Better Big Barbell Lifts (HINT: It's the Little Details)

June 11, 2019

The primary barbell lifts are often the backbone of many people's training programs. They allow us to load up, get after it, and establish personal bests worth bragging about. I mean, "What do you squat/bench/deadlift?" is the lifters way of asking "what do you do for a living?".

 

With that said, these major lifts are some of the most frequent efforts to get "stuck". Many of committed barbell athletes have found themselves frustrated at their inability to continue to add weight or repetitions to a bar. 

 

It's easy to point fingers and say:

 

  • You aren't training hard enough

  • You aren't eating enough

  • You are training a lift too frequently

  • You aren't training a lift frequently enough

  • You are following the wrong programming style

  • You are doing too many repetitions

  • Your hair isn't parted correctly

 

OK, maybe that last one isn't so true, but the rest are often answers that someone, or the lifter themselves, will find to justify why they aren't achieving an increase in poundage on the bar. And that fact of the matter is that all of them have a chance to be correct.

 

Trying to get maximally strong with your squat while following a traditional bodybuilding split that emphasizes training volume and exercise variation will get you strong in the beginning phases of your lifting career, but eventually will keep you from peaking your strength at the lift. In a touch of performance irony, your legs could look muscled-up but lack the type II fiber output necessary to be a beast under the barbell. 

 

A traditional Cube Method, or 5-3-1, or my personal favorite (The HEPBURN method) is a better bet here. 

 

It's also true that you might be missing out on quality sleep and it is impacting your strength. An interesting study done on Korean farmer's demonstrated that a lack of sleep impacted their hand grip strength. Think you are pulling that PR deadlift on 4 hours of sleep? This study suggests not.

 

Under-consuming food, over-training, and your psychological commitment to strength can all play factors too. You need calories, rest, and the right mindset to get stronger. 

 

For my female lifters, your menstrual cycle could be impacting your sleep and exercise capabilities too. Click this link to learn about how your cycle and your sleep are related and be sure to check out the book ROAR to learn some methods that incorporate your monthly cycle into your training blocks. 

 

But, all of these things are often accounted for by many barbell faithful.

 

There is one thing that is often overlooked, however, that is the most probable reason someone is stuck a given weight. It doesn't matter if we are talking deadlifts, overhead presses, the bench, or your front squat - if you aren't paying attention to the little details, then you'll be stuck at a number longer than you should. 

 

Those little details, otherwise known as technique improvements, are the most definite way to ensure safe and consistent progressions with barbell lifts.

 

 

 

In the next session we'll specifically examine the front squat and the need for better breathing technique - 

The valsalva maneuver is a well-documented technique for lifting weights. By taking in a large inhalation and building internal pressure inside the thoracic cavity you can exhale against a closed airway, thus increasing pressure in the abdominal cavity. This increases support of the spinal column by pressurizing the inside of the unit to match the tension on the outside of it. (this is not unlike the reason a airplane requires pressurization prior to takeoff...you don't want to be at altitude in a crumpled can). 

 

To recap:

  • Big breathe into the belly

  • Press that breathe into "the back of the throat" without letting it out

  • Feel increased pressure inside your body

  • Pressure stabilizes spinal anatomy

  • Increased spinal stability allows for better force output by the limbs.

In a heavy barbell front squat this technique is damn near mandatory. With a load sitting towards the front of the neck it is not uncommon for the lifter to want to "dump" the weight forward at the bottom depth. This position, if the core is unsupported by internal pressure, is very hard to fight against with only leg drive.

 

Even with elite hand, wrist, elbow, and shoulder position a lifter might struggle, or miss a lift, because their core isn't capable of supporting the tension of the load at depth. Once the abdominal wall loses tension (and the lumbar and thoracic spine begin to flex) the lift becomes increasingly difficult and risky. 

 

And thus, a lifter looking to improve their front squat numbers would benefit from training their ability hold tension inside their body better (via the valsalva maneuver) through the bottom of the squat. Once they begin the drive upwards they can begin a powerful exhalation to release the tension and push themselves back to the top. 

 

So, instead of worrying about the program design aspect of the front squat - a lifter may benefit from taking the time adequately cue themselves into better breathing and tension patterns. Sure, a damn good program that emphasizes progressive overload of the glutes, hamstrings, and quadriceps can do wonders - but not if the core wants to "dump" at the bottom of every high load lift. 

And that is just one example of a lift in which a "small detail" is overlooked, thus causing a lifter to come up short. I want to take the space in this blog to explore the details in your technique that might be holding you back from your best output. Remember, big changes often come from little details. 

 

Some other "little" details include:

 

Bench Press - foot position in relation to the hips. Are your feet driving down into the ground or out towards the room in front of you?

 

You want your heels under your hips, tight glutes, and your shoulder blades pinned together as though they were eating the bench. Pull the bar a part as you pull it towards your chest. Exhale and snap the bar in half as your drive your feet into the ground and the bar towards the ceiling during the up phase.

 

Juggernaut crushes this explanation:

 

 

 

Sumo Deadlift - are your feet wide and turned out? What about your femur? Are you in external rotation as to build tension in the abductors and adductors of the legs?

 

You want to find your ideal foot position, roughly a thirty-forty degree foot turn out, and active "knees rotate away from each other" cue to create tension. Dig in your big toe, pinky toe, and heel to help drive the external rotation from the core. Sit into the tension.

 

Tony Gentilcore crushes the fast and dirty explanation for T-Nation:

 

 

 

Traditional Deadlift - are you trying to pull the bar into you while pushing down into the floor, or are you pulling up on the bar?

 

The deadlift is an interesting exercise in that the traditional positioning is actually a lower body push exercise for the first six to eight inches (depending on tibial length). You must actively push against the ground with your lower body until you can begin pulling your hips into the bar towards lockout.

 

The pull at the bottom comes from your lats. Think about pulling the bar tight to your body while pushing your feet into the ground. Ass down, chest up, and exhale through the finish. 

 

A video of my friend Tony Gentilcore absolute crushing the explanation of this:

 

 

Trap Bar Deadlift - Are you over-hinging the bar or are you allowing yourself to sit a bit deeper?

 

The trap bar is an interesting piece of lifting equipment that has form specific to it. Much like a hybrid golf club being somewhere between an iron and a wood, the trap bar deadlift has elements of both the squat and hinge in it.

 

You should be sitting a bit lower into your trap bar deadlifts and feeling a bit more drive out of your quadriceps when loading it up to go heavy. Your lats are still tight and you are still technically in a "hinge" position, but it isn't as pure as one would see in a barbell romanian deadlift - that's for sure. 

 

 

 

Back Squat - Are you pulling the bar into your traps and are you at the right body angle?

 

So, the back squat is hyper technique driven. I personally feel it is the hardest barbell exercise to do correctly (that isn't an Olympic Lift). There are so many biomechanical considerations when teaching someone to do it. Limb length, pelvic design, core stability, shoulder mobility, and dorsi-flexion of the ankles all come to the party here. 

 

Still though, some small technique cues are necessary to optimize your back squat.

 

First, your hands should be over top the bar (thumbs too). The bar should be pressed into middle trapezius muscles, although some prefer low bar squats for competition purposes. The bar needs to be pulled tight into the body as to make the resistance as much like you as possible. Imagine bending the bar down and around you. Your hands should be close enough to you to build back tension, but not so close you feel pain.

 

And lastly, don't think you need to sit so damn vertical in a barbell back squat. A load behind you must be supported by a torso angle somewhere between 35 and 55 degrees if you are too successfully squat it to depth without feeling like you are going to fall backwards. 

 

 -taken from STARTING STRENGTH, by Mark Rippetoe


It's possible your lack of depth is coming from being too vertical (and might be why your lower back hurts too). Know this:


The spine doesn't need to be vertical or "straight". It needs neutral curvature at any angle created by pelvic rotation. In the case of a squat - anterior pelvic tilt (but not too much), knee flexion, and a stable spine create the best scenario for success. 

 

 

Overhead Press - Are you pulling the bar back down and are you reaching through the traps at the top?

 

Two common mistakes that lifters make with the barbell overhead press are not building tension in their lats on their way down from a successful press and not engaging one of the primary scapular elevators in the lift. 

 

Let's discuss the last one first:

 

The trapezius muscle is segmented into the upper, middle, and lower segments. For this purpose we are only focused on the upper segment which engages in scapular elevation. Trying to overhead press without adding a small and controlled shrug at the top of the lift is leaving one of our more powerful overhead pushing muscles on the sideline. 

 

It should be incorporated fluidly towards the end of the lift and released slowly as the bar is actively pulled back down towards the chest. The overhead press is effectively the inverse of a pull-up. Thus, engaging the lats is critical to the success of a barbell overhead press.

 

Here legendary coach Mark Rippltoe crushes this explanation of the lift:

 

 

They say the "Devil is in the details". I can't speak to whether or not a horned creature with a pitchfork gives a darn about your lifting career, but I can say that your lifting career gives a darn about your attention to those very details. 

 

Take the time to master the finer points of the lift that is giving you pain. Back down your loads by 10-15% until you master the finer detail. Then, following whatever program you love - build back up and experience even greater progress than you had experienced previously.

 

Best of luck and as always - I want to hear from you about this blog. Email me here with your thoughts. 

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Kevin Mullins is an average guy doing above average things. He wakes up each day with the intent to put his best foot forward, to help others, and to have a little fun.

 

He is the author of the popular book Day by Day: The Personal Trainer's Blueprint to Achieving Ultimate Success, which is available on amazon.com now.

Kevin is a certified strength and conditioning specialist, Equinox Master instructor and trainer of ten years. He has over twenty thousand hours of experience under his belt. 

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