifters utilize the low bar squat along with the sumo deadlift (because of the decreased range of motion) which are both posterior chain dominant exercises. Not only will this put an enormous amount of stress on the lower back and hips, it will also create a muscular imbalance between the anterior (front) and posterior (back) within the hips.
Rounded shoulders and shoulder impingement are also quite common in powerlifting mainly due to the excessive amount of bench pressing. Muscular imbalances in the upper body are created from the high amount of volume of bench pressing and accessory work that is needed to supplement the bench press. Pull dominant exercises such as face pulls, reverse flies and YWT exercises are all recommended to pull the shoulders back into position.
How to avoid Powerlifting Injuries
Focus on form:
Re-analyze your form and see if that specific variation is working for you. If sumo deadlifts are creating pain in your hips, try incorporating conventional deadlifts to give the hips a break.
Decrease intensity and volume:
Check your program and see if there is adequate rest for muscle groups throughout the week. A perfect example of too much work is low bar squats and conventional deadlifts done back to back. Even though they are two different exercises, these two variations of lifts will tax your posterior chain and could potentially contribute to future lower back and hip pain.
Working on your weaknesses will dramatically decrease your chances of injury. The exercises that you generally do not like and skip at the end of your workouts are the exercises that you should be doing! You are only as strong as your weakest link.
Managing your injuries
Maintenance is often overlooked in every sport. Similar to a car, the human body requires maintenance work especially with the high amounts of volume and intensity that is required in powerlifting.
Different techniques in manual therapy such as myofascial release, joint mobilizations and stretching will help decrease muscular tension and re-align soft tissues that were damaged. It can also help with circulation that will lead to a faster recovery time and decrease your chances of injury.
Below is a video of how manual therapy has helped one of my clients prepare for a powerlifting competition.
Mobilizing and stretching:
Foam rolling and self massage with a lacrosse ball are both great ideas for powerlifters. These tools will help increase your mobility in your joints which is much needed because powerlifters often lack mobility in their spine, hips and ankles. Stretching will also help temporarily increase your flexibility and range of motion – dynamic stretching should be done prior to a workout whereas static stretching should be done after a workout.
Powerlifting is a physically demanding sport that requires time and dedication. Pain and powerlifting injuries are inevitable, however, can be managed through training smart, keeping up with self care (mobilizing and stretching) along with focusing on correcting muscular imbalances. Listening to your body and knowing when to take a break is often overlooked – powerlifting is a marathon, not a sprint.