You Can Teach an Old Dog New Tricks

By: Brian Carroll

You can teach an old dog new tricks, but, let me preface this with the following – it’s not easy. Some individuals you meet are just stuck in their ways, no matter what, and some for a very good reason. This can be due to a few different things, whether it’s success in the past, ‘seemingly’ getting away with bad habits over a period of time without much repercussion, or even just being flat out stubborn to a fault. This can be a blessing or a curse, a pathway to success or one’s pitfall.


Now I’m not going to say that stubborn is a bad thing. It’s very good in many ways – a great deal of the best in a given field are or can be VERY stubborn, but simply being stubborn will not always get it done. Sometimes in the pursuit of all goals strength, you have to relearn a few things, take some time away or even start over. Oh, and on occasion you will need to yield to someone who is actually an expert in what you are lacking.

For the sake of this article, I’m going to use myself as an example as well as a friend or two.  This particular subject was not an easy process for me and those I’m going to discuss, but a few key things ended up being the difference from a dead-end to a second chance.

I honestly hope that none of you have to actually rely on and have to go down the road(s) listed below but this is what has to happen sometimes. I guess, in ways it’s not too bad if you only have to do 1-2 of these things, but all 4, that sucks – trust me. Unfortunately, most of us are reactive and not proactive – I WAS the same way. Was.

 picture MBB 1

Relearning and or adjusting form

Form can always be a little bit better – there is no such thing as perfection (unless you’ve seen Yuri Deadlift). Form tends to come apart when the weights get heavy, right… this is not ground-breaking news. But, the key here is this – is your particular form or approach the causation of your injury? Or is it simply holding you back because you’re unwilling to change?  In many cases it is and you will need to learn how to adjust. I’ll use Danny Bellmore and myself in this point. Danny is about 50 years old, a client of mine over the last 4 years and a very good friend. Danny is also a top equipped lifter at 165 with close a 2k total. But, bad enough that Danny is 50 but his lifting age might as well be 65 with all his body has been through. This obviously has to be taken into account when programming for him. This would include his form and adapting it. Due to the serious kyphosis that has developed since his spine is fixed from fusions, we have had to do things that I generally wouldn’t advocate for just anyone – i.e. flaring the elbows (vs pulling them down) and changing his grip wider do create a better shelf for the bar on his back. I don’t ever advise athletes to flare their elbows without a reason, but in some cases you have to work with what you have.  I hammer home with form cues “MOST OF YOU WILL BE ABLE TO APPLY THESE 5 CUES, BUT JUST ABOUT ALL WILL UTILIZE 3-4”. And this rings true in the in this case.  Keep in mind these form cues are to not only help you lift as much as possible but also to keep you safe and healthy.

Speaking of form….

I had to relearn how to squat and deadlift with form and in a way that was more kind to my spine. Pain had robbed me of proper lifting form and I subconsciously started bad habits to try to avoid pain but was actually causing it without me knowing. My back caused me so much pain that I wasn’t tight at the start of the squat nor at the start of the deadlift. My lats weren’t ever properly locked in and tight, even though I thought they were. As McGill says “pain is a terrible robber.” While holding the WR squat of 1185, starting over was hard to do but nobody is beyond adjusting form, no matter how big your number may be.

Taking time away

Ever struggled with something that kicked your ass for hours on end and you finally put it down for a bit then came back to it, fresh – then barreled through it like there was never an issue prior? I have many times. Sometimes, you just need to take a break. This is just as much mental as physical when it comes to lifting. Whether you are injured, dinged up or just mentally fatigued a.k.a burned out, taking time away is never a bad idea for longevity and survival. I always advocate some downtime after a competition to reflect, heal up and recovery mentally and physically. I’m not saying that simply taking time away will fix all of your issues, but I think a LOT of mental blocks with lifting, lack of progress and overuse injuries would be at least held at bay if one took phases of training and LIFE more seriously. Think tendonitis or the like – only time off or stopping the irritant is the only way the inflammation will go away.


It doesn’t always have to do with injury .  I’ve had to do this with my sumo deadlift at times. It simply would NOT click, I would break it down till the cows came home, attack weak points, adjust stance, form, approach and over/under grip with NO breakthrough! Finally, I said “F this, I’m going to work conventional and worst case it will help my lockout”. And after a few months of just ‘letting it ride’, I would come back and sumo would click like a well-oiled machine. Another good example would be Clint Smith – this is a guy who’s totaled 1920 in knee wraps 6 months after a complete biceps tear. Oh, and a 2500 total at 242. He became tired of lifting in gear and needed a break, so he’s taken the last couple of years to lift raw and says he actually enjoys training again. He became mentally stagnant after many years of lifting and needed a change, he needed to put it down for a bit.

Keep in mind, I’m not advocating ‘quitting’, what I am suggesting is once you’ve pretty much exhausted all avenues it’s never a terrible idea IMO to back off and switch things up. You can also take points from my next two bullets and 1. Start over or simply 2. Have someone else take a look at it.  Both of which I’ve done.

I’ve taken time off preemptively, been forced to due to pain, and been bed ridden. I suggest being proactive.

Starting over

In 2013, after taking proper time off, I literally had to start over from zero or a 55lb the bar on the squat and the deadlift. Keep in mind, I had not been out of the top 2 overall total rankings since 2006 in both squat and total, and like I said, I was the current WR holder with an 1185 squat. I was either 1 or 2 in my class every year and over 10 years in.  I had to start completely over.  I’d tried things my way, and that didn’t work, so it was time to start over.  It was hard, but really, looking back, it wasn’t that hard. Why? Because I wanted to be healthy. If you want things bad enough, you will do what is needed.  Lifters/athletes/people want to talk about how hard it is to take a couple of weeks or (God forbid) months off when it’s necessary to be healthy.  I one day, will go blind from rolling my eyes so hard.  To these mental midgets I pose the question – if you want it bad enough like you say, you take all the shit you claim, will do ANYTHING to go to the next level, why are you such a pussy right now when you KNOW this will help you? And this – you don’t have a choice, unless you want to be a cripple, so suck it up.


The bottom line is everyone has a limit as to how far they will go and it’s decided by the level of convenience or should I say INCONVENIENCE they are willing to deal with. It really comes down to feelings or how ‘they feel while doing’ (or not doing in this case) for many people. They train so hard and often times over train because it feels good, they get a good endorphin rush from not only the work in the gym but the praise on social media for ‘being so bad ass’. Time off does not bring either one of these brain dopamine stimulators, this we do know. I’ve now worked with more than a couple of people that had to start completely over like myself. Also, when dealing with injury and when one is truly dedicated to getting better, one will do this. One thing that Dr. McGill said to me when I asked him why he felt I recovered far better than he expected was “you completely started over and didn’t let your ego take charge, most cannot do this, their ego won’t allow it.”

Using someone else’s expertise

When adjusting form, taking time away or starting over, it’s not a bad time to seek out the help of an expert. Whether we are discussing an injury, stagnation, demotivation or form, sometimes it will pay off greatly to seek out the help of an expert in a particular field.

There is nothing wrong with saying “I don’t know, let me find out for you”, or simply just deferring to someone who is better than you or more well-versed in a certain field and getting some help.  Surround yourself with people who are better than you, and learn as much as possible from them. Currently, I have Adam, Byrd and Clint suggest to me what I should be doing in the gym each day, to keep me honest. I have Paul Key guide me on the bench. Why? Because they aren’t emotional about my lifting as I am or anyone would be when ‘in the thick of it’ and will not always see a big picture. I think most lifters should have a coach of some capacity and people around them that keep one honest.

Obviously, I used Dr. McGill for my back rehab and learned a great day from him. Like I mentioned earlier, most people won’t get better in spite of themselves standing in the way. I had tried the three above points on my own many times and failed.

Through this learning process, I’ve been able to help more than a few people avoid surgery, the end of their lifting careers or maybe both. Whether its suggesting being familiar with McGill’s books, having them seek a consult with McGill or simply passing on the knowledge that I’ve learned that has literally helped droves of people and not just ME.


I’ve experienced and had to do all of these things that I’m writing about in this article to become healthy. I’m the guy who would get facet injections just to be able to train the deadlift, I’m the guy who would get lidocaine injected into my rhomboid when it was hurting me so I could squat, I’m the guy who ended up in the hospital with kidney stones in 2013 for being too aggressive with medication.

I’m also the guy who didn’t want to do any of those things I’m suggesting for any longer than I’d like to admit, but my breaking point was when I went to see ‘the expert’.  I went in saying, I know nothing, I have hurt myself, I can’t figure it out and now it’s time to learn some new tricks, regardless of everything I think I know.


Don’t wait to be put down….

Instead of waiting until you are beat to crap and body is worn out, your form ends up holding you back or even worse – you have to start over, I suggest that you at least consider applying this information as preemptive, as I’m willing to bet you will or have faced a point where 1-2 of these were probably necessary.  Best of luck.

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Brian Carroll

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Brian Carroll is committed to helping people overcome back pain and optimizing lifts and movement. After years of suffering, he met back specialist Prof. McGill in 2013, which led to a life-changing transformation. In 2017, they co-authored the best-selling book "Gift of Injury." On October 3, 2020, Carroll made history in powerlifting by squatting 1306 lbs, becoming the first person to break this record. He retired with a secure legacy and a life free from back pain.
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