The trap bar deadlift

The conventional deadlift is done using a standard 20 kg barbell in powerlifting. Trap bars have a hexagonal shape which you stand in (which is why they’re sometimes called “hex bars”) with sleeves on the end that let you load weight, and they have handles on either side that allow you to grip the bar with a neutral grip.

During my 8-week wave cycling program for the squat, I had also been using the trap bar to do some deadlifting once a week during the last half of the program. Prior to that, I was doing Romanian deadlifts at about 60% of my conventional deadlift 1 rep max to work on improving hamstring strength. After I tested my squat 1-rep max, I also decided to see whether I could lift more than my current 1 rep max of 210 kg. The video below shows me setting a new personal best at 220 kg, and I felt I still had a little more in the tank.

From my experience using the trap bar, I assume I can usually lift around 20-30 kg more on the trap bar than in the conventional deadlift using an Olympic bar. I was curious to see what the typical difference was and did some searching on the web. I came across Greg Nuckold’s very detailed review of the relative benefits of trap bar deadlift versus conventional deadlift (CDL) on his Strength by Science website.  Originally sceptical of the value of the trap bar lift, Greg was convinced by the studies he reviewed that the trap bar lift was actually a better training option for people who are not wanting to compete in powerlifting, where the conventional deadlift is mandatory.  He reviewed a number of studies and concluded that “the trap bar deadlift works your back and hip extensors almost as hard as the conventional deadlift does at worst, and just as hard in all likelihood, with the added benefit of also providing a little extra stimulus for your quads (though not nearly as much as squatting does).”

In particular, he examined two studies which assessed the difference in 1 rep max lifts for conventional and trapbar deadlift. For the study in which the lower trapbar grip was used (in line with the central axis of the weights), on average the study subjects could lift 8.4% more with the trap bar than the conventional deadlift.

The study that explicitly compared the high-handle trapbar lift with the conventional lift had a difference of 14.9 %. That would imply that my 220 kg high-handle trapbar lift would correspond to a conventional deadlift of 191.5 kg, very close to my previous personal best of 190 kg set pre-pandemic in 2019.  I felt I was not quite at my absolute max when I lifted 220, so possibly my conventional deadlift has improved a little over the pandemic, though I have not been training it intensively. If I can get to a conventional deadlift of 200 kg soon, that would put me within 20 kg of the current drug-free European record for my age-weight class.

Improving my squat using wave cycling

After a week skiing in February 2015, my knees became inflamed and painful and I had trouble walking up and down stairs. I found that deadlifts improved my knee function and started powerlifting training for deadlifts and bench press. For the first months, I avoided the squat completely, and only gradually started to squat with relatively light weights around 50-60 kg. In the last couple of years, I’ve discovered that my knees are fine with squatting with good technique to parallel or below. I still have trouble getting below parallel with heavy weight on the back but am working on improving mobility. In my last pre-pandemic competition in December 2019, I squatted 107.5 kg with depth that was only just below parallel and one of the judges told me afterwards he thought they had been lenient in judging depth. This was substantially behind my deadlift at 190 kg. Most powerlifters have squat somewhat less than they can powerlift, but the difference is on average only around 20% and is narrower at 15% at the elite level (see here for averages based on over 7 million lifts).

So I decided to focus over the last 8 weeks on improving my squat, to do only a minimal amount of deadlifting, and no bench press (instead to rehabilitate an AC joint injury). I had been reading Pavel Tsatsouline’s book Beyond Bodybuilding: Muscle and Strength Training Secrets for The Renaissance Man and decided to do the 8 week wave cycling program that he describes on page 80 of the Kindle edition.  Here is how it worked for my squat:

I assumed my squat one rep max was currently 110 kg and my best working weight for 5-rep sets was 90 kg. For the first week, on Monday I performed 90×5, 92.5×4, 95×3, 97.5×2, 100×1. Following Pavel’s recommendation, I rested for 3 minutes between the sets. On Wednesday, I added 2.5 kg to all my sets: 92.5×5, 95×4, 97.5×3, 100×2, 102.5×1. On Friday, I added another 2.5: 95×5, 97.5×4, 100×3, 102.5×2, 105×1. Each new week, on Monday, I backed up to my last Wednesday numbers and worked back up. So every week, I added 7.5 kg to my sets and then took 5 kg off and built up again. This is why it is called ‘wave cycling’. Looking just at the singles, my weeks looked like this: 100, 102.5, 105; 102.5, 105, 107.5; 105, 107.5, 110, etc.

At the end of the 8th week, my last single was at 117.5 kg.  I then tested my 1 rep max at 120 kg (shown in video below). I felt like I could probably have added a little more, but as my depth was still problematic, decided not to. The video shows that I am getting to parallel or very fractionally below it, and I need to do more work to get consistently below parallel. So that will be my focus for the next weeks.

Strength training in the time of coronavirus

Geneva is about to ease the restrictions associated with the second wave of the pandemic. During this wave, average new cases per day in Geneva peaked at close to 3,000 confirmed cases per 100,000 population in the 14 days to 8 November. This was the highest recorded rate at regional level in western Europe. In other words, 3% of the population were confirmed new cases in that fortnight, and the real incidence would have been higher than that.

As can be seen in the figure above, the social restrictions introduced in most European countries have worked quite rapidly in turning the second wave downwards. The exceptions are Germany where it has plateaued by not yet coming down, though it never reached the levels of nearby countries, and Sweden where it is about to pass Switzerland on the way up. Daily new cases per million population in the USA now exceeds that in Switzerland. The USA now has 12 million confirmed cases, and the CDC estimates that the true number of infections is around 50 million, or 1 in 7 of the total population. Trump of course has gone AWOL and I suspect the USA is in for a bad winter.

My gym closed down again during this second wave. During the first wave it closed down for around 2 months and I tried to continue some light weight work at home. I had borrowed a couple of kettlebells from the gym and was somewhat aimlessly swinging these from time to time. However, my son took up a kettlebell challenge to do 10,000 swings of a 24 kg kettlebell in 4 weeks. He upgraded to 28 kg partway through.  That’s 500 a day, and he broke them up with some kettlebell presses every now and then.

I was inspired, and bought a 16 kg and 28 kg kettlebell and started using them 3 times a week. Initially, I was doing kettlebell swings at 28 kg and various double kettlebell routines with two 16 kg kettlebells (see video), though my favourite routine was the kettlebell snatch (second video). By the end of the lockdown I was doing 100 snatches, 100 clean and press and 100 double handed swings.

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Approaching retirement from full-time work, the last thing I would have foreseen doing was to take up powerlifting and get involved in competitions. I had plans to spend more time walking and climbing in the Alps, but increasing knee problems (osteoarthritis) around 2014-2015 put that on hold. I stopped doing Crossfit classes in 2015 and instead started to focus on weight training apart from squats.

I had also been reading various books and research relating to exercise and ageing, and became convinced that to maximise my health and functioning into older age I needed to maintain and improve my strength, and that this was probably more important than the endurance cardiovascular training that I had been doing for many years.

I found that I really enjoyed training with heavy weights and low repetitions (usually in range 3-6) and that my knees felt a lot better after a workout. With some coaching on good technique, I was able to substantially increase the weight and volume I was working with and would often leave the gym with an endorphin high and pain-free knees. Occasional lower back pain (related to an old injury during jujutsu training) also became rarer.

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The 10 greatest athletic feats of the 21st century – transcending perceived limits of mind and body

I have been following Eliud Kichoge’s bid to be the first human to run a marathon in less than 2 hours. He succeeded on Saturday with a time of 1 hour 59 mins and 40 seconds. This is an absolutely extraordinary achievement. It was not an official world record, because of the use of rotating pacemakers and because Kipchoge was handed his drinks from a bike, but it is still the fastest marathon ever run. After he finished, Kipchoge said that he had wanted to send a message to the world that no human is limited.

This made me think about a number of extraordinary feats that I’ve seen achieved in recent years and I decided to make a list of my top 10 most extraordinary human achievements in the realm of extreme feats that broke barriers and went beyond perceived limits of mind and body. Quite a few of these feats involve non-ordinary states of consciousness that need total engagement in the here-now, unity of mind and body, and transcendence of distracting thoughts and emotions. States known as “being in the zone” or “flow” to athletes, as “immovable mind” to the samurai and as samadhi to Zen practitioners.

I also decided arbitrarily to restrict my list to feats achieved in the last 20 years, or in other words, in the 21st century (counting the year 2000 as part of this century). This is an idiosyncratic list that reflects my interests and the level of amazement and awe that watching (or in one case reading an account of) the event inspired in me. You may well have a very different list, though I think at least the ones towards the top should be on most lists.

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