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Creative Program Design

Are you ready to think “outside the box”? Whether due to injury, boredom, or sticking point, allowing some creativity in your program design might yield very satisfying results. Most strength coaches and athletes base their programs around a combo of Olympic lifts and/or powerlifts. After all, the competitive lifts evolved into what we have today because they best represent a balance of strength, power, and athleticism. However, there will be times in your athletic career when it is appropriate, even necessary to alter these basic lifts, revered though they may be. How can this be done without totally abandoning squats, benches, deadlifts, and power cleans etc?

The following examples should help to get you thinking a bit. Remember, these “substitute lifts” are not necessarily meant to be trained indefinitely. The length of time spent on a particular program, the exercises in that program, and the weights lifted are dependent on the athlete, peaking considerations, injury history, sport /position, and perceived weaknesses.

When you’re training with wisdom, “NOTHING IS WRITTEN IN STONE”. A combination of experience, instinct, and science is necessary for success. There is no one way to train, or one strength coach who has all the answers. Strength and conditioning has evolved over the years, with each generation of coaches borrowing from the previous one, while adding some of their own concepts along the way.

CLOSE STANCE PAUSE SQUAT

Good idea to rotate foot spacing from Wide power style to hip width. These can be alternated week to week with power squats, or can be cycled for 5 weeks. If you’re a conventional deadlifter, hip width pause squats are a real find. Because your legs/feet are in more of a practical jump position, this lift offers additional benefits to an athlete. I find these squats far superior to box squats. No box to sit on demands more balance and stability while avoiding some of the vertebral loading associated with box squats.

FRONT SQUAT

Good for a change of pace, and particularly good to teach squatting with a neutral back while strengthening the muscle groups which allow a neutral back position while squatting.

CLOSE GRIP LONG PAUSE BENCH

This work for same reasons close stance paused squats do. As in paused squats, a training partner should count to 3.  All paused lifts should be done explosively.

ARM SQUATS (WEIGHTED DIPS)

I love these things. Many years ago, my training partner was Pat Casey. Some of you may recall that pat was the first man to bench over 600 (also the first to squat over 8oo & total over 2000) these lifts were of course done raw since powerlifting assistance equipment hadn’t been invented yet. Pat taught me how to dip. Once a week, we dipped heavy at Bill Pearls Manchester Ave Gym in LA, and I believe it was crucial to our benching success. At the time, Pat had the national heavyweight bench record, and I was fighting with Bill Thurber for the national middleweight bench record. If you think about it, dips are just as hard core and very similar to squats. The description of arm squats is not inaccurate, and If not done correctly, they can be just as dangerous. always take a closer grip as you descend, lean forward while sliding your hips back do not go below parallel keep weights up high and between legs lock legs around weight so it won’t swing in front of you.

DB HANG CLEANS

Although not as well known, I find this lift just as useful as bar cleans and a lot safer. Same concept as bar cleans, but always keep a palms in position.

DB SPLIT HANG CLEANS

Same concept as DB hang cleans, except with this movement you dynamically lunge when you rack the DB’s, alternating legs. This exercise works particularly well for those athletes who must have that explosive first step.

BLOCK DEADLIFTS

Good to alternate with floor deadlifts, especially if you’re a sumo style puller. If you pull sumo correctly, your lower back isn’t getting a whole lot of work. Block pulls will keep your back strong. There should be a 2” clearance between feet and bar.

STRAIGHT LEG GOOD MORNINGS

Another old time exercise that has been somewhat resurrected recently, although I’ve been doing them for many years. Unfortunately, most athletes do them incorrectly. Common sense might say to bend your knees when you descend, but common sense would be wrong In this case. The safest and most productive way to train this exercise is to slide your hips back as you descend. If you do this with bent knees, you cannot slide your hips back, putting the stress on your lower back rather than your abs and hamstrings where it is safest and most useful. Bar position on shoulders should be higher than squat. This isn’t a judged competitive lift, so only go to depth where hamstrings are safely engaged.

TIP:

Whenever squatting, deadlifting, or doing any upright lift, breathe deeply in 3 stages (Pranayama). Fill stomach, chest, and all the way to your neck. Hold your air thru-out the concentric/eccentric motion, breathing between reps. If you have a medical condition that might contra-indicate this style of breathing, check with your physician.

Have fun. Train hard, train wisely…

Training Around Powerlifting Injuries While Still Making Progress

There is no doubt that perhaps a powerlifters’ worst nightmare is a training-inhibiting injury; namely, the type of asymmetrical “bad pain“ that seems to arise at the worst possible time in the training cycle — the part of the cycle where you are seeing the most gains! Some of these injuries include rotator cuff issues, knee problems, and back pain. When these injuries occur, they can ruin the sense of well-being a powerlifter attains from his/her training progress because there is a fundamental training belief that training is supposed to produce strength, not injury. When injured, the popular advice is to seek help from a medical professional.

Of course, the typical next step in a powerlifters’ injury cycle is an often an un-enriching trip to a physician’s office; a so-called “sports medicine” expert. Upon such a consultation, the guru will tell the powerlifter to engage in some boneheaded strategy such as to avoid doing any “deep knee bends” or to not lift heavy and to simply do light weights to “tone”; better still, I’ve heard some say to stop lifting altogether. How would you, the serious powerlifter react to this advice?

Come on — I know all of you have experienced this at least once in your powerlifting career. Let me share some of my experiences with you:

“You will never bench press ever again.” –Guru 1, September 1999

“What the hell’s the matter with you damn weightlifters?” –Guru 2, February 2003


“A deadlift? What are you crazy?” -Guru 3 (a chiropractor), June 2006

I am pretty sure that I will have a great deal of agreement from all of my powerlifting sisters and brothers that the above advice does not sound like it is coming from a source of empathy; we know that the likelihood of these gurus having ever lifted an object heavier than a small coffee table from Crate and Barrel is incredibly small if not nonexistent. Given this likelihood, should you take their advice? After all, they did go through a great deal of scientific education dealing with immunological healing processes of the body and all types of different cellular pathologies. They must know everything there is to know about powerlifting, right? And of course, we are the (less intelligent) meatheads; the “heavy weightlifters” who grunt and groan and slam weights in the corner of the gym while the gurus are all cranking away on the Precor and prepping their hearts for their stressful six-figure lifestyles of playing golf and dining at Morton’s while maintaining a healthy 26% body fat and a whopping 155lb. bench press. They must be the experts on fitness and exercise and we must always listen to their erudite and scholarly exercise advice, right?

My answer to this question of whether or not to take their advice is, “sometimes.” While it may seem that you should never listen to these folks who are painfully inexperienced in the gym, they are right about some things related to powerlfiting. Perhaps the most common injury to powerlifters that the gurus end up treating is tendinosis. Tendinosis is a chronic condition involving the slow deterioration of the tendon and is not always symptomatic. When the pain (periodically) arises, it is called a “tendinitis.” Tendinitis is when the tendinosis condition has a “flare-up.” For example, in powerlifters a quite common tendinosis is of the bicep tendon. Years of heavy bench pressing combined with other activities such as writing and typing on a keyboard can overwork the biceps tendon to no end, since it is intimately attached to flexors of the forearms and fingers. You’ll know that you have tendinosis when you have your first tendinitis flare up, probably after a series of heavy bench press sessions. The pain may feel like it’s on the front deltoid and will be felt at the bottom position of the bench press, when the bar is on the chest. The inflammation is often exacerbated by heavy benching when the tendinitis is present. Here, the guru will tell you to rest and not bench press; he/she is right .
The only way to heal a flareup of tendinitis seems to be to rest it. By “resting it”, it may mean that you do not do any activities that make it feel worse, such as full range bench pressing, excessive typing, or excessive writing with the symptomatic arm while the inflammation persists. You must be patient; it will get better if you adhere to these guidelines. It only takes a couple of days for a tendinitis swelling to go down.

While tendinitis can be successfully treated with rest and avoidance of exacerbating activity, a tendinosis will probably not go away with resting; no treatment has been shown to reverse the damage on the cellular scale (Erickson, 2002). It is likely the manifestation of cellular entropy. Entropy refers to the chronic deterioration of the body (and of the world!) and is an inevitable process to all people whether they powerlift or not. This is a primary reason why the aging process occurs!

Face it everyone; we are human and we are subject to degenerative processes whether we like it or not. I wish I was a juggernaut just like all of the rest of you do, but it is just not possible. However, just because you have a tendinosis condition does not mean you cannot continue to increase your total over the course of your life span.

The real question then, is what do you do about your training if you get a tendinitis condition without stopping altogether and potentially ruining your progress? The simple answer is, decrease the frequency and volume of workouts! Sorry folks, you may have to stop bench pressing four times a week and settle for maybe one or two.

P.Michael Leahy, one of the founders of active release techniques, developed an equation for tissue insult. It is called the Law of repetitive motion. The equation is I = NF/AR where:

I = insult to the muscle tissues

N= number of repetitions

F= force of each repetition as a percent of maximum muscle strength

A= amplitude of each repetition

R= relaxation time between repetitions

This equation can be directly applied to training around a tendinitis injury in powerlifting. By decreasing the value of “N” (lowering the amount of total volume/repetitions) and increasing the value of “R” (relaxation time between reps a.k.a. benching only once a week versus four), we will bring down the value of “I” (which is tissue insult or in this case, the tendinitis condition). Yeah, I hate math as much as the next person but if you do the math out, you will find that this is in fact true and really does work.

As a real life example of how this equation works, let me explain how I trained when I was 19 and compare it to how I train now. At age 19, I used to bench press three times a week alternating heavy and light days and doing a Russian-style volume cycle where every workout consisted of at least six sets (very high value of “N” and very low value of “R”). Let me just tell you, this routine works, and works extremely potently. It’s not uncommon to bring your (raw) bench press up 15 to 20 pounds in six weeks time while being supplement and drug free on this program. However, it will more than likely lead to tendinosis because it will pound the heck out of your body and lead to a very high value of “I” (assuming you’re using 80% loads and higher on every set). This is because the scapula are pinched against the bench while lowering the bar down to the chest and pushing it back up again; it’s as if you are crushing the scapula muscles because they cannot move very well unless you have a Hatfield bench (the bench with the upper-back cut out of it for scapula mobility as designed by “Dr. Squat” Fred Hatfield ). It is only a matter of time before you use one side more than the other while pushing a little too often; this will likely result in bicep tendon strain and subsequent tendinosis. Surely, my tendinosis (and therefore tendinitis flare-ups) started developing at age 21. I soon learned that the flare-ups would go away when I would only bench press once a week (by decreasing N and increasing R). My strength would still go up by the end of the cycle 15 to 20 pounds, but it would not be as quick as when I did it in six weeks time. But now, I do not get flare-ups anymore from bench pressing because I only bench press twice per week with only three sets each workout instead of six and I am still getting PR’s at age 30 whereas many of my contemporaries from my teens and 20s are retired from the sport because of injuries that they never bothered to correct.

In summary, when you get a pain from lifting that seems to be persistent on one side and not the other, you should in fact see one of those scrawny gurus mentioned earlier and make sure that you don’t have a truly debilitating injury. If it is a tendinosis/tendinitis, you now know that by decreasing both the volume of sets and the frequency of workouts (the N) and increasing the rest time (the R), you can likely continue your heavy and intense lifting cycle and make the same gains as if you trained like a knucklehead (like me at 19). You also now know that you do not have to listen to the quackery that comes out of some gurus’ mouths, such as the advice to stop lifting. If you are a true iron- blood individual, you will do what it takes to train around whatever injury you may sustain and continue to make gains on your total throughout your lifetime.

References

-Erickson, Laurie. Research Into Tendinosis(Commonly Known As Tendinitis) And Other ChronicTendon Injuries. Tendinosis.org. Copyright, 2002.

-Leahy DC, P.Michael. Active Release Techniques — Soft Tissue Management System for the Upper Extremity. Active release techniques, LLC. Second edition. 2008

Sweat it All Out: Cutting Weight for Strength Sports

Several sports have weight classes where the athletes compete against other athletes of similar weights. There are two different types of sports that have weight classes; Sports that pit one athlete against another in a combative format such as boxing, mixed martial arts or wrestling, or sports that demonstrate strength or power, such as weightlifting or powerlifting. Regardless of the type of sport, weight classes exist so one athlete does not have an advantage because he is bigger than his opponent. Weight classes level the playing field; however athletes and coaches are always trying to gain an edge in competition. The first rule in a sport with weight classes is that the athlete needs to weigh-in. During a weigh-in, athletes are weighed in front of the officials who are running the competition and categorized into weight classes. Weigh-ins take place prior to the competition so that the athletes can be assigned to their proper weight class: This is where the athletes seek to find the advantage. They will try to weigh-in as light as possible in hopes of making a lighter weight class. Generally if a bigger athlete can make a lighter weight class, he would have an advantage over his opponents.

There are many ways to rapidly lose weight before a competition. Most of them involve calorie restriction and dehydration. Knowing that water makes up over fifty percent of an athlete’s body mass makes it the easiest target. They might attempt to dehydrate themselves by placing a restriction on their water intake, sweating or using diuretics. Water restriction is an obvious solution; if you are trying to lessen the amount of water in your body, do not consume more. To sweat off a few pounds, an athlete needs to sit in a sauna or they can exercise in a rubber suit to increase perspiration. However, many athletes will prefer a passive method of dehydration rather than exercising in order to save their energy (Schoffstall, J. E.,Branch, J. D., Leutholtz, B.C.& Spwain, D. P., 2001). Drugs such as diuretics can be effective in decreasing water weight, but are now banned in most sports.

Some sports have a relatively short time frame between weigh-ins and competition. For example, collegiate wrestling’s rule is that a weigh-in should be one hour or less before the competition (Bubb, R. G., 2007). Sports such as powerlifting have a longer period of time between weigh-ins and competition. This can be as much as 24-hours in some professional-level competitions and as little as two hours for many of the amateur meets (Schoffstall, J. E.,Branch, J. D., Leutholtz, B.C.& Spwain, D. P., 2001). If wrestlers decide to “cut weight” (rapidly lose weight) and become dehydrated to make it into the lighter weight class, they will not have much time to rehydrate themselves. They will need to compete in a dehydrated state. Powerlifters, on the other hand, have a longer time between weigh-ins and competition and will purposely try to rehydrate so their weight will come back to a normal or higher normal level.

One powerlifter is famous “cutting” as much as thirty five pounds in a 24 hour period and regaining all of his lost weight back in 24 hours. The athlete’s name is Matt Kroczaleski. Matt’s normal weight is between 250 and 255 pounds. In the day before weigh-ins, he will drop his body weight below 220 pounds to “make weight” for the 220-pound weight class. Matt lowers his weight past the cutoff point of two weight classes with this dramatic and rapid weight loss of 12% of his body weight. When he gains back the weight he lost, he steps on the platform thirty-plus pounds heavier than his opponents. Matt’s method for cutting weight in such a short amount of time is through passive dehydration, or by increasing his core temperature to increase fluid loss through sweating. He submerges his entire body, except for his face, in a scalding hot bath for 30 minutes. This is followed by converting the bathroom to a steam room where he will remain for another thirty minutes, finishing with a break of five minutes outside of the bathroom. He will repeat this procedure as long as it takes to make his desired weight class. Matt claims that he can lose a few pounds per hour in the beginning, but toward the end this rate falls to one pound per hour. Once he weighs-in, his weight fluctuation is still not complete. Now it is time for him to gain the weight back and he has only 24 hours to do so. In the first few hours after weighing-in, Matt drinks two to three gallons of a fifty-fifty mixture of Gatorade and water along with eating tuna and drinking protein shakes. In those first few hours, Matt typically gains back ten to fifteen pounds. Then after 12 hours, he will have gained back 20 pounds. In 24-hours, he will have gained back all, if not more, weight then he lost. In Matt’s experience, if he gains all the weight back, he will gain all of his strength back as well (EliteFTS.com., 2007).

One would be hard-pressed to find any studies that investigate a dehydration and rehydration cycle as severe as Matt Kroczaleski’s do to the risks involved. However, Schoffstall, J. E.,Branch, J. D., Leutholtz, B.C.& Spwain, D. P. (2001) investigated a less dramatic version of Matt’s hydration cycle on strength. In this study, subjects sat in a sauna and lost an average of 1.7% of their body weight. They tested the subject’s one repetition maximum (1RM) in the bench press after giving them two hours to rehydrate. They also tested them without any time to rehydrate. They found a 5.6% decrease in 1RM when the subjects did not have time to rehydrate. However, when the subjects did have time to rehydrate, their 1 RM did not suffer at all. This study supports Matt Kroczaleski’s claims of regaining his strength, but it does not investigate the same degree of severity of dehydration and rehydration.

The findings of Schoffstall, J. E.,Branch, J. D., Leutholtz, B.C.& Spwain, D. P. (2001)- a decrease in strength when their subjects were not allowed to rehydrate-does not bode well for wrestlers who do not have much time to rehydrate. However, wrestling is more of a complex sport then powerlifting. It requires dynamic, isometric anaerobic skills as well as aerobic endurance. In 2001, Schoffstall, J. E.,Branch, J. D., Leutholtz, B.C.& Spwain, D. P. found that passive dehydration did not affect isometric strength and endurance. This is good for wrestlers because much of the sport is isometric in nature. Wrestling requires a lot of dynamic aerobic endurance which decreases when dehydrated (Sawka, M., Burke, L., Eichner, E., Maughan, R., Montain, S., & Stachenfeld, N., 2007, Viitasalo, J. T., Kyrolainen, H., Bosco, C.& Alen, M.,1987).

According to a 2007 American College of Sports Medicine Position Stand, the overall effects of dehydration, exercise and fluid replacement can be harsh and even deadly. A two percent loss in body weight due to dehydration can decrease aerobic performance as well as mental and cognitive capacity. However, in their findings, dehydration levels of up to 5% loss in body mass had no effect on anaerobic capabilities or muscular strength. Dehydration increases the risks of skeletal muscle cramps, heat exhaustion, heat stroke, acute renal failure associated with rhabdomyolysis and death (Sawka, M., Burke, L., Eichner, E., Maughan, R., Montain, S., & Stachenfeld, N., 2007).

Following the death of three collegiate wrestlers in 1997, the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) created the Wrestling Weight Certification Program (WWCP) (Davis, S., Dwyer, G., Reed, K., Bopp, C., Stosic, J., & Shepanski, M., 2002). The WWCP’s established a Lowest Allowable Weight (LAW) for each wrestler. If the wrestler weighs in lower than the weight he is certified for, he is not allowed to compete. The methodology for finding an athlete’s LAW begins with a physical examination by the assessor, who is a member of the school’s athletic medical staff. The examination consists of establishing the athlete’s hydrated body weight (HBW). To obtain the HBW, the athlete must pass a specific gravity test of his urine. If the test was too high, the athlete would need to come back no earlier than 24 hours and retest. If the athlete passes, they can be weighed and their weight is considered the HBW. After the HBW is determined the next step is to measure the athlete’s fat-free weight (FFW). This would be done using a wrestling-specific skin fold equation. The equation LAW=FFW/0.95 is used to determine the LAW1; this means the LAW1 is equal to the athlete being at 5% body fat. After examination, the athlete is not allowed to lose more than 1.5% of their original body weight per week. Here, the LAW2 equation is used to determine whether the athlete is losing weight too fast is LAW2=BW – (1.5% x number of weeks till first competition x BW). Prior to the first competition, every wrestler is weighed once a week at the same time to monitor their weight. The athlete cannot weigh-in less than the greater of LAW1 and LAW2 (Bubb, R. G., 2007, Davis, S., Dwyer, G., Reed, K., Bopp, C., Stosic, J., & Shepanski, M., 2002).

It is important to note that of the sports that have weight classes and weigh-ins, the only sport that require the athletes to “make weight” on a regular or even weekly basis is wrestling. This could have long-term health effects especially with younger athletes. The weight certification that the NCAA now uses with wrestlers should help to prevent further deaths among college wrestlers trying to “make weight.” When it comes to sports such as powerlifting, athletes “cut” huge percentages of their body weight, up to 12% as demonstrated by Matt Kroczaleski but they try to replace the lost fluids as quickly as possible. If they survive the challenges of being so severely dehydrated for a short period of time, they risk hyponatremia when they rehydrate. It is vital that they consume more than just water to gain back their weight. The research states, strength can be maintained after a loss of 5% body weight, as long as the weight is gained back before competing. It will be unlikely to see research with greater loss in body weight, due to the increase health concerns.

References:

Bubb, R. G. (2007). Rule 3 Weight Certification, Classification and Weighing-In. 2008 NCAA Wrestling Rules and Interpretations (T. Smith, Ed.) (pp. 27-36). Indianapolis: The National Collegiate Athletic Association.

Davis, S., Dwyer, G., Reed, K., Bopp, C., Stosic, J., & Shepanski, M. (2002, May). Preliminary investigation: the impact of the NCAA Wrestling Weight Certification Program on weight cutting. Journal Of Strength And Conditioning Research / National Strength & Conditioning Association, 16(2), 305-307.

EliteFTS.com. (2007, October 16). Matt Kroczaleski Interview Part 2. Video Retrieved from http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Sc06N-Y2750.

Greiwe, J. S., Staffey, K. S., Melrose, D. R., Narve, M. D.& Knowlton, R. G. (1998). Effects of Dehydration on Isometric Muscular Strength and Endurance. Medicine and Science in Sport and Exercise, 30(2), 284-288.

Sawka, M., Burke, L., Eichner, E., Maughan, R., Montain, S., & Stachenfeld, N. (2007, February). American College of Sports Medicine position stand. Exercise and fluid replacement. Medicine And Science In Sports And Exercise, 39(2), 377-390.

Schoffstall, J. E.,Branch, J. D., Leutholtz, B.C.& Spwain, D. P. (2001). Effects of Dehydration and Rehydration on the One-Repetition Maximum Bench Press of Weight-Trained Males. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 15(1), 103-108.

Viitasalo, J. T., Kyrolainen, H., Bosco, C.& Alen, M. (1987). Effects of Rapid Weight Reduction on Force Production and Vertical Jumping Height. International Journal of Sports Medicine, 8(4), 281-285.

 

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.

Death of Squatting, I Think Not!

I attended Mike Boyle’s “Death of Squatting” presentation at the 2nd Annual Boston Hockey Summit and Basketball Symposium at Northeastern University Sunday, May 23, 2010. I come from a powerlifting background and consider myself a student of periodization. I have traveled the country to train with some of the best in powerlifting from Louie Simmons to Mark Bell, but perhaps the most influential person I have meet is Saul Shocket. He has trained some the greatest lifters in the sport as well as some good athletes. What I learned from him is to back off training loads: Just because they are strong enough to lift the weight, it doesn’t mean they should.

Coach Boyle said, unless I am mistaken, he is now getting predicted max’s on the Rear Foot Elevated Split Squat that are within five pounds of previous Front Squat max’s. My concern is once coaches start programming similar percentages as they did for squats, they may still have the same back problems or something entirely new emerges. Something to consider is that the problems some coaches have faced from the Back Squat or the Front Squat may have been from the amount of volume and intensity, rather than the exercise itself.

I have found that a lot of strength coaches, program with loads and intensities that are often near maximal. For example, 3 sets of 5 at 82%-85% that would be like hitting a predicted max every set. This will fry the athletes’ central nervous system over time and also leave the athlete most susceptible to injury. One aspect many college strength coaches can forget is that our athletes aren’t at school to lift, they are here to play their sport. I know if I participated in a practice with any sports team and tried to handle the volumes and intensities they go through on the field, my lifting would suffer. Why would I want an athlete to try to handle the volumes and intensities I do as a competitive lifter?

This year I decided to start the volume and intensity very low: 2 sets of 3 or 2 sets of 5 at 65%-70% (with the rowers that I worked with who were entering their season). Then each week only progress their working loads by 2%-3%. I saw a drastic decrease in back issues, which is the number one problem with rowers. I also saw near-flawless technique in cleans, squats and deadlifts from every athlete. This trend still held true even when they started to approach 85%+ for 2×3’s.

I believe Coach Boyle made some very good point about the need to train unilateral strength. I don’t think anyone would disagree that is a necessary part of training. As I stated earlier, what I fear is now it has have proven that athletes can use weight comparable to the weight they use in Front Squats, coaches may start seeing issues pop up again. Perhaps these issues haven’t been discovered yet because we are now discovering how much weight one can lift in the Rear Foot Elevated Spilt Squat and all the work you have done thus far has been at lower loads and intensities than you thought. I wouldn’t say squats are bad unless you are using them badly. I might be stubborn, and squats might be my sacred cow, but I feel I can tell as much or more about an athlete by watching them squat as I can watching them in a functional movement screen. I have yet to see a new athlete walk into the weight room who wasn’t quad-dominate. One of the best tools I have in my tool box to fix this is implementing a powerlifting style box squat with vertical shins. I have found this to be true because it not only overloads the posterior chain but teaches the athlete the movement pattern of sitting back to use the posterior chain.

I am not looking to change anyone’s mind, or start an online war with one of the greatest strength coaches in Mike Boyle, but perhaps challenge the new trend of not squatting.

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!