All posts by Matthew Gary

Matt Gary is 40 years old and has been a competitive, drug-free powerlifter for 18 years. His educational background includes a BS in Kinesiological Science from the University of Maryland. He is also a Certified Strength & Conditioning Specialist (CSCS) via the National Strength & Conditioning Association. Matt, along with his wife Suzanne “Sioux-z” Hartwig-Gary, own and operate Supreme Sports Performance & Training (SSPT). SSPT is Maryland’s premier strength and conditioning facility catering to powerlifters, Olympic weightlifters, strongman competitors, and anyone who is serious about strength training. Matt’s clients include high school and collegiate athletes, powerlifters from novice to elite, and the general population.

Matt is an active member of the USAPL where he serves as the Chairman of the Coaching Committee, a member of the Raw Committee, national referee, and coach. His coaching resume includes:

  • USAPL Coach of the Year – 2012
  • Head Coach USA Women’s Open World Team 2010 – 2012 IPF World Championships
  • Head Coach USA Men’s Team 2009 IWGA World Games
  • Head Coach Atlantic Region, Quest Invitational – 2009 & 2010 Arnold Sports Festival
  • Head Coach Midwest Region, Quest Invitational – 2008 Arnold Sports Festival
  • Head Coach USA Men’s Team 2008 NAPF North American Regionals
  • Assistant Coach USA Men’s & Women’s Teams 2012 IPF Classics Powerlifting World Cup
  • Assistant Coach USA Men’s Open Team 2005 – 2008, 2010 IPF World Championships
  • Assistant Coach USA Men’s & Women’s Teams 2009 IPF Masters World Championships
  • Assistant Coach USA Women’s Team 2009 IWGA World Games
  • Assistant Coach USA Women’s Team 2008 NAPF North American Regionals
  • Assistant Coach USA Women’s Open Team 2003, 2005 – 2008 IPF World Championships
  • Personal coach for more than 40 powerlifters from novice to elite

Matt has competed in three different weight divisions, from 198 to 242, and currently competes in the 220-pound weight class. He is a 4-time Maryland state champion and won the 2004 USAPL American Open Powerlifting Championships. Matt’s articles focus on various aspects of strength training and powerlifting. Comments, discussion, and questions about these articles or any other strength endeavor are always welcome and may be sent to MLGary72@gmail.com

For additional information about SSPT, please visit http://www.supremesportspt.com or follow their videos at http://www.youtube.com/user/SupremeSportsPT

Requisites for Success

Platform in Sweden

The past three months have been some of the most exhilarating of my entire life.  In June 2012, I was as an assistant coach on the USA teams at the inaugural IPF Classics Powerlifting World Cup in Stockholm, Sweden (Picture on right: Platform at 2012 IPF Classics World Cup – click for larger view).   In essence, this was the first official Super Bowl of raw (unequipped) powerlifting.  I can’t recall ever being that excited for a single competition that I wasn’t competing in.  The anticipation was overwhelming.  The Swedish Powerlifting Federation delivered on their promises.  The competition was top-shelf on every level and the entire week exceeded the hype.  Collectively the USA men and women’s teams placed second overall.  Individually, our lifters performed exceptionally well as many came home with medals and some with world records.

The following month I had the honor and pleasure of presenting at the 2012 Reactive Training Systems (RTS) Powerlifting Seminar in Orlando, Florida (Picture below left:  RTS Seminar Presenters).  Working alongside powerlifting legends like Suzanne “Sioux-z” Hartwig-Gary as well as some of the brightest coaches, experts, and scholars like Jeremy Hartman, Mike Tuchscherer, and Dr. Michael Zourdos has already proven to be one the highlights of my professional career.  I probably learned more about technique, training, and nutrition in two days than I had within the past two years.

RTS_ Seminar SpeakersThree weeks later all but one of the RTS presenters competed at the 2012 USAPL Raw Nationals in Killen, Texas.  We were all blessed with outstanding individual performances.  Any time four lifters exhibit a 94.4% successful attempt rate including personal records (PR); they’re obviously doing something right.

Our lives are full of chapters.  Occasionally, I like to refer to them as seasons.  These three impactful life events comprised a season in my life.  As seasons conclude, I like to pause and reflect.  Meaningful introspection isn’t accomplished in one sitting.  In fact, it can take days, weeks, and months, sometimes longer to truly learn and grow from all that’s transpired. Self-analysis often reveals positive and negative elements.  When you’re truly honest with yourself, examination can be painful.  However, that pain can lead to improvement and progress.  Perusing meet results and photographs, watching video highlights, reviewing lecture notes and power points, and simply recalling conversations all contribute to vivid memories that will last a lifetime.  I’m so thankful for these moments and never take them for granted.

Success in athletics is easily quantifiable in a myriad of ways including PRs, scores, and winning.  Success is neither an accident nor a coincidence.  Achieving success is a process and the direct result of a set course of action.  It doesn’t just happen.

Lanny Bassham 1975

One of my star lifters recently gave me a most wonderful book entitled “With Winning in Mind,” by Lanny Bassham.  Lanny (pictured on right at 1975 Pan American Games) was an awkward kid growing up. He never excelled in athletics but years later, he finally found his niche’ in competitive rifle shooting and went on to win the Olympic gold medal at the 1976 Olympics in Montreal, Canada.  Two years later he won the world championships in Seoul, Korea.  In doing so, Lanny developed his trademarked Mental Management System that helps competitors create a process for increasing the probability of success.  While some of the information is both common sense and familiar, it’s definitely worth reviewing.  His other ideas and many of the nuances of his methods are creative, fresh, and thoughtful.  I have begun employing some of them in my own life and am thankful for the positive mindset they help create.   His text should be required reading for every competitive athlete.

One of the best things about powerlifting is its objectivity.  Performances and results aren’t influenced by personal feelings or opinions.  Success as well as winning and losing are all based on actual fact and concrete data.  It’s a reality that provides immediate feedback.  Lifters compete within specific weight classes and the one who lifts the most weight wins.  It’s simple and so revealing at the same time.

As I outlined in my 2010 piece “Training Specificity for Powerlifters,” athletes of all genres are quick to seek out the latest training methodology.  Unfortunately, training protocol isn’t the answer to athletic success.  Self-proclaimed gurus, strength coaches, famous powerlifters, and sports performance specialists would all have you believe that their programs are the key to unlocking your potential.  Lord knows there are a myriad of methods to choose from including: linear periodization, undulating periodization, 5/3/1, Sheiko, 5×5, the Texas Method, the Bulgarian method, Westside, RTS, Prilepin’s Table, and the list continues.  Sadly, athletes are often duped into believing that training protocol matters most.  Training plans matter but not nearly as much as consistent effort applied over time.  Corrective exercise specialists and physical therapists will brainwash you into thinking you’re better off fixing all your imbalances first before taking another step.  If we only followed their counsel, we’d never actually train.  At some point, you need to suck it up and get under the bar.  Equipment manufacturers will even go so far as to announce that unless you’re training on their equipment or using their facilities, you have no chance.

When examining methodology, it’s easy to find uniqueness and differences.  More important are the common themes.  What are the best athletes doing?  Where are they similar?  This is key.

The five speakers at the RTS Powerlifting Seminar presented on a variety of topics from technique and training methodology to nutrition and attempt selection.  Looking beyond the power points and the uniqueness of each presentation, one pervading theme resurfaced throughout the weekend.  Each expert drove home the mantra of applying consistent effort over time in order to achieve technical mastery.

RTS’s Mike Tuchscherer recently wrote an article entitled “Genetics and Hard Work.”   I agree with Mike’s assertions in this article.  In fact, his closing remarks about an extreme amount of hard work have inspired me to train harder than before.  My own personal reflection has led me to such questions as, “What could I have done differently in my preparations for Raw Nationals?  Did I overlook something? What can I do better moving forward?  And what’s necessary for me to improve?”  Some of that introspection combined with the info from the RTS Seminar have revealed to me that I need to spend more time on the things I’m not good at.  It’s no coincidence that those also happen to be many of the areas I dislike.  That’s all about to change.  I’m embracing those weaknesses and committing to improving them.

While we can all work harder, genetics cannot be overlooked.  I won’t use it as an excuse but it’s our reality.  My wife Sioux-z stands 4’11” tall and I’d bet my life she would never dunk a basketball on a regulation 10′ basket.  That’s not an excuse to put forth less effort.  If she were to truly aspire to such an athletic feat of explosive jumping ability, I’d be the first to support her in that endeavor.  Thankfully she prefers to spend the bulk of her training time squatting.  After all, sometimes your “best” sport picks you.  That doesn’t mean you can’t improve or even become world class in an endeavor you aren’t necessarily equipped for.  It simply means that if someone with superior genetics follows a similar path, they have a significant head start.

I relish watching experts perform their craft.  Experts have the ability to make the extraordinary appear ordinary.  It’s like watching an artist paint a masterpiece right before your eyes while only using two colors.  Athletics are no different.  Supreme athletes are able to do incredible things with their bodies that the rest of us can only imagine.  So naturally, every four years I’m drawn to the Olympics.  This year was no different as I enjoyed watching the world’s best compete on the world’s grandest stage.  I’m particularly fond of the sports I can’t consume on a regular basis – gymnastics and track and field.  I find the gymnasts and decathletes to be the world’s best overall athletes because they’re able to do things all the other athletes can’t.

The 2012 Summer Olympics had two instances that really stood out to me.  During one NBC telecast, the commentators showed an illustration of Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt’s recent 100m final.  Bolt is the current world record holder in both the 100m and 200m races as well as a double Olympic champion.  At top speed, his stride measures approximately 10′ in length and he took 41 strides to complete 100m.  His next closest competitors were at 44 and 46 strides respectively.  In a most basic equation, speed = stride length x stride frequency.  Bolt’s competitors have to move their legs much faster to overcome the stride deficit.  They could train like animals, become stronger, produce more force than Bolt, and take nearly every performance-enhancing drug in the world, but the probability of overcoming that genetic (stride length) deficit is close to zero.  Their flexibility simply can’t be improved to that degree and they can’t trade-in for longer legs.  Their only hope is that the Jamaican’s penchant for self-adulation eventually goes to his head and he slacks off in training or underestimates his rivals.  However, Bolt has proven he is human in three rare defeats to Tyson Gay, Asafa Powell, and his current training partner Johann Blake.

From what I gather, Bolt works extremely hard at his craft.  He deserves credit for working hard.  He should thank God and credit his parents for his physical traits. His combination of genetics and hard work are currently insurmountable. While he’s not my cup of tea, there’s no denying he’s the best sprinter of all-time.  Naturally, the discussion and media coverage surrounding Bolt’s prowess got me thinking about the role of genetics in sports.  Oppositely, a less-publicized Olympic athlete made me consider the role of hard work.  NBC painted a poignant picture of Kenyan middle-distance runner David Rudisha.  The current world record holder in the 800m, Rudisha lives in Iten, Kenya.  His remote village is approximately 200 miles from a rubber track.  So, while many of his contemporaries train on rubber tracks and at expensive facilities, he and his coach Colm O’Connell remove large rocks from their makeshift dirt track in what has become an almost daily ritual prior to training.

Coach O’Connell wisely preaches, “It’s not about sophistication.  It’s not about facilities.  It’s about doing the simple things well and believing in what you do.”  Amen to that!  Rudisha went on to win the 800m final and set a new world record of 1:40.91.  His post-race interview illuminated his humble, soft-spoken demeanor.  Without any bombast or show, Rudisha spoke softly revealing his profound conviction in consistent effort and his training methods proving that he doesn’t need modern facilities to become the greatest middle distance runner alive.

oconnellrudisha2.PNG

Coach Colm O’Connell with David Rudisha and Rudisha next to his world record time.

It’s glaringly obvious that Rudisha is eternally focused on process rather than outcome.  When you constantly dedicate yourself to a series of steps (process) and repeat them over and over again, the results (outcome) take care of themselves.  Fortunately for powerlifters, the same holds true.  Strength is a skill.  Lanny Bassham defines a skill as “doing something consciously long enough for the process to become automated by the Subconscious Mind.”  Skill acquisition is best achieved through frequent, repetitious practice.   Practicing your skills often and diligently over long periods of time can eventually lead to technical mastery.  And while technical mastery is not exactly a destination per se’, it’s a journey that every powerlifter should embark upon.  The sooner you hone your skills and step toward technical mastery, the sooner you’ll add a lot of weight to the bar.

In Malcolm Gladwell’s text “Outliers: The Story of Success” he refers to the 10,000-hour rule.  His book is based on original research done by Anders Ericsson, a Swedish psychologist who calculated that it takes 10,000 hours to become an expert at something.  Using a calculator you can really have some fun with this and notice that even while training 7 days/week for 3 hours at a time it would take close to 10 years to accumulate 10,000 hours of practice.  Most trainees don’t have that kind of time and/or aren’t willing to put in that amount of work.  Again, this is one person’s research and you can accept it or discard it as you see fit.  Perhaps the more appropriate rule for a lifter would be 10,000 high quality repetitions.  Suffice it to say, even while some learn faster than others, I think we can all agree that it takes thousands of hours and many years of quality training (practice) to become a master of something.    Any way you look at it, the amount of skill you develop is determined by the quality, quantity, and efficiency of your training.

Ultimately, when considering any training strategy, notice the differences but examine the similarities.  Parallels typically include a steadfast devotion to the basics and a constant reinforcement of sport form.  If you wanted to become a world-class violinist you wouldn’t practice the bass guitar.  Sure, both are string instruments but they are quite different.  The same holds true for the powerlifts.  Some coaches espouse building the lifts rather than training them.  Don’t succumb to this lunacy.  Training doesn’t need to be fancy in order to be effective.  If you want to improve your squat, spend the bulk of your time squatting… just like you do in competition.

Mike Tuchscherer is correct.  The one universal commonality of experts and champions is a tremendous amount of hard work.  Focus on the controllable.  Pay your dues by putting in the time and work.  The amount of effort you apply is entirely up to you.  Outwork your competitors.  At SSPT, we like to refer to it as “sweat equity” and it’s absolutely magical because, as with most things in life, you reap what you sow.

Upholding the Standard

Since 1969 the Pittsburgh Steelers have had three head coaches.  This is fewer than any other team in the NFL during that timeframe.  The Steelers pride themselves on consistency and stability.  These two constants led them to their current coach, Mike Tomlin.

Mike Tomlin

Players are expected to act and perform according to the Steeler way: aggressive, disciplined, and hard-nosed.  These attributes are first instilled in the front office via the Rooney family and trickle down through the remainder of the organization.  No matter the perceived importance of the player or position in which he plays, the standard remains the same.  When a player goes down to injury or otherwise, the next one steps into the role.  The standard remains constant and the replacement player is expected to perform at the same level as the starter.  Sometimes these are big shoes to fill.  For example, all world and Hall of Fame bound strong safety Troy Polamalu is incomparable.  Troy possesses a unique skill set that has never really been seen before.  His blend of agility, size, speed, and strength are unparalleled.  His style of play includes a reckless abandon and disregard for his body.  While his play most often lends itself to superhuman feats, it also makes him susceptible to injury.  When Polamalu gets hurt, the second-string strong safety is expected to fill the position until Troy is well enough to return.  All the while, the Steelers’ organization and specifically coach Tomlin expect the same level of performance.  As “the standard is the standard” maxim is proclaimed with such regularity, the players buy into it and really believe that when their number is called, they too will assume their new role without the team suffering any decrements in performance.

Coaches in any arena are constantly evaluating individuals and teams by their performances.  There’s a definite line representing winning and losing.  Accordingly, one’s performance is either above the line (winning performance) or below the line (losing performance).  As Coach Tomlin advocates for the standard, he characterizes performances as being above or below that line.  In all sports, occasionally a winning performance will be below the established standard.  The opposite may also be true, especially in team sports, where a losing performance may come because certain members of the team performed poorly while others may have excelled.

In powerlifting, lifters receive nine attempts (three per discipline) to complete their total.  The standard level of expectation and performance is six successful attempts.  Period.  Under no circumstances, short of injury, should a lifter ever make fewer than six attempts.  As a result, it’s easy to determine whether a powerlifter’s performance is above or below the line.

Attempt selection is crucial in powerlifting.  Powerlifters train hard and compete to determine the strongest person in each weight class.  Unfortunately, many coaches and lifters pick an inappropriate attempt, which significantly hampers performance.  As outlined in “A Powerlifter’s Guide to Attempt Selection,” (Gary, 2009) there’s a surefire, scientifically based method that may be applied to selecting appropriate attempts.

A lifter’s first attempt (also known as the “opener”) serves to get them into the competition, increase confidence, build momentum, and allows them to take a reasonable second attempt.   In essence, the opener is your last warm-up.  A foolproof way of determining the first attempt is to use a weight that represents approximately 90-92% of your maximum.  Usually, this intensity is a weight you could hit for a triple or at the very least a strong double.  The second attempt serves as a stepping-stone and total-building attempt.  It should be a weight that helps bridge the gap between a safe opening attempt and hopefully a personal record (PR) attempt on the third.  Like the opener, the second attempt should also be a virtual lock.   The appropriate intensity for a second attempt is approximately 95-97% maximum.  When a successful second attempt is achieved, without any significant issues, a PR attempt is warranted on the third.  Obviously, this attempt would represent anything over 100% of one’s personal best.

This method ensures a high probability of successful attempts thus increasing a lifter’s total.  I’ve used this approach hundreds of times with first-time novices to elite world champions.  The success rate is exceptionally high and lifters almost always achieve more than six attempts including some PRs.

Famed Westsider and EliteFTS founder, Dave Tate, espouses a very different approach.  In one of Dave’s recent articles entitled, “Why Goals Suck!” he mentions the following: “I’ve always been taught to break my PR by five pounds on my second attempt (in a powerlifting meet you get three attempts), and go for broke on my third.”  Upon reading this, I said to myself, “It’s no wonder he rarely made many attempts.”  Not only is that a perfect recipe for making fewer lifts, it lends itself to stagnant progress, frustration, and smaller totals.  It’s a loser’s approach that goes hand in hand with the mentality of, “If I miss my PR on my second attempt, at least I have a shot at it on my third.”  I’ve got news for you.  That almost never works.  When was the last time you heard of anyone from the EliteFTS, Westside, or any other multi-ply stable for that matter, going 9/9 in a powerlifting competition?  Now before you say, “But anyone can go 9/9,” consider going 9/9 while hitting PRs.  Is that still considered sandbagging?  Making all nine attempts in a powerlifting competition is easy when you’re not pushing yourself to the limit.  Anyone can enter a powerlifting competition, lift well under their physical abilities, and walk away with a perfect 9/9 day.  On the other hand, it’s extremely difficult to make every attempt when achieving PRs.  That’s precisely why the standard is six successful attempts out of nine.

No matter how strong or skilled you are you’re not going to make every third attempt especially when reaching for a PR.  Fatigue, mental collapse, breakdowns in form, and misapplied technique are all causes for missed lifts. At times, powerlifting is unpredictable.  Therefore, it is imperative that we control our environment as much as possible.  Don’t waste time worrying about things beyond your control like climate, the size of the warm-up room, number of lifters in your flight, your competitors, or the judges for your session. Focus on your training in preparation for the competition, dialing-in your gear, making weight comfortably, attempt selection, and effort.  These variables are up to you alone.  There are very few sufficient excuses for not controlling the controllable.  Rushing through your warm-ups because you weren’t paying attention to the flight schedules is your problem.  You should know better than to spend all your time socializing after weigh-ins.  Missing an opening bench press attempt because you couldn’t sufficiently touch your chest, in your bench shirt, is your fault.  You should have practiced more, learned the groove of your shirt, and memorized the adjustments your handler has to make.  Getting buried by your first squat attempt is your predicament.  Don’t blame the judges for making you go so deep.  They didn’t submit your opener nor were they responsible for you failing to consider the changes your body would undergo by cutting weight.

Six successful attempts out of nine represents a 66.6% success rate.  In most schools that would earn you a D on the grading scale from A to F.  In powerlifting, six attempts is a satisfactory performance.  It’s a solid average — nothing more, nothing less.  Beyond six attempts is above average because it typically means you either took what was there or achieved a PR.

Consistently making fewer than six attempts is poor lifting no matter how strong you are.  Winning your weight class on four attempts doesn’t make you a good lifter.  It only means you’re stronger than your competition.  Good lifters consistently make most of their attempts. We should all make a high percentage of attempts.  Novices should focus primarily on acquiring skill in the competitive lifts via high volume training, gaining valuable platform experience, and constant improvement as reflected by hitting PRs.  Intermediate and advanced lifters may possibly add winning to that list.  Those competing at the elite level, both nationally and internationally, should aim to place and win if possible.  That being said, PRs are the ultimate measure of success.  How much fun is winning without making many attempts or hitting any personal bests?  Ask any elite champion about a performance where they failed to achieve a personal best or made fewer than six attempts and I guarantee you’ll find a dejected lifter.  That being said, following the aforementioned scientific strategy of attempt selection ensures a high probability of more successful attempts.  Missing lifts sucks and it’s no fun.  More successful attempts are always better.  It’s fun making lifts and having fun makes people happy.  Competition should be enjoyable.  When competing is no longer satisfying, you either need to rethink your approach or find a different avocation.

In 2010, the great Sioux-z Hartwig-Gary competed four times – twice raw and twice equipped.  She made 35 of 36 attempts including 7 PRs and 2 Masters World Records.  That’s an extraordinary 97.2% success rate.  Furthermore, her feats of strength were performed at the highest levels of our sport nationally and internationally with her lone miss coming on her final PR deadlift attempt in Potchefstroom, South Africa.

Sioux-z Hartwig-Gary

Circumstances can be individual.  No matter the result, own your performance and take responsibility for your actions.  We all have different standards that we live by.  Maintain yours and do the very best you can.  That’s all anyone can ever expect.

A Gym Rat’s Guide to the One-Rep Max

How Much Ya Bench

Show me a person who doesn’t want to be strong and I’ll show you someone who doesn’t get off the couch very often.  The ability to move heavy objects and perform physically demanding tasks is just plain cool. When you’re strong, you don’t have to walk around thumping your chest like an idiot, people will stand up and take notice.

Since most of us don’t go around lifting cars or chopping down trees with our bare hands, the easiest place for us to demonstrate strength is in the weight room. Gyms become our stage where we act out our physical abilities.

And the greatest act of all is the one-rep max.

Once reserved for powerlifters, Olympic weightlifters, and dumbbass kids who wanted to show off for their friends, now trainees from all backgrounds can benefit from knowing their 1RM. Athletes and gym rats alike can test their 1RM and then program their training accordingly to meet specific goals.

But why is it important? How do we test it? Most importantly, what the hell do we do with that knowledge?

The One-Rep Max (1RM)

Just what the heck is it?

The 1RM measures the amount of force your muscles can produce in a singular maximal effort. Some folks are better suited physically for the 1RM than others. This typically has to do with genetics because every body has a certain blend of muscle fiber types, unique bone lengths, and muscle attachments.  Those having a preponderance of Type II (fast-twitch) muscle fibers, shorter limbs, and lower muscle attachments are better prepared to lift heavy weights.

If you’re not blessed with any of those attributes, the hurdles on your track to strength gains may be a little higher. However, there is good news: anyone can become stronger by putting forth consistent effort.

Why do I need to know my 1RM?

The 1RM is vital for continued success in the gym because it’s real and concrete. It’s not hypothetical or assumed. Once you know your 1RM, you’ll have a better idea of where you stack up against your peers. Your 1RM lets you know exactly where you stand at any specific moment in time. With your known 1RM, you can set goals, chart a course of action, and test yourself again in hopes of setting a new personal record (PR). After all, the PR is what we’re all aiming for.

So, we’re gonna do curls, right?

Nope. Big, compound, free-weight barbell movements are the ones we want to test.  We’re talking about the squat, bench press, deadlift, power clean, overhead press, and all of the variations thereof.  In other words, you might also want to test your 1RM in the front squat, box squat, board press, or rack deadlift, but  don’t bother testing your 1RM in dumbbell exercises or movements like step-ups, lunges, 1-arm dumbbell rows, or triceps extensions because you’ll most likely hurt yourself (and look stupid in the process).

Who should test for a 1RM?

Novice trainees with fewer than two years of training experience should not test their 1RMs; these folks need to focus on learning proper exercise form and developing their technique according to their individual body structures. Additionally, if you’re new to the iron game, you’ve got plenty of time to improve and your newbie gains will come so fast that your maxes will change every week.

Intermediate lifters with more than two years of training under their belts can begin thinking about testing their 1RM.  Advanced lifters should already know their maxes (if you don’t, just what the heck are you waiting for?!)

Your current state of preparedness will let you know if you’re ready to test a 1RM or not.  In other words, if you’ve taken a break from training or have spent most of your time handling weights in the 8–15 reps range, you’re not prepared.  If you typically train big compound lifts in the 5-8 rep range, then you’re getting closer.

The Psychology of the 1RM

When you hit a heavy single, it’s a different ballgame.  Not only is your mental state different, but the way you approach this event physically will be different as well.  Imagine yourself getting under a bar loaded with 135 pounds and having to squat it 10 times. You’re probably saying to yourself, “Well, this is just a warm-up set, so let me bang these out and work up to my heavier sets.”

Now imagine loading the same bar with 500 pounds and see what’s running through your mind!

Heavy singles require a unique mental approach in that they require increased attention, mental focus, intensity, and muscle recruitment. When you approach a max lift, you’d better be incredibly focused. If not, you’re setting yourself up for some big hurt.

Visualization before a max lift helps focus the mind on the task at hand. Repeating positive mental cues like “hips back, knees out, and chest up” can breed confidence.  Music is a great motivator. This is the time to crank up the iPod with your favorite training song and get pissed off.

(Side note: My good friend and former training partner, six-time IPF World Powerlifting Champion “Captain” Kirk Karwoksi, used to listen to AC/DC’s Back in Black while remembering the douchebag who cut him off in traffic earlier that day. By the time he approached a max attempt, he was like a caged animal.  His rage-induced frenzy transformed him into a ticking time bomb just waiting to explode into the bar.)

1repmax_1.jpg

Raw Powerlifter Ryan Celli understands the mindset required for hitting a heavy single

(Photo courtesy of Celli’s Fitness Center)

Training for the Max Attempt

If you’ve never tested your 1RM, or if it’s been a while since you’ve trained heavy, set aside at least a month to begin working up to heavy singles.  Start hitting sets of five for a week or two, then drop to three reps for two weeks, then hit some singles the last two weeks. This doesn’t mean you’ll go to failure on each set. If your normal bench workout has been 225 pounds for 3 sets of 10 reps, then it’s time to start adding weight.  In your next workout, try something like this:

[sets x reps]

  • Bar x 10
  • 135 x 8
  • 185 x 4
  • 225 x 2
  • 235 x 5
  • 245 x 5
  • 255 x 5

This approach will start bringing your body (and more importantly, your central nervous system or CNS) up to speed for heavy singles.  Maybe your next session can include more triples, such as:

  • Bar x 10
  • 135 x 8
  • 185 x 4
  • 235 x 3
  • 250 x 3
  • 260 x 3
  • 270 x 3

The key on your warm-up sets is to prepare your body, CNS, and mind for the heavier weights. Don’t bother with more than five reps per set unless it’s an early warm-up set.  Performing lots of reps on your warm-up sets will only fatigue you and take away from your heavier work sets. Remember that you’re training for “Go!” and not just for show.

A third week might follow this progression:

  • Bar x 10
  • 135 x 8
  • 185 x 4
  • 235 x 3
  • 255 x 3
  • 265 x 3
  • 275 x 3

And a fourth week might look like this:

  • Bar x 10
  • 135 x 8
  • 185 x 4
  • 235 x 2
  • 255 x 2
  • 275 x 2
  • 285 x 1
  • 295 x 1

Don’t be afraid to use the little plates when working your way up.  If all you ever add is large plates, your progress will stall.  It doesn’t make you any less of a badass to use the 10s, 5s, and 2.5s.  At our training facility we’ve got .25kg plates for those times when all that’s needed is one more pound for a huge lift. Trust me, sometimes a few pounds is all you’ve got, and it’s better to increase by that couple of pounds and keep making progress than to always jump big and miss.

Time to Test!

After a couple of weeks of heavy singles, it’s time to test your 1RM.  Get a good night’s sleep the night before, make sure you’re well fed, and remove as much stress from your life as possible. When you get to the gym, warm up for a few minutes, do some dynamic mobility movements relevant to the lift you’re testing, put your mind in the right place, and get after it.

If you’re testing your squat or bench press, make sure you have competent spotters.   Warm up just enough to prepare your body for your heavier attempts.

Here’s a progression based on the previous examples:

  • Bar x 10
  • 135 x 5
  • 185 x 3
  • 225 x 2
  • 255 x 1
  • 280 x 1
  • Test!

After you make your initial attempt, assess how you feel and increase accordingly.  Be true to yourself. If possible, take video of your max lifts. Not only can video highlight breakdowns in form, but sometimes can show that perception and reality are two totally different things.  Any weight over 90 percent of your max is likely to feel heavy. However, sometimes you’ll watch the video and realize that your bar speed was lightning fast. If your initial testing weight feels good, add 5-10 pounds. Keep going until one of three things happens: you miss a weight, you grind it out and realize there’s nothing left in the tank, or your form becomes so much of a train wreck that continuing presents a health risk.

1repmax_2.jpg

A competent spotter is a MUST for testing your 1 Rep Max

After the 1RM Test

Once you have your 1RM, take a moment to bask in the glory of your efforts.  After you come back down to earth, grab a calendar, put pen to paper, and plan your next training cycle. The first step is setting realistic goals.

If you just squatted 475 pounds for the first time, it’s very tempting to set a goal of 500-pounds as the next “big” number.  However, you’ll want to consider the timeframe for when you plan to achieve that goal. If you only give yourself four weeks, don’t expect a 25-pound increase. You’d be better off settling for 480 pounds or perhaps a little more.

I’m not suggesting that you always sandbag your efforts. I just know that small, incremental, and steady progress is superior over the long haul. When you’re feeling energetic and strong on a test day, then ride the wave and push yourself to the limit because you never know when that wave will come around again.  Otherwise, be happy with achieving the next five pounds. A PR is a PR no matter how large or small.

Periodizing Your 1RM

Some form of periodization usually works best when training to improve your 1RM.  Resist the urge to retest your lifts the following week.  Unless you have some heavenly revelation from above, your lifts won’t improve that quickly. Trust me, you’ll want to devote at least a good 8-12 weeks to hard training before you test again.

In fact, many seasoned, competitive powerlifters only compete two to three times a year. Take a page from that book and pick two to three dates per year when you plan to reassess your 1RMs.  Once you select your dates, count back to the current date. Now you have the number of weeks you have to work with.

Mapping out an annual training plan is indicative of a trainee who is transitioning into a different stage of his or her lifting career. Intermediate and advanced trainees are wise to create a roadmap toward a goal. A training plan serves as a blueprint or an outline but is not a contract.  It gives you the flexibility to adjust on the fly and make changes when necessary.

A Few Resources to Check Out

The best way to improve your 1RM is to train with percentages of your max because they provide the ability to train within specific intensity ranges. You don’t have to look very far on the internet to find that there are a myriad of templates to choose from. You can choose something as basic and linear as Bill Starr’s classic 5 x 5 system, Jim Wendler’s 5/3/1 Method, Westside, Boris Sheiko’s system, the Bulgarian system, or use one of my personal favorites, Prilepin’s Table.

Regardless of which path you head down, recognize that strength is a journey and not a destination.  You can always add one more pound to the bar.  The 1RM affords you the opportunity to approach your training in a more calculated and focused manner with a real target in your sights: your new PR!

Training Specificity for Powerlifters

Navigating the tortuous road to athletic achievement requires a comprehensive roadmap.  Motivated trainees are constantly searching for the latest protocol that will transport their performance to the next level.  They will scour the Internet for the most recent training methodology.  Athletes will dive into the pool of printed media including articles, journals, periodicals, and texts in an effort to find the missing link that will take them from novice to elite.  Some will even travel cross-country to attend seminars, taught by experts, in their respective endeavor.  These options require one to use much of their disposable time.  In an age where time is such a rare and precious commodity, trainees often waste their time by looking in the wrong places for answers to the physical achievement riddle.

When you aren’t reaching your goals, there are not an infinite number of places to look for the answer.  For athletes, the answer usually falls into one of the following general categories: nutrition, recovery, or training.  Within each of those categories lie many subcategories.  For example, within the nutritional category there are pre-training meals, post-training meals, supplementation, fluid intake, as well as health-related issues such as allergies and diabetes.  If we’re examining recovery, we need to consider rest between training sessions, time between competitions, sleep patterns, attention to injuries, prehabilitative modalities, and the list goes on.  Within the training arena there are many variables such as exercise selection, intensity, rest periods, technical ability, proper planning, and volume.  Within each of those variables lies even more division.  All of these ‘places’ to look for your answer can become both confusing and frustrating.  Sometimes it feels like we’re looking for a needle in a haystack.

With so many areas to examine, some people overanalyze every aspect of their lives while others stop looking altogether.  I’ve certainly been guilty of overanalyzing my own training.  Sometimes breaking down every aspect of your pursuit is the answer.  Other times the answer might be right in front of you.  My best advice is to first scrutinize an area that most forget to consider.  Start at square one.  Square one is technique.  Technique is the foundation of any athletic endeavor.  It doesn’t matter if you’re teeing off in a golf tournament, serving a tennis ball, shooting a free throw, squatting 500-pounds, or hurling a javelin – your technique is the single most important aspect of your journey.  The good news is that technical mastery is something you have complete control over.  While it’s true that some athletes have amazing success with poor technique, they are the exception rather than the rule.  You can have all the ability in the world but if you fail to hone your skills, eventually it will show.

Form and technique are terms often used interchangeably.  In reality, they mean different things.  Form refers to an accepted procedure or set of steps to perform a skill.  In the powerlifting squat, it’s common knowledge to break at the hips first, sit back with an arched torso, descend, open your groin by pushing your knees outward, hold your chest up, and keep your abdominals tight by pushing them out.  These are some of the key points to remember while descending into a full squat.  Regardless of your respective sport, these steps should be followed when performing a power squat.  Technique, on the other hand, refers to one’s own approach to those procedures.  In other words, it’s your own “artistic stamp” on the performance of a skill.  Again, using squatting as an example, we see wide-stance squatters like Eric Kupperstein and then lifters that employ a narrower stance like Kirk Karwoski.  Both men have the ability to squat ponderous poundage yet they go about it quite differently.  They have crafted their technique over years of training (practice).

Erik K wide stance Kirk K with 903

Eric Kupperstein and Captain Kirk Karwoski both get the job done.  They just go about it differently.

Genetics play a huge role in technique.  You are not likely to see tall powerlifters squatting with an extremely narrow stance.  Typically they’ll squat with a wider stance.  Technique can vary based upon gender, genetics, and sometimes you’ll see regional differences as well.  Many women use a sumo deadlift stance as it suits their wider hip structure.  The elite Asian lifters primarily deadlift using ultra-wide sumo stances.  Their Russian and Ukrainian counterparts use a more narrow sumo technique.

The best way to perfect your technique and achieve skill mastery is to practice like you play.  Appropriate practice methods and specific training are prerequisites for optimizing performance.  Optimal results are best achieved through repetitious practice of the necessary skills involved in performing your task.  For the competitive powerlifter, this means practicing the competitive lifts.

Westside Barbell’s Louie Simmons has done more for the sport of powerlifting than most.  He has helped revolutionize training methods and the way people examine their training.  His contributions to the sport and willingness to help others are laudable. Employing advanced techniques such as bands and chains are merely the tip of his knowledge iceberg.  I’ve spoken to Louie a few times, over the phone, and had the pleasure of meeting him in person in York, PA back in 1998.  He was generally affable and we spent most of our conversation discussing training.  In fact, at one point, he was swarmed with so many questions that he asked if I would take a small group off to the side and explain the advantages of box squatting and waving your loads via percents.  He gathered from our conversation that I understood his methodology enough to translate it to others.  Frankly, I was honored.  To this day, I still consider Louie Simmons to be one of the brightest minds in the world of strength.

Today we often hear people described as geniuses or as being great.  I do not use those terms loosely.  It takes a very special mind to be considered a genius.  And true greatness is only achieved over time.  Almost anyone can be excellent for a short time.  Louie Simmons is truly a genius.  I would be willing to bet that his IQ is off the charts.  His mind continues where others leave off.  He will experiment with most any method to determine its efficacy.  If it works for his gang, he’ll use it until it doesn’t work anymore.  If it isn’t effective, he disposes of it and moves on to the next idea.  He has developed a near-perfect training system for geared lifters competing in multi-ply powerlifting federations.  Multi-ply federations have different standards of performance for their lifts.  While the rules of performance are written the same in their rulebooks, their actions speak louder than their words.  Having attended more than my share of multi-ply meets, I have witnessed firsthand the dissimilar standards.  This isn’t an attack on those federations.  It’s just reality.  While I vehemently disagree with what they allow and deem acceptable, I’m not using this particular medium of expression to mount a personal attack.  Lifters have a choice of where they want to compete and I choose to compete in the USAPL.  Almost all of the lifters I coach and consult with also compete in the USAPL or IPF.  Accordingly, most of my teaching is directed at powerlifters competing in similar organizations.  That being said, I’m interested in explaining why the methods that Louie has popularized aren’t entirely applicable for raw and/or single-ply lifters competing in the AAU, USAPL, IPF, 100% Raw, and similar federations.

The Westside training system, as it’s become known, features some venerable Russian training methods.  While strength can be expressed in a myriad of ways, it basically boils down to dynamic strength (speed strength / power), maximal strength (max effort / 1RM), and muscular endurance (repetition method).  Westside brilliantly weaves these three methods into a weekly plan where each method is featured on a different day and special exercises are rotated via the Conjugate Method.  These methods are nothing new.  Louie has merely expounded upon them and forged them far beyond their original boundaries.  While the methods themselves aren’t new, his process of employing special exercises is fresh and innovative.  Westsiders and their disciples use special exercises such as box squatting, board pressing, floor pressing, Zercher squats, and special deadlifts to develop and peak their strength.  Couple these movements with changes in grip width or stance and you have hundreds of variations.  You can then take those variations and add bands and/or chains to accommodate resistance and manipulate one’s strength curve.  Now you have hundreds more.  Different specialty barbells can be used with those exercise modifications.  The safety squat bar, cambered bar, trap-bar, and Swiss bar are just a few that come to mind.  Now those hundreds of exercises soon mutate into thousands.  The Westside system is the epitome of variety.  It’s a smorgasbord of training modalities.  And while many of these thousands of exercises are useful in strength development, powerlifters should not use them at the exclusion of the competition-style squat, bench press, and deadlift.

Special exercises should be used to address specific weak points.  While it’s true that a chain is only as strong as it’s weakest link, if the chain is constructed of poor materials (technique) then it’s going to be weak from the outset.  Why bother using fancy bricks, imported wood, tile roof, and platinum fortified nails to build your house if your foundation is poured on sand? Developing, enhancing, and honing one’s technique is a lifelong process.  Repetitious technique practice is like pouring a solid foundation of concrete.  Executing your technique should become mechanical and so habitual that you almost become robotic.  In theory, one should be able to set-up a big squat with their eyes closed.  The same is true for nearly any physical skill.

The best way to improve at shooting free throws is to practice shooting free throws.  While shooting a jump shot or three-pointer look somewhat similar to a free throw, they’re simply not the same.  The same can be said for box squatting and squatting.  I’ve never seen a box squatting competition, so why make that your staple movement?  Box squatting has its place as an assistance move to correct very specific breakdowns in technique, improve hip mobility, strengthen the hip flexors and posterior chain, and to teach lifters to sit back and stay tight throughout the lift.  However, it should never take the place of competition-style squatting through a full range of motion (ROM).  Board presses follow the same logic.  They resemble a bench press but aren’t the same.  Many lifters become world-class board-pressers and then bomb at meets because they’ve never done a full ROM bench press in training.  That’s foolish.  Again, board presses are a wise choice for increasing one’s lockout abilities but not at the expense of developing proper bench press technique through a complete ROM.

These valuable tools should not replace the competitive lifts

Accommodating resistance and overloading specific points in one’s ROM via the use of bands and/or chains is an effective method of bringing up a weak point.  However, these modalities stress your central nervous system (CNS) in unique ways and change your technique.  Performing a deadlift with chains is not the same as a competition-style deadlift.  Accordingly, if your CNS gets used to the motor patterns created by the addition of chains, then the motor pathways of the regular deadlift will be left unattended.  As powerlifting is one of the best examples of a “practice-like-you-play” endeavor, I would make competition-style deadlifts the staple movement and use bands or chains as assistance work.  Too often, we fall in love with the flavor of the week or the exercise of the month and lose sight of what got us there in the first place.  I have always espoused that the Westside system is a more appropriate training method for a non-powerlifting, strength/power athlete than it is for a powerlifter.  Most football players want to be bigger, stronger, and faster.  Westside will get you there as fast as any system.  But what does nearly every champion athlete do when they’re in a slump?  They return to the basics and fundamentals.  Without mastering the squat, bench press, and deadlift – a powerlifter is nothing.  If you want to become a better squatter, you must squat.  If you want to improve your bench press, then bench press.  And if you want to hit PRs in your deadlift, practice deadlifting.

There’s more than one way to skin a cat and there’s certainly more than one way to get strong.  If there were only one way to get strong, we’d all be doing it.  Nevertheless, there are smarter ways to train for the raw and single-ply powerlifter.  After a dynamic and movement-specific warm-up, most training sessions should begin by performing one of the competition movements (squat – bench press – deadlift).  Some Russian powerlifting coaches, namely Boris Sheiko, espouse the performance of the main lifts and little else.  Sheiko’s templates are traditionally developed for masters of sport.  While this method affords the lifter maximum skill acquisition in the competitive lifts, it does little to address individual weaknesses, which may lead to breakdowns in technique. Technical flaws occasionally exist due to a lagging muscle group.  Other times, technical issues are simply the result of poor execution like not squeezing your hips at the top of a deadlift.

While Sheiko would have you believe that practicing the squat, bench press, and deadlift ad nauseam is the answer, Westsiders would advise the use of special exercises nearly to the exclusion of the main lifts.  Frankly, I don’t think either path is the right one for most lifters.  I’ve used similar Sheiko-like periodization templates on myself and with my lifters.  Currently, we use Prilepin’s Table, almost exclusively, for regulating volume in the squat and bench press. Additionally, we augment the core lifts with assistance exercises periodically derived from Westside’s plethora of movements.  Ultimately, we meet somewhere in the middle and I think this is the answer for most.

The bulk of a powerlifter’s training should be devoted to the three competitive power lifts. The key to developing expert technique, according to your body structure, is to build your training volume via the number of sets performed not the number of reps. Performing multiple sets of low repetitions provides maximum skill acquisition through increased practice.  For example, the training volume for 10 sets of 3 reps is 30 total reps. Similarly, the training volume for 3 sets of 10 reps is also 30 total reps. However, in the first example, the powerlifter gets 10 opportunities (sets) to practice their technique.  The second example only offers three chances.  Three sets of ten reps are more appropriate for a bodybuilder pursuing muscle hypertrophy.

Assistance exercises should be specific to the power lifts in two ways – the muscles utilized and your own weaknesses.  Assistance moves should be carefully selected to suit your needs, not those of your training partner(s).  If you’re weak during the lockout portion of the deadlift and your training partner is slow off the floor, you may want to add some bands or chains to your deadlifts while they may deadlift off a box or plate.

Above all else, examine your technique first.  If possible, videotape your lifts so you can go back and watch how your body moves under a load.  Take videos while training at different intensities.  Your technique shouldn’t break while lifting 50% of your max.  But when you’re above 90%, there’s a chance things can change for the worse.  We pour the bulk of our training foundation using weights in the 80-85% intensity range.  Our goal is to become highly proficient with moderately heavy weights so we don’t overtrain the CNS yet still train intensely enough to elicit strength gains.  The volume of work performed in this range translates directly to enhanced technique with heavier lifts in the gym and on the platform.

While there are many variables beyond a powerlifter’s grasp, there are a few that you have direct control over.  You have entire command over your own training.  That’s a huge amount of responsibility.  Be wise with your time and practice exactly as you play.  In the immortal words of a famed Russian powerlifting coach, “If you want to squat more, you must squat more.”  Sometimes the simplest approach is the correct one.  Master your technique in the competitive lifts and watch your total increase.

Discipline and Regret

In 1983, my sixth grade geography teacher was Spero Tshontikidis.  In addition to teaching, Mr. Tshontikidis was a competitive powerlifter in the ADFPA.  He brought powerlifting to our school and convinced the principal to allow him to start a powerlifting team.  The first day he mentioned it to the class I thought powerlifting sounded cool and decided to give it a try.  After all, what eleven-year-old boy doesn’t want to grow up to be big and strong?  Spero taught us how to squat on the first day of powerlifting practice.  I had never touched a weight let alone squat.  I remember my hips and hamstrings were so tight that I had to put my heels on a 2″ x 4″ in order to hit proper depth.  I did three sets of ten reps with 95 pounds.  On the way home I noticed my legs getting a little sore but I thought nothing of it.  The next morning I woke up and tried to get out of bed.  I took one step and fell flat on my face.  My legs were so unbelievably sore that I thought I seriously injured myself.  I had never experienced such excruciating muscle soreness.  I convinced my mother to let me stay home that day.  The following day I crawled back to school and told Mr. Tshontikidis that I didn’t want to be on the powerlifting team and I would never squat again.  He tried to change my mind.  I didn’t budge.  Spero would later coach me on the junior varsity football team where I blossomed into the team MVP as a freshman.  Meanwhile, he continued to encourage me to lift weights.

Though our school had a powerlifting team, strength training was never emphasized for the athletic teams.  Occasionally after practice some of us ventured into the weight room.  We were clueless.  Typically, without a proper warm-up, we would test our manhood on the bench press – each of us trying to outperform the other.  We never considered squatting or deadlifting.  Then after a few sets of bench presses, we would usually grab some dumbbells and do some curls.  We reckoned, “What could possibly be more important than working your chest and biceps?”  All we cared about was making our T-shirt muscles look bigger.  We were all young and ignorant about proper strength training.  We lacked a focus.  More important, we lacked discipline because we were not consistent.  Contemplating my youth, my shortage of focus and self-discipline was a colossal mistake.  The lack of strength training, at an early age, is one of my biggest regrets.

When I graduated high school in 1990, I began training with purpose.  I wanted to get bigger and stronger for college football but didn’t know how to proceed.  I asked around and finally met my uncle’s personal trainer.  At the time, Victor Furnells was a competitive bodybuilder.  All I knew was that he was big and strong.  I trusted him and followed his advice.  He soon became my mentor.  He always told me that the two greatest pains in life are discipline and regret.  At the time, I didn’t understand those concepts.  Most 17-year-olds lack discipline, especially when it pertains to training.  Likewise, most high school kids have few, if any, regrets in life.  He regularly admonished me about the peril of not taking strength training seriously.  He said it was unrealistic to expect continued progress if I wasn’t disciplined enough to remain consistent with my training.  He reminded me that if I lacked self-discipline, I would regret it later.  Reflecting upon my youth, it all makes sense now.  As the famous 1972 hit song by Johnny Nash goes, I can see clearly now, the rain is gone.

Webster’s college dictionary has eleven definitions of the word discipline.

For the sake of this discussion, I prefer to use the meaning of discipline as: the rigor or training effect of experience or adversity.  Regret means to feel sorrow or remorse for an act, disappointment, or fault.

Experiencing life without ever exercising self-discipline ought to be a crime. Obdurate behavior comes back to haunt you and remind you of where you could have improved.  Most people resist challenges and want things to be painless.  Exercising self-discipline is an arduous task.  Undisciplined people are usually devoid of self-respect and respect for others.

If you last a lifetime without regret, consider it a miracle.  Discipline hurts.  However, exhibiting discipline during worthy pursuits is only temporarily painful.  The pain only lasts amid your journey toward the objective.  Once you have achieved your goal, the pain is obsolete.  While the pain from self-discipline is transient, the agony from regret is perpetually hurtful.  Remaining remorseful for a wrongful act or sometimes for the lack of action, gashes you like a knife wound.  Once you think you have vanquished your regret and your laceration heals, you look down at the scar only to be reminded of a missed opportunity.

Success in athletics, achieving supreme fitness, and staying healthy all requires self-discipline.  Remaining disciplined necessitates steadfast persistence.  In the arena of achievement, you either stand unwavering in your quest or falter and succumb to the pain of self-control.  Discipline connotes repetitive behavior.  Moreover, it routinely obligates one to either deprive themselves and/or go the extra mile.  Being on time for work every morning, preparing your meals in advance, double checking your homework assignments, staying after practice to work on your skills, keeping meticulous financial records, spending adequate quality time with loved ones, sticking to your diet, not missing workouts, going to bed at a reasonable hour, reading your bible every day, and keeping your word are all prime examples of exceptional discipline.  To me, discipline is doing what you’re supposed to do even when you aren’t up to the task.  Though not a fan of competitive bodybuilding, I appreciate and respect the discipline that is required when dieting for competition.  In organized team sports, anyone can stay after practice when the coach releases you early and you have spare time.  The real indication of discipline is staying late after practice when you’ve just played your best game.  Anyone can succeed during the good times when the obstacles are few.  The true measure of a man’s character is where things go badly, the odds are against you, and your back is against the wall.  This is when you find out what you’re really made of.

It has been said that life is a journey not a destination.  Fixate on and appreciate the process rather than the outcome.  I played football at many levels – from boys’ club as a youngster, through high school, my freshman year in college, and one year of semi-pro.  Of the time I spent playing and practicing, traveling to games, and watching game film on our next opponent, it was the camaraderie I shared with my teammates on the practice field and in the locker room that I enjoyed the most.  Even today as I compete in powerlifting, as much as I relish the competitions, I prefer training hard in the gym.  The countless hours centered on the singular goal of becoming as strongly as possible, make it all worthwhile.

My favorite inspirational quote is by Theodore Roosevelt.

Theodore Roosevelt

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better.  The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood, who strives valiantly; who errs and comes short again and again; because there is not effort without error and shortcomings; but who does actually strive to do the deed; who knows the great enthusiasm, the great devotion, who spends himself in a worthy cause, who at best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly.  So that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who know neither victory nor defeat.”

This quote has coached me to live life with fervor and to harbor few regrets.  I don’t want to be the one always saying, “I wish I had done this or I should have done that”.   Accordingly, I try my best to work relentlessly regardless of my goal.  Then, at the end of the day, I can sleep well knowing that I did all I could. The best time to tell someone you love them is right now.  Do not waste another moment.  Procrastination is the badge of fools.  Cherish your family and friends because one day they’ll be gone.  Speak with sincerity.  Chicanery leads to nothing but discordance.  Those that matter can tell the difference.  The time to start eating better and cleaning up your diet is today.  If you want to feel and look better, why wait until tomorrow?  Do it now.  Stop missing workouts.  Your training partners depend on you as much as you depend on them.  Consistency is paramount to accomplishment.  Travel more.  See the world.  God created the most awesome planet for us to explore and enjoy.  Do not wait until you’re too old to travel.  Compete!  Always measure yourself first, then evaluate yourself against others.  The only degree of improvement that matters is the one you make.  Be disciplined.  Once the goal is attained, the pain of sticking to the plan subsides.  Pain disappears, satisfaction arrives, and contentment washes away the possibility of regret.  Aim even higher the next time.  Our minds limit us more than our bodies.  Believe in yourself.

Roosevelt added, “With self-discipline most anything is possible”.    For the past thirteen years, powerlifting and the pursuit of strength have been at the forefront of my physical endeavors.  I have had my share of injuries and possess a high tolerance for pain.  However, it is nice to differentiate between good pain and bad pain.  Instilling self-discipline begets good pain that ultimately transforms to fruitfulness if you endure.  Missed opportunities engender regret.  Regret evokes bad pain.  Last year I trained tirelessly for the USAPL American Open Powerlifting Championships in Scranton, Pennsylvania.  My training went well but I was definitely not at my strongest.  On Sunday, December 2, 2007, while warming-up in the squat, I tore the Vastus Lateralis muscle in my right leg.  The pain was immense and my leg still hurts to this day.  Nevertheless, I am content tolerating the physical pain because I cannot imagine the mental anguish I would feel had I chose not to compete.

The Pull-Up

arnold-pull-upsThe squat is the unrivaled king of all strength training exercises. It is unparalleled in its overall effectiveness at taxing the entire body. The ankle, hip, and knee joints are all in motion thus ensuring that nearly every major leg muscle is utilized. Additionally, one’s hips, entire back, shoulders, and abdominals are also stressed. The squat is the cornerstone movement of any strength and conditioning program. If you were only allowed to perform one exercise, the squat would be the best choice as it strengthens nearly everything. An argument can also be made for the deadlift or the clean and jerk. However, the squat works more muscles than the deadlift and the clean and jerk is so highly technical that skill proficiency is not easily attained. Conversely, most people can learn to squat.

If the squat is the king of all exercises, then the pull-up should be acknowledged with the same royalty. Simply stated, the pull-up is the squat for the upper body. The pull-up is an upper body compound pulling exercise where the body is suspended by straightened, fully extended arms, then pulled up until the elbows are bent and the head is higher than the hands or bar from which you are pulling. The pull-up is characterized by hand position. An overhand (pronated) grip is used during the pull-up whereas an underhand (supinated) grip denotes the similar chin-up. The exercise primarily targets the Latissimus Dorsi muscle group in the back along with many other assisting muscles. These assisting muscles include the Brachialis, Brachioradialis, Biceps Brachii, Teres Minor, Teres Major, Deltoids, Infraspinatus, Rhomboids, Levator Scapulae, Trapezius, and Pectoralis Minor. Even the Triceps Brachii act as a dynamic stabilizer during the pull-up. The more muscles a movement utilizes, the more benefit the body receives. Accordingly, compound exercises give you a bigger bang for your buck.

There are numerous types of pull-ups. Most differentiations occur with regard to hand placement. (See Photo 1 below)

Grip Positions

The standard pull-up is performed with both hands placed in an overhand grip. As previously stated, the chin-up is performed with an underhand palms facing up grip. Additional variations include the over/under grip like that which is used while deadlifting. One hand is placed over the bar and the opposite hand is placed under the bar. Some power racks have bars that allow your palms to face each other. This is known as a parallel or neutral grip. I recommend this grip for anyone that may have lingering shoulder issues. The super strong may even perform a one arm pull-up. This provides you with six different grip variations. Grip width is another way of varying the movement. Normally, your hands should be placed just slightly wider than shoulder width. Performing pull-ups with an ultra-wide grip is asking for trouble. It places additional stress on the shoulder and is not recommended. Anyone that knows anything about shoulder anatomy knows that all pressing or pulling motions should be performed in front of the body rather than behind the head. Behind the head motions can cause shoulder impingement syndrome and lead to other more debilitating injuries. Pull-ups performed with too narrow a grip will inhibit movement performance and make it more difficult to perform a full range repetition.

Pull-ups are characterized as a bodyweight exercise meaning that one uses only their own bodyweight as resistance for the movement. This ensures that the weight being lifted is always the same. Bodyweight exercises are the ideal choice for those interested in fitness and strength but do not have access to strength training equipment. Special equipment is rarely needed other than a bar to pull from. However, like the squat, deadlift, and overhead press, the pull-up is too valuable an exercise to avoid even in the absence of equipment. In July 2007, during a two week missions trip in Africa, I knew I could not afford to skip pull-ups. Consequently, I performed them while hanging from tree branches. Twelve-time national champion Sioux-z Hartwig-Gary feels similarly and celebrated the new year by performing pull-ups from a pipe on the upper deck of a cruise ship.

People who weigh less should, in theory, be able to do more pull-ups than people who weigh more or are overweight. My best friend tips the scales at nearly 240 pounds and does nothing but complain and give excuses as to why he can’t do many pull-ups. I’ve heard it all, “I’m too heavy. I’m too big. My legs are bigger than yours.” No sir, you just suck at pull-ups. Most of the time people will avoid what doesn’t come naturally or things they’re not proficient at. Stop making excuses and just do them. Like other strength training exercises, performing pull-ups is a skill. Skill mastery is best acquired through frequent practice. Do not allow your initial lack of skill and strength to dissuade you from doing them. If you’re new to pull-ups, perform them more frequently with just your bodyweight. Three times per week is not out of the question.

Many novices are not yet strong enough to lift their entire bodyweight through the full range of motion that a pull-up requires. This leaves them with two options. The first option maintains the integrity of a free weight movement. Jump Stretch bands may be used by hanging a band over a bar and looping the band around your body. The stretched rubber band will then act by giving you a vertical “push” effect helping to propel you upward. (See Photo 2 below)

Pull-up with Band

The second option requires the use of a special machine. I detest machines for a multitude of reasons but mainly for the fact that they provide little neurological benefit. However, the Cybex Assisted Dip/Chin is one of the very few machines that I would actually endorse. This machine enables you to stand on a step that supports part of your bodyweight and assists you by pushing you upwards. (See Photos 3 and 4 below)

Chin Positions

 

When you become stronger you need less assistance from the machine. Some of you may recall the original version of this machine known as the Gravitron made by Stairmaster. Others have their partner assist them by holding their legs or spotting them at the waist. I do not recommend this method as the spotter usually ends up doing more work than the trainee. I also recommend avoiding lat pulldown machines. Contrary to popular belief, lat pulldowns will not improve your ability to do pull-ups. I abhor the lat pulldown machine. How many times have you seen some clown hop down on a lat pulldown machine and with all the momentum they can muster, swing and cheat their way to ten reps with 250 pounds? These are the same fools that can’t even do one proper pull-up. Pull-ups will make you brute strong. Period. Stick to bodyweight exercises and free weight movements with barbells, dumbbells, kettlebells, or other strength implements. This will always have a greater strength transfer to real world activities, sports, and PRs on the platform.

Another type of pull-up is an explosive version known as the Kipping Pull-up. To perform the Kipping Pull-up, you develop momentum in the horizontal plane and then transfer it to the vertical plane. In other words if you simply try to do pull-ups faster, eventually the swinging movement will occur. Speaking strictly from a fitness perspective, such as the CrossFit methodology, capacities for both work and power increase due to more work being done in less time. This translates to greater intensity. Greater intensity means better fitness. There is also an integration of upper and lower extremities working as a whole that is a gateway athletically to many other hip/upper body coordinations. This movement correlates immensely to other powerful movements like the power clean and the snatch.

Although pull-ups help the deadlift and bench press more, they act as an assistance movement for all three powerlifts. Implementing pull-ups into your weekly training plan will provide innumerable benefits. The strength built from pull-ups directly translates to increased pulling strength for the deadlift. Increased development in the Trapezius will help create a larger shelf for the bar to sit on while squatting. Moreover, the increased upper back strength helps during the eccentric phase of the bench press by affording greater control of the barbell. Pull-ups will also help prevent shoulder injuries via a more balanced muscular development.

Pull-ups may be performed as an assistance exercise on deadlift or bench press days. I prefer to do pull-ups on deadlift day and then perform some other type of free weight rowing movement on bench press days. Powerlifters don’t need to do high reps in the pull-up. This makes it easier to master the movement and add it into your arsenal. First you’ll want to test yourself to see if you’re currently strong enough to do a properly executed pull-up. Find a pull-up bar or the top of a power rack, jump up, and go for it. Start from a dead hang with arms fully extended and then pull yourself up until your chin is all the way above your hands and the bar from which you are pulling. Then lower yourself under control and return to the fully extended position. This constitutes one repetition. Perform as many reps as you can and this should give you a good idea of your current state of pull-up preparedness. If you’re not strong enough to perform a single rep, then use the rubber band method or the aforementioned assisted dip/chin machine. Another method of acclimating to pull-ups is the negative-only repetition method. Stand on a chair or box, jump up and remain in the top position of the pull-up for as long as possible. Squeeze the bar as tightly as possible, tighten your biceps and back muscles and try not to let go of the bar. Fight it for as long as you can and slowly lower yourself to the fully extended position. This allows you to perform the eccentric phase of the movement. We can all lower more weight than we can lift so this method proves useful when trying to build up to a perfect rep. A few sets of negative only pull-ups will leave you exhausted. Perform them after your assisted reps.

For trainees that are already strong enough to perform pull-ups, you’re ahead of the curve. I recommend performing a minimum of three sets and keeping the reps near five. Personally, I prefer five sets of five reps. Once I can achieve five by five with my bodyweight, I start adding weight. (See Photos 5 and 6 below)

Weighted Pullups

I prefer using a weight vest as it’s safer and feels more like true bodyweight. Dip and chin belts can be useful but require more set-up and can leave your groin exposed. Keep adding weight until five sets of five is no longer attainable. Then switch to six sets of four reps. I’ve even done eight sets of three reps. This maintains a consistent training volume while allowing you to train even heavier. Avoid using lifting straps to perform pull-ups especially if your grip is weak. Pull-ups place a tremendous demand upon the hands and will enhance your grip and finger strength. I rarely train to failure with pull-ups unless I’m testing for max reps. My PR for max reps is 17 reps at a bodyweight of 195 pounds. As I had never attempted a one rep max (1RM) in the pull-up, I decided to do a little experiment and see what I could do. On September 26, 2007, at a bodyweight of 223 pounds, I performed one full range repetition (from a dead hang using an overhand grip) with 95 pounds added via weight vests and a dip/chin belt. That equates to a 318-pound pull-up. Since then, as a further experiment, I’ve used Prilepin’s table to manipulate my pull-up training volume. Though Prilepin’s findings were based upon Olympic lifters performing barbell moves, I’ve had positive results employing the table to my pull-up training. The multiple sets at lower reps (usually three to six) has strengthened my back immensely. What makes Prilepin’s table so valuable is the reinforcement of the virtue that it is always better for powerlifters to build their training volume via the number of sets performed rather than the number of reps. This is especially true in the competitive lifts as it affords more practice and skill mastery.

Do not be the athlete or lifter that neglects training their back. Just because you can’t look into a mirror and immediately see your back doesn’t mean to avoid training it. Many folks want to spend all their time looking in the mirror and working on aesthetics. Far too many people neglect training the back side of their bodies. This is a huge mistake. For athletes and powerlifters, your body is like a high performance vehicle. The front side of your body is just the hood ornament and the paint job. It may look nice but it doesn’t really do much. Your posterior musculature is your engine. It’s the horsepower that drives the car. Pull-ups are one way to generate that horsepower.

Form without function is useless. Make sure you’ve got something under your hood or you just might get run over.

Rage Against the Machines

Technology is a beautiful thing. I used to work part-time as a DJ and I remember hauling around hundreds of records and thousands of CDs. Transporting all the equipment and the music felt like powerlifting. The invention of the MP3 player has changed all that. What an amazing little machine. A tiny little device, approximately the size of a wallet or a small cell phone, is now capable of storing thousands of songs. You can have your entire music collection at your fingertips in a completely portable component. Just like Coca-Cola, the Apple company seemingly has a stronghold on the market with its own MP3 version known as the iPod. They’re everywhere. I own one and wonder how I ever lived without it. I love music and having my immensely eclectic library with me at all times is pure nirvana. It’s truly changed my life proving that I too have succumbed to the pressures of our microwave society. We all want things instantaneously. The school of sloth has taught us to be impatient.

The fact that technology has permeated nearly every facet of our lives, has taught us to become discontent when things don’t go our way. This dissatisfaction with our daily existence teaches us to change things as quickly as possible. You don’t like your car? Get a new one. You don’t like your job anymore? Quit and find a new one. Your house isn’t big enough? Buy a new one. You don’t get along with your spouse? Get divorced and find a new one. You hate the way your body looks? No problem, buy a new one. This type of thinking breeds laziness. Then laziness acts like a virus and spreads into every fiber of your being. Rather than searching for a plausible resolution, we look for the next quick fix.

Despite my occasional failure to resist the temptations of immediacy, I’m still old fashioned. I’m definitely old school when it comes to strength. Although I’d like to be instantly stronger and hit personal records at every competition, I enjoy traveling down the tortuous road of strength acquisition. I appreciate the journey and the struggle. Anything worth having in life isn’t easily achieved. If acquiring maximal strength beyond the normal limits was easy, everyone would do it. But, it’s not. This is one of the many reasons powerlifting isn’t a mainstream sport. It’s difficult. Strength training isn’t easy. It’s often uncomfortable. It makes you sore and requires recovery. If you’re not careful, you can and probably will get injured. So if you want easy, go play cards or lay on a beach somewhere. I won’t begrudge you for that. For those of you that are still with me, I will illuminate a way to improved performance.

There is no easy way out when it comes to getting stronger. Gaining strength requires hard work and takes time. Novices can make strength gains and hit personal bests in every workout. More experienced trainees cannot make similar gains. Just because training with machines may save time, do not be the fool that strolls down that path. Machines make good coat racks. They’re also useful for drying wet laundry and suit adjustments. (See figure 1 below).

Pull-ups and suit adjustments... two things a Smith Machine is good for.

If you want to get stronger and change your body in the most time efficient manner, stick with free weights. I’ve heard it all; machines utilize the peak contraction principle, isolate muscles, they’re safer, and you can train faster. The only value that machines really present is for those working with or around an injury or for persons with extreme physical limitations or disabilities. Even then, their value is limited. Machines don’t provide nearly the benefits of free weights, specifically because they fail to stimulate the central nervous system in the same manner. Accuracy, balance, coordination, flexibility, power, and speed are all lost when you use a machine. Most machines involve pulleys or levers. Archimedes, the ancient Greek mathematician and engineer, is credited with inventing the pulley. However, it’s also documented that a version of the pulley was used, thousands of years prior to his invention, by the Egyptians when they were building the pyramids. Why did they use the pulley? They used it to make lifting heavy objects easier. Pulleys allow loads to be distributed over a greater area and create a mechanical advantage. This sounds fantastic, doesn’t it? Lift more weight with less effort. Isn’t that what we all want? Yes, but don’t believe the hype. It’s not that simple.

Powerlifting is one of the best examples of a “practice like you play” sport. On the lifting platform we squat, bench press, and deadlift with a barbell. Accordingly, we should train the same way. Squatting on a machine is far less beneficial to squatting with free weights. Check your ego at the door. I’ve seen hundreds of people load the leg press with plates galore. Ask them to step under a loaded bar and they crumble. The same is true for bench pressing. Just because you can use four 45-pound plates on each side of the Hammer Strength Bench Press machine doesn’t mean you can bench press the same amount with a barbell. Machine prowess never equates to free weight strength. Anyone can lay down on a machine and look graceful because there’s little proprioception taking place. Kinesthetic awareness is gained when training with free weights and without mirrors. The visual feedback that a mirror provides will always override any other type of feedback the body is providing. Accordingly, all strength training movements should be performed facing away from mirrors. Athletes don’t compete on a machine nor do they compete with mirrors. Sports are contested in open space. This is all the more reason to spend time lifting free weights.

Machines have few applications and offer limited value. Machines may be used to work with or around an injury. This is particularly true when an athlete does not have use of a limb. In that case, they can use the opposite limb and receive some benefit. Occasionally, I’ll use the lat pulldown machine for standing abdominal work. A low cable system can be valuable for pull throughs. Even then, I often grab a kettlebell and get similar results with high-rep swings. Cybex manufactures an Assisted Dip/Chin machine for those that are not yet strong enough to perform dips and pull-ups with their own bodyweight. This is especially useful for new trainees. Sometimes I’ll use Jump Stretch bands as a replacement which affords us more of a free weight feel. The Reverse Hyper is wonderful. Though I’ve never used one, Louie Simmons swears by the Belt Squat machine. I suppose I’ll take his word for it. Other than that, there aren’t many machines that I would choose before grabbing a barbell, dumbbell, or kettlebell. I still consider the Glute Ham Raise and 45-Degree Back Raise as free weight movements as your body is anchored and you lift it through space without the aid of a lever or pulley.

High Intensity Training (HIT) advises the use of lots of machines. HIT programs are almost entirely based on single-set to failure, circuit training that revolves around machines. This is a mistake. No balance, coordination, or stability can be developed. Just about any moron can look at a machine and figure out how to use it. This doesn’t make that person an expert. Teaching the finer points of squatting, deadlifting, or the clean and jerk requires knowledge and skill. The ability to communicate effectively with your trainees is part of what makes someone a better coach. Most HIT coaches I know post their workouts on the wall and hope their athletes get it right. HIT proponents also advise that explosive weight training is unsafe. This is false, especially when more injuries occur on the playing field than in the weight room. Strength training with free weights more adequately prepares an athlete for the rigors of competition and actually decreases the risk of injury. The principles of HIT suggest that exercise should be intense, brief, and infrequent. Personally, I don’t know anyone successful, in any venture, that performs the fundamental principles of their pursuit infrequently. Our bodies do, in fact, need to recover from strength training sessions. However, the mere suggestion of training infrequently connotes laziness. Flopping down on a machine is easy. Pick up a free weight, challenge yourself, and watch your results increase exponentially.

There is absolutely no replacement for squats, deadlifts, pull-ups, overhead presses, and bench pressing. These five mandatory moves should be included in every trainee’s strength and conditioning program. These staple exercises should be performed with free weights. In lieu of machine rows, give bent-over barbell rows or dumbbell rows a shot. Military presses or push presses with kettlebells are great for shoulder strength. Instead of strolling down easy street and performing prone leg curls, try Romanian deadlifts or good mornings on for size. Strength training with free weights can help one acquire nine of the ten physical skills associated with genuine fitness including accuracy, balance, coordination, cardiovascular endurance, flexibility, power, speed, stamina, and of course strength. Moreover, this type of training recruits more muscle fibers, avails greater central nervous system stimulation, provides a greater transfer of strength, and creates a more functional parallel to both athletic and everyday moves.

Today’s gyms and training facilities are full of unnecessary items. Gyms are what society perceives they should be like . . . attractive, comfortable, and welcoming. How do those qualities equate to an atmosphere of physical achievement? I fail to see the connection. Gyms should be entirely uncomfortable, unpleasant and unwelcoming. Instead of appearing like a lounge, a support network of like-minded individuals should be present. An individual will push harder and risk more in the company of trustworthy peers. Instead of mirrors there should be motivational thoughts, inspirational quotes, record boards, and photos of those that have come before us and paved the highway of physical achievement. Since when is the achievement of anything truly valuable supposed to be easy? Worthy pursuits aren’t easy. When you enter into a training facility, you should be desperate to achieve your goal and willing to lay it on the line. I like to see desperation and fear in someone’s eyes because then I know they actually “have to” and “need to” achieve their goal. It doesn’t matter whether your pursuit is to lose bodyfat, squat 750 pounds, get closer to God, hasten your 40 time, become a better parent, be more honorable, jump higher, read better, love stronger, devote more, last longer, or rehabilitate an injury . . . no matter what the goal . . . you should be desperate to achieve it or quite frankly, it’s not worth your efforts.

Powerlifting Toward Wellness

Exercise selection is the foundation of any strength training program. One question I’m frequently asked is, “What exercises do you recommend?” My stock reply is, “Choose a compound movement that targets the muscle groups you want to improve.” A compound movement involves two or more joints in motion simultaneously. Four lower body multi joint exercises are squats, deadlifts, lunges, and step ups. Each exercise requires the use of the hip and knee joints and to a lesser degree, the ankle joint. Consequently, the hips, lower back, abdominals, quadriceps, hamstrings, glutes, and calves are all utilized. To work the same muscle groups, with Matt 639 Deadliftsingle joint movements, more than eight individual exercises would be needed. Three upper body multi-joint exercises are overhead presses, pull-ups, and bench presses. Employing free weights to perform multi joint exercises also recruits stabilizing muscles that are often neglected, like adductors [inner thighs/groin] and abductors [outer thighs/hips]. Full body compound movements also strengthen the entire skeletal system by increasing bone density. As a result, when compound exercises are performed correctly with free weights, one can be safe and efficient.

Exercise safety is germane to the individual and therefore critical to reaching fitness and wellness goals. Attempting a max clean and jerk is considered safe to a seasoned Olympic weightlifter. A similar exertion would be hazardous to the typical golfer. If injury occurs because one executes exercises incorrectly, does not warm up sufficiently, or does not devote appropriate rest periods between sets and training sessions, becoming fit can be a long and tortuous road. Exercise safety, combined with brief, consistent and efficient strength training programs, provides the highest results.

Powerlifting involves the performance of the squat, bench press, and deadlift. These compound exercises define a lifter’s total body strength. Competitive powerlifting is not for everyone. By advocating the inclusion of these compound movements in your routine, you are not being called into the competitive arena. However, you will enhance your physique via increases in lean body mass, increased metabolism, and decreases in body fat percentage. Your health will also benefit from improved circulation, a more restful sleep, and prevention of chronic lower back pain. Women get extra benefits from the regular use of multi joint movements such as a reduced risk of osteoporosis and osteoarthritis.

Current statistics report approximately 70% of all deaths in the United States are caused by cardiovascular disease and cancer. A sustained wellness program of compound exercises, combined with appropriate eating habits, can help prevent death from these causes.

My female clients often say: “I want to look like I train but I don’t want to bulk up.” The male athletes in my practice want more muscle and increased strength. The best approach is to pick a compound movement using barbells, dumbbells, or kettlebells that focuses on the areas you want to improve. If it’s improvement in body composition that you desire, compound exercises like the squat, deadlift, pull-up, and overhead press elicit a profound neuroendocrine response. They change you hormonally and neurologically. The minds behind the CrossFit methodology say it best, “Curls, lateral raises, leg extensions, leg curls, flyes and other bodybuilding movements have no place in a serious strength and conditioning program primarily because they have a blunted neuroendocrine response. A distinctive feature of these relatively worthless movements is that they have no functional analog in everyday life and they work only one joint at a time. Compare this to the deadlift, clean, squat, and jerk which are functional and multi-joint movements.” (1)

Matt Ready to Squat

Machines make good coat racks. If you want to get stronger and change your body in the most time efficient manner, stick with free weights. I’ve heard it all; machines utilize the peak contraction principle, isolate muscles, they’re safer, and you can train faster. The only value that machines really present is for those working with or around an injury or for persons with extreme physical limitations or disabilities. Even then, their value is limited. Machines don’t provide nearly the benefits of free weights, specifically because they fail to stimulate the central nervous system in the same manner. Accuracy, balance, coordination, flexibility, power, and speed are all lost when you use a machine. Most machines involve pulleys or levers. The pulley was invented by the Egyptians when they were building the pyramids. Why did they invent the pulley? To make things easier. If you want easy, go lay on the beach somewhere and work on your tan.

Most gyms and training facilities have mirrors seemingly everywhere. Mirrors are the enemy. They’re only useful when you want to see how your new bench shirt or squat suit looks, otherwise avoid them. I never have anyone perform an exercise in front of a mirror. It’s imperative that we all learn kinesthetic awareness and understand how and where our bodies move through space. The visual feedback that the mirror provides will always override any other type of feedback the body is providing. Accordingly, all movements are performed facing away from mirrors.

A full body routine would include squats, bench presses, pull-ups, military presses, and deadlifts. If your lower back and hamstrings are weak, do Romanian deadlifts, arched back good mornings, and squatting pull throughs. If you want to build your shoulders, utilize military presses, upright rows, and push presses. Every multi joint movement for the upper body works the arms, so the biceps and triceps benefit as well.

In today’s fast paced society, exercise safety and efficiency have been sacrificed on the altar of speed. It’s the exercise selection that counts. Pick an exercise that targets your particular weakness. Use the exercise until it becomes ineffective and then choose a new one for that area. This concept of rotating exercises is known as the conjugate method. The variety keeps you interested and different exercises build new types of strength. Don’t get caught up in doing an exercise that is popular or familiar if it does little for you.

Three of my clients have been instantly successful using compound movements in their strength training programs. Sylvia Ramos performs squats with the safety squat bar, pull-ups, and lunges to build strength for cycling events and marathons. Consequently, she has significantly decreased her times. Catherine Meloy could not lift a suitcase overhead into an airline compartment and now does forty pound military presses with ease. Tim Gill does deadlifts off a 2″ plate. On February 24 of this year, at the USAPL Navy Open, he made a 457-pound personal record deadlift, proof that he does well in selecting his exercises. Choose wisely and good luck.

References

(1) The CrossFit Journal, p. 7, October 2002.

Top 10 Mistakes Novice Lifters Make

My wife and I are both active members of the USAPL (USA Powerlifting) as competitors, coaches, and national referees.  Sioux-z (pictured left) was also recently voted to serve on the USAPL Women’s Committee, which is designed to promote, protect, and serve the interests of  women’s powerlifting.  Together we have 27 years of competitive powerlifting experience under our belts.  With experience comes wisdom.

Experience and wisdom are far more precious than strength.  In powerlifting, experience and wisdom often translate to smarter training, fewer injuries, bigger lifts, and a better overall competitive experience.  Contrary to popular belief, the USAPL and most other powerlifting federations are built upon the membership and success of their local, grass roots lifters.  The elite level lifters are rare and precious commodities.  Consequently, it is vitally important for novice lifters to be successful in their first few outings.  A positive first experience will encourage lifters to stay active in their organization and continue to compete for years to come.  Unfortunately many lifters have a terrible first competition experience and walk away from powerlifting disappointed, discouraged, and left wondering what went wrong.  Missed attempts and bad experiences often dissuade competitors from competing again.

 

This begs the question, “What actually did go wrong at their first meet?”  The short answer is: plenty.  Novice lifters make numerous mistakes that impair their overall performance.  Fortunately most, if not all, of these mistakes are both avoidable and reparable.

Sioux-z and I (I am pictured at right) attend as many local powerlifting competitions as possible.  We genuinely enjoy coaching, competing, spotting/loading, refereeing, or merely sitting back and watching.  This past weekend was no different as we attended the USAPL Navy Open Powerlifting Championships at the US Naval Academy in Annapolis, MD.  We coached two novice lifters in their second contest.  They both performed extremely well.  One lifter made all of his attempts and established four new personal records (PR) while our second lifter went 7/9 with one new PR.  Without overstating the obvious, they both had an excellent experience and will be back for more.  That’s what it’s all about . . . competing, having fun, and setting PRs.

When we left the competition, Sioux-z and I were both satisfied that our lifters had done well because they were well prepared.  We helped them prepare for the rigors of the meet by explaining the rules, working on form and technique in the gym, proper training, employing a sensible nutritional plan, and having realistic goals and expectations.  On the other hand, we noticed numerous lifters that had horrible experiences.  Most of these pitfalls were avoidable and left us wondering what we could do to help.  In these situations I like to pick up the pen and start writing, or in this case . . . start typing.

Here’s a list of the top 10 mistakes novice lifters make.  I’ve also included suggestions or solutions for how to rectify these mistakes and prevent them from happening again.

 

1.  Going into your first competition blindly.

This is the root of most of a novice powerlifter’s  problems.  Most people only think they know what powerlifting is.  I can’t count how many times I’ve been asked, “Is that what they do in the Olympics?”  Even more fail to realize that a competition squat must be taken to proper depth (crease of the hip joint below the top of the knee), that a competition bench press must be paused (held motionless on the chest), and that a deadlift must be lifted to a fully erect position (knees locked, shoulders back, hips through).  Consequently, the rules of performance for the competitive lifts are often misunderstood completely.  Additionally, novices don’t know what to wear and what constitutes proper lifting attire.  I’ve actually seen lifters bend over for their deadlift wearing gloves and using lifting straps.  People fail to realize what the Round System is and how it’s used to organize a meet.  Ultimately, most people are completely ignorant about the sport of powerlifting.

Suggestions: Attend and observe a powerlifting competition before entering one.

This is probably one of the most valuable experiences a prospective powerlifter can ever have.  Watching a competition will answer many of the aforementioned questions which will help turn that ignorance into knowledge and understanding. You will be able to witness firsthand the rules of performance, the proper lifting attire, the execution of the lifts, and the overall flow of the contest.  Spectators have the opportunity to see successful attempts and failed attempts.  You’ll also have a better understanding of how strong the lifters in your weight class are, compared to you.  Furthermore, all lifters have unique lifting techniques, from squat stances to grip width in the bench press and foot placement in the deadlift.  Having the opportunity to view these techniques and idiosyncracies up close is extremely valuable.

It’s sensible to approach one of the competitors at the conclusion of the competition to ask for advice and information.  Most powerlifters are friendly and don’t mind being asked for advice and/or opinions.  It would also be advisable to speak with a referee to further understand the rules of competition.  Many referees are competitive powerlifters themselves and have a more than adequate knowledge of the rules.  Perhaps you saw a few lifts that you thought were successful and the judges thought otherwise.  This would be a perfect opportunity to inquire as to why a certain lifter was not credited with an attempt.  Clarification of the rules will help dispel any misconception, myth, or rumor that you may have heard.  At the end of the day you may even discover that powerlifting just isn’t your cup of tea.  If that’s the case, all you’ve spent is a few hours of your time acquiring knowledge of another sport.  Overall, attending a powerlifting competition before actually competing in one is a fantastic idea and the first step toward a positive first experience.

 

2.  Not having any advice and/or assistance from a knowledgeable coach or lifter.

Most novices compete in their first powerlifting competition without seeking the advice or knowledge of a coach or seasoned lifter.  This mistake is similar to not attending a competition and creates a multitude of problems.  Most of the problems arise in the area of technique and proper training.  Just because someone is a good “gym lifter” doesn’t make them a strong powerlifter.  In fact, most “gym lifters” perform the competitive lifts incorrectly.  Far too many people have been humbled in competition when they actually have to squat rather than simply unlock their knees or they are actually required to pause in the bench press rather than bouncing the bar off their chest.  Again, ignorance becomes the common theme.

Suggestions: Find a knowledgeable strength coach or experienced powerlifter.

Begin by asking questions.  Be certain of those you’re questioning and learn to analyze information critically.  Analyze what you hear, read, and witness.  Don’t accept something just because someone said it.  If you’re getting your training advice from a 92-pound pencil-neck clown who’s in the corner of your gym flexing and doing lateral raises with elastic bands, chances are your information source is tainted.  That doesn’t mean you have to seek out the biggest dude in the gym either. Just make certain you inquire in the right places.  Moreover, just because something is printed on a piece of paper doesn’t mean it’s the gospel.  This doesn’t mean you have to refute every single nugget of information that passes through your brain, just filter it.

Perhaps there’s a strength coach at a local college or university that’s willing to answer your questions.  There may be a competitive powerlifter in your gym or area that will allow you to either train with them or watch them train.  Have them observe your lifts so they may check your form and technique.  This is some of the best feedback a lifter can ever receive.  I always have more experienced lifters watch my technique and check for flaws or weaknesses.  Sometimes you’re doing something that you don’t even realize.  Show them your training routine and allow them to review it for you.  Accept constructive criticism and embrace the notion that this is a new pursuit and there will be some adjustments that need to be made.

If you’re unable to locate someone knowledgeable, use the internet.  The internet is a wonderful tool for accessing information on just about anything and powerlifting is no different.  There are a multitude of websites dedicated to powerlifting and strength training.  You’ll certainly find valuable information that you can immediately employ into your program.  Many of these websites have free newsletters.  Sign up for a few.  Some of them are packed with good information.  The internet also has various sites with photos and/or video clips of powerlifting.  Finally, I recommend opening up a book and reading.  Wisdom, in any field, is power.  There are many books and journals on powerlifting training that are worth looking into.

 

3.  Using powerlifting gear (squat/deadlift suits, knee wraps, bench shirts) too soon.  

Supportive powerlifting equipment such as squat/deadlift suits, knee wraps, and bench shirts do two things.  They help protect the lifter from injury and they act as an ergogenic aid in that they allow you to lift more weight.  This is an enticing proposition.  It’s one that many are not able to resist.  People automatically take an economic principle like “more disposable income is better” and apply it to powerlifting as in “lifting more weight is better.”  Lifting more weight is every powerlifter’s goal.  However, it should not be done at the expense of learning proper form, technique, and becoming stronger overall without those aids.

Many novice lifters see experienced and elite lifters utilizing supportive gear and think that they should use it as well.  They spend a lot of money on the apparel and then don’t understand how to properly maximize its benefits.  I’ve been competing for twelve years and I’m still trying to figure out some of the new bench shirts.

Squatting, bench pressing, and deadlifting are all skills.  Our central nervous system (CNS) has to adapt and utilize the proper neurological pathways so that we are able to learn the movement patterns in order to coordinate the movements necessary to efficiently squat, bench press, and deadlift.  Mastering these skills takes a lot of time and practice.  Skill mastery rarely comes in one session.  It’s something developed with years of practice and training.  Many elite lifters are still mastering technique years after they began formal training.  Technique and skill mastery also evolves as we become bigger and stronger.  Your movements and technique can easily change in an effort to accommodate added or lost body weight.  Once you begin adding weight to the bar, your CNS fires differently.  Mastering proper lifting technique according to your body type and genetics is an arduous task.  Accordingly, adding supportive powerlifting apparel changes those skills.  In other words, once you’ve mastered the skills required to squat properly and then you implement a squat suit and knee wraps, you have to learn a new skill all over again.

Suggestions: Learn proper technique, skill mastery, and build a strong foundation before adding supportive equipment.   

The raw (without the aid of supportive equipment) vs. gear debate will rage on forever.  However, one principle of powerlifting is absolutely irrefutable.  Novice lifters should learn proper form and technique first.  Any knowledgeable or seasoned powerlifter will advise a novice to begin without the aid of supportive equipment so they may learn proper form and build a strong foundation.  Powerlifting apparel can add artificial and immediate strength.  But if you add gear too soon, disaster awaits either in the form of bombing out of a competition or worse yet, a serious injury.  It’s imperative that beginners strengthen their core, connective tissues, bones, and muscles before attempting excessively heavy weights with the aid of equipment.

Strength gains come quickly for the novice.  Plateaus, overtraining, injury, and boredom aren’t typical issues for those new to training.  Consequently, there’s really no valid reason for adding equipment in the beginning.  Set your ego aside and get stronger without it.  It’s beneficial to encounter some training plateaus and then be able to troubleshoot your weaknesses.  Finding solutions to stagnation is extremely rewarding.  If you use powerlifting gear too soon, you’ll never properly understand how to address those weaknesses and flaws in your technique.  I strongly recommend training without supportive equipment for at least three years before adding supportive apparel.  (A case can be made for using a belt as it acts more as a stabilizing and protective agent rather than an aid in lifting more.)  Just think of how strong you’ll be once you’ve built a solid and strong foundation.  Then, and only then, should you consider implementing these aids into your training.

 

4.  Not practicing the verbal commands in training.

There are verbal commands that must be followed for each lift.

Two verbal commands must be followed in the squat.  At the beginning of the squat, the lifter removes the bar from the racks and steps back with it.  Once the lifter has demonstrated control of the bar, the head referee will give a verbal command of “Squat” along with a downward motion of the arm.  Upon completion of the lift, once the lifter has again demonstrated control of the bar, the head referee will again give a verbal command of “Rack” along with a backward motion of the arm.

In the bench press, the chief referee gives three verbal commands.  After the lifter removes the bar from the bench uprights and demonstrates control of the bar, the chief referee will give a verbal command of “Start” coupled with a downward motion of the arm.  After receiving the signal the lifter must lower the bar to the chest, hold it motionless on the chest, after which the chief referee will give the audible command of “Press.”  Once the lifter has pressed the bar and returned it to arm’s length, the head referee will give the third and final verbal command of “Rack” along with a backward motion of the arm.

The deadlift has only one verbal command. Upon completion of the deadlift, the head referee will give the audible command of “Down” and the downward motion of the arm.

Many novice lifters either don’t know the verbal commands or don’t wait for them.  This leads to missed attempts when many times the lift has already been completed with satisfactory form.  Missing an attempt due to the failure to follow the verbal commands is absolutely inexcusable and should never happen.

Suggestions: Practice the verbal commands in training prior to the competition.

The remedy is self-explanatory.  Have your coach, training partner, or a friend say the commands in training.  This doesn’t have to be done every single rep of every single workout.  I recommend practicing this simple drill, for each lift, during the last three workouts prior to the competition.

 

5.  Adding and/or changing a piece of equipment (gear) the day of the meet.

Powerlifting is one of the best examples of a “practice like you play” kind of sport.

It is imperative that we train just as we plan to compete.  Our lifting costume in training should be identical to what we wear on meet day.  If you wear a certain type of shoe to squat in while training, you should wear the same shoe during the competition.  Changing gear of any kind can drastically change your technique.  At the Navy Open, one of the competitors heard that he could squat more weight with knee wraps.  Having never used them in training he decided to use them at the meet.  This was a big mistake.  He then proceeded to miss both his opener and second squat attempts for insufficient depth.  Finally my wife went over and agreed to call his depth on his third attempt, thus avoiding a bomb-out.  Another lifter switched to a squat shoe the day of the meet.  The squat shoes had an elevated heel that he wasn’t used to and they threw him forward in the squat.  Needless to say, this was one of the contributing factors to him not registering a successful squat.  Adding a pair of squat shoes to the arsenal may be an excellent idea, but not on meet day.  You are better off waiting until the next training cycle to use them.  I’ve seen other lifters wear a bench shirt on meet day that is tighter than the ones they used in training.  With the new technology of the bench press shirts, they now go on easier but fit tighter and require more weight to touch the chest.  More lifters bomb out of a competition in the bench press than any other lift.  Failure to practice with the shirt you plan on wearing on meet day is a major cause for failed attempts and poor performance.

Suggestions: Practice like you compete.  Wear the exact same apparel in training that you will wear on meet day.

It doesn’t matter what piece of gear it is, you need to wear it in training before the meet.  If you plan on using a belt in competition, you need to wear it in training.  The notion that you’re strong enough to lift a certain weight and then adding a piece of equipment on meet day will make you even stronger sounds valid in theory but often fails in practice.  Powerlifting apparel affects your form and technique.  Experienced lifters usually train and practice in their gear for many weeks prior to a contest.  This helps to ensure there are no surprises on meet day.  The only surprise a novice powerlifter should welcome is their new found strength gains as a result of initially training raw.

 

6. Wearing the wrong shoes.

Novice lifters often wear tennis or running shoes to compete in.  I mean why not, right?  You probably already own a few pairs.  Why invest extra money in something as trivial as footwear?  Running shoes have soft cushion-type soles.  While these soles are ideal for comfort, running, and walking, they are certainly not ideal for lifting heavy weights.  When you place a bar on your back to squat, gravity immediately starts working against you by pulling the weight down.  Additionally, as you begin to sit back and squat down the weight is then pushing you downward toward the floor.  In order to ascend in the squat, you must transfer energy through your hips, back, and legs, then through your feet and into the floor.  When you do this with running shoes, the cushion soles are severely compressed.  This gives you a “squishy” surface to push against rather than a solid and flat surface.  This often causes lifters to struggle with their initial set-up in the squat.  It also causes lifters to fall forward in the squat often creating a position that’s difficult to recover from.  Furthermore, if your feet tend to pronate (turn inwards) the running shoes will likely exacerbate this condition by forcing you feet to roll inwards.  The same is true if your feet tend to supinate (roll outwards).  Neither of these situations is particularly desirable.  Imagine running in sand.  Running in sand is much harder than running on concrete because the energy transferred through your feet is dispersed through the sand.  When you run on the concrete, the hard surface practically pushes back.  Running shoes rarely impair performance during the bench press.  However, they are definitely not favorable during the deadlift.  Again your main goal when you initiate the deadlift is to drive your feet through the floor.  If you have running shoes on your feet will drive into the unstable surface of the cushioned sole.  This will inhibit your transfer of energy through your feet into the floor.  The bottom line is that soft soled shoes cause decrements in lifting performance.

Suggestions: Purchase and train in a shoe with a flat and ultra-hard sole.

There are many manufacturers of squat shoes.  Adidas, Crain, Inzer, Metal, and Safe all manufacture quality squat shoes.  Talk to some more experienced powerlifters and see what they like.  Get some different opinions before you make the purchase.  All squat shoes have extremely hard soles while some even have a raised heel.  This can be preferable especially if you have limited ankle and hip mobility preventing you from achieving sufficient depth.  Squat shoes are expensive.  However, this will likely be a one time investment.  I seriously doubt any of you will wear them on a date, to work, or on a job interview.  You’ll only wear them for training and competitions.  Most squat shoes are extremely durable and will likely last you your entire powerlifting career.  If anything, you may have to get them resurfaced.

I do not recommend wearing squat shoes for the deadlift.  For deadlifting you want a super-flat and thinly soled shoe.  Many lifters wear wrestling shoes.  Some federations even allow ballet slippers.  These are both ideal as they are flat and the thin sole shortens the distance you have to pull the bar.

If you don’t have the money to invest in a pair of squat shoes for squatting or wrestling shoes for deadlifting, there are still other less expensive options.  The old school Chuck Taylor basketball shoe is rather popular and works well because of the hard and flat sole.  Many lifters wear these for both squatting and deadlifting.  Indoor soccer shoes and also a good choice as they are extremely flat.  Some of the older styles of basketball shoes would be appropriate for squatting.

The powerlifting platform is not a place to be concerned with fashion.  Your primary footwear focus should be on function and performance.  Choose your shoes wisely.  Your feet will thank you and your lifts will increase immediately.

 

7.  Not attending the rules briefing prior to the competition.

Many novice lifters show up at the meet and assume they understand all the rules of performance.  If I had a nickel for every lifter that failed to wait for the “Rack” command in the squat or failed to pause their bench press, I’d be on the cover of Forbes Magazine.  Rules briefings do just that, they announce and brief the competitors of the rules of lifting performance.  Proper lifting attire is also addressed.  All local and state meets should have a rules briefing.  (National and world championships do not have rules briefings because the lifters are already seasoned enough to know and understand all the rules.)

Suggestions: Attend and actually listen at the rules briefing.

As easy and simple as this sounds, I’ve seen countless lifters fail to attend the rules briefing only to go on and miss their opening attempts.  If the competition doesn’t have a rules briefing prior to the start of the meet, ask one of the referees to review the rules.  Most referees will gladly go over the rules.  This is a time to listen and ask questions for clarification.  Missing attempts due to ignorance of the rules is unacceptable.

 

8.  Not understanding the timing and flow of the competition.

Many people that are new to powerlifting don’t understand the organization and flow of a competition.  This starts immediately after getting weighed.  Novices often don’t pay attention to when their flight starts or where they are within their flight.  This is vitally important for your warm-up and mental preparation.  At the Navy Open, I recall a lifter not paying any attention to when he was supposed to bench press.  He didn’t realize that his flight had started and all of the sudden his name was called informing him that he was “in the wings” (fourth lifter out).  Without warming-up properly he frantically put on his bench shirt and attempted a 396 pounds opening bench press attempt.  I don’t need to tell you that he got crushed.  He went on to miss all three bench press attempts and bomb out of the competition.  Another common mistake is having your knees wrapped too long.  Tight knee wraps will eventually begin to cut off your circulation to your calves and feet.  One lifter was wrapped for nearly ten minutes prior to his attempt.  He later told me that by the time he approached the bar he could not even feel his feet.  This is obviously not a good scenario for making a successful squat attempt.  Understanding the timing of the competition will put your nerves at ease and enable to have adequate time to warm-up.  Not knowing your place in your flight often comes with disastrous consequences.

Suggestions: Pay attention, listen, and look for your flight number and place within your flight.

Immediately after the weigh-ins close you should find the meet director and inquire as to the flight order.  They will likely have the order of lifting and can inform you of your flight number and place within the flight.  The attempts are organized incrementally from lightest to heaviest.  Therefore if you know you have a light opening attempt in the squat, you can begin warming up sooner.  Be sure to check your place within the flight for benching and deadlifting as it’s often not the same.  Many meet directors will either announce the lifting order and/or have it posted on the wall or on a huge screen if the meet site is equipped with one.

Once the bar is loaded and the lifter’s name is called, the lifter has one minute to receive their start signal in both the squat and the bench press.  They have one minute to make a determined effort to raise the bar in the deadlift.  A good rule for estimating approximate timing is to look at how many lifters there are in a given flight or how many lifters are ahead of you.  You can assume approximately one minute per lifter.  If there are ten lifters in the flight ahead of yours you can assume they will be finished lifting in approximately 30 minutes (10 lifters x 3 attempts per lifter = 30 minutes).  This formula is usually accurate.  Squatting typically takes more time than bench pressing and deadlifting as lifters are often wrapping knees, etc.  If you are the eighth person in a flight of ten, you can assume you’ll have seven minutes before it’s time for your first attempt.  Once you’ve completed your attempt you will have approximately nine minutes between all subsequent attempts.

Know how long it takes you to warm-up for each individual lift.  If in training it usually takes you 30 minutes before you hit your heaviest sets then you can allow for 30 minutes to warm-up at the meet.  You may want to allocate more time as you will likely be warming up with the rest of the lifters in your flight and sharing a squat rack or bench press.  Allow extra time to get fitted into your lifting attire.  Tight suits and bench press shirts take more time to put on than a singlet.  There’s nothing worse than realizing that your flight starts in ten minutes and you haven’t put on your squat suit yet.  The energy used in quickly pulling on your suit can tire you rapidly.  When coaching my lifters I always inform them, “Start warming up a little earlier than usual because you can always slow down your warm-ups but you can’t speed up.”  Hastening your warm-up schedule creates fatigue and nervousness.  As the day progresses, you’ll need fewer warm-ups because your body will already be primed from the previous attempts.

Proper warm-up and timing are crucial for success on the platform.  If you understand the proper timing, you put yourself in a much better position for success on the platform.

Warming-up and proper timing are all aided by having a coach or handler assist you at the competition.  A competent handler can make or break your day.  Ideally they should be at your beck and call.  The only thing a lifter should have to focus on is lifting the weight on the bar.  A good coach handles his or her lifters by first helping them in the warm-up room.  They load the bar for all warm-up sets and manage the timing.  Keeping your lifter informed of the timing is crucial.  A word to the wise, if you don’t have a coach or training partner that’s willing to assist you on meet day and you have to ask a friend or family member, make sure they have at least a casual interest in powerlifting.  If your best friend hates lifting weights and would rather be playing ping-pong, you’re better off on your own.  Do not invite them to assist you.  Some folks with the best intentions can ruin your plans.  You have trained too hard and too long for a friend to throw a wrench in your program.

 

9.  Rushing your set-up.

Many novice lifters run to the bar and have it out of the rack before you can blink.  This puts the lifter in an unfavorable position.  It also creates a dangerous situation for both the lifter and the spotters.  Lifting heavy weights requires precision and focus.  Approaching the bar and taking control of the weight too quickly can make the attempt much harder because you’ve now placed additional forces on the bar that weren’t there before.  Gravity is difficult enough to overcome, let alone added “whip” or motion on the bar.  I’ve seen novice lifters rush their set-up in the squat so much that they not only forget to wait for the initial “Squat” command but they also stumble backwards out of the rack from the extra momentum the weight has generated.

Setting-up too quickly doesn’t allow you to squeeze the bar and build the necessary tension.  Squeezing the bar as tightly as possible creates more tension on the bar and allows your body to recruit more muscle fibers to perform the work.  This is Powerlifting 101.  Slow down, set your grip, and squeeze the bar!

Running up to the bench and just flopping down onto the bench doesn’t work either.  If you’re not set up properly on the bench, you won’t be able to take advantage of leg drive and you’ll likely be in a poor pressing position.  When you lay on the bench to press, your body is like a table.  The stronger the foundation (legs) and surface (buttocks, back/shoulders, and head) are the more likely you are to be in a favorable pressing position.

Many inexperienced lifters will also run up to bar for the deadlift, bend over, and just yank on it as hard as they can.  Often they will grab the bar in the wrong place or be off-center as they initiate the pull.  The deadlift is an example of a concentric only (upwards/lifting) muscle contraction.  The weight is actually lifted first before it’s lowered.  Consequently, your starting position is most crucial in the deadlift.  If your start position is hampered because you rushed your set-up, there’s an excellent chance you’ll miss your attempt.

Suggestions: Slow down and take your time setting up for each lift.

Perfect practice helps to ensure perfect performance.  It all starts in the gym.  Practice a slower and more deliberate set-up for each lift.  Treat every single set the same way.  Treat 135 pounds with as much respect as 500 pounds.  If your set-up is the same with the lighter weights, you’ll be more conditioned to execute a proper set-up with heavier weights.  Make sure you’ve set your grip where you want.  Upon breaking the bar from the rack in the squat, stop and allow the weights to settle.  The mores plates that are on the bar, the more “whip” the bar is likely to have because the center of gravity has changed by virtue of the fact that more weight is located further away from your body.  If you step back too quickly with a heavy squat attempt, the bar will shake and sometimes it’s impossible to fully recover.  Moreover, taking a more deliberate and methodical approach to setting-up your weights requires far less energy.  Your ideal set-up expends as little energy as possible and puts your body in the most favorable position to execute the lift with proper form.

Practicing in the gym allows you time to focus on proper breathing techniques as well.  Breathing properly and understanding how to temporarily fill your abdomen and chest cavity with air, allows you to tighten your core.  Your trunk and torso are your support system.  They’re like the column of a building.  The tighter and more solid the column, the more weight your body can lift and support.  It’s that simple.

Slow down, be more methodical, put your body in a more favorable lifting position, and enjoy the ride.

10.  Opening too heavy.

This mistake is listed last but it’s certainly not the least important.  Many lifters, especially novices, select an opening attempt that is too heavy.  You don’t win with your opening attempts unless you’re Ed Coan.  Opening up too heavy requires too much energy and leaves less room for improvement on subsequent attempts.

Your opening attempt in each lift, particularly the squat because it’s the very first lift of the day, is the most important lift of all three attempts.  Your opener is like the first pitch in a baseball game, the first hit in a football game, or your first shot in basketball.  It sets the tone for the rest of the day.  More important, your opening attempt not only gets you into the meet and builds confidence but it serves as a stepping stone for the next attempt.  Missing your opener only creates uncertainty, stress, and immediately puts you in a hole.

I could write an entire article on selecting attempts alone.  I won’t discuss attempt selection in detail as that’s not the scope of this article but suffice it to say, selecting appropriate attempts is one of the most important decisions of your entire training cycle.

Suggestions: Select a reasonable opening attempt that helps build confidence and allows you to make the next progression to your second attempt.

Leave your ego at home.  Nobody cares what you open with.  The only attempts that count are the ones you make.  Your openers only count toward your total if it’s the only attempt you make.  Otherwise, it serves as a prelude to your other attempts.  The opening attempt merely helps build your total by allowing you to make the next progression.  People only remember what you finished with anyway.

Open light!  That doesn’t mean that your opening squat is 250 pounds if your personal best is 500 pounds.  Light or reasonable is different for everyone.  Generally speaking, you want your opening attempt to be a weight that you are supremely confident of lifting on your absolute worst day under the worst possible conditions.  A good rule for most lifters is to open with approximately 90% of your personal best or your best triple in training.  Whatever weight you can lift for three reps is usually a very safe weight to open with.  Weights may vary with the bench press as the technology of the newer shirts make it harder to get weights to touch the chest.  Accordingly, you may need to open slightly heavier in the bench press. In any event, always err on the side of caution.  More experienced lifters can get away with opening heavier.  They are more accustomed to the rigors of the sport and have a better understanding of their bodies and their capabilities.  Even under the best circumstances, I personally have never opened with anything higher than 92% of my personal best.

There were 45 lifters at the 2007 USAPL Navy Open.  That translates to 135 first attempts.  Of the 135 first attempts there were 35 missed attempts or nearly 26% failures.  Of those 35 missed attempts, seven lifters bombed out of the competition and did not register a total.  Approximately 15% of the competitors failed to complete the meet.  That’s 15% too many.  Bombing out of competition sucks . . . plain and simple.  Most lifters will do it at least once over their powerlifting career.  Many will do it in their very first meet.  This leads to many lifters not ever coming back to compete again.  You’re only allowed to bomb once.  In my opinion, once it happens it is never, under any circumstances, acceptable for it to happen again.  You learn from it, put it behind you, and make sure it is never repeated.

 

In conclusion, nothing ever goes as planned at a powerlifting meet.  Trust me on that one.  At most powerlifting meets you’ll encounter at least one thing that you failed to plan for in training.  You have to be able to adapt on the fly and roll with the punches.  Always think positively and make the best of a foreign situation.

As a novice, minimizing your mistakes usually equates to maximizing your results on the platform.  It all starts with proper practice in training.  I can guarantee that if you employ some of the suggestions and recommendations that I’ve listed, you’ll minimize these novice mistakes.  The best thing to take from this article is to recognize that every mistake listed is entirely avoidable.  When you can avoid mistakes, there’s an excellent chance that you’ll have tremendous success in your first few meets.

Powerlifting is a tough sport for tough people.  I doubt that it will ever make into the mainstream consciousness of our society.  Quite frankly, I prefer it that way.  Therefore we need our novice lifters to have success, stick around for a while, and partake in the fraternity of iron that we know and love.

May all of your lifts feel light and all your lights be white.

Training the Deadlift

How many times has some curious onlooker at your gym come over to and asked, “So, how much can you lift?” My stock reply is, “I can deadlift 639 pounds.” (see picture to the right).

For a powerlifter, the deadlift is the purest test of total body strength. This is true for a myriad of reasons. Firstly, the deadlift recruits and utilizes as many muscles as any other exercise. The only exercise that rivals the deadlift, in muscle recruitment, is the squat. Secondly, the deadlift is unique in that it is truly a “lift-only” exercise. To perform a deadlift, you only perform a concentric contraction (upwards or positive motion) of the required muscles. Both the squat and bench press begin with an eccentric component (lowering or negative phase) prior to the actual lifting of the weight. Thirdly, because you don’t lower the weight first, it’s difficult to build and utilize any momentum in order to complete the lift. Additionally, powerlifting gear such as belts, suits, and wraps assist the deadlift the least. The lack of assistance from the gear forces you to do the work. When you’re on the platform readying for a deadlift attempt, it’s all you. You’re all alone on an island and you’re not getting help from anyone or anything else. Consequently, the deadlift is a totally different animal and should be treated as such.

How many times have you performed a set of deadlifts only to find that the second and third reps of the set were easier than the first? In all likelihood this happens more often than not. On numerous occasions I have seen lifters perform heavy triples in training with a certain weight and then barely be able to complete their attempt at the meet with that same weight. The second and third repetitions of a set of deadlifts are almost always easier than the first because you actually lower the weight first thereby building momentum via stored elastic energy. After the second and third reps, muscle fatigue sets in and the weight usually becomes heavier to the point where form and technique break down. At that point the set should be terminated because your risk of injury increases exponentially. Even if you perform your repetitions in a “dead-stop” fashion the successive reps are still easier because of the tension you’ve built on the eccentric phase of the preceding reps.
For these reasons, the deadlift should be trained with single repetitions. As powerlifters we all want to become stronger and lift more weight. We also want to get stronger as quickly and efficiently as possible. While there are in fact multiple ways to get strong and many lifters have had success training their deadlifts with multiple rep sets, why not take the shortest route? Performing deadlifts for repetitions are perfect for bodybuilders, fitness enthusiasts, and other strength athletes that want to put on some muscle. The constant muscle tension those multiple repetitions provide will certainly help your muscles grow. But the last time I checked, a powerlifter’s singular goal is to lift maximum weight. If maximum weight hoisted is your quest, singles are the answer.

Performing singles doesn’t mean that you come into the gym, load the bar to your maximum poundage, pull it once, and go home. That’s ludicrous and a sure-fire recipe for both injury and overtraining. Training the deadlift requires a systematic approach of using percentages for multiple singles and attacking the muscles that are germane to the lift itself. Fortunately, the deadlift mostly utilizes the same muscles as the squat. This leads to an overlap in training which can be beneficial because as you train one lift, the muscles required to perform the other lift are also being used. An additional benefit to training your deadlift with multiple singles is the fact that you get plenty of practice. Powerlifting may be the best example of a “practice like you play” sport. Lifters are always trying to simulate meet conditions in the gym and singles afford you that opportunity. The deadlift is the one powerlift where a lifter can actually get by with poor technique and still lift ponderous poundage. I’ve witnessed it more times than I can recall. A lifter walks up to the bar, bends over with hips high and a rounded back, and just yanks on it until it miraculously locks out to completion and the approval of the judges. Talk about ugly! If this is you, singles will help you practice and thereby improve your technique. And while it is true that you can get by with poor technique, the deadlift may also be the one lift where excellent technique helps the most. Training with singles allows you to treat each single as it’s very own unique attempt or set. You can practice visualization, set-up, breathing, and technique with each singular effort. With multiple rep sets, you only get a chance to practice on the first rep of each set.

Remember how we talked about momentum? It’s difficult to generate momentum in the deadlift. The deadlift requires us to overcome the laws of inertia on the bar. You’re not going to get a heavy weight moving from the floor by pulling it slowly. Accordingly, deadlifts need to be done explosively with a focus on technique and speed. Singles allow you to be explosive. Multiple repetitions do not allow the same velocity and bar speed. As the set continues, your velocity and bar speed decrease significantly with each repetition. Once you get into proper pulling position and take in a breath of air it’s important to tighten every muscle in the body just prior to breaking the bar from the floor. The mighty Ed Coan says that just prior to the initial pull he tries to contract every muscle in his body just as a bodybuilder might do on stage. He literally tries to make every single muscle hard and tight. This enables him to create tremendous tension on the bar. When Coan deadlifts, he’s like a time-bomb just waiting to explode!

A typical deadlift workout would include a sufficient dynamic warm-up to increase your body’s internal temperature and get the central nervous system firing correctly. I like to jump rope for a few minutes and follow that with some dynamic flexibility and mobility work that often includes medicine balls and leg swings. Save the static stretching for after your workout. Now on to the deadlift itself. The best way to approach your target weight or work sets is to work backwards. Let’s assume, for the sake of this conversation, that our lifter has a max deadlift of 500 pounds. Our lifter plans on working up to 70% of that max for 12 singles. Therefore the target weight for the work sets (singles) is 350 pounds. An appropriate warm-up sequence might look something like this: 135 x 5, 205 x 3, 265 x 1, 315 x 1. That would provide the lifter four sets to warm-up and become acclimated to pulling for the day. (Notice I recommended performing multiple repetitions on the first two warm-up sets.) It’s all right to perform a few reps on the first few lighter sets. This will improve your circulation, warm the body, and prime the muscles for the heavier weights to come. You’re not building any strength on the lighter warm-up sets anyway. That’s what the heavier weights and sets are for. After performing the warm-up sets, the lifter should be ready to perform the 12 singles. Now the lifter has 12 separate chances to work on form and perfect technique. This is more beneficial for central nervous system stimulation, strength development, and mastery of the skills required to deadlift. Performing the same training volume via 350 for 2 sets of 6 reps or even 350 pounds for 4 sets of 3 reps would be far less beneficial. Rest approximately one minute between singles. That affords you just enough time to step away from the bar, grab a sip of water, clear your head, chalk your hands, and ready yourself for the next single. Once the weights are above 80% of your max, longer rest periods may be necessary. I have performed singles with 90% and above and taken as much as five minutes between singles. This more closely resembles meet conditions.

The following is a sample six week deadlift cycle that I have used, with great success, on numerous occasions. The percentages listed represent the heaviest (work sets) singles for that day and do not include warm-ups.

Week 1 65% x 15 sets x 1 rep
Week 2 70% x 12 sets x 1 rep
Week 3 75% x 10 sets x 1 rep
Week 4 80% x 8 sets x 1 rep
Week 5 85% x 6 sets x 1 rep
Week 6 MAX

After performing the singles focus on assistance exercises for the deadlift and squat since they overlap. Do not choose an assistance exercise because some clown on the cover of your favorite powerlifting magazine told you to. Make your selections based upon your particular weaknesses and the muscles required to perform the actual lift. Exercises that most closely resemble the deadlift work best. I like deadlifts off of blocks, rack pulls, Romanian deadlifts, front squats, and high bar squats to name a few. The upper back is also important and can be trained with a variety of rowing and/or pull-down movements. A strong torso is absolutely imperative in a lifter’s domain. Don’t neglect any side of your torso. Train your lower back, obliques, hip flexors, and abdominals with weight or you’ll be sorry. Reverse hypers, 45 degrees back raise, good mornings, glute-ham raises, pull-throughs, sit-ups with weight, and pull-down abs work well. Leave the crunches and Bosu balls for the spandex crowd. The key to assistance work is to choose a few specific moves, hit them hard, and get out of the gym. Don’t get carried away. You’re not a bodybuilder. You’re a powerlifter.

So, the next time your deadlift has got you down just understand that less is actually more and single your way to your next PR!