Last week I scheduled my first interview on this channel. I’ve been uploading videos regularly for 2 and a half years and had a consistent process of locking myself in the gym or my room and not coming out until I had something to upload. This process typically involved a few hours of walking around in circles, heavily caffeinated and talking to myself, before setting up the camera and bumbling through 90 minutes of awkward delivery. Editing out all of the “umss” and “errs” along with the wet mouth noises and fumbled words would reduce an hour down to 12 or 15 minutes of watchable video.
It wasn’t a clean process but, dammit, it worked.
You can imagine the thought of filming an hour plus interview with one of the best equipped lifters in history left me a little hesitant. But I sucked it up, remembering that the only way through is forward. I’m glad I did, as the end result was just over an hour of back and forth with a legend of his sport, someone who could give insight into how this journey is supposed to go, having already completed it himself.
Brian Carroll was the first man to break 1300lbs in a squat (1306lbs, to be exact) and did so after devastating injury to his lower back. This was of special interest to me, since I spent a decade trying to undo the damage of a low back injury I suffered in my late teenage years. There was a time where I thought 405lb deadlifts were a thing of the past and here’s a guy who broke the all-time squat record when his initial prognosis was “keep lifting and end up in a chair”.
I’m certainly biased in this interview, since the methods I used to piece myself back together came directly from Brian and his co-author on “The Gift of Injury”, Dr. Stuart McGill. I’ve since made several videos on the exercises and approach used by Dr. McGill, ranking them as highly important for the average lifting population due to A.) the lack of attention paid by most lifters and resources, B.) the likelihood of injury over a long and ambitious lifting career and C.) the essential role of a strong midsection in increasing efficient movement patterns and increasing performance. It just seemed to fit a worldview I had been building for the last 20 years.
My injury specifically came from my formative years when deadlifts were maximal and frequent. It had been pointed out to me that my back rounded excessively during but was dismissed as unimportant by a few trainers and peers I considered strong. I sure as hell wasn’t going to take weight off the bar if I didn’t need to, so I shrugged and said, “nah, it’ll be fine”. I was also lacking in just about every technical cue that a seasoned deadlifter might lean on to increase performance: I had no sense of where my hips were or where the bar was, no sense of how the movement should start or finish and no sense of how the upper back and midsection worked to maintain stiffness and increase force transfer.
After years of meager progress in the deadlift, my midsection was about as rigid as a bowl of pudding.
Of course, I didn’t realize this until 5 or so years after my first injury. It happened when I was 19, when years of hanging on my erectors and jerking the bar to lockout culminated with an unforgettable wet ‘POP’. I felt it 6 inches above my waistline in the dead-center of my spine; it was merely just gross at first but it slowly intensified until I couldn’t sit, stand or lie down without excruciating pain. This lasted for several weeks and the pain didn’t subside for several months.
Then I came back, got stronger and set a new run of PRs until….. ‘POP!’, it happened again. Repeat a dozen or so times between 2006 and 2016. I stopped getting mad, it eventually just seemed like a normal part of the process.
To save you the long, boring details of my comeback journey, I was lucky and stumbled across a seminar that demonstrated my near-700lb deadlift was built off a midsection made of pudding. I took the lessons from that seminar and the very similar protocols recommended by McGill and started learning how to build stiffness in my abdominals and use that stiffness to prevent unnecessary movement. At this point, I am 5 years out from my last low back episode and pulled an all-time PR last week, pain and symptom free. I consider it no accident that a stiffer midsection coincided with both an end to injury AND a dramatic improvement in deadlift ability.
I talked with Brian about a lot of topics: equipped lifting, internet culture, influences, etc. But the clip I published that garnered the most attention was the philosophy around the McGill method and how it conflicted with it’s detractors, namely Barbell Medicine.
I had heard there was disagreement but, surely, those in the scientific community don’t resort to attacks when experts come to different interpretations of the same data! After all, evaluating studies made around something like pain and injury in competitive lifters must be anything but straightforward, right? Wrong. The disagreement quickly became hostile, the way you might expect with Physics professors responding to flat-earthers.
Best I can tell at this point, the disagreement is a philosophical one, with the Barbell Medicine guys focusing on de-stigmatizing lifting as a potentially dangerous endeavor to the general population. McGill’s method seems to emphasize preventing or rehabilitating injury, part of which is to avoid things that hurt after an episode. I’ve seen this referred to as ‘fear mongering’ multiple times on the BBM side, which leads me to believe that they are assigning a blanket recommendation for novice and elite lifters alike in order to increase participation in lifting by sedentary people. I have quite a bit more reading to do before I commit to that analysis but, if true, I have a bit to say about it.
Apparently another point of contention is that McGill’s role in spine biomechanics led him to reject the notion of ‘non-specific’ back pain, which is something that Barbell Medicine upholds through the evidence cited through pain research. McGill asserts that there is a root cause and it can be connected to lack of stability created by weak or deconditioned musculature. My first impression of ‘non-specific’ pain is that it’s a cop out for not being able to accurately diagnose a problem. Even if it is purely neurological or not otherwise connected to injury, that is still a physical mechanism that can potentially be measure, just not by our current ability. Labeling pain as ‘non-specific’, especially in a field where participants routinely subject their spine to maximal loads, seems….. lazy.
Recommending hurt lifters not ‘catastrophize’ injury and return to normal activity asap might give a better result over the aggregate, at least if the cost is off-set by higher enrollment of sedentary people into barbell programs. But if that’s the limit of your recommendations then you have immediately displaced individual lifters who have actually experienced trauma. A main point of disagreement likely resides in how many of these lifters are represented in the population. After 2 decades of talking to the highest performers in strength sports, I believe this type of trauma occurs at some point in most of those who A.) have been around for more than a decade and B.) strive to compete at a high level. I believe the number is certainly greater than what the BBM crew believes.
It brings up some interesting questions. As a thought experiment, we can ask other body part receives a diagnosis of non-specific pain when it interferes with sports performance. Knees? Hips? Shoulder? Of course not, so what makes the spine different? I’m sure that Barbell Medicine has an answer and I plan on sniffing that out with more reading.
Another question would be why there is so much dismissiveness around the model of stiffening the spine by increasing strength and endurance in the abdominal muscles. In every other facet of sports, we see unstable joints as being a risk for injury in a worst case scenario. The best case is that it simply just limits efficiency and hinders performance. Every other sport sees preventing these weaknesses before they happen as making just good sense. Why would this not apply to the thing that houses the spinal cord and exists as the lever through which all force transfers onto external objects?
Yet another question would be in regards to the mantra that ‘the body is resilient and it adapts to stress’ as the platform for the ‘it’ll be fine’ approach. Does it adapt? Every time? We can accept that a population involved with some type of regular labor would be better off long-term than a population of sedentary loafs like the cruise-ship residents in Wall-E. But can we predict whether someone who exists in the labor group will enjoy stronger joints and increased quality of life or if the stress will eventually make them a candidate for back surgery or a knee replacement? No. No we cannot.
This applies to garbage men and roofers just as it applies to Olympians and NFL players. Some members of Olympic weightlifting teams had long, dominant careers followed by an active retirement, while some got so chewed up from the same stress that they simply couldn’t continue. The stress that makes dense the bones and tendons of an arm wrestler is the same that leads to spiral fractures in the humerus and full bicep tendon ruptures. All of training is a balance between stress and recovery and, when it comes to our structures, shit often goes sideways. Individual competitors need more than a blanket lecture about not making pain more than it is.
There’s a lot more to be done here, like a deep dive into the pain studies that Barbell Medicine cites and a discussion as to how much weight they should get (I have a special distaste for those who over-represent their ability to draw conclusions from formal academic studies). Brian has sent me copies of his books with McGill and agreed to do another talk once I’ve digested them. Until they come, I plan on scouring every inch of the BBM forums until I can faithfully repeat their ideas back to them. I plan on revisiting this topic at that point so that I can give it the attention it deserves.
Until then, I feel completely confident in telling every lifter reading this that their midsection isn’t strong enough and they should probably do some curl-ups.