Why You Should Avoid the “Lifter’s Grind” in Training

Sorry for the bad poem, but I’ve heard it helps to use humor to defuse a sensitive subject:

Ode to the Grind

The deadlifter stood tall and readied themselves for the fight.
The challenge a new one; to pull with all their might.
Their walk up strong, back and mind tight
and take the mixed grip with one goal in sight:
To pull and lock out this new goal
No matter the toll,
That it may take up on their body and soul.
So pull and pull against the force
Body shaking and the spine aching with remorse,
Silly pride being their unfortunate motivational source.
And while a successful pull was made,
The success was to fade.
For the grind is not pretty or or a challenge to celebrate
As the effects caused the lifter to over compensate.

My inspiration for the words above are the countless horrible lifts that are proudly displayed on social media every week (the overhead press and deadlift often being the most abused lifts by Strongmen in the gym). It’s sometimes inspired by a coach, but most often due to the well meaning athlete looking to make a new personal best. The problem comes from not understanding the purpose and effects of a single during training.

As a coach, I program singles into my athlete’s training for very specific purposes. While the bulk of the work (90% or more) is going to based on doubles and triples, we know certain athletes will benefit from near maximum work. The higher level the athlete, the more singles they get as competition draws near. These signals are not meant to be overworked sets with horrible form. They are performed at 90 to 95% of capacity without breaking technique. Something must be left in the bag for the contest, and injury during training should be avoided as much as possible.

A properly planned training cycle will have you move through new PR’s without the need for grinding them out. For a well coached Strongman, they will be part of your routine and look just as good as your triples.

To be clear let us discuss the following question: What exactly is a grind, and what happens when we do it?

Lifter’s grind: The act of attempting to complete a lift for a single (or extra) repetition at or near the absolute maximum amount of weight the athlete can move that day when form cannot be maintained.

The muscular and central nervous systems become overloaded, and the lift is slowed to a near crawl. The lifter begins to shake and lose form, most notably in their posterior chain. While well advised to bail on the attempt at this point, many lifters often push through risking injury and set back.

It’s been theorized that when the central nervous system (CNS for short) hits the point of maximum fatigue during a lift, brain synapses may to misfire, causing spastic muscle contractions that are a sign that you are past any point considered safe. These irregular contractions radically increase the stress on your spine and tendons. You are asking for a tear or rupture. Make sure you understand we are not talking about simply loosening up form for the sake of an extra rep, and we definitely aren’t talking about an advanced lifter having developed their own technique that they use repeatedly. This is about putting safety last for the sake of ego during a training session.

Not only can you get hurt, you really have to ask yourself the value of making such a lift during training. How likely are you to repeat it under contest conditions? Do you think that it actually made you stronger or better at that lift?

The author over reaching on the last two reps.

Of course not. All lifting like that ever does is stoke the ego and inflate pride. Those are the arch enemies of proper training and development.

Conversely, a properly executed single does many things that a grind can’t, including:

  • Develop proper bar path under significant stress
  • Strengthen muscles and tendons at near maximum weight
  • Psychologically prepare the athlete to lift maximum poundages

A smoother, safer 725 pound pull by the author.

Now, humans are biological machines. Out makeup is not like your car engine that runs incredibly consistently day in and day out. Our nutrition, rest, stress, and a thousand other inputs affects your day to day performance in the training hall. Consistency is key (and I will expand on this in a whole other article) to good training sessions and knowing what you should be able to lift on any given day. To know the weights at which your singles should be performed requires self honesty, proper communication with your coach, and mental focus. Let’s look at the following example to get a flexible baseline, based on the day.

Your most recent contest PR deadlift was 500 lbs. Eight weeks before your next contest (that has a max pull contested) you are scheduled to begin implementing singles for 3 sets every other week. You’ve been performing very successful lifts for two’s and three’s during your training leading up to this. The last pull for 3×2 you made was 95% of 500 or 475lbs.

Since you don’t know 95% is too heavy or light for a single, you should use a weight you know you can certainly make for one to begin. For your first of three singles you pull 460 smooth and easy. The decision is made to pull 475 for the next set. It was a good pull but not perfect. I would advise the lifter to back down and make one more really solid pull at 465. Once that is made and noted, it helps shape the next session in two weeks. We know we can most likely begin at 470 and look for 2 really great lifts there, then adjust for the third. Again, so much depends on the coach’s eye. If the lifter was to begin to lose control and grind a rep I would immediately give them the stop command.

Making the lift correctly in training always trumps just making the lift for ego’s sake. If you were in a live contest situation and the grind is the difference between winning and losing, I would stay silent and let the lifter chose their fate. After all, it is their body on the line.

By maintaining focus on the process, the athlete will experience greater success than when focus is on the goal. By working the reps correctly, constant and consistent progress is inevitable. The grind, no matter how attractive, is a dangerous muse. Ignore the temptation she provides to avoid the inevitable pitfalls.

Editors note: This article is an op-ed. The views expressed herein are the authors and don’t necessarily reflect the views of BarBend. Claims, assertions, opinions, and quotes have been sourced exclusively by the author.