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.
I originally discovered just how important the rebound is in the squat when doing high rep sets. At that point where your muscles are shot, your heart and lungs are shot, I found that the momentum created by the rebound was the only reason I was completing reps.
Most times you take the rebound created by the stretch reflex for granted. You don’t feel it working until EVERYTHING ELSE is shot.
If you watch to the last rep in this video, you can see how I generate a lot of speed out of the hole before the bands cinch up and try to kill me. A great deal of that momentum is created by the rebound, I kick in the ‘voluntary muscles’ to really accelerate and drive through the sticking point once the bar already has a head of steam behind it.
How, exactly, do I maximize this rebound? In my last post on the topic, Stretch Reflex in the Squat, I discussed the technique aspects to stay in position and prevent that energy from leaking. The other key is hitting the bottom with a bit of velocity, creating a strong stretch reflex, like bouncing a basketball off the floor.
One thing to keep in mind, if you’re a newer lifter, or hyper mobile, you may not be able to use this technique effectively until you effectively built a mass of muscle to rebound off…
First, a quick primer on the stretch reflex. The stretch reflex is an involuntary reaction of a muscle, once stretched, to automatically try and contract. You can use this reflex to strengthen your lifts.
In the squat it creates a rebound off the bottom of the squat, helps you change direction to get upward momentum started.
Since it is an involuntary action of the muscle, it’s not necessarily something you can force to happen. There are, however, things you can do to maximize its affect:
1. Keep your upper body rigid. A rigid upper body transfers the power of this rebound directly to the bar, driving it upward. A soft torso absorbs some of this energy reducing its impact on your lift. I break upper body tightness down into two components – a) Thoracic tightness is created when you tighten your upper back by squeezing your shoulder blades down, hard b) Lumbar tightness is created by strong bracing and a strong core (with or without a belt).
2. Maintain your body position at the bottom of the squat. The most common error I see here is allowing the hips and knees to shift forward at the rebound point; this shift allows the hamstrings too loosen up, and reduces the rebound effect. A cue I like to use is to spread the floor before you start each rep, and to push out throughout each rep; drive your knees out so they don’t shift forward
3. Maintain your back angle at the bottom of the squat – don’t allow your hips to shift up or back ahead of the bar. Allowing this uses up your rebound without driving the bar upward.
4. Finally, maintain a good bar path. Make sure you keep the bar moving straight down and back up directly over the center of your feet.
In case it hasn’t become obvious, the best way to create maximum rebound leveraging the stretch reflex…is to use good squat technique.
As a ref I joke a bit about giving red lights, but in all honesty I don’t like giving red lights. I’m not, however, going to give away lifts and penalize lifters who come to a meet properly prepared.
In a recent meet I gave out far too many red lights for squat depth and missed commands. Most of these were unnecessary if lifters had taken a couple simple steps to make sure they were platform ready.
All squats you perform in training need to be at legal competition depth. If you think they are close or second guess yourself, you’re squatting too high. In a perfect world you’d have a qualified ref from your federation watching your lifts in training and giving you real time feedback. Having an experienced powerlifter watch your lifts is a good option as well. If this is not possible, video your sets and watch them after each set.
Although your first meet can be nerve wracking, if you train for competition lifts you set yourself up to succeed. For every set and every rep, there should be a distinct stop after your set up before executing the first rep, and a distinct stop after each rep and before re-racking the weight. If you come to a complete stop at these points you’ll have cleaner training sets and you will never miss a command.
Note: for sets above 5 reps I recommend just motoring through the set but use the controlled stop before the first rep and after the last rep before racking.
In your final weeks of training as you are peaking, you should be performing all singles to competition form with commands.
Let’s give my red light thumb a break!!!
So there I was…
I unracked the bar, and immediately thought ‘holy shit this feels heavy!’. Now It Doesn’t Matter How Heavy it Feels (copyright Ken Gack), but that thought chased other thoughts out of my head as I walked the bar out, including…breathing, but we’ll get to that. I suppose I should have gotten a hint from the suspicious way the room was fading into darkness that something wasn’t quite right, but I missed that subtle, crucial clue.
As I set up, I noticed the tightness I was able to attain in my legs. It was the tightest I had been able to get in the history of squats. At least that is how it felt. That thought pushed the heavy thought out of my head, and distracted me from other thoughts, some of them fairly important. Like…breathing.
Anyway I started my squat, and it was a beautiful squat. Good speed, good position, everything just right. But it quickly slowed, and I started to force it to hit depth. Although it had slowed, I was still in a pretty good position as I neared parallel. One more little push I thought, and I’ll be there. Just as that thought passed through my head alarms started blaring in my head: YOU’RE ABOUT TO PASS OUT, PULL UP, PULL UP, PULL UP!!!
There was a bit of a wobble as my consciousness started to go, but I was able to pull out of the dive and finish the squat without my spotters loving embrace, remembered to breath again, an systems returned to normal.
Moral of the story: treat every rep from the first warmup to the last working set as a max effort lift to make the little things automatic. Even then, sometimes you fuck it up.
I figured I’d share a few of my thoughts…
1. Heavy walkouts are a good tool to prep you for the heavier weights
2. Sometimes I’ll do a ‘feeler set’. If supposed to do 500×5, I may do 500×1 to prime the body and CNS for that weight. If doing singles at progressive weights, I may do the first weight twice.
It helps me dial in the technique.
3. Technique. ‘It doesn’t matter how heavy it feels’ applies to squats more than any other lift, IMHBCO. Whether it feels heavy or not, keeping your technique dialed in makes the difference when the weight starts getting heavy
It takes confidence to attack a heavy lift
You have to attack it to complete it without your technique going all to hell…
All that being said, lifting heavy is a skill. You have to practice and get good at it. In competition, you’re not going to warm up to your opener, and you need the confidence to attack your attempts even when they feel heavy as shit.
Why use resistance bands with your squats?
Accommodating resistance with bands or chains can help you make considerable strength gains. As you complete the concentric portion of your lift (come back up), your leverage improves making the lift easier. Your body’s mechanically advantage allows you to handle more weight at the top of the lift than you can in the hole. Both chains and bands increase in resistance as you near the top where you hit the stronger region of your lift. Although chains add a considerable cool factor – they look cool, they sound cool, and they are just all around cool – band tension increases at a considerably faster rate as you pass the sticking point and approach lockout. Chains increase in weight linearly as more chain is lifted from the floor.
Bands add a great deal of instability to the bar. Controlling the weight takes considerably more effort than walking out a regular squat bar. The effort required to control the weight forces you to strengthen your stabilizing muscles and will help develop greater core stability.
Who should do banded squats?
The more appropriate question is who should not do banded squats? Banded lifts are not for beginners. You should have a solid strength foundation, good control of the weight throughout the full range of motion, and sound technique before attempting banded squats. If you don’t have great technique and control, adding the instability created by the bands can increase your probability of injury. Until you have mastered them, stick with the basic lifts.
Banded squats, a quick walkthrough
- Setting up your bands:
- Best case, you have a squat rack with pegs built for bands. You can adjust the amount of tension created by the bands by adjusting the length of the bands you use in the setup.
- If you don’t have band pegs on your squat rack, using dumbbells is an easy way to set up your bands, although adjusting the band length used in the setup isn’t quite as simple. A couple pointers for using dumbbells: make sure the weight of your dumbbells is greater than the tension the bands create at the top of the lift; set a small weight plate in front of and behind the dumbbells to keep them from rolling.
- Squat Setup:Setting up for the squat is much like setting up for a normal squat with two major differences.
- As soon as the bar comes out of the rack, the bands are going to pull you backwards. Instead of unracking with both feet directly under the bar, start with one foot slightly back so you can brace yourself and keep the bands from pulling you back (see video) below.
- It is critical to set up so the bar is directly in line with the point the bands are anchored. If you set up ahead of or behind the anchor point, the bands will pull you forward or back, out of your groove. A trick I just picked up is to draw a chalk line on the floor aligned with your band anchor to help you position yourself correctly.
Follow the steps for a proper squat setup. Because of the instability created by bands, a solid setup is even more important when squatting with them.
- Squatting with bands
- The eccentric portion for banded squats is technically no different than a normal squat. It’s even more important with bands to remain very tight to prevent the bands from pulling you out of the proper bar path. If you do find the bands pulling you out of the proper path, check to make sure that you are aligned with the anchor points.
- As the graphic above indicates, the band tension will be low at the bottom end of the squat, and will increase rapidly. It’s important to drive explosively out of the hole and build enough momentum to help you move past the sticking point and lock your squat out as band tension increases.
- As you get to your sticking point, the bar may slow, and come to a near stop. Keep driving with all your power to overcome the tension – this will train you to grind through the tough lifts.
Whether you’re an equipped or raw lifter, whether you compete or just like being big, bad and strong, used correctly resistance bands can help you build new levels of strength.
Note: Gauging the tension added by bands is not an exact science. EliteFTS has, however, provided band calibrations you can use as a reference point.
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.
A perfect squat setup can be the difference between a successful lift and a failed lift. As a powerlifter, I train to make this portion of the squat as efficient as possible. These powerlifting techniques can help any strength trainer not just powerlifters, take advantage of them.
Don’t rush it. There is no excuse for your setup to not be perfect on every set you do from your first warm-up to your last working set. You have more control over the setup than you do over the actual lift. You have time to think about what you are doing every step of the way. Take advantage of this fact, and make it perfect every time.
- Hand placement: Hand placement is of course somewhat dependent upon your flexibility, but the closer you bring your hands in, the tighter you will be able to keep your upper back, providing more support to the bar.
- Bar placement: Bar placement can be affected by a number of factors (muscles targeted, individual body proportions, upper body flexibility). Generally speaking, however, placing it across the back of the delts versus on top of the traps allows you to generate the greater power.
- Foot placement: Place your feet under the bar in a standard conventional deadlift stance (approximately hip width apart, toes pointed forward); this will give you the most stability as you lift the bar out of the rack.
- Breathing: Take a deep breath and tighten your core before unracking the bar (Squat Breathing Technique). This creates a very solid, stable core and allows you to support the weight of the bar. Continue to hold your breath until you have walked the bar out.
- Rotate your hips under the bar: Keeping your back flat, shift your hips forward by rotating at the bar and your shoulders – do not flex your lumbar spine to push your hips forward.
- Unrack the bar: Lift the bar straight up using your legs, primarily your quads; if you have not properly rotated your hips under the bar, this looks like a good morning, making the bar feel much heavier.
- Walk the bar out:
- After unracking, pause briefly allowing the bar to settle briefly before stepping back.
- Watch your feet as you walk out so that you can place them exactly where you want them.
- Your first step should be straight back. This will allow you to clear the rack so that you don’t bump it on the way out. It should be a short step, your toe should not move much farther back than the heel of your other foot.
- Move your other foot back into your squatting position.
- Shift your first foot straight out into your squatting position.
- Practice this walkout to minimize shifting and shuffling once you’ve walked out.
- Let the bar settle briefly again, begin breathing again and your are ready to squat.
Practice these steps from your very first warm-ups, and make them automatic. Done right, the correct setup can make the weight feel much lighter, giving you greater confidence in your lift!
If you follow the strength training forums you’ll find frequent discussions on bar placement on your back: High Bar or Low Bar. Little attention is spent, however, on getting the bar centered on your back. Watching a team mate set up off center, and having to reset twice because the bar was off balance in tonight’s squat session drove the point home.
The setup is the most crucial part of your squat. Do it correctly and you are likely to nail your lift. Mess it up and you burn energy unnecessarily, give your head the chance to tell your body ”damn this is heavy!’, and give your spotter a chance to earn his keep. Getting the bar centered on your back can be done in three simple steps:
- Make sure your hands are evenly placed on the bar; use the edges of the knurling and the rings on the bar to make sure they are perfectly even.
- Make eye contact with the knurling in the middle of the bar, and make sure you are directly centered on it.
- Keep your eyes on the knurling as you duck under the bar, remain square to the bar and make sure you duck straight under it.
Once you’re under the bar, be careful not to change your hand or back position on the bar as you settle in for your lift.
This step is often (nearly always?) overlooked, and quite often getting the bar set up evenly is either through sheer luck, or spotter assistance. Follow these three simple steps, and improve your setup.
For a full description of squat setup, check out Squat Technique in our Brute Force Book of Techniques!