Proper Lift Setup – Tight is RightPosted: December 29, 2013
The problem: Many strength trainers spend hours, maybe weeks, researching the perfect workout or trying out the latest lifting fad. More experienced lifters focus their effort honing in the technique for their squat, deadlift and bench press. Far too many, however, miss one of the most fundamental aspects to lifting big weights – perfecting the setup.
The solution: Neglecting your setup is a huge mistake. A proper setup leads to stronger lifts. The setup is the one point in the lift you have the time (and your wits) to enable you to do everything perfectly every single time. To set up correctly your entire body needs to be tight before the bar even comes out of the rack or off the floor.
How does a tight setup aid your lift?
- Efficiency: An improper setup leaves you expending more energy than necessary before even starting to lift.
- Stability: A tight set up allows you to control the weight easily, giving you greater stability with which to start your lift.
- The Weight Feels Light: Setting up tightly gives you a mechanical advantage. The weight feels much lighter coming out of the rack, or off the floor. Although it doesn’t matter how heavy it feels, the lighter the weight feels, the more confidently you will attack your lifts.
Squat Setup: The idea for this article came up while watching one of my lifters setting up to squat. Before unracking the weight she dropped down slightly, and then slammed up into the bar. Extra movements like this do not help with the lift and by doing so she loosened up before lifting the bar.
Keeping your body tight allows you to transfer all of your power from your legs doing the work directly to the bar on your shoulders and eliminates energy leaks. Done right, the bar feels lighter and moves more easily, wastes less energy, and mentally prepares you for your lift.
- Hand Position: Bringing your hands in closer to your shoulders on the bar increases the tightness of your upper back. Bring them in as closely as your flexibility allows, while still enabling you to drive your elbows forward under the bar as you lift the weight.
- Bar Position: Bring the bar down from on top of your traps (high bar position) to the shelf between the base of your traps and your delts.
- Tight Back: Once you have your grip on the bar, and have positioned the bar on your back, squeeze your shoulder blades together to contract your lats and tighten your upper back.
- Big Air: Take a large breath of air into your lungs, and tighten your core. This will create intra-abdominal pressure, providing stability to your spine.
What is Big Air?
When I get under the bar very very tightly it feels like my body is a loaded spring. Let it go and it drives the bar up easily out of the rack, even with a loaded down bar. For more tips on your squat setup, read ‘A Perfect Setup Leads to a Bigger Squat’.
Setting up your squat
Bench Press Setup: You’ve seen a lot of guys do it, hell I used to this before I knew what I was doing: before unracking the weight, he pulls his body up off the bench and as his shoulders come back down onto the bench he unracks the weight. This is probably the worst thing you can do to prepare for your bench press. Before unracking the weight you want to have your body in the perfect position and completely tight. There is no way to properly set up with a moving target!
- Shoulder Position: Place your shoulders on the bench and squeeze your shoulder blades together tightly. Think about trying to squeeze a quarter between your shoulder blades and holding it there throughout your full set.
- Leg Drive: Place your feet under your knees with your toes pointed slightly outward. Push through the balls of your feet driving your hips towards your shoulders. This will push your lower back into a slight arch, and it will tighten your entire body from your toes through your traps. Maintain your leg drive throughout all reps in your set.
Note: If you have lower back issues, consult your doctor before benching with an ‘arch’.
- Lock Your Elbows: Squeeze the bar tightly, and try to lock your elbows before unracking the bar. You want to be able to bring the bar straight out over your chest, instead of lifting the bar up then bringing it out. This works best when you have a bench with adjustable height. With the perfect rack height you can nearly lock your elbows before coming out of the rack. Your spotter should have to just bump the bar up slightly, then help you guide the weight straight out, at which point you’re already locked out and ready to begin your first repetition.
Deadlift Setup: Deadlift setups are the trickiest. I watch deadlifters squat down to the bar loosening their entire upper body, and then jerk up as hard as they can to pull their new PR. Let’s look at this approach – loose upper back, heavy weight, jerking the bar with all their strength. Let’s say you’re going to tow your friend’s car out of the ditch with your Chevy. Do you connect the chains between the vehicles leaving 30’ of slack, then floor it getting your truck up to speed before the chain tightens and jerks the bumper off your friend’s car? My first thought is usually ‘well they won’t be wasting space in my gym too long’.
A proper deadlift starts with a tight upper body and a smooth, strong, steady pull:
- Big Air: Take a deep breath into your lungs and tighten your core. This will create intra-abdominal pressure which stabilizes your spine. This is best done before you drop your hips down into the starting position. Once you drop your hips you will be unable to pack your lungs full of air.
- Tight Back: Squeeze your shoulder blades together tightening your back. As opposed to your bench press technique, where you try and pinch a quarter between them, try and tuck your shoulder blades down into your back pockets. This will reduce the shortening effect on your arms while still allowing you to tighten your upper back (shorter arms equals a longer range of motion).
- Pull the Slack out of the Bar: Pull upward on the bar before starting your deadlift eliminating any slack between you and the bar. You should have a smooth, strong pull when you start your deadlift, and not jerk the bar upwards.
- Don’t Squat to the Bar: Rock back bringing your hips down and your head and chest up. Keep your back tight and upward tension on the bar as you rock back, dropping your hips to the starting position. Don’t squat down to the bar letting your knees drift forward over the bar and loosening your back and arms.
A tight setup on the deadlift allows you to transfer all of your pulling power directly from your legs to the bar. It allows you to turn your upper body into a solid lever, minimizing energy leaks as you begin your pull.
I probably frustrate many of my lifters. When squatting I’ll make them rerack and start over several times before they even take their first repetition, but the setup is that important. A proper setup can easily be the difference between a missed lift and a new personal record.