A Balding Man's Advice on Powerlifting Technique: Part I
Rob Wagner, M.Ed., C.S.C.S.
This is a first in a series of outstanding articles by Dr. Rob Wagner, multinational powerlifting champion and strength coach.
Years ago I attended the C.J. Batten's Bench Press and Powerlifting Seminar in Michigan as a guest speaker. As I awaited my turn at the podium, I heard an interesting quote. One of the speakers was talking about how important it is for powerlifters to learn the lifts from people who excel at them and not from those who are mediocre performers. The adage he used to enforce his point was, ‘never ask a bald man how to grow hair.
Initially I agreed with the statement and thoroughly understood what he was saying. However as I rubbed my own balding scalp, I realized that I knew a hell of a lot about how to grow hair even though I couldn't get it to grow. In the 80's there was biotin, polysorbate 80 and the Helsinki formula for hair growth and in the 90's came Rogaine, Folligen and Propecia. It's amazing how motivated I became to learn about growing hair when I saw my own hair clogging up the shower and the sink. Despite this cruel trick of nature and my poor hair genetics, I was still able to became an amateur hair replacement/regrowth consultant for my balding friends and myself. Although this is not an article about hair, having pondered the hair growth analogy I realize that understanding how to do the lifts and doing the lifts are two completely different things. From my years in the sport I have found that even if you are not predisposed to excel at certain lifts, you are not precluded from improving on them if you are motivated enough to pay attention and refine your technique.
This series of articles will provide information on lifting techniques for all three of the powerlifts. This advice has nothing to do with training routines or weights. The ideas I will present range from things I've had to learn through necessity to simply observing athletes lifting in the weight room.
From a competitive lifting total standpoint I have never been a very balanced lifter. I used to go to the meet with a big squat and feel as if I was relying on my early lead to get through the final two lifts in front of the competition. Of all the lifts, I could always depend on the squat. Recently, this method of approaching a meet encountered a tragic blow. My 6th or 7th back injury, I've lost count at this point, relinquished my favorite lift to a hated and dreaded process of compressing my vertebral disks into vertebral Ritz crackers. Over a two-year period, the movement grew awkward and often was painful to perform. After one serious back injury had healed, I felt like I had forgotten how to squat, and in a sense I had. The process of squatting that I had adhered to for years was gone.
Let me point out that I never took this lift for granted. I knew each and every mechanism of the movement. By profession I teach the squat motion a couple of hundred times per year to athletes. Add to that the daily reinforcement of coaching technique and you can be coaching the lift thousands of times per year. Unfortunately by not following the processes I preached daily, I had lost the mastery of the lift. This actually led to another back injury, when I decided it was time to fix the problem or retire. The technique information you will read is part of the process of how I regained my form in this lift.
I find that most lifters tend to underestimate the importance of the set up in the squat. Just get it out of the rack and squat, right? Wrong! The set up can make the lift or leave it in the hole. When the set up is done properly the weight can feel "light" on your back and the movement will feel smooth. The set up can greatly affect your body control and balance during the execution of the lift.
The first step is to remember to have the rack height adjusted to a height you can safely remove and return the bar. The clearance from the racks when you stand erect with the bar should be 3 - 4 inches from the bottom of the holder. This will ensure that you will be successful in returning the bar even if it moves down your back a little during the lift. As you approach the bar you must be focused on the lift and nothing else. Indulging yourself in a conversation about the NFL draft or that evening’s date plans while approaching the bar may lead to trouble in the lift. Instead, see yourself do the lift, whether it's a single rep or a set of five, do it in your head first. Make sure you concentrate on all aspects of the lift from placing your hands on the bar to taking your belt off at the end.
When you get to the bar the first thing you will do is place your hands on it in an evenly spaced manner. Regardless of whether you false or true grip the bar, get a solid grasp on it. The hands can greatly aid in keeping the bar from rolling on your back during the movement. The distance between the hands can be determined partially by function and comfort. The function involves holding the upper back musculature in an isometric contraction through the entire movement. The comfort aspect relates to the flexibility of the shoulders and wrists. Factors that play into this are arm length and torso size. The bigger the torso is than the wider the hand placement should be. Longer arms also fit this approach. There are no absolutes here, however, because the individual's flexibility, acceptance of discomfort and anatomical make up all vary. The objective is to get the hands as close to the body with the least amount of discomfort to the shoulders and wrists. The final point is that once you've found this position you must be able to rotate your elbows upwards. If the elbows are pointing towards the floor (perpendicular) you should move the hands so the elbows can achieve a more parallel position in relation to the floor. Once your elbows get in this position the upper back will perform as a more effective shelf for placing the bar.
Once your hands are placed, you are ready to go under the bar. Prior to going under, take a deep breath and hold it (I'll get back to this in a little bit). I suggest that you place your feet in a parallel position prior to lifting the bar off the racks. Your stance under the bar should be shoulder width or wider. This will depend on the rack system and whether you have to walk the bar out or stay in place (Monolift use). If you are walking out find a position that will allow you to step the weight out in 2 - 3 steps and no more. This includes that little stutter step you take to get the left foot 4 inches wider. Remember that there is no descent until you are set and you receive the signal from the head judge. Your postural muscles are under stress as soon as you have the weight out of the racks. Time is of the essence. The quicker you are set the less energy you will exert supporting the weight. If you are using a Monolift type device in competition it is best to assume your stance in the device and save your energy in terms of walking the weight out. However, if you don't have the opportunity to train on this type of apparatus don't, change your technique on the day of the contest. By not following your normal set up ritual you can throw off your normal breathing patterns and steps that you have been taking for the past several weeks of training. This will usually lead to unpleasant consequences in the performance of the lift.
Once your feet are in this parallel position and your hips are underneath the bar, you are ready to fit the bar to your back. Fitting the bar involves placing the bar in its appropriate position on your upper back and fitting your body tightly under the bar. Avoid placing the bar on top of your cervical vertabrae. These are the bony protrusions on the back of your neck. Instead you will place it on top of your contracted trapezius muscles and rear delts. The first step in creating this fit is to rotate the elbows upwards. This will help contract the trapezius and posterior deltoids. You must contract these muscles to help you keep the bar on top of the body. My coach Phil Pelura taught this idea to me fifteen years ago. The idea is to not let the weight sink into your traps and upper back, the more it does the more you will feel it. The positioning of the bar on your back has a lot of variables involved with it. I will give you a couple examples of this, but remember that organizations have rules about how far down the back the bar can be placed. If you have a short torso in relationship to your legs you should probably place the bar higher on your traps.
The opposite of this is also true. A long torso in relationship to your legs and the bar should be placed lower on your traps and rear delts. For those of you who have perfect anatomical dimensions or you fall into another category your positioning can be determined by the need for lean. I am not talking about meat quality but rather the angle that is created by your torso at the hip joint. During the squat the bar must stay over the foot otherwise you will fall. Keeping the bar in this position becomes most difficult at the bottom of the squat because your hips are at their greatest displacement in relation to the bar and your feet. Even the most upright squatters have to lean a little to get the bar over the foot. If the bar is positioned low on your upper back and you only have to lean a little then you're in good shape. If you have the bar low and you find yourself in a good morning position to get the bar over your foot you may want to move the bar up a little to reduce this lean. Both styles are used successfully, John Kuc and Frank Schramm both carried the bar high on the traps. Low bar squatters include Kirk Karwoski and Ed Coan. Keep in mind the lower bar position has its advantages when it fits the lifters anatomical needs. This bar position reduces the length of the weight arm. From a physics standpoint this will reduce the force production required by the erectors, glutes and hamstrings to maintain an erect torso when compared to the higher bar position. The other way to look at this is if you move the bar lower you will increase the amount of weight you will be able to hold upright.
Removing the bar from the rack requires control of the bar and your body. Once you've fitted the bar into its appropriate position on your back, you should then lift your rib cage upwards to aid in tightening your lower back. Briefly recall the breath you took earlier before heading under the bar. You should still be holding it, and should continue to hold it until you finish stepping out of the racks. This is one of those little things that is easy to forget to do but that does make a difference. To remove the bar you will simply lock the knees out by driving the arch of your foot down into the floor (remember your feet are parallel and at least shoulder width apart). Once you have cleared the racks and you let the bar stabilize, you will now be ready to proceed with stepping back into your stance. The steps should be low so you do not tilt your pelvis. Tilting the pelvis to any large degree will cause the weight to tip unevenly left to right. Picking your feet up and stepping can create this situation. I often suggest that instead of stepping out think of sliding or gliding the feet out behind you. The surface you are lifting on can play a role on how low you will keep your feet. Carpeted surfaces need a little more clearance than a hard wood platform surface. As mentioned earlier you want to limit your steps to two or three. The quicker you get to your squat position the quicker you will receive a down signal. Two final notes on the set up are to make sure all body parts are still and motionless once you get in your stance. In one of my early contests I was timed out on an attempt because I was opening and closing my hand around the bar while waiting for the signal. The second is to get your eyes on the head judge as soon as possible. Getting the judge's attention with your eyes will let the judge know you are ready to squat. In next month’s article I will cover what to do from this point including; determination of your stance, foot placement and the squat movement from descent to placing the weight back on the racks.