Best Case Scenario – Barbells

You don’t train for the best case scenario…

If you know me, you may have heard me say that before. Failing to prepare for the worst case scenario leads to the comment you hear so many times after bombing out in competition: ‘But I just lifted that weight in training!’. Even assuming you’re training to your federations lift requirements, try to create conditions that match what you’ll encounter on the platform as closely as possible.

The bar, for example. The stiffness, the thickness, the brutal knurling on a good competition bar can be intimidating right off the bat (we’re talking about the bar! the bar you sickos!). If you train with a bar that’s smaller diameter, it may have more whip and be easier to grip than a comp bar. It may have knurling or rings in different positions than a comp bar, throwing your setup off.

If your gym has bars that meet comp specs, it’s of course beneficial to do the bulk of your big three training with them.  If not, at least educate yourself on what those specs are so you can prepare correctly for comp.

Your Back is a Lever

When you perform a lower body lift (squats, deadlifts, etc.) your legs perform the work against a weight that is supported in some way by your shoulders – either by a bar resting on them or hanging from your arms. Since your back lies between the load and the force, the more efficiently it transfers the power from your legs to the load supported through your shoulders, the more effective and stronger your lift will be.

A comparison I like to make is a brick and a sponge.

  • If your back is rigid, solid like a brick, the power from your legs is transferred directly to the load, driving the load in the desired direction (up) with as much acceleration as your legs can generate.
  • If your back is soft and malleable like a sponge, power will be inefficiently transferred from your legs to the load. Before the bar moves, the slack in your back needs to be taken up as sponge compresses and your back flexes. Only then will the bar begin to move. In addition to inefficiently transferring power, a loose back also increases your injury risk and gives you less control over the load.

To tighten your back up, think of it in two segments

  • Upper/thoracic region: The upper back can be tightened by creating a strong upper back contraction to pull your shoulder blades downward, ‘tucking them into your back pockets’.
  • Lower/lumbar region: Strong bracing to create intra-abdominal pressure braces the lower back creating good stability. You do this by taking in a deep breath of air, allowing it to expand into your abdomen, then tightening your core and pushing down (hard) with your diaphragm like you’re trying to push out a turd.

Building a strong back, and learning to leverage it, can have a direct, significant impact on your lower body lifts.

Knee Pain and Squat Warm-ups

If you’ve lifted for any length of time, you’ve likely dealt with bouts of knee pain, it’s part of the game. Having spent a few decades under a heavy bar, I’ve learned the hard way that if you are not addressing mobility and performing regular maintenance activities (massages/myofascial release, chiro treatments, etc.) you are going to become closely acquainted with pain.

A relatively common cause of knee pain is excessively tight quads. As the quad becomes tight it creates an imbalance in muscle tension on the patella which results in knee pain. I’ve found that simply adding Bulgarian Split Squats to your warm-ups/dynamic stretching for a squat session can have a tremendously positive effect on knee pain.

Disclaimer: This discussion assumes you don’t have physical damage to your knees; if you do have a physical problem/weakness with your knee structure, get medical clearance before performing intensive kneel/unilateral lifts like split squats.

When used as a warmup, you don’t need to turn split squats into a mini-workout. A few guidelines I use:

  • 3-4 sets of 5 reps
  • Bodyweight only, no added weight
  • Take a large step forward to set up, so you can get a good stretch in the quads and hips
  • Use a bench high enough to stretch the rear leg until your knee points straight down
  • Pause and really push the rear leg down to fully stretch your quad and hips
  • Focus on keeping your core really tight to maintain balance

After split squats I go right into squat warm-ups with the bar.

Dumb Questions

I came across a recent post by @scienceforsport that shared an interesting quote: “A coach should never be afraid to ask questions of anyone he could learn from” (Bobby Knight).

Despite popular opinion, there is such a thing as a dumb question. I should know. I was once told “That is a ridiculously stupid question. It is so ignorant, in fact, that I am now dumber for having heard you ask it, and I am not going to even acknowledge its utterance.

Guess what? I have never forgotten the answer to that question.

As a coach, a high level athlete, or any subject matter expert for that matter, there may be hesitation to ask a question about a topic in which you are expected to be an authority. Will asking questions reveal that you don’t, in fact, know it all? Will it chip away at your expert status?

Well, which is better…a perception of knowledge, or actual knowledge?

Sometimes with lifting you find you have to set your ego aside, admit you have a weakness and do the grunt work to fix it. The same thing goes as a coach, or ‘expert’. Set your ego aside, admit to yourself  you don’t know everything, and ask the dumb questions when you have to (unless it’s 5PM and your dumb question is all that stands between a room full of people and the bar. Pick your battles!). You’ll be less dumber for having asked.

Lift Setup – Be Methodical

Have you ever watched a lift video that wasn’t clipped and thought ‘get to the fucking lift already’. Take this video, for example. From the time I get my hands on the bar to the time I’ve walked out and am ready to squat 45 seconds have expired. In comp this much pissing around before lifting can result in timing out! You’ve got 1 minute from the bar loaded to get on the platform, walk it out, and get the squat command. I’ve literally gotten to the platform before with 10 seconds left on the one minute clock. It happens. You need to be able to get it done.

All that wasted time getting ready to lift does more than simply delay you. It distracts you from the lift, gives your mind time to talk you out of the lift, and drains energy if the bar is on your back.

On your next squat day, audit your lift – find your energy wasters and eliminate them:

– How long does it take to get to the bar, fixing your belt, wrapping your wrists, thinking about the lift. Stop stalling, when it’s time for your set, get up, wrap up, get under the bar.

– When you get to the bar, how much time do you spend shifting your hand and foot position? You’ve done it a thousand times. You know where your hands and feet go, practice put them there right the first time every time.

– When you get under the bar, how long do you take shifting the bar, shuffling before unracking?

– When you walk the bar out, how many steps do you take? How much do you shuffle before locking out and getting to work? Work on hitting your stance with no more than three steps and little or no shuffling.

Your setup should be by the numbers, mechanical, and consistent every time. Don’t give your demons time to whisper how fucking heavy the bar is, and suck up your precious energy!

Lifting Advice

Squat Technique – Box Squats

I have two go to’s I like to use when a lifter is struggling with squat technique.

If the lifter is brand new, does not have lifting experience or a strength foundation to draw on, and struggles with squats I’ve found goblet squats a very good tool to introduce them to proper squat technique.

For lifters who do have experience and have developed some level of strength, and the subject of this article, I find box squats quite useful. This includes relatively experienced lifters who may struggle because of body mechanics (long legs and short torso for example).

I’ve found that if you get the stance right for a lifter, and keep the bar path straight up and down over the center of the feet, the rest generally falls into place. Box squats are a great way to find those positions for people with differing body structures.

You’ll find a myriad of technique styles for the box squat – what I share here is primarily focused on hammering the squat lifting pattern. Additional power out of the hole is, of course, a useful by-product.

Key points of the ‘technique’ box squat:

  • Box should always be low enough to get below parallel when on the box (I can hear it now, ‘THAT box??? That box is WAY too low!!!’ No, no, it really is not).
  • Come to a complete stop on the box, it’s not a touch and go. Coming to a complete stop allows you to think about the descent and ascent separately, and perform each movement more accurately – While on the box, remain tight, don’t relax on the box.
  • Do not lean forward as you get to the box or forward as you start back up. Keep that bar right over the center of your feet at all times, even while on the box. The bar should move up and down as if it were on rails.
  • If necessary, adjust the width of your stance until you can squat to the box without having the bar shift forward in front of your center of gravity, or backwards as you get to the box. Once you have that bar moving straight up and down over your shoe laces throughout the full ROM you should be in a good stance

This version of the box squat isn’t just for beginners, or for technique corrections – I’ve found it can also be a great accessory lift to help internalize that squat pattern and make it feel natural. I useful to cycle this lift into your programming occasionally.  

Two Second Rule

Although ‘it doesn’t matter how heavy it feels’, there are times (particularly with deadlifts), a lift just feels impossibly heavy. When you review the lift’s instant replay, however, you find that it was in fact possibly heavy. All you had to do to finish it was to NOT GIVE UP…and now you want to kick your own ass for quitting.

Enter the Two Second Rule. I established this rule to curb the tendency to give up on a lift before breaking through the sticking point, and reaching the point where you’re sure to lock it out.

It’s quite simple: Even if a lift is obviously impossible, grind it out for (at least) 2 seconds before quitting on it.

I know what you are thinking – “are you fucking insane?!”.

Well yes, but that is beside the point. The Two Second Rule has a number of benefits:

  • Even if you eventually fail the lift, you’ve just turned a failed lift into an isometric hold, and gotten some benefit out of it
  • Even if you eventually fail the lift, you are teaching your mind and body to grind; this help you finish out the tough lifts in the future
  • You may actually finish the impossible lifts

In the long run, you’ll be teaching yourself to grind through the tough lifts, and build greater mental as well as physical strength

Squat and Deadlift Head Position

Someone asked me the other day what the proper head position is during the squat and deadlift.

My preference is to keep the head up and fixate on a spot on the ceiling well out in front of me. There are successful lifters and coaches who use the neutral spine approach, fixing on the floor 10 yards or so in front of the lift. While this can be a successful approach, the body has a tendency to follow the head (have you ever looked at your passenger while driving and found your car drifting towards the ditch?). Looking down can lead to a tendency to lean, bringing the chest down and leaving the hips high.

While head up and head down/neutral spine have have both been (arguably) proven successful, let’s touch on a couple approaches that are WRONG 🔴🔴🔴

Don’t look straight up. You’re not a bird. Stop it.

Don’t move your head around during the lift – once you start the lift, rep or set, maintain the same focus point throughout the lift, changing your focus during the lift makes it even harder to maintain a consistent body position during the lift.

When I’m lifting, I treat my head as an extension of the spine. For squats I watch my feet to walk out then pack my head back into my neck and focus on a point in the ceiling in the middle of the room during the lift. Provided I keep the proper body angle, my head does not move.

On deadlift, again my head is an extension of my spine. As I pull myself into the bar, and my hips come down/chest comes up, my focus point rises with my chest. Once set, I again fix on a point at the opposite end of the room or ceiling at the far end. I do not change that focus point until I’m locked out.

Your head should be an extension of your spine, fixated on one focus point – don’t create a moving target to shoot at during your lift.

Four Count Bench Press

Every individual has a limited capacity for training volume they are capable of performing in a given week or microcycle. Your training checkbook has a balance of weight, sets, and reps you can perform and overdrawing it has…consequences. You want to select the primary and assistance lifts for your program that will make the most impact on your training goals, whatever those goals may be.

If you’re reading my posts, your training goals are likely to lift as much weight as possible. When you’re deciding what assistance lifts to add to your program, start by looking at where your lifts are the weakest, and plug in (effective) training to fill those gaps.

You may have guessed that for this article the target lift is the bench press. The target portion of the ROM is the bottom end, generating power off the chest. An assistance lift I’ve found that helps this portion of the ROM is the four count bench press. What are some indications that this may be a good assistance lift?

  • Your typical failure point is close to the chest, within 2-3” of the chest
  • Your presses are sluggish and slow off the chest
  • You have poor stability at the chest

The four count bench can help you with these issues by

  • Increasing the time under tension within this target ROM
  • Developing more explosive power off the chest, and control of the weight at this point

How do you perform this lift properly (my version of it anyway)?

  • There are four distinct phases to the lift:
    1. Lower the bar to the chest.
    2. Press the bar 1-3” off the chest and stop – it is important to stop before you hit the point where power begins transitioning from a pec movement off the chest, to a tricep movement at lockout. This generally occurs somewhere in the mid point of the press.
    3. Lower the bar back to the chest again. (and)
    4. Press the bar to lockout.

  • Each of the lowering phases should use a normal eccentric tempo
  • Although there is not (necessarily) a pause, each stop should be very sharp and distinct
  • Each upward press should be very very explosive, generating as much speed as you can muster
  • If you are a competitor, you should use your competition form for this lift. For lifters with high arches and wide grip, for example, I often use a narrower grip and lower arch for other assistance lifts, but for this lift I have them use their competition position.
  • My preferred rep range for this lift is 3-5 reps, using 80-85% of the weight you would typically use for that volume. (Note, this is not 80% of your 1RM).
  • I like to incorporate them either after the primary bench on the primary bench day, or as the primary bench on a secondary bench day.

I do want to point out that if your primary issue with the lower portion of the ROM is instability, you likely have some other work to do to address that problem than just strengthening the ROM, but this lift can be a part of that correction.

Credit to Katja Lariola for recommending this lift!