Are You Where You Want To Be In The BIG 3? Tucson Powerlifting Blog

Personal Training in Tucson - The Protocol Strength & Conditioning, Llc

By: Jerry Trubman, Owner and Founder

In today’s post, I’d like to take you back to the basics; the old-school if you will. We’re gonna talk about the ‘big three’ powerlifts. The goal here is to share some valuable information that, when properly implemented, can improve your numbers in these lifts… even if I never have the opportunity to coach you personally.

The ‘big 3’: The squat, bench press, and deadlift, have been around for decades. These are the moves that weak guys have used to get strong long before any of the modern-day fitness equipment was available. In recent years (despite many conventional gym wisdoms speaking otherwise), women have also discovered that the big 3 do a much better job at accomplishing that ‘toned’ look than any modern exercise making the same claim could ever do.

(It still cracks me up that the women who train in our gym; the ones who get the most compliments for looking ‘toned’, are the ones who do the most heavy lifting and the least amount of cardio… but I digress…)


Despite decades of time-tested successful use, even today we still have big problems with the big 3:

1. People not doing them because of unsubstantiated fears

2. People doing them incorrectly

3. Trainers suggesting they be avoided for one odd reason or another

If you are a dedicated gym-goer and you have not been trained in the basics of these lifts, and/or you’re not humble enough to take some weight off the bar and learn to do them properly, then you’re right: These lifts should be avoided. If you’re a trainer/coach that doesn’t know how to teach these lifts properly, you’re also right: For the safety of your clients, you should avoid them. However, you should also learn how to perform/teach properly them at some point (your career will thank you).

I’m speaking from experience: When I was a young and impressionable trainer early in my career, I was quickly enamored with all the fancy gym equipment. I skipped over many of the basics. It wasn’t until several years later that I was re-introduced to the original barbell lifts, and the results I’ve gotten from my students (and myself) has never been the same.

Some of you may have read about our place and said something along the lines of, “Yea Jerry, I’ve heard about all your powerlifting records and what not, but I have no desire to ever do anything like that.”

That’s totally fine. Less than one-third of the people who train at The Protocol take one of our barbell classes, and out that group, less than half have ever set foot on the platform. Even if you have no desire to ever compete… if you want real results in your own training, it’s wise to learn and mimic what the best do. The fittest and strongest people I’ve ever met are ALL proficient in basic barbell training.

Let’s take a moment to break down each of the three lifts and point out some of the most common flaws in each. This is intended for beginners, but intermediate lifters may get some benefit out of it as well. Let’s get started…

Squat:

When I travel and find myself in a big-box gym trying to sneak in a workout, the squat is the lift that I see being done wrong the most. I would say that I see this lift being done correctly about 10% of the time. Which is sad, because there have been times I’ve seen younger men moving some decent weight with dismal technique. I’m afraid they will be one of those guys that end up coming to me in their 40’s with same story I’ve heard 1000 times, “Yea man, I used to squat heavy when I was young but since I blew out my knees and my back, I stopped.”

Just to be clear, squats are not bad for your back and knees. Squatting too much weight incorrectly is bad for your back and knees. I have a nice big group of men in their 40’s, 50’s, and 60’s (some that came to us with previous knee and back pain) squatting just fine.

Here are the biggest problems and how to start the path to fixing them.

1. Bar not properly wedged on the back – This is commonly overlooked. If you’re the type to just dip under the bar and pull it off the pins to start your set, you’re missing a key component to a good squat. When you take the bar from the pins, you and the bar should feel like one solid unit. Take a few extra seconds to make sure this happens.

2. Not knowing your levers – No two bodies are built alike. Some have long torsos and short limbs, others are the opposite. Some have great mobility, others have injuries and stiffness that keep them from being able to assume certain stances. There is simply no one-size-fits-all setup for squatting. A skilled coach can help you find your optimal stance. This alone can not only help your squats feel much better, but can also allow you to squat significantly heavier loads safely.

3. Not everyone has earned the right to squat deep – Yea, I know. I’m one of the first people to make fun of partial range-of-motion squats. But I will also say this: I’ve had people come to me with major restrictions that make their deep squat look terrible. Moderating their depth allowed them to improve their lower body strength much more so than avoiding the lift. Also, these same people have been able to improve their depth with time and patience. The moral to this story: Don’t rely on people armchair quarterbacking your squats online.

Bench Press:

Believe it or not, the bench is one of the most dangerous lifts in the gym. Even though most people think of the squat and deadlift to be more dangerous, of all barbell-related deaths each year, most of them are on the bench press. It makes sense when you think about it. First, it’s performed in much greater frequency than the others. Second, if a deadlift is too heavy, literally nothing happens. You just can’t budge the weight from the floor. In the squat, there is usually a squat rack with safety arms that you can drop the bar onto if you get stuck at the bottom. For the bench press, if you take too much weight, it’s either getting dropped on your chest or on your face. With that said, DO NOT EVER BENCH WITHOUT A SPOTTER. Even if the spotter is your 115-pound girlfriend. At least she can call 911…

With that critical detail out of the way, let’s proceed to common problems…

1. Poor setup – Many old shoulder injuries that I see in the men I work with have come from bench pressing. Yes, some of those injuries could have been easily avoided by simply having less weight on the bar. Other times, however, the ‘groove’ of the motion is off. It’s tough to unpack all of this right here, and this is a bit of an oversimplification, but if you’re new to the exercise and/or have shoulder problems, you should focus on looking more like an arrow pointing up than a “T” at the bottom of the lift. Below is an example: In the photo on the left, my shoulders are too high and I'm not able to properly engage my pecs and core. On the right, I'm in a position that is not only safer for the shoulders, but also allows better engagement of the pecs...

Again, this is not a hard and fast rule. No two lifters will have the same groove, and advanced lifters who are capable of a wider grip without wrist/shoulder/elbow pain may look more like the photo on the left. However, if you are a beginner it's safer to assume that you are the rule, not the exception.

2. Not keeping total body tension – Many times people miss reps at what is called the ‘sticking point’. It’s about 3 to 4 inches above the chest on the way up. If this describes you, I have a question: How hard are you squeezing your abs and butt cheeks at this point in the lift? If the answer is anything other than “AS HARD AS I POSSIBLY CAN JERRY” congratulations! Problem solved. I remember one year at a national championship meet I saw a guy tear a quad benching. This really got a light bulb to turn on in my head. “Tearing a quad benching? He’s obviously doing something that I’m not.” Game changer.

3. Not taking the ‘down’ seriously – Many times I see people almost let the bar fall on their chest before pressing… this is a lot of work. If you can brace all your back muscles and actively ‘pull the bar down’ by squeezing your shoulder blades onto your back (almost like gravity reversed itself on the way down), you’ll be in much better shape when it’s time to press it up.

 “The harder you can make the ‘down’, the easier the ‘up’ is.”

 

Deadlift:

People think of the deadlift as a total meathead move…

“Derrrr… I lift things up and put them down.”

However, in my opinion, the deadlift is the most technical lift in the gym. There are, literally, 50-60 things I could tell you (all of them important) that would make that bar feel just a little lighter in your hands. Here are the best two things I can think of…

1. Do not train the deadlift in high-reps and reset every rep – In our gym, we do not allow touch-and-go reps other than light warmups. Why? It’s been my experience that form slowly begins to fall apart in each subsequent touch-and-go rep. Speaking of which, I do not recommend more than 25 total reps in a deadlift workout… warmups included! Nothing smokes your nervous system faster than a deadlift, and the risk-to-reward ratio just isn’t there.

2. A video camera is a great coach – I use an iPad to film lifts. This device allows me to watch the lift frame-by-frame afterwards (I’m sure there are other devices that do the same). After your set, watch your lift and pause the video in three spots: First, your initial set up right before the pull. Second, right as the plates lift from the floor. The position of your body should be pretty much the same in both shots. If you excessively float up or down too much as you crack the weight from the floor, your wedge needs work. The third place to pause the video is when the bar is just below your knees. Look at your body position. Does it look safe? Are your hips sitting back and ready to push through? If your knees are almost straight when the bar is still that low in the lift, your back is probably working harder than it should.

I teach powerlifting workshops all over the U.S. We offer beginner-friendly courses, as well as a more in-depth all-day course for coaches and/or advanced lifters. The 8-hour course also includes a one-hour long programming lecture where I share the programming template that has guided my team to 92 state, 32 national, and 29 world records, as well as 4 national team championships in raw powerlifting.

I will be in Orange County, California the weekend of August 18-19. On Saturday the 18th I will be teaching a beginner-friendly barbell course with an emphasis on the squat and the bench press. I will also be available that weekend for private coaching, so if you’re in the area, please contact me directly at info@theprotocolsc.com for details.

Until next time,

Jerry Trubman is a coach, clinician, author, blogger, and powerlifting state champion. With over two decades of lifting experience, he has devoted himself to seeking out better answers, and distilling them into practical programs that produce great results. Jerry has coached "Team Protocol" to 4 National Powerlifting Championships in the 100% Raw federation. He writes the internationally-read blog, “The Healthy Addiction” and lives in Tucson, Arizona with his wife Marie and dog Sadie. To subscribe to his blog, click here.

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