When it comes to tests of raw strength, a powerlifting meet it one of the best ways to find out what you’re made of. It is also one of the most accessible, as I’ve seen everyone from the inexperienced to the experienced, from the stocky to the skinny, and from young to old–both male and female–find success at a meet. It’s a unique environment that results in an exhilarating and fun experience for all that are involved. From my experience competing in one, I’ve found that most if not all people leave feeling personally accomplished and tired, but in an immensely satisfying way.
Well, the time has come once again to step onto the platform–it’s been a long time coming. This March, a couple of my fellow coaches and I will be competing in a powerlifting meet, and I have a good feeling that these 10 weeks and change will fly by fast.
The last time I competed, I hit 369 lbs on the squat, 220 on the bench press, and 474 on the deadlift. I have my sights set on a 400 squat, 245 bench, and 500 deadlift this time around.
How am I going to get there? Well, the short and simple answer is by training hard. That being said, there are a few specific things that I’ve been working on that have fine-tuned my approach this time around. With the meet fast approaching, I figured that now is a good time to share 3 tips to boost your powerlifting total. Here’s one for each of the main lifts.
1. The Squat: the stretch reflex and losing tension at the bottom vs. staying tight throughout
I’ve been employing a weightlifting-style squat as opposed to a powerlifting-style squat lately, mostly because I believe that the former has, until recently, been more applicable to my training goals. As we touched on in that last article, there is nothing wrong with either style of squat or any variation along that continuum. In fact, I plan on employing almost the same squat style for my upcoming powerlifting meet since I’m most comfortable with that. For me, this means using a high-bar variation, a relatively narrow stance by powerlifting standards, and not really hinging/leaning forward at the hip, as Ross demonstrated in our last article.
There is one thing that I’m working to eliminate however. Lifters and training enthusiasts with sharp eyes have probably noticed that many high-level weightlifters have a “bounce” in their weightlifting technique, particularly when it comes to the squat:
I’m going to simplify things here to a certain extent. In this video above, you can see the lifter, a very accomplished one at that, accelerate down into the bottom position of his squat, and then use that momentum to successfully bounce out of the hole to blow past his sticking point and finish his squat. That’s also 595 lbs by the way…for 6 reps!
This technique is not uncommon. It takes advantage of the stretch reflex, or stretch-shortening cycle. By “bouncing,” elastic energy that is stored in the muscle-tendon units is used to contribute to the lift. And believe me, on a max attempt, you’ll need all the help you can get!
There’s nothing wrong with bouncing, nor is there anything wrong with not bouncing. However, I do feel that when it comes to this, there is more that meets the eyes here. These lifters have incredible control of their bodies and their “bounce,” and incredible strength along the full range of motion in the squat to boot.
When it comes to using the bouncing technique, I find that there is a tendency for things to go wrong. In order to get a “bigger” stretch reflex, many lifters will attempt to squat lower than usual, which causes them to lose intra-abominal pressure (tension in the torso) at the bottom of a squat.
Without a proper brace of the abs, a lifter is very likely to crumble like a pile of bricks rather than finish the squat. This is especially true when a lifter does not have enough mobility to squat deeply in the first place.
When it comes to powerlifting though, a squat is a squat is a squat. As long as the hip crease dips below the knee and the lifter finishes the lift, the squat will count. No one gets more points for squatting deeper than the next guy, as long as both were below parallel.
Thus, it is possible to “cheat” a little bit–those that have squatted using a full range of motion for a while can essentially reduce the range of motion in their squat. When it comes to the powerlifting-style squat, it’s important to know where you can hit the brakes in your descent and start ascending to finish the lift. There is still a stretch reflex here, but it isn’t as drastic or obvious as in weightlifting. In my training this time around, I’m refocusing on staying tight throughout the squat–and not going down all the way to my ankles. It’s almost like getting back to basics for me:
2. The Bench Press: bar path and the importance of the set-up
Not too long ago, I read an incredibly insightful article by Greg Nuckols on Strength Theory that discussed the differences in bar path between novice and elite powerlifters in the bench press. As it turns out, I’ve been doing it wrong for a while.
When it comes to the bench, both novice and elite powerlifters demonstrate a similar manner of descent. When it comes to the ascent though, I always thought that a straight, vertical line upwards was the best path for the barbell. It turns out that this is not the case. Nuckols has a lengthy discussion about this in his post, but the most efficient bar path, as demonstrated by the elite, is actually a J-shape. In this, a lifter’s first move off the chest should be a diagonal ascent towards the chin, and then a straight line upwards, which often occurs after the lifter passes the sticking point. Novices demonstrate the exact opposite—a straight line up first , and then a diagonal towards the chin.
The reason that the J-shape is more efficient is because it eliminates the total flexion demands of the bench press on the ascent. The farther the bar is from the collarbone, the higher the demands are on shoulder flexion to finish the lift. Instead, the quicker you can reduce this demand the better:
But what about flaring the elbows? It’s important not to confuse this with what’s actually supposed to happen. Flaring the elbows does often result in the bar moving towards the chin, but in a proper bench press with a solid torso arc, moving the bar off the chin doesn’t require flaring the elbows. Instead, with respect to the plane of the chest, the bar is actually moving perpendicularly. In other words, if the torso was straight horizontally, the bar would move straight up.
This also brings to light the importance of the set-up when it comes to optimizing your bench press for competition. Like in the squat, there are certain things you can do position-wise to decrease the range of motion on your bench press and make the lift more efficient.
The first was mentioned above; arching you back, particularly your t-spine. The second is locking down your shoulder blades to create a solid base to press from. By locking down the shoulder blades, you are also eliminating their ability to protract during the press. This can take an inch or two off the range of motion, and they can make all the difference. Thus, the focus here is simply on pushing away from the bench by locking out the elbows.
Finally, feet position is important here to. Similar to a squat, you want to position your feet in a way that allows you to put the most force into the ground. Believe it or not, the bench press is actually a full-body effort, and leg drive is an important component of that. A proper leg drive results in increased tension throughout the body that will help you finish off a bench press. It often results in an intense contraction of the glutes. As a rule of thumb, the greater the tension you can develop in your body, the better prepared you are to bench heavy successfully.
3. The Deadlift: “grip strength” and hammering the back
I credit this tip to a good friend of mine, Strength Coach John O’Neil at Drive 495. We discussed training and powerlifting at length recently, and the gist of that discussion was this: don’t discount the muscles of the back when it comes to the deadlift.
Seems obvious, right? What we’re trying to say here though is that the upper back and the lats can never be too strong when it comes to the deadlift. In fact, people don’t fail on the deadlift because their legs were too weak; they fail because their backs couldn’t support the weight.
The back muscles are also extremely hard to overtrain when it comes to rowing, lat pulldowns, and the like. Besides, no one said that bigger back muscles is a bad thing, not at all.
Another reason this training will be incredibly useful is because of where grip strength actually comes from. It doesn’t come from the forearms–a strong grip actually begins farther up the chain in the upper back and the lats. Test this out for yourself by clenching your fists. Now clench harder. And harder. And harder. Where do you feel it, and where did that extra tension come from? It probably came from the upper back and the lats.
If you fail on a deadlift because you couldn’t hold on to the bar, try hammering the back more for a change. It might make all the difference. In this case, heavy, and I do mean heavy, farmer’s carries are extremely useful.
By utilizing these tips in my training, I expect to finish the powerlifting meet in March with a much higher powerlifting total than my first time on the platform. Get started with these, and I’m sure your results will be similar as well.
by Jeremy Lau
Jeremy Lau is a Senior Staff Coach at Halevy Life.
Jeremy graduated cum laude from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute with a BSc. in Biomedical Engineering and received his Master’s in Exercise Physiology at Columbia University. In addition to his academic accolades, Jeremy is a Certified Strength & Conditioning Specialist (CSCS).
Prior to joining the team at Halevy Life, Jeremy completed a coaching internship at Cressey Sports Performance, where he coached both amateur and professional athletes, among whom were many professional MLB baseball players.
As an athlete, Jeremy has played baseball competitively for most of his life.