A beginner's guide to lifting, pt. 2: Technique

Dating Tip funny picture
Pretty good advice, actually
As promised, here is a follow-up, by request, to my last post on lifting. Unlike the previous post, which lays out a programme and some supplemental or accessory lifts to build strength quickly and efficiently for guys who want to gain muscle and lose fat, this post is really just a big brain dump. It consists of things that I've learned over the last 3.5 years or so of lifting stuff and may strike you as being a bit "random" in places. That is unavoidable, since this is literally just a collection of bits and pieces of wisdom, knowledge, and sometimes painful lessons learned that are all rattling around in my head. It's best used as a reference- find the bits that apply specifically to you, and use them as necessary.

I might update this from time to time, especially if I screw up something really badly because I'm being an idiot. (It does happen- remind me to tell you sometime how I picked up those weird-looking welts and scars across my upper back.) As I said in my last write-up, I personally don't think I'm all that strong, and I'm always looking to improve my lifts; this is one way of keeping myself honest.

Note also that most of this information, and far, far more besides, can be found at Mehdi's site. He's made a life and a career out of showing people how to get stronger, and he's a totally no-BS guy to boot, so I highly recommend that you go check out his work.

General Tips for the Major Lifts

It's important to remember that, for all of the scare stories about how squats hurt your knees or bench presses hurt your shoulders or deadlifts hurt your back, powerlifting is actually the safest form of resistance training you can do- provided your technique is good. Crappy technique will get you hurt no matter what you do, but good technique will keep you safe and make you strong.

That being said, the penalty for bad technique in Olympic weightlifting or powerlifting tends to be quite severe. At really heavy weights, screwing up one small aspect of a technical lift means torn muscles, broken bones, and ripped tendons. For a beginner, avoiding all of this means learning how to do things right, taking it slowly, adding weight in a disciplined fashion, and always- always- paying attention to good technique.

Squats

Courtesy of Mark Rippetoe's article, "The CrossFit Total"
  • ALWAYS hit parallel. "Parallel" means that the top of the crease of your hips is below the top of your knee joints when you're "in the hole" (the bottom position of the squat). Doing this ensures that you won't injure your hips, knees, or lower back when the weight starts getting heavy. If you don't hit parallel and instead have your hips above your knees, at heavy weights the shearing stresses will simply rip the ACL and MCL apart- and recovering from a tendon tear is neither easy nor pleasant. I've got tendon injuries in my left hip and right shoulder that still hurt, years after they happened.
  • High bar vs low bar: I personally prefer low bar squats. This means that the bar sits across your shoulder blades, rather than right at the base of your neck. From what I've seen, high-bar squats make it slightly easier to hit depth, but low-bar squats are more comfortable- the knurling of the bar doesn't bite into your shoulders unless your form is bad.
  • Open up your hips. If you're having trouble hitting depth, it may be because your stance isn't wide enough. When you start the lift, your feet should be a little wider than shoulder-width, toes pointing outwards at an angle rather than straight ahead. This will open up your hips, allowing you to go to depth properly.
  • Knees over your feet at the bottom. If you had the time or the ability at the bottom of the squat to draw a line perpendicular to the floor, piercing through your foot and travelling straight upward, that line should also go through the middle of your knee. If your knee starts to "cave" inwards, it means that you're weak at that point in the lift.
  • Keep your back arched on the way down. Pretty much self-explanatory. Arch your back, hard, under the bar when you unrack it, keep it that way until the bottom.
  • The "butt-wink" is normal, don't fight it. This is a very difficult thing to explain, but once you've seen it you'll know exactly what I mean. The "butt-wink" happens at the bottom of a squat when your cervical spine "flexes" a bit and your arse travels in a quick "down-up" motion. If you ever see a bloke in the squat rack doing squats down to depth properly, you'll probably see this. In my opinion, there is nothing wrong with this, your spine is doing what it is supposed to.
  • If your back rounds on the way up, you're doing it wrong. The critical thing to remember in powerlifting is that your body will always put itself in the position that it is strongest in order to move the weight. If, on the way up, your back starts to round or the bar begins to roll forward toward your head, your body is telling you that you are weak at that point in the lift. Dial back the weight, concentrate on form, and keep repping until you fix the problem.


Bench

Bench Press Program
"The meat of all exercises"
Most guys who go to the gym never go anywhere near the squat rack- they're intimidated by it. If they touch the steel at all, it will be to do bench presses. Problem is, they almost all do them wrong. They treat the bench press as a pure arm exercise, when in reality it's another compound lift that primarily works the chest and arms, and also engages the legs and upper back. Don't be those guys. Follow these tips, do them right.
  • Chest out, shoulders back. When you set up for the bench press, your eyes should be right under the bar. At that point, pull your shoulders back and dig the shoulder blades right back into the bench. At the same time, push your chest out. This combination will allow you to fully engage your chest muscles and push the bar back up.
  • Thumbs AROUND the bar. The bench press and overhead press are different lifts, you can't use the same grips and grip positions for both. For OHPs, it is not only OK but good to use a "thumbless grip"- i.e. your thumb is under the bar rather than around it. For bench presses, though, you WANT to have your thumb gripping the bar, so that you can control it better.
  • Keep your hands the right distance apart. Too narrow a grip and you won't be able to push the bar back up. Too wide and won't be able to control it on the way down. Each man's grip width will be slightly different; the key thing to remember is that your forearms should be perpendicular to the ground at the bottom of the lift.
  • FEET ON THE FLOOR, DAMMIT! Good Lord but it pisses me off when people don't do this. When people put their feet on the bench, it's like seeing a woman going to her Ob-Gyn and putting her feet in those stirrups for an exam. You're not a woman (and if you are, you're not in the gym to get your lady bits examined). Putting your feet on the bench complicates a simple lift and greatly compromises your strength during the leg drive.
  • Maintain the arch. The arch of your back should maintain three key points of contact. First, your shoulders should be digging into the bench. Second, your arse should be firmly planted on the bench, but there should be a narrow corridor of air, two to three inches wide, between your lumbar spine and the bench. Third, your feet should be splayed apart slightly and planted on the ground, heels on the floor.
  • Bar to the chest. NO EXCEPTIONS. Any rep that fails to meet your chest is incomplete. No ifs, ands, or buts. If you don't touch your chest, you won't engage your chest muscles properly, and you won't achieve results. Don't be one of those idiots who have 30 invisible boards between the bar and their chests and flex their arms 40 degrees at most before slamming the bar back up and claiming that they "nailed it".
  • At the bottom, drive the bar back up and push through with your legs. This is where the "leg drive" comes in. When you're pushing the bar back up, engage your quads and buttocks to drive your heels into the ground.
  • Full range of motion. No excuses. The bar goes down. The bar goes ALL THE WAY back up. If you re-rack the bar before it gets back to where you started the lift, it's a zero. I don't care how much weight you've got on it, you didn't complete the rep.

Deadlifts

Bad deadlift form on left, Good deadlift form on right
Do you even lift, brah?
Lord help me, but I looooove deadlifts. There are few things more primal and more badass than lifting one metric f***ton of weights off the ground while looking like you're going to kill someone and roaring about it. (Yes, I do this. Yes, it looks really scary and sounds really stupid. No, I don't care.)

In my case, I've learned a lot about deadlifting, mostly the hard way. This is my strongest lift, by some distance, but I've paid for it, with interest. Remember these tips and avoid the back injuries that I've picked up.
  • Neutral spine at the start. A rounded back is going to get you injured- and trust me when I say that there is almost nothing short of limb amputation that will hurt as much, or set you back as badly, as a torn lower back muscle or herniated/pinched lower back disc. An arched back, though, is almost as bad- it puts pressure on the wrong parts of your body when lifting. Keep your back neutral and tight, and you'll be fine.
  • Narrow stance. Your feet should be slightly less than shoulder-width apart (for conventional deadlifts- I'll get to sumo vs. conventional later).
  • Overhand grip until it gets heavy. Deadlifts are as much about grip strength as they are about explosive power. If you want to develop a grip of iron, this is simply the best exercise you can do for it. But you won't develop it properly if you start by using "mixed grip"- one hand over the bar, one hand under it. Start instead by using double-overhand until the weight is just too heavy to lift with good form. Then switch to mixed. In my case, on my heavy deadlift days, I use double-overhand and "hook grip" until I'm deadlifting more than 405lbs, at which point I switch to mixed grip for my max-weight set.
  • "Hook grip" is your friend. It looks like this. No two ways about this- until you get used to it, hook grip absolutely muthaf***in' sucks to use, because your thumb is being squeezed hard against the knurled part of the bar. It'll feel like you're rubbing it raw with sandpaper, at first. But you get used to it. And it allows you to lift double-overhand without compromising spinal stability.
  • Bar position is crucial. At the start of the lift, if you draw two lines perpendicular to the ground shooting through the bar, each should go straight through one shoulder. To achieve this, keep the bar over the line where the base joints of your toes begin, and keep your feet pointing straight forward. The bar WILL roll back toward your shins a little. This is normal and natural, but if you start with the bar too close to your shins, your back will start to round and cave of its own accord- you don't want this.
  • Keep your grip tight and close. When you set up for the lift, bend down with your arms hanging straight down. Your elbows should brush your knees. When your hands touch the bar, that contact between your knees and the middle of your arms should be maintained- and keep your arms straight.
  • DON'T flex your biceps on the way up. Keep your arms straight at all times. Deadlifting with bent arms is a terrific way to pop the biceps tendon straight off the bone- which means you'll be spending some time on a surgeon's table getting that tendon reattached to the bone itself. I've never had this happen to me (thankfully), but this does happen to professional powerlifters and it's a damned nasty injury.
  • NO HITCHING. The bar travels upward in one smooth motion. If it stops at any point on the way up, you failed to complete the rep. Hitching the bar up is a great way to herniate something, especially at heavy weights.
  • Hip-thrust at the top. As the bar gets close to the top of the lift, thrust your hips out slightly- not so much that you're humping the air or anything stupid, just enough to push your hips forward and your shoulders back a little. This makes it easier to lock out the bar.
  • Speaking of lock-out... This term refers to locking the knees upright at the end of the lift. If your knees are still slightly bent, you didn't complete the lift.
  • Follow the bar back down. It's not enough just to lift the bar up and then drop it. You have to show control of the bar on the way up AND on the way down. Dropping the bar tends to piss off people in the gym- nothing says "meathead douchebag" quite like having 400lbs worth of weights crash down and cause a small earthquake while the gym bunnies are doing their stupid Zumba nonsense. On top of that, dropping the bar indicates lack of grip strength and control- and if powerlifting is about anything other than strength, it is about control.
  • Don't try to lower the weights gently. You'll break your back. Let the weights crash down, by all means- but don't let go of the bar. This doesn't contradict what I said above. By dropping the weights, you're not using a full ROM (range of motion), but by lowering the weights quickly, yet under control, you're keeping your back and body tight. It also helps set you up for the next lift if you're doing reps, which is really important- by dropping the weight completely, you'll have to setup from scratch for the next rep, whereas if you follow the bar down properly, it'll land more or less where it started.


More Points About Form

Perfect Versus Good

I spent a huge amount of time talking about form above, and that is with good reason. Good form means more strength, it's that simple.

However, don't let perfect be the enemy of good. If you're spending your entire workout at the gym cocking about trying to perfect your form, you're not going to make much progress.

If you have issues with form, have someone film you- or, if you're the curmudgeonly sort (like me), do it yourself using a smartphone or camera on a tripod. Play back those clips when you get back and keep a log of your issues so that you know what to work on next time you're in the Shrine of the Iron God.

No Fear

... Bench Press | The Benefits Of Adding The Bench Press To Your Workout
See? Nothing to worry about.
Don't fear missing a rep. I used to find any possible excuse to avoid doing bench presses back in the day, because I once got pinned, badly, under a Smith machine back when I was young(er) and stupid(er). That one episode practically dislocated my left shoulder, which still hasn't fully healed- you can hear it click and pop. My right shoulder has a long-standing injury which I think I picked up doing martial arts. Because of these, I used to be really scared of getting pinned under the bench.

Thing is, if you get pinned under the weight, you can always get out of it. If you don't use clips on the bar, you can simply slide the weight off- be careful about this, though, you're not going to win friends by dropping 45lb plates on their feet. Or you can roll the bar down your torso to your hips, sit up, and lift the bar back down onto the ground- this is called the "Roll of Shame", and it sucks, and you'll look really stupid, but it's not nearly as bad as you think it is. Or someone will lift the bar off you- that's what spotters are for.

The point is, failure is not the end of the world. If you fail to complete a rep, fine- deload, fix your form issues, and keep grinding.

Parallel Versus Arse-to-Grass

Unless you cannot maintain pelvo-lumbar positioning or if you are ...
No excuses, bro
There is a long-running debate among powerlifters about what it really means to "go to depth" on a squat. Most powerlifters seem to agree that anything where your hip crease is below your knees is sufficient. There are some who argue that you should go as deep as possible.

I don't disagree with either camp. Arse-to-Grass, or ATG, squatters do seem to be far stronger- the deeper you go, the harder it is to get yourself "out of the hole".

It's a matter of personal preference, but in my opinion, you simply have to squat to at least parallel. Some guys are going to find it difficult to go much farther down than that; in my case, for instance, I have a hip flexor injury on my left side that hurts like hell if I stretch it too hard, which means that squatting much deeper than maybe an inch or two below parallel is difficult.

That's not an excuse, and I don't use it as one. If I don't hit parallel on a particular rep, I can usually tell, and I don't count it.

Always try to go as deep as you can while maintaining good form.

Sumo Versus Conventional Deadlifts

Sumo Deadlift
Note the difference in the starting position
A sumo deadlift is so-called because the starting position has your knees and feet splayed out wide and your hands going straight down, rather like a sumo wrestler's initial position.

Personally, I don't like these- and not because they are ineffective. I dislike them because they cause significant pronation of my elbow and wrist on my "underhand" arm, and this hurts like hell given my elbow injuries. I find conventional deadlifts to be far simpler and much less damaging to my tendons and joints.

That is not to say that there is no place for sumo deadlifts. If you're going to take powerlifting seriously, it helps to be able to do both.

Sumo lifts use a slightly different set of muscles and emphasise slightly different strengths than regular deadlifts do, so if you injure your hips or arms doing conventional deadlifts, it helps to have the ability to lift sumo in order to continue training (assuming your injury isn't too severe, obviously).

In my opinion, for a beginner, it's best to keep things as simple as possible. Don't screw around with changing your deadlift grips and stances until you're fully comfortable with conventional lifting.

Gear

The 4 Most Useless Pieces Equipment at the Gym | Hiit Blog
Remember these? Also, why does this chick look like she's about to fellate them?
The great thing about powerlifting is that, like running, you don't need very much equipment.

Unlike running, lifting doesn't have anything like the same deleterious long-term effects.

For beginners, you just need the following:
  • A comfortable shirt
  • Comfortable shorts or pants- I always wear simple sweatpants to the gym
  • Comfortable, flat-soled or minimalist footwear
  • A real powerlifter's belt
  • Powdered chalk
That's it. For more information on any of these, go here.

I want to emphasise the comfort factor here. Go to the gym in clothes that feel as natural and sweat-absorbent as possible. When you get out, you're going to be covered in sweat and possibly chalk dust. If you're lifting in "trendy" nonsense, you've probably got more money than brains, which is also why you aren't seeing any gains.

If you're deadlifting, it's common to find the bar scraping along your shins. This muddapuckin' sucks. If you want to avoid that feeling, either wear shorts with long knee-socks, or, if you wear Five Fingers to the gym like I do, wear sweatpants.

You don't need to mess about with any other gear until you start lifting daddy-weight, i.e. 1.8x bodyweight or more. At that point, investing in some elbow wraps for your deadlifts might be useful to protect your joints and tendons, but they're not strictly necessary.

Also, don't start your training with a belt, especially for squats. The only purpose of a belt is to give your abdominal muscles something to push against, but if you start wearing it when you're doing light squats, you can become dependent on it to get you out of the hole. Instead, start completely raw and let your muscles build up over time. Only when you simply can't progress any further should you start using a belt- believe me, it makes a huge difference. But if you have bad technique or a weak core to begin with, you'll start using the belt as a crutch instead of correcting your deficiencies.

Supplements

Bull's Genital Herbal Sex Pills For Male 1 BOX 10 SOFT + 10 HARD PILLS ...
Not exactly what I meant when I said that most supplements are BS, but pretty close...
No two ways about this- most of them are a waste of time and money. All you need are the following:
  • Whey protein powder. High in protein, low in carbs, doesn't cost an arm and a leg, the end. Good brands include GNC's house protein, Optimum Nutrition's 100% Gold Standard Whey, and Dymatize Nutrition's Elite Whey. A solid 2kg tub of the stuff will last you at least 3 months.
  • Creatine Monohydrate. You can get this in capsule form (not cheap), or powder (dirt cheap). This is one of the most heavily researched and widely studied supplements out there. It works if you use it correctly. So go get some.
  • Fish oil capsules. Lots of benefits to fish oil, but don't get the cheap stuff- shell out a few extra bucks and get some of the triple-strength stuff.
  • DHEA. Not a powerlifting supplement per se- this is just a useful thing to have for increasing cognition and mental alertness. Dirt cheap, well researched, legally available from most nutrition stores in the US, and not a steroid.
That's it. Everything else is just garnish. You might want to get yourself some zinc tablets and maybe some multivitamins, but they're not strictly necessary.

Pre-workouts, post-workout shakes, mass gainers, testosterone boosters- all of that is just marketing BS.

Get thy ass into the gym and LIFT. The end.

Rest

The bigger issue however is teenagers who sleep only for 5 hours ...
DND- just did deadlifts
Getting the right amount of rest and sleep is critical for getting strong. When you lift heavy weights, you're breaking down the muscle fibres in your body. The process of rebuilding them is what makes you stronger. As you lift heavier weights, the breakdown process becomes more extreme and recovery takes longer- it's just simple biology.

Sleep at least 7 hours a day, preferably 8-9. Drink plenty of water to keep yourself hydrated both inside and outside the gym. Trust your body to know its own rest cycles and accommodate them carefully- don't fight your need for rest.

On the subject of "deload weeks"- I've found it useful to operate on a cycle of 8 weeks of training followed by 1 week of rest and recovery. Last year, I was lifting and doing martial arts 6 days a week almost without a break for damn near 6 months straight. By the time I got to my sister's graduation in May, I was burned out. My body hurt in ways I can't even describe. My joints ached. My legs felt like lead every single day.

I was able to stave off some of the effects by taking protein shakes every day that I trained, but in hindsight, I was being damned stupid. I should have taken a week off in early March, recovered fully, and then continued. Instead, I took a week off in May and then went straight back, and didn't get a real break until I went to Israel in August. That's way too damn long to be lifting heavy stuff.

Take 6-8 weeks to train, and train hard. Then, let yourself relax for a week- but don't use that as an excuse to be a lard-ass. Do stretching and mobility work. Go for long walks. Foam-roll. Give your body the time and nutrients it needs to rebuild.

When you get back into the gym, your first week will be hell- you'll be sore and your strength will have diminished. You'll get it all back with interest soon enough, though. Remember, powerlifting is a marathon, not a sprint- and the finish line is the day you die. Don't burn yourself out early.

Any break longer than a week will result in pretty drastic reductions in strength. I was out for 2 weeks over the holidays and the last two weeks have been damned hard in terms of getting back into shape as a result. The important thing to remember is that you have to embrace the grind.

Injuries and Recovery

432 lbs land on the neck of Germany's Matthias Steiner during Olympics ...
Now campaigning for Mayor of Snap City

At some point, you'll probably get injured, whether by accident or through bad form. Most injuries you can bounce back from pretty quickly and train through them- this depends on the individual, though.

But if you hurt yourself badly by picking up a lower back or knee or shoulder injury, that's not going to heal quickly.

Don't be stupid about such injuries. Take the time to rest. For back injuries, take at least a month out. See a physician, get scanned properly, do some stretching once the pain subsides, and let your body do what it is designed to do- heal you.

When you get back into the gym, start off light again, and build back up. That's exactly what I had to do. I was out of the gym for over a month and didn't lift anything heavy for months after I tore up my lower back doing deadlifts badly in February 2012. It wasn't until like October that year that I got back to deadlifting real weight. Nowadays, I can deadlift 440lbs without problems, but back then, it was a severe challenge.

Don't be stupid about injuries. I have been- in some ways I still am- and I've paid the price for it. Be careful, respect the Iron God, and let your body build itself up over time naturally and properly.

Spotters

Weight Lifting
One of the few times when a spotter is going to enjoy himself
Personally, I do not use spotters at the gym. In the squat rack, I use the bars and pins to catch the weight if I miss a rep. On the bench press, if I stall out and fail to push the bar back up, I either slide the weight off or use the "Roll of Shame". You don't need a spotter for deadlifts.

For me, the gym is a crucible of personal achievement. I don't go there to chat or socialise. I go there to lift. Some guys like training with other people; if this is you, then find someone like-minded who isn't going to goof around and spend the entire time chatting.

It is no bad thing to ask guys for spots, by the way. No one will ever turn you down for a spot in the gym. Just don't pick the stick-thin Asian dude to spot you if you're benching 315lbs for reps- he ain't gonna be able to do much.

Also- and this is crucial- find someone honest to go with you. By this, I mean that if you ask him whether you got the rep, he'll be direct with you. If you missed it, he'll tell you. If your spotter doesn't do this, he's useless because he's preventing you from getting better.

For example, if you have a guy spot you on the bench, if his hands touch the bar after it begins its descent or before it gets back up to the top, your rep is invalidated. You MUST complete a single rep without assistance, without the bar stopping in its upward motion, and without bouncing the bar off your chest.

If he does touch the bar and you're dumb enough to ask him how much of it he held for you, and he says, "it was all you, bro" or something similar, he's lying and you shouldn't ever ask him for a spot.

And if your spotter is getting a free set of barbell rows while he's spotting you because his hands are firmly clamped around the bar, well, you're the one being a goddamned idiot. Lower the weight and fix your form.

Powerlifting As Foundation

Mariusz Pudzianowski chce liczyć się w MMA. (fot. Fot. www.ksw,pl)
Mariusz Pudzianowski. Five times World's Strongest Man. Mixed Martial Artist. All-round BAMF.

Powerlifting is a great way to get fit, strong, and healthy. It's also great preparation for other sports. I use it as the core of my fitness program- if I can even be said to have such a thing.

As I've stated many times, I also do martial arts- I did Krav Maga when I was in the US, which I plan to resume once I return, and here I do kickboxing and hope to start doing muay thai soon. I've found that powerlifting has really helped me when it comes to sparring and staying healthy for martial arts. I strongly believe that powerlifting has made me far stronger and more resilient and more resistant to injury than many of my peers, who find it much harder to maintain the same kind of attendance rate that I had at my Krav Maga school.

Women, in particular, should see significant benefits from this. Women who lift are stronger and more injury-resistant than ones who don't. When it comes to martial arts, women get injured far more frequently and severely than men, so being able to bounce back from that is quite crucial.

In general, I view powerlifting as the foundation for almost any other self-improvement program, and I cannot recommend it enough. It changed my life, and it will change yours if you do it right.

Other Tips

Can't think of anything right now- that was an exhausting brain dump- but if I come up with anything else, I'll update this.

Comments

  1. My quick and dirty hint to people for squats is "look up". Not look at the ceiling.

    Stand up straight and raise your eyes without moving your head. The top of a door frame works well if you're about 8 feet away from it. Keep looking at this point throughout the entire movement.

    Most of the people I see doing squats poorly are basically looking straight down at the ground, especially at the bottom, especially when they're tired. The result is sort of a straightening their legs followed by a Good Morning with a rounded back. Ack!

    Looking up seems to solve that problem rather well.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Yup. The only issue that I've found with it is that it tends to lead to the back "caving" and rounding at heavier weights. The solution to this, of course, is to focus on form at lower weights and build up slowly to prevent rounding and therefore injury.

      Delete

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