A Year of Powerlifting

Nick Johnson Halevy Life PowerliftingI spent my last year solely focused on 3 things: my Deadlift, Squat and Bench Press. What I learned not only allowed me to increase my total by 325 lbs. (from 1045 to 1370) in 9 months, but has also given me a great deal of insight into the technical precision needed to accomplish each lift with maximal force. Before I break down each lift and give you the secrets to reaching your potential, there are four simple guidelines to follow to guarantee success.

  1. Pick your goal and attack it. I had a lot of things I wanted to work on, but I chose one thing at a time and built my programming around that. I knew when I started on this journey I had future goals (competing in triathlons, eventually an Ironman being one of them) that I wanted to accomplish, but I didn’t let that get in the way of what the immediate task was. Put your blinders on and go to work.
  2. Try everything! Use basic principles that make sense, follow a well balanced and developed program, but don’t be afraid to try things that don’t make much sense from an exercise science viewpoint. Occasionally you will see progress from a program derived from “bro science,” don’t be afraid to throw something in your program and see if it works. Not everyone responds the same way to a particular training stimulus or protocol.
  3. Everything requires optimal patterning. I will get in to this on a more individual level with each lift, but in general, when you are trying to push, pull or squat as much weight as possible there isn’t any wiggle room for a bad bar path or poorly distributed center of gravity. Just like any sports skill, the more you practice it, the better you will become. Pretty damn simple right?
  4. Never underestimate the power of partial range! This was a huge realization for me. I had always considered half reps to be a waste of time, but it all depends on where your “sticking point” or weakest point in the lift is. Partial reps can allow you to overload a lift an increase neuromuscular stimulus on a particular movement pattern.

Now to what you really want to know: “How do I increase my Squat, Bench and Deadlift?” Like I stated before, pick your goal and attack it. You should program around increasing one thing at a time. The cool thing about compound movements, and just lifting heavy shit in general, is that when one thing gets better, the other ones tend to improve as well. Let me riff on this for a minute. A goal of increasing your deadlift (if that is what you chose to attack first) will also drive up the numbers in your squat and bench press, if done correctly. An increase in hamstring/glute strength and power will help improve your squat dramatically, as they are the antagonistic or stopping muscles required in a squat and allow you to transition from the concentric or descending motion to the eccentric or ascending motion, and are responsible for locking out at the top. Increasing your deadlift will also subsequently help to build upper back strength (if done correctly), which is extremely important when bench pressing. “But benching is all about the pecs, right bro?” Not really, and here we go.

The Bench Press

Key Points:

-One of the biggest problems when trying to increase your bench is a weak upper back and poor scapular retraction/depression. Trying to press 315 lbs. off your chest with a crappy/weak back is like trying to squat a 1RM on a Swiss ball, it doesn’t work. In order to press we need to be pushing against something (in this case it is the bench) with a force that is greater than gravity and the weight on the bar. Trying to do this with a flat upper back, and weak lats, rear delts and traps is nearly impossible. Have you ever seen that guy squirming around on the bench, raising his feet off the ground and kicking the air to press the bar? Don’t be that guy. Instead, strengthen your upper back and row the bar into your chest, once you touch drive off with speed.

-Control the bar!! This seems like common sense, but too often you walk into the gym and see the bar waving to you from across the free weight area. You want the bar path to be the same every time, and you want to be trying to rip the bar apart with your hands. “Spread the bar.” This keeps your grip tight, creates more control over the weight and helps to activate those upper back muscles to stabilize the bar on the way down and through the press off your chest.

-Set up correctly and consistently. Much like your approach to the bar for a deadlift or squat, you want your setup for the bench to be the same every damn time. Find the foot position that allows you to create 200404130-003the most amount of tension possible while maintaining contact between the ground and YOUR WHOLE FOOT. You need to keep 3 points of contact, your whole foot needs to be planted on the ground, your ass needs to be touching the bench at all times and your shoulders/back of the head need to be on the bench at all times.

The set-up and execution: Pull your shoulder blades down and as close as possible to each other, push your chest through your shoulders, take a deep breath into your belly, start with the bar directly above your upper chest, pull it in to the solar plexus/xiphoid process (the bottom part of your sternum where you can feel that little bump), touch, then press the bar back up to the start position with speed. The bar path on your bench press should look diagonal, not straight. The best benchers will have a little bit of a J-curve coming off the chest.

The biggest factor to increasing my bench numbers seemed to very simply be volume. Working my bench heavy once per training week did not elicit any real strength gains, but once I added more volume (floor pressing and merely push-ups to the two days I wasn’t benching heavy) my press shot up.

Programming:

These are the exercises that helped drive my bench from a training max of 275 lbs. to a competition max of 335 lbs.

  1. Straight Leg Floor press with a 5 second pause at the bottom.

-Keeping my legs straight helped me figure out how to utilize my inner core to build pressure in my upper body and stabilize the movement.

-Floor pressing allowed me to take a second at the bottom to make sure I was in the best possible position to initiate the press. In other words, letting my elbows rest on the floor allowed me to get the rest of my upper body in the right position for the press, and eventually I was pulling myself directly in to that position from the top.

-5 second pause. This sucks, like seriously sucks, but it helps you figure out how to generate force from a static position. The speed off your chest in a regular bench press should increase substantially when you start to get good at this.

-Just as a side note, this seemed to help me establish proper thoracic extension with my bench press without flaring my ribs. I have a 71” wingspan and was able to pull the bar within an inch of my chest when my elbows were on the ground. Getting myself into that position was really important to driving my bench up.

  1. Close grip bench press.

-I programmed this to add volume to my heavy “bench day.”

-4 sets of 8-10 reps, immediately following my bench protocol with as little rest as possible between sets, but GET THE REPS.

-I used a 1 second pause and explode tempo, so it looked something like 3-1-X-1.

  1. Pause reps on warm-up sets for my regular bench protocol

-I used pause reps of 2+ seconds on all warm-up sets for my 5×5 protocol to groove the pattern and get the stabilization required for heavy pressing.

Just as a side note if you’re looking to compete. The more control you show over the bar on the way down, the less the judge will make you pause on your chest. If you practice rowing the bar into your chest with control in training, you shouldn’t be required to pause for very long on your chest in competition.

The Squat

My biggest pet peeve with competition squats is that they are cheated, big time. The squat in many circles is seen as the king of exercises (I’m a DL fan, but whatever, they both will get you big), but in arnold-squatcompetition is turned into more of a gymnastic movement, where knee wraps and a huge bounce out of the bottom are what you need to have in order to compete with the giants of the division. I’m not taking away from the skill and technical precision needed to accomplish a great squat, I am just saying I would rather be able to squat something heavy as shit without bouncing my ass off my heels. That seems to translate better in to other exercises and overall strength.

Key Points:

Unlike the bench, volume is not always the answer for the squat. Here is what worked best for me, turning a previous training max of 350 lbs. into a competition max of 451 lbs.

-Find the right stance. This sounds simple, but there are no two hips alike. You need to find the stance that allows you to get your hips below parallel (hip crease below your patella) without rounding your lumbar or thoracic spine. In my first competition I went with a wider (sumo) stance and wasn’t able to hit the depth I needed without really bouncing out of the bottom. When I brought my stance in to just outside shoulder width I was able to hit depth without sacrificing stability at the bottom of the range.

-“Spread the floor with your feet.” The first time I heard this cue I had no idea what I was supposed to be doing, but when you figure it out, it works. Trying to spread the floor between your feet is much like trying to rip the bar apart with the bench press. By doing this you will inherently activate and utilize your glute medius to stabilize your hips through the movement and allow your “pushing muscles” to focus more on pushing than keeping things steady.

-“Deep belly breath, hold your pee.” This works like a charm and will keep your torso erect when there is 400+ pounds on your back trying to drive you through the floor. Taking a deep breath into your belly will fill up your abdominal cavity, building enough pressure to stabilize your spine, and “holding your pee” will intiate and activate deeper abdominal muscles you probably aren’t used to using, at least for lifting anyway.

-“Look into your head.” No crystal ball or anything like that, I literally mean you should try to look into your forehead on your way up from the bottom of the squat. We have heard the saying “where your eyes go, your body follows.” This is literally exactly what you want to accomplish, so look up (without losing neutral spine in your cervical spine) and stand up.

Programming:

  1. Front Squat: The front squat in my opinion is the best way to teach a squat, and requires you to do everything correctly in order to complete the reps at heavy resistance. In other words, you can’t cheat it, or you fall forward. It also is a great way to learn the bracing strategies I mentioned above and put them into practice. Simply learning how to brace properly (if you don’t do it already) can easily add 10+% to your front squat between consecutive training sessions like it did for me.
  1. Weighted Squat Jumps: Power Power Power!!! If you can do these without caving your upper back you can really stack on pounds to your squat. Doing a power exercise like weighted squat jumps can help to increase the amount of muscle fibers you recruit when performing a standard back squat. In other words: increase recruitment, increase strength potential.
  1. Pause squats: There is nothing like finding Jesus in the bottom of a 5 second pause squat. Much like the pause reps used when pressing, building on the ability to create power/force from a static position will drive your numbers up substantially. For this I used a tempo of 3-5-1-1.

The Deadlift

1gobqwIn my opinion the deadlift is unequivocally the KING of ALL EXERCISES! What is more beast than walking up to something heavy as hell, picking it up, setting it down and walking away? I’m glad we’re on the same page now. Driving the deadlift is what I based my programming around for most of the year, and it paid off.

Key Points:

-Work the Pattern: My training protocol typically consisted of 3 heavy days of lifting each week, with some metabolic conditioning and occasionally power work done on the other “off days.” I worked my deadlift pattern in each of these three days, but only heavy once per week. So 1 heavy day, 1 “grease the groove” day as Bolton would call it, and one power day.

-Work Dynamically: As I just stated, adding a dynamic effort day will do wonders to drive your deadlift as well. There are a lot of guidelines out there for how fast your dynamic reps should be, but I would make the argument that anything done with maximal speed is considered a dynamic effort. Increasing your speed off the floor will translate into a better 1RM with the deadlift.

-Work partial range: Adding block pulls or rack pulls to your routine will do wonders for your lockout. This also gives you a chance to work at or above your strength threshold, creating a neurological response that should also translate into an increased deadlift from the floor. For all of you mathematically challenged, Speed off the floor + strong lockout = BIG NUMBER, trust me.

-Build tension: The deadlift is different from the squat and bench press in the sense that there is no stretch reflex created from the eccentric portion of the lift to help you finish. You need to build tension and stability before you pick the bar up. Things to look for when doing this are:

  1. Vertical shins- a vertical shin position will ensure that the bar path only goes up, and not in before it ascends.
  2. Chest tall, hips down- after your shins are vertical, pack your shoulders, drive your hips down and raise your chest up. You should be able to see the superman logo on your shirt in the mirror in front of you (not sure why you still have the shirt, or why it still fits, but whatever).

-DELOAD: This is the one that nobody likes to write into their program, you can almost feel your body getting smaller as you write it down. It works, no doubt about it. In order to get stronger, you need to recover, simple as that. This becomes increasingly important with a lift that is as taxing on the central nervous system as the deadlift.

Programming:

As I said before, 3 days/week worked well for me, with the heavy day in the beginning of the week and 2 days rest between the dynamic and heavy day. The following formula helped me turn an ugly 450 training max into a 605 competition pull.

  1. Block pulls: I much prefer pulling from blocks to pulling from the rack. The feel is much more similar to a deadlift than pulling from the rack, and allows you to build tension on the bar in a different way than rack pulls do. You should program your block pulls in immediately following your final work set from the ground on your heavy day, and try to add weight to the bar. So if you end at 5 reps of 455, add 10 lbs. to the bar and pull it from blocks that set the bar an inch below your patella.
  2. Speed Deadlifts: Build tension, rip the bar off the ground and drive your quads into it, then repeat. I wouldn’t do more than 75% of your heavy day for this, and keep the reps to 3, anything more than that and your sacrificing power.
  3. Banded Deadlifts: Unfortunately I only started doing banded DL’s towards the end of my training, but it is certainly something that you should program in lieu of speed deadlifts. If you have a power rack attach a band between the front and back legs, put it on top of the bar and pull like you regularly would, trying to keep the bar speed consistent as the band tension increases.

Like I said before, don’t be afraid to try new things, program some of these in to your workout routine, hit me up @HL_Nick and tell me what works for you.