Overloading Your Training – Part 2: Overloading Weight

Part 1 of my overloading series discusses strategies for overloading volume in your training to increase the number of total reps lifted in your program. In this session, we’ll discuss overloading weight, and increase the amount of weight you move in a given lift. The goal is to train your musculature, supporting structure, and CNS to move weights above your current 1 rep max (1RM). This will prepare you to move heavier and heavier loads.

Negatives:

The first strategy, negatives, is the simplest. Load up the bar with more than you can lift and get to work. This approach focuses on the eccentric portion of the lift. With a spotter’s help if necessary, unrack the weight and bring it down slowly maintaining complete control of the weight throughout the range of motion (ROM). Once you’ve bottomed out the lift, your spotter helps you lift it back up. Tips on negatives:

  • Keep the weight at a heavy, near-max to maximum effort. Try 80-105% as a starting point.
  • Repetitions should be kept relatively low range – 3-5 reps.
  • Your spotter should keep his hands on the bar throughout full ROM for each rep. During the eccentric, your spotter should stay with the weight and help guide the bar down if necessary. Once you complete the eccentric your spotter will help you bring the bar back up to the starting position. Your spotter should be lifting a significant amount of the bar weight so the bar comes up quickly.

Note: Your strength will be depleted after performing the negative eccentric and you shouldn’t expect to lift as much as you can fresh. Make sure your spotter is capable of handling the weight you’re lifting.

  • The negative eccentric should move as slowly as you can maintain control of the weight. At near-max weight, start with half the speed of a normal rep and adjust from there.
  • To add effectiveness and train your sticking point, as you tire on later sets/reps try and come to a complete stop at the sticking point and hold the bar there.
  • If the weight is more than your spotter can easily handle adequately during the concentric lift, consider having side spotters assist as well.

Partial Reps:

There are a number of strategies to perform partial repetitions. Used properly, partial reps can be used effectively to overload with more weight than you would normally use. This will carry over to greater weight for the full ROM as well.

Board presses: Board presses are a strategy that allows you to overload the weight on your bench press. Have a (second) spotter hold a set of boards on your chest. Bring the bar down to the boards and press. Boards typically range from 1 board to 3 boards. Use proper bench press technique throughout the limited ROM.

A couple of strategies for using boards to increase your bench press 1RM include:

  • Start with a slight personal record (PR) and press to 3 boards for sets of 3-5 reps. In subsequent bench training sessions, remove 1 board per session and reduce the reps you complete per set. By the end of the mini-cycle you should press the new PR from your chest for singles.
  • Start with a significant PR and press to 3 boards. Rep range will be lower with the heavier weight. In subsequent weeks reduce the weight and remove a board. By the end of the mini-cycle you should again press a new PR from your chest for singles.

Pin Presses: Pin presses are similar to board presses in that they limit the ROM on your bench press and allow you to overload the weight used. They also allow you to perform the lift without assistance from spotters. They are limited, however, in the number pin settings you can use depending on the configuration of your squat cage.

Set up a flat bench in the squat cage. Set the safety pins so that when you lie on the bench the bar will not come all the way to your chest. Because of the limitation in settings of the safety pins, I generally use pin presses as a supplemental lift, not as a primary. Some strategies you can use with your pin presses:

  • Set the pins at the midway point in your bench. Lift for a slight rep PR with a low rep range.
  • Set the pins at the top end of your bench and practice lockouts at a significant PR weight. Pause at the top for a static hold (4-10 seconds).

Pin Squats: Similar to pin presses, pin squats allow you to limit the ROM for the squat, and overload your squat training. As with pin presses, pin squats shouldn’t be considered a primary squat exercise, you should not train to squat above parallel. When squatting, don’t anticipate the pins. Squat with normal squat technique until you hit the pins. Let the bar come to a complete stop on the pins and then drive straight back up.

Rack Pulls: Rack pulls are the ‘pin’ lifts for deadlifts. Typically you perform them in the squat cage, but you can also do them by placing blocks under the weights. Typical pin height can range from slightly below to slightly above the knee.

Although rack pulls shorten the ROM of the deadlift, when starting at or below the knee you may find that removing the initial leg drive from the pull can make them even more difficult than full ROM deadlifts.

It is important to maintain proper deadlift form when performing rack pulls. Grip the bar, rock back bringing your hips down and chest up before starting the pull.

Static Holds:

Static hold is a strategy to allow you to handle significantly more weight than your 1RM. You don’t perform any of the lifts ROM. You unrack it, lock it out, hold for 5-10 seconds, then rerack. The strategy is to train your body and CNS to handle greater workloads.

Squat walkouts: Walkouts train you to handle weights significantly above your squat 1RM. Load the bar with 105-110% of your 1RM. Unrack and walk out the weight using perfect squat setup technique. Lock the bar out and hold for 5-10 seconds, then rerack. I usually add walkouts toward the end of a heavy training cycle.

Wrap Up

Adding weight overloading strategies to your training program can train your body and CNS to handle heavier loads. Build them into your training programs wisely to spur strength gains.

  • Handling near-max to max weight loads can take a toll on the body and CNS. Learn when to back off the workload to limit overtraining.
  • Use limited ROM lifts sparingly as primary lifts. Don’t train your lifting patterns to limit your ROM when performing the full lifts.
  • The goal is to overload the weight you are lifting; if you haven’t used weight overloading strategies learn what your limits are. Start conservatively and build the weight up.
  • Learn and perfect proper technique for your primary lifts before implementing overloading strategies that modify the lift.

Overloading Your Training – Part 1: Overloading Volume

Overloading your training volume: the strategies discussed here are designed to push you past your limits in total volume for a particular lift. Simply put, the purpose is to help you get more total reps in a workout than you typically would for a given lift and weight. These strategies take the intensity level of your training up a notch.

Failure Sets:

You don’t have to train to failure on every set of every lift, or even in your primary lifts in every session to make progress. For most of my training I use Prilepin’s Table to plan my primary lift’s weight, sets and reps. On my supplemental and assistance lifts I generally target a training range that ends within 1-3 reps of failure. You can make consistent gains stopping just short of failure; however taking your sets for a particular lift to failure can increase the intensity of your workout.

The rest of the strategies in this article will help you take your sets past your failure point. This will force your body to recruit more muscle fibers than would normally be used for the given lift, and help you get stronger and bigger. That is the goal, right?

Forced Reps:

Having your spotter help you complete additional reps at the end of the set is the simplest way to increase your training volume. Just because your spotter helps you with some reps does not diminish the effectiveness of the set. Quite the contrary, the increased volume past failure can make for a highly effective training session.

The strategy is simple. Take the set to failure and continue lifting for additional reps using assistance from your spotter. For a given set target 2-3 forced reps at most per set. More than that and your spotter will end up lifting the weight for you, and will likely not be pleased.

Your spotter should give you just enough assistance to get past the sticking point enabling you to complete the rep unassisted. If you are at complete failure and cannot lock out the lift, your spotter should give you enough assistance to keep the bar moving at near your normal tempo for that lift, but should not take the weight away from you. You should be forced to press with all of your remaining strength as the spotter helps you lock out the lift. Maintain strict lifting technique and continue driving. Let your spotter give you just the boost you need to complete the reps.

Total Rep Sets:

In terms of complexity, the total rep sets scheme is also relatively simple. If you cannot complete the target reps in your lifting sets, simply add sets until you hit your target reps for the lift. For example, at 70% of my max on a given lift, using Prilepin’s Table I typically plan to complete 5×4 reps. If I miss some reps I continue lifting until I complete all 20 reps (example, 4, 4, 3, 3, 3, 2, 1).

I typically only use this approach for my primary lifts. Supplemental and assistance work can be greatly affected by the primary lift’s volume and intensity. If I have to adjust weight or reps on supplemental lifts in an individual session I usually don’t sweat it too much.

Cluster Sets:

Cluster sets can help you get more reps per set than you typically could in a particular set. Complete the target reps for the set, rack the weight, pause, and then continue to failure. Using the 70% example above, each set would go something like this:

  • Complete 4 reps
  • Rack the weight, pause 10 seconds
  • Unrack and continue lifting to failure

If the number of reps you get in the second part of the cluster is equal to or greater than the target reps in the primary component the weight is too light. In the 70% example your target range would be 4 reps in the primary part and 2-3 reps in the second portion of the lift.

Drop Sets:

I saved the best for last. And by best I mean horrific.

For best results use 2 spotters for drop sets, and leave collars off (if you can do so safely). The key to drop set pain is rapid weight changes between drops. To perform drop sets:

  • Unrack the weight and lift until failure
  • Rack the weight
  • Spotters quickly change the plates dropping to the next weight
  • Without resting unrack again and continue lifting to failure
  • Repeat the process until you hit the target number of subsets

A few tips to maximize the effectiveness of your drop sets:

  • Plan out your sets ahead and either load the bar with plates that can be easily stripped (for example if you’re squatting, you can easily drop a 45lb/20kg plate with each drop), or have the weights handy for your spotters if they must swap plates on and off
  • A good range is 3-5 subsets in a given drop set
  • Drop sets are most effective when your first weight is heavy enough to complete a reasonable number of reps – not less than 5 and not more than 8


Drop sets are exceptionally intense. Don’t try to use this strategy on all sets in a given lift. One or two drop sets is likely to do enough damage for the day.

Wrap Up:

Volume overloading will take you to failure and beyond. For safety and to maximize their effectiveness it is very important that you have a trusted spotter assisting you.

These strategies are a great way to crank up your training intensity. Use them in moderation, limit them to one lift in a session and don’t use more than one strategy in that session. Very high intensity strategies like drop sets shouldn’t be used for all sets in a session.

Try plugging volume overloading into your training program and crank up your training intensity.




Proper Lift Setup – Tight is Right

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.



Barbell Rows: ‘Cheat’ Technique for Massive Strength and Size Gains

If you train with me you quickly learn that I am religious about lifting with proper technique. As a matter of fact, Brute Force Strength Rule #1 is: Perfect your technique on every lift; regardless how long you have lifting, continuously look for ways to improve your form. When you lift with proper form, you will generally lift more weight and reduce your chance of injury.

The barbell row, however, is an example of an exercise that you can effectively use some cheating to increase your strength and size. When done correctly you can lift more weight and complete more reps than you can with strict form without significantly increasing the risk of the exercise.

When should you use the cheat technique?

  • At the end of your sets to complete additional reps that you could not otherwise complete
  • To finish off your workout with a set at a weight that you cannot complete with strict form
    • Should be a slight, incrementally higher weight increase used to prepare you for heavier lifts

When should you avoid using ‘cheat’ techniques?

  • If you’re new to the barbell row, first learn and perfect proper technique without using any cheating
  • If you have issues with your lower back or similar physical limitations, I’d recommend against cheating on barbell rows

Barbell Row ‘Cheat’ Technique:

  • Set up for the lift just as you do for your proper barbell row
  • Perform as many reps without cheating as you can – keep your upper body stable, minimize use of momentum
  • When you need to employ the cheat technique, just as you start to bring the bar up, bring your upper body upwards slightly to start the bar moving (rotation is at your hips)
  • Once the bar is moving, use the bar’s momentum to help complete the lift as you simultaneously lower your upper body back down to the starting position

 

Using cheat for additional reps:

 

Using cheat for additional weight:

 

If the end of your set starts to resemble a combination of a shrug and an upright row (a ‘shrow’), it’s time to set the bar down and step away.

Safety:

  • Do not use a weight you are unable to safely support in the rowing position
  • Make sure you are able to maintain a flat back and straight spine throughout your set

    Shrow Factor 10...

 



How to use Wrist Straps to Lift Heavy Weights!

Be a man! Strengthen your grip, you don’t need to use wrist straps!

Right? Not necessarily.

To maximize the effectiveness of the exercise sometimes you just have to set your ego aside and use assistance. In this case that assistance is the wrist strap.  For example:

  1. The target muscle group is much larger and stronger than your forearms. Your upper back (lats, traps, rhomboids)  is one of the largest muscle groups in your upper body. Without assistance, your grip will give out long before you are able to properly tax your back in either volume or weight.
  2. You are unable to use an alternating grip to prevent the bar from rolling. Unlike the deadlift, where you can alternate your grip (one pronated hand, one supinated hand), when performing exercises with both hands either pronated (overhand) or supinated (underhand), or when performing heavy dumbbell lifts such as the dumbbell row, without grip assistance the barbell or dumbbell will simply roll away from you when the weight starts to get heavy.

As simple as the wrist strap appears, they can be tricky to get the hang of and use properly. Let me show you how:

For a quick recap:

  • The mouth of the strap’s loop faces your hand
  • When laying across your palm, the strap points in the same direction as your thumb
  • Plant your hand on the bar and start wrapping the strap under and around the bar from the base of your pinkie finger towards your thumb
  • Hold the strap to the bar so it will roll with the bar and roll it towards you to tighten your straps

 



Back Workout of the Week (BWOW): Week 2 Building Your Back Strength

Last week I introduced you briefly to why training your back is so important (training balance, support your squat, deadlift and bench press, creating the classical ‘V-shaped’ upper body). In my own experience, a heavy emphasis on rowing exercises has led to a very strong bench press (two Washington State records, one USA Powerlifting national meet record, and a gold medal at the IPF masters world championships).
Week 2 training is very similar to week 1. We are still focused on building your strength foundation. Although the overall plan is very similar, we change the exercise selection to prevent your body from adjusting to the stimulus.

BWOW – Week 2:

Goal:Building Your Strength Base

T-bar Rows:

  • Warm up to your working sets
  • 5 sets/4 repetitions per set
  • Select a weight where you are using nearly maximum effort to complete your reps, additional reps would require cheating
  • Minimize cheating – avoid using upper body momentum to complete your reps; one of the reasons to switch from barbell rows to t-bar rows this week to reduce the tendency to cheat on the lift
  • Use wrist straps if necessary to hold the bar
  • Rest between sets should be sufficient to fully recover (3-5 minutes); emphasis is on building strength, not conditioning

Dumbbell Rows – Unsupported:

  • 3 sets/6 reps per set
  • Select a weight where you are using maximum effort to complete the set, you should be unable to complete more than the specified reps
  • While we switched to the t-bar to reduce cheating on your primary exercise, the dumbbell row is performed unsupported to allow slightly more cheating; you should be able to pull more weight than last week when using the bench for support – force your back and biceps to move a little more weight than you normally would during your dumbbell rows
  • Use wrist straps if necessary to hold the dumbbells
  • Rest between sets should be sufficient to fully recover

Hammer Strength Rows:

  • 3 sets/12 reps per set
  • Select a weight where you are using maximum effort to complete the set
  • Pull your elbows straight back and really squeeze your lats tightly to finish each rep; you really want your muscles burning when you finish each set
  • Rest between sets should be sufficient to fully recover

Pull-ups:

  • 3 sets to failure; use spotter assistance or an assisted pull-up machine if you cannot complete 6 reps
  • Pull-ups should be extremely challenging after hammering your back and biceps
  • If you can still complete more than 8 reps, complete your pull-ups with extra weight (and add more weight to your t-bar and dumbbell rows next time you do this workout)

Hammer Curls:
I know we did hammer curls last week, but to quote Louie Simmons (West Side Barbell) hammer curls are “something that should always be done” (Dynamic  Bench Press)

  • 3 sets/10 reps per set
  • As with pull-ups, you will have to drop the weight from your normal bicep workout, your biceps should be spent by now
  • Hammer curls are meant to work your biceps – don’t use your whole body to complete the reps; if you can’t do the work with your biceps drop the weight

Back Workout of the Week BWOW2

If you want to start at the beginning, you can check out Back Workout of the Week #1 – BWOW1



Brute Force Squat Review – Ken Gack

Having had a chance to assess a couple of lifts, and overall pretty happy with my skills at identifying problems I asked me to look at one of my own lifts:

As you can tell by the five big guys catching me at the end of the video, this lift ranks a solid ‘Crappy’ on the ‘Crappy to Great’ scale. I would actually rate it below crappy if there were a lower rating, because in addition to the lift being completed by the spotters, it was a bit high. So at what point did this lift become a group effort?

Setting Up: The setup was actually very solid and well executed.

  • Feet placed directly under the bar and under my hips
  • Hips under the bar and leg drive used to lift the bar out of the rack
  • Three quick, stable steps back into the lifting position

Gack's Fancy Foot Diagram

Referring back to what has been dubbed ‘Gack’s Fancy Foot Diagram’, it looks like my setup was perfect, doesn’t it? What you don’t see is my feet. If you watch me setup today, after the walkout you will see me pause to turn my toes outward – I did not do that in this squat.

Eccentric/Descent: The squat actually continues to look good nearly through the entire eccentric portion of the lift:

  • Very good speed on the descent – weight is controlled, but descent is fast enough to hit the hole and rebound back out
  • Knees stay out during the descent
  • Catastrophe: As I transition from eccentric to concentric (ie stop going down, try to go up), my knees buckle inward; this forces my hips backwards which results in five very big guys assisting with the concentric portion of the lift – and three red lights from the referees

Concentric/Ascent: Assistance of the spotters in the concentric portion of the lift in competition is never a good thing.

Lessons Learned: After returning from the competition my powerlifting coach, Kevin Stewart, went to work fixing my balance problems. The fix: turn your toes out. As I’ve mentioned in other reviews, by turning your toes out, you’re better able to keep your knees out during the lift, which lets you sink into the hole more easily, and complete your squat with less people picking you up out of said hole.

The fix has worked. Since that competition in 2009, I have not lost a single squat due to issues with my balance coming out of the hole.



Back Workout of the Week (BWOW): Week 1 – Building the Strength Base

Why is strengthening my back important? To the less educated, a big upper body means large pecs and (unfortunately) large biceps. In fact, your back consists of a larger group of muscles than your chest, and quite frankly it is a massive back that lets you blot out the sun as you step through a doorway.

But that’s not why we emphasize the back at Brute Force. If you read What Is Brute Force, you recall that rule #2 is to follow a balanced training program. Your back (pulling exercises) needs to balance out your pecs (pushing exercises). More importantly a strong back results in bigger lifts.

Bench Press: Your lats are the foundation you press from. Build strong lats and you’ll feel like you’re pressing off a granite table.

Squat: A strong back will help prevent you from crumpling when you hit the hole with a massive load on your back. Although a leg exercise, where does the bar rest during the squat? On your back!

Deadlift: Your back anchors the weight and is the transition point between the weight hanging from your arms and your power base driving down through the floor.

Brute Force approach to back training:

As with other Brute Force workouts, working your back is meant to be simple and straightforward.  Focus is on the horizontal/transverse plane, and emphasis is on your basic compound lifts (again, rule #2) – lots of rows. This workout is intended to maximize the carryover to your bench press.

BWOW – Week 1:

Goal: Building a Strength Base – move as much weight as you can with good form

Barbell Rows/Bent-over Rows:

  • Warm up to your working sets
  • 5 sets/4 repetitions per set
  • Select a weight where you are using nearly maximum effort to complete your reps, additional reps would require cheating
  • Minimize cheating – avoid using upper body momentum to complete your reps
  • Use wrist straps if necessary to hold the bar
  • Rest between sets should be sufficient to fully recover (3-5 minutes); emphasis is on building strength, not conditioning

Dumbbell Rows – Supported:

  • 3 sets/6 reps per set
  • Select a weight where you are using maximum effort to complete the set, you should be unable to complete more than the specified reps
  • Use wrist straps if necessary to hold the dumbbells
  • Rest between sets should be sufficient to fully recover

Cable Rows:

  • 3 sets/6 reps per set
  • Select a weight where you are using maximum effort to complete the set
  • Minimize cheating – rocking back using momentum to complete the reps
  • Squeeze the weight tightly with your back at the top for a moment before lowering it between reps
  • Rest between sets should be sufficient to fully recover

Pull-ups:

  • 3 sets to failure; use spotter assistance or an assisted pull-up machine if you cannot complete 6 reps
  • Pull-ups should be extremely challenging after smoking your back and biceps with 11 sets of rows at a high intensity
  • If you can still complete more than 8 reps, either you are a hero, or you didn’t push yourself hard enough on your rows; in either case do your pull-ups with extra weight

Hammer Curls:

  • 3 sets/10 reps per set
  • As with pull-ups, you will have to drop the weight from your normal bicep workout, your biceps should be spent by now
  • Hammer curls are meant to work your biceps – don’t use your whole body to complete the reps; if you can’t do the work with your biceps drop the weight
Week 1 is just a start. You may not be darkening the doorways yet, but I think you’ll find progress is remarkably quick. Next week we’ll continue building the strength foundation.
BWOW Workout Plan:  Back Workout of the Week BWOW1



Brute Force Strength Training Review – The Squat

Last week I took a look at a friend’s deadlifts (Jamie Orr, Red Deer, Canada). This week he sent me a video of his latest squat session:

JO:  Hey Ken,  appreciated the pointers last time on the DL. When/if you have time could you look at my squat? This one is 405 REALLY happy with first rep. Will send another at 365lbs, I feel the form is better. I am on a bit of a high today, I was pretty happy with these last sets. As I said, due to a year of crossfit “air squats” I was pretty happy getting 405. Seriously, I have done 3 weeks of leg press to get used to heavy leg workouts and yesterday was my first real squat day in over a year.

 I know I step back too far, and I think my head dips.

 Thanks, Jamie

 

Your squats actually look better than your deadlifts. They are very sound. On the ‘Crappy to Great Scale’, they are a solid ‘Ok’. I would give you a ‘Good’, but they are slightly high, and I don’t care if everything else is perfect, I’m not giving a Good to a high squat. We’ll get to that though.

Before you step under the bar…

Let’s start with your shoes. They look like standard runners, right? When you hit about 315lbs the heels start compressing, which can really screw with your stability. If you’re not competing, you don’t need an expensive pair of squat shoes (although I absolutely love mine), but you do need to replace the runners. Some options:

  • Squat without shoes – better than using runners, but you won’t have any ankle or foot support.
  • Wrestling shoes or Converse ‘Chucks’ – descent stability, and flat soles that won’t compress. Chucks are probably the better choice, as wrestling shoes have a very narrow sole that will give you less stability. They’re also a bit less expensive.
  • Hiking boots – I used to really like squatting in boots. Your heels are a bit higher, great ankle support, and just plain solid. When you plant your foot, it is planted. They’re not, however, legal in competition.

 Setting up…

You rush your setup. As soon as the bar comes out of the rack, you’re running back to squat. A good setup positions you for a great squat.

Pointers on setting up:

  • You do have proper bar placement for heavy squats. It’s resting on your delts, not your traps, which is a good position for power.
  • I would prefer the rack height slightly lower. That can be difficult, depending on the type of rack you have because the next position down is likely too low. I like the rack set up where the bar comes in about halfway between the nipples and top of the pecs when you step up to the bar. You may see if the gym has any extra floor mats (solid flooring mats, not something that will compress under your weight), to bring you up another inch or so.
  • Before lifting out of the rack, drive your hips forward so they are directly underneath the bar. This allows you to use all leg drive to unrack the bar, reducing lower back work, and makes the bar feel considerably lighter coming out of the rack.
  • Slow your setup down, control it coming out of the rack, just as you do your reps:
    • Take a deep breath into your chest, drive your hips forward and raise the bar straight up. Lock out before stepping back.
    • Take one short step straight back, next foot moves back even with the first and out to the side, toes pointed out. First foot moves straight out, and toes point out (two step walkout is slightly different).
    • Lock back out, and take small breaths until you’re ready to begin the first rep.
  • I would recommend a slightly narrower stance – 1-2″. Although ‘’wide stance’ is commonly considered a powerlifting stance, I don’t necessarily recommend a wide stance in most cases. I think you’ll get more power out of your glutes and hams by bringing your stance in a bit. Wide stance make sense in certain situations:
    • If you’re squatting in federations that allow heavy lifting duty gear and use of monolift, the shorter range of motion can lead to bigger numbers.
    • If you have proportionately long thighs, a narrower stance will force your hips to shift farther backwards, and cause you to lean. A wider stance can alleviate this.
  • You do point your toes out – which is good. This allows your knees to track outward, making it much easier to drop below parallel.
  • You’re not completely locked out before starting your first rep. You’re leaning slightly forward, and your knees aren’t locked out.

 Squatting…

Your squats doo look pretty strong, only a couple of minor things I saw:

You lean forward slightly. It’s not too bad, but this will make hitting depth harder. A couple things that may help you reduce your lean:

  • Keep your head up. I didn’t notice an exaggerated head dip, but your body will follow your eyes – if you are looking down you will have a greater tendency to lean. Squatting in front of a mirror can exacerbate the problem. The motion in the mirror draws your attention, making it more difficult to keep your head up.
  • Breathing – since your spotter makes the comment ‘take that breath and hold it’ I assume your breathing isn’t perfect. Breathe in deeply before starting your descent, and hold it until you’re on your way back up. I like to begin exhaling in a controlled fashion once I’ve passed the ‘sticking point’. Breath control can be very important for stability. Keeping your chest full of air and your abs tight can give you upper body stability and reduce your tendency to lean.
  • When I see high squats and leaning, I watch the knees. If you allow them to cave inward, your hips shift backwards. This forces you to lean in compensation and miss depth. Your knees look like they stay out through the reps – which is good.

Squat is slightly high

  • Depth isn’t too bad, but about 1-2″ above parallel. You have plenty of strength at a good weight – don’t be afraid to sink they weight. Fixing the leaning mentioned above will make hitting depth much easier.

All in all, a very OK squats at a pretty heavy weight. I looked at the 365lb squats as well. Although the lighter squats were executed more explosively, your 405lb squats were just as solid as your 365lb squats. I don’t really have additional comments on the other video.

Recommendations for next week:

  • Fix all the setup issues I mentioned. You should be able to do that perfectly on every set – you have the time to think about everything you do during setup.
  • Set up so you’re not looking at the mirror while you squat.
  • Bring your feet in 2″. Watch your feet as you walk out, and place them just slightly wider than shoulder width.
  • Control your breathing throughout each rep of each set.
  • Pick a spot on the ceiling, and keep your head up, eyes on that spot throughout each rep of every set.

For more information, here is a complete walk through of (power) squatting technique.

If you have a lift you’d like reviewed, leave a comment with a link to a video of your lift.



Brute Force Strength Training Review – The Deadlift

A friend of mine mentioned he’d taken a video of his deadlift, and was wondering how tight his form was. Although on a scale from CRAPPY to GREAT, the lift was between NOT BAD and OK, I passed on a few pointers that I thought might bump him up to GOOD. Since even OK is better than 90% of the deadlifters you see in the gym, I asked if I could share these insights with all of you.

JO: Nah, go ahead. Since it’s not TOTALLY bad [I did mention it was almost OK didn’t I?], I don’t mind, send me a link to blog.

JO Deadlift Video

 

ME: Ok, it actually doesn’t look bad [NOT BAD], your starting position is really good, your back is flat, and your hips are down right where they should be to start. I do have a few comments:

On the setup for your first rep, you camp out at the bottom before lifting. This is bad for a couple reasons. First of all the deadlift can be downright intimidating. If you take enough time to think about it, it will talk you out of the lift, particularly as the bar gets heavier. Don’t mess around with your deadlift. Get setup and pull (grip and rip). Secondly, you don’t have an eccentric component to the (first rep) of a deadlift. Use your setup as an eccentric, tightening your glutes and hams as you drop into position. To keep from loosening up once your hips drop in, start the pull as soon as you hit the bottom.

It’s somewhat hard to tell from the angle of the video, but it looks like your feet are too wide for a conventional deadlift, yet too narrow for sumo. If you’re pulling conventional, your feet should be inside hip width, and your hands at shoulder width, so your hands will never drag across your thighs. If you’re lifting sumo, go as wide as you can with your feet. I usually have my shins right at the rings on the bar (assuming it is a standard power bar). Your hands are also at shoulder width, inside your legs, they only should drag across your legs at the hip. Notice that regardless of the style, your arms should hang straight down to the bar and minimize contact with your legs. In the video it looks like your hands slide up your legs all the way from the floor to lock out – the worst possible scenario.

JO: I had a couple powerlifters taking the video and they were saying I need to get back on my heels a bit and something about using my hams more as I get past my knees.

ME: I’ve never heard it put quite like that (using my hams more as I get past my knees), but I can sort of see what they are talking about. Once the bar crosses your knees, it appears like you’re using all lower back to finish off the lift. You are starting out the lift OK to GOOD (hips don’t come up ahead of the bar), so after the bar passes the knees, try to think ‘hip thrust’. Drive the hips forward instead of pulling back with the lower back. You’ll get a lot more drive out of your hamstrings, and even more out of your glutes to finish it off.

Good mornings might be a great supplemental exercise to help you with this. When I do good mornings, it’s not just bending down at the waist and pulling back up with my lower back. I start by moving my hips straight back, and the bar descends as I do. On the way back up, I start the lift by pulling with my hamstrings and finish it by driving my hips forward powerfully – it’s a great supplemental exercise for developing a bigger pull.

 

JO: My hands are wide and perhaps my stance is too. But I don’t THINK my hands touch my legs at all, due to the wide grip.

ME: From the video it looked like your hands were right at your shins, albeit maybe right outside. I don’t know if you saw it, but here’s a blog post that touches on hand position during the deadlift:  http://bruteforcestrength.com/2011/12/from-the-refs-chair-the-deadlift/

As far as ‘back on the heels’, what I focus more on is ‘rocking back’ as I set up until my shoulders are at or behind the bar. In this lift you are in that position, but the bar is a bit too far forward before you start, and your knees end up in front of the bar once you are set up. Try bringing the bar back to where it’s over the center of your feet (probably an inch from your shins), then sit in/rock back until your shoulders are behind the bar – then you have no choice but to be over your heels.

I have one final comment. Notice how you squat down to the bar to set up and between each rep. This is the most common way of setting up for a deadlift, but I prefer a different approach. Instead of squatting to the bar, I bend at the waist to grab the bar. Once I have the bar, I tighten my upper back and pull the slack out between my body and the bar. I’m then completely tight and rock back, bringing my hips down and chest up, keeping tension on the bar. As my hips hit depth I PULL! This approach has a couple of advantages:

  • When squatting down to the bar, most lifters I watch loosen their upper back and arms. When rocking backward into the setup you keep tension on the bar and don’t loosen up your upper back
  • If you deadlift as shown in the video, I will guarantee that the second and subsequent reps are much easier than the first. This goes back to the fact that your first rep has no eccentric component. As a competitive powerlifter, I only have one rep in competition, so I try to treat every rep as the first one, creating an eccentric in the setup motion.

Hope this helps!

JO: Glad to know you didn’t laugh (or weep).

And I hope this review can help all of you move farther up the CRAPPYGREAT scale. If you have a lift you’d like me to review as well, feel free to contact me at ken.gack@bruteforcestrength.com.

For more information on deadlift technique:

Deadlift Technique