I’d always been an athlete and an amateur weight lifter, but as I drank heavily for a decade, my gym sessions suffered.
I would go to the gym, do the elliptical machine for 15 minutes, do some curls or tricep extensions, and then feel so defeated and nauseous that I’d simply go home.
Quitting drinking renewed my workouts – which became longer and WAY MORE FUN as I restored health to my body and brain!!
Working out is not a self-indulgent luxury; it is a necessity for body and brain repair. If you make exercise one of your top priorities after you quit drinking, you’ll find yourself reaping the following benefits:
- You’ll increase BDNF (brain-derived neurotrophic factor), which literally rewires your brain by helping to create new brain cells
- You’ll restore dopamine and endorphins to your brain, breaking alcohol’s monopoly on pleasure
- You’ll feel hours of calm and “centeredness” after your intense workout
- You’ll drastically reduce long-term anxiety and depression
All of the above benefits compound with time. You cannot reap them from one or two workouts – consistency is key!!
Leg Strength Is Key To Overall Fitness – And Brain Repair
After I quit drinking and became a personal trainer, I did a lot of research so that I could get real results for my clients.
I knew from experience that the average gym-goer rotated a variety of exercises, none of which took precedence over the others, and all of which in combination eventually led to feeling overwhelmed by the routine itself.
I then came across the story of a famous trainer named Ryan Flaherty, who approached fitness like a science and trained countless Olympic athletes, NFL draft picks, and superstars like Serena Williams.
Ryan had spent years keeping detailed measurements of complex workouts and their effects on strength and physique.
This research led him to conclude that ONLY ONE weightlifting exercise correlated perfectly with improved athletic performance: Hex bar deadlifts! (source)
When I was about 2 months free from alcohol, I sucked it up and incorporated hex bar deadlifts into my routines.
I began with just the 45-pound hex bar to get the movement down, and eventually added a 45 pound plate on either side.
I did this 2-3 times per week in addition to running sprints and doing only two other exercises with consistency: bench press and rows.
Every time I went to the gym, I would focus on only one of these exercises.
Anything else I did that day in the gym was totally secondary in my mind, even optional.
I did 3 sets of 10 reps until I got into better shape. At that point, I started adding more weight every week.
I started doing pyramid sets, involving a light warmup set for 10 reps, a slightly heavier set for 8, a heavier set for 6, an even heavier set for 4, then my heaviest set at 2 reps…and then taking weight back off until I got all the way back up to 10. I’d sometimes rest for 3-5 minutes between these sets because I was so winded!
These workouts got me into the best shape of my entire life – including when I was a competitive athlete in college. I was finally both strong and ripped, without focusing on worthless “toning” exercises.
This now makes intuitive sense to me. We didn’t evolve to look good without being strong. And if you want to be strong, there’s no better way to achieve that than to increase your leg power.
More importantly, hex bar deadlifts became my #1 strategy for releasing stress and feeling good.
In 2016, a study examining the correlation between leg strength and cognitive health in twins made a striking conclusion:
“Leg power predicts both cognitive aging and global brain structure, despite controlling for common genetics and early life environment shared by twins. Interventions targeted to improve leg power in the long term may help reach a universal goal of healthy cognitive aging.” (source)
No study has yet examined the effects of leg power interventions on relapse rates.
But since “healthy cognitive aging” and brain repair for addiction recovery share a common denominator – enhanced brain function – I would gladly bet on the results of such a study!
Why Are Hex Bar Deadlifts So Effective?
The reason that hex bar deadlifts get people results is simple…
They stimulate the legs more powerfully than any other exercise out there.
The glutes, quads, and hamstrings are some of the most powerful muscles in the body. Therefore, they are the most important muscles to target for overall hormonal optimization.
The least effective way to work out is to sequentially “tone” the small muscles in your body!
Compound lifts that work multiple large muscle groups save time and have a greater impact on your overall biochemistry.
In short, exercises like hex bar deadlifts help your body burn fat, build muscle, and utilize nutrients correctly.
It’s counterintuitive, but the best way to achieve a flat belly and lean arms is to target the legs with HEAVY weight, which is obviously a relative concept for each person.
Heavy weight = Intensity.
Intensity = Results.
Moreover, deadlifts actually stimulate 92% of the muscles in your body, which is more than any other exercise. Contrast that to the leg extension or leg curl machines, which only target one leg muscle each.
There are a variety of fitness philosophies out there, and I don’t mean to discount any of them.
But heavy hex bar deadlifts were the most important ingredient in transforming me from a 6 foot, 245 pound, alcoholic stuffed sausage into a 210 pound, lean, mean, strong machine.
When I trained clients in the gym, I had clients of every age doing hex bar deadlifts and/or squats. All of them got results. Teenagers started performing better in their respective sports. 35 year old men got rid of their belly fat – and kept it off.
But I Don’t Want To Be Big!
This concern is usually voiced by women who don’t want to look like female bodybuilders.
I don’t blame them. Fortunately, the idea that heavy weights turn women into massive, veiny monsters is a myth.
In my opinion, this is one of the Top 3 myths in all of modern fitness.
The reason men get big from lifting heavy weights is that they have, on average, 10 times more testosterone than women.
The reason female bodybuilders get big is that 99% of them inject themselves with huge amounts of testosterone.
Moreover, how many men do you know who go to the gym all the time and NEVER get big? Getting big is hard to do.
I know women in their 40s who do deadlifts a few times per week. Nearly all of them look like college track athletes.
Heavy lifting does not turn women into men – it makes them stronger, leaner, and better at burning fat.
One of my personal training clients, a woman in her mid-60s, mastered hex bar deadlifts and became much more “toned” despite her initial attachment to aerobic-style exercises.
She also started driving her golf balls farther than anyone in her club.
When we started, she spent a few sessions deadlifting the bar, which weighs 45 pounds. Less than a year later, she could deadlift 185 pounds for five reps!!
She loved her overall physical transformation – along with the feeling of victory that comes from a successful deadlift set.
How To Do Hex Bar Deadlifts
If you don’t know how to do hex bar deadlifts, here are some tips:
- Stand with your feet slightly wider than shoulder width, toes pointing forward (never inward)
- “Spine straight, butt out, chest out” as you squat down into the movement*
- “Drive up through the heels” using your LEGS (not lower back) on the way up**
*It’s important to keep your chest out so that your shoulders remain as square as possible; no hunching.
**Driving up through your legs ensures that you align your body so that the hex bar comes straight up and then goes straight down, in a straight line.
The above tips can be thought of as principles for any movement that involves pushing downward using the legs.
(There are fancy exceptions to these rules – for example, deep squats, which involve a narrower stance and toes pointed outwards. You can experiment if you’ve already mastered basic form.)
These principles can enhance your form for many types of squats and even lunges. These free-weight exercises can be done with a barbell, dumbbells, kettlebells, or medicine ball.
If you’re new to lifting weights, start with light weight squats (or air squats) to get these principles down.
You can then introduce the hex bar and add small plates on each side to discover what “heavy” means for you.
“Heavy” is a relative term that is different for each person – and it is a number that increases over time!
But I Can’t Do Hex Bar Deadlifts!
An unfortunate number of gyms simply don’t have hex bars.
The good news is that you can reap similar benefits from regular deadlifts with a barbell, although using a hex bar gives three advantages:
- A hex bar centers the weight, relieving pressure from your lower back
- Because of this, you can lift more weight than with a barbell
- Lifting heavier weight translates into more power, strength, and fat loss over time
Still, some people should not do deadlifts at all due to health conditions, joint issues, or past surgeries.
The cool thing about fitness is that there is always a way to find the “next best thing” that works for you.
My dad is 71 and in the past year, he had both a knee replacement and hip replacement surgery. He does not have ACLs in either one of his knees.
While most people would have given up the gym entirely, he decided to do 75,000 push-ups last year.
While he cannot do deadlifts, he still goes to the gym and does the leg press machine several times per week.
He discovers weight that is “heavy” for him, taking into account his relatively recent surgeries and joint situations.
He’s also recently cut out processed carbs and diet soda, losing 15 pounds in two weeks!!
If you cannot do hex bar deadlifts for whatever reason, then some form of squats or the leg press machine may be your next best bet.
On days that I do deadlifts, I also throw in a variety of exercises that target the legs, depending on my mood:
- Dumbbell lunges
- TRX deep squats
- Medicine ball squats
- Box jumps
- Kettlebell squats
- Barbell squats
- Air squats for reps
With all of this said, age is not a physical limitation!!!
Don’t believe me?
Here’s a 90 year old lady deadlifting 65 pounds with a hex bar:
And here’s a 72 year old guy deadlifting 500 pounds with a barbell:
So unless you have real joint issues…
What’s your excuse?
All of this talk about deadlifts actually goes a bit deeper.
My real point is that YOU control the limits of possibility in your life.
Whether you spend the next week living within the confines of your existing routines is up to you.
Whether you go through the motions of normal life, whatever that means to you, is up to you.
Whether you decide to take charge and live life FULLY is up to you.
Whether you read this article and do nothing, or instead commit to real change is 100% up to you.
I may not be quite ready to do a hex deadlift(yet), but that “girl” poster is pretty damn motivating! I realize, that the most important part of ones body, to keep strong are legs/balance. My M-in-Law, fell a few months ago, breaking 4 ribs and punctured a lung. Her legs are so weak from decades of sedentary life, she can barely rise from a chair. On the other hand, I’ve met many elderly Korean women, while living abroad, in their 80’s and 90’s, whom are able to pop up from a squatted position, with little to no effort. I know… Read more »
Perfect all in one exercise
Love it. Starting this as soon as possible.
Awesome Mark, you won’t regret it!!