Do you prefer to work out on your own or avoid the gym whenever possible? Are you in need of fitness guidance or advice, but don’t know how to get it! Then you should consider online personal training/online coaching to help you!
Not sure how online personal training/online coaching works, or how an online trainer could help you achieve your fitness goals? In this article, we’re covering the basics and benefits of online coaching.
So you can decide if hiring one is the best way to achieve your fitness goals.
How Does Online Coaching Work?
Online personal training programs differ by app and provider, but there are some basic components they all share. Most serve as a platform for you to pick and choose from a roster of diverse coaches with specialized skill sets. These experts can create customized workout plans for you that take your goals and individual needs into account.
Some online fitness programs also work like a direct-to-consumer training model. If you subscribe to their program or service, you unlock access to a variety of customizable exercises, reps, and set programs that can help you achieve a specific fitness goal. This usually includes videos of how to do the exercises as well and may even have nutrition tips and advice.
At the end of the day, an online personal trainer isn’t all that different from the one you’d meet at a gym. They serve as a source of guidance and inspiration, showing you the ropes and cheering you on as you chase your fitness goal. They’ll regularly check in on your progress, make adjustments where needed, and field any questions you have as you go.
5 Benefits to Expect When Working with an Online Personal Trainer
There are many reasons why people turn to personal trainers. They can help you identify your strengths and weaknesses, create custom training plans, and show you the techniques needed to work out safely and effectively. But not everyone has the time, or the money needed to work with a coach one-on-one or in an expensive gym.
That’s why they often turn to online personal training. So, they can get the fitness guidance they need on their own terms.
Still not sold on the idea of an online personal trainer? We’re here to change that! Here are 5 amazing benefits you can look forward to when you sign up for online personal training.
Personal training at a gym can be quite expensive—especially if the gym requires you to sign up for a membership on top of the training. And they almost always do. Which means you could ultimately end up paying more than double what you would for online personal training.
By hiring an online personal trainer, you can get the fitness guidance you need without the operational overhead. You can also cut out any commuting costs by doing your workouts from home.
Working out in your living room can be incredibly convenient. But it can also be challenging to convince yourself to actually commit without an actual gym or trainer around you.
That’s where an online personal trainer comes in! They can hold you accountable from home and convince you to actually complete your exercises. And they can do so in a motivational and inspiring way!
Online personal training also provides you with the flexibility to do workouts on your own terms. You can do all of the exercises in your own space and at your own pace.
An online personal trainer also means you don’t have to work around some trainer’s schedule or find times to cram in sessions before, during, or after work. This flexibility means you won’t have to potentially cancel a training session last minute, which is generally non-refundable and quite costly.
Just open your app whenever you’re ready to do your workout. This also makes it easy to do workouts with a friend if you both have similar fitness goals
Easy to Access Results
If it’s online, it’s trackable. With an online personal trainer, you can easily look back at your past workouts and see the progress you’re making. You can check off personal records, log reps, and other workout stats, and follow your progression.
An online personal trainer can also track these things, so you can guarantee you’ll always be on the same page. They’ll check in on you if a workout didn’t go well and can easily adjust your plan if need be.
Online personal trainers are also aware of the best fitness tracking apps like MyFitnessPal and Pacer. These apps are great at tracking a myriad of things, whether they be runs or daily nutrition goals. These apps can help keep you organised and on track as you follow your fitness path.
When it comes to fitness, diet is half the battle. You’ll never see results if you don’t eat right. Which can be hard to do if you have limited nutritional knowledge.
Most online trainers are nutritional experts. They can tell you the foods you should be eating and avoiding, and the number of calories you should aim to consume. This information is essential for achieving your fitness goal—whether it’s losing weight or putting on muscle mass.
10 Reasons to Consider Hiring a Personal Trainer. If you are just starting out with an exercise program or you aren’t seeing results with your current routine, a personal trainer might be able to help. You can weigh the possible benefits and expenses to decide if it’s a good choice for you.
People work with trainers for many reasons. Whether you want to develop an individualized program to support weight loss goals, get in shape, or simply feel that you’d benefit from the additional accountability, a personal trainer can be a great resource.
Wherever you are on your exercise journey, a personal trainer can offer support, tips, and training as you work to reach your fitness and weight loss goals. Here are 10 reasons why you might want to think about hiring a personal trainer.
1. You’re Not Seeing Results
If you’ve been exercising consistently for several weeks or months and aren’t losing weight or reaching your goals, there are a few ways a trainer might be able to help:
Evaluate your current program:
By looking at what you’re already doing, a trainer can look for ways to change or tweak your workouts to make them more efficient and effective.
Examine your goals:
A trainer can help you figure out if your goals are realistic.
Help you stay motivated:
Knowing you have an appointment with a pro can help you maintain motivation to exercise during the week.
Push you a little harder:
People often don’t see results because they’re not working as hard as they could. It’s easy to slack off when you’re by yourself, but having someone to challenge you (and cheer you on) can make a difference.
Hold you accountable:
A trainer can help you set weekly goals, then check in on a regular basis to see how you’re doing.
Whether you want to learn how to lift weights properly or learn a new exercise to add to your routine, a trainer is a wealth of knowledge. You might think you need to focus on cardio to lose weight, but you need strength training and core training, too.
You may find that you are getting results—just not in the way you expected. A trainer can see your situation more clearly from the outside and can offer you a new perspective.
2. You Don’t Know Where to Start
If you’re new to exercise, you may not realize how complex it is. We’re not born with the knowledge of how to do it. If you’re faced with the task of setting up a complete exercise schedule, you might become so overwhelmed that you don’t do anything. Trainers know what goes into a complete program including cardio, weight training, and flexibility training. From there, you have to think about the elements—from what activities to include to how you can fit it all into a busy schedule. A trainer can help you with the basics. You choose the frequency, intensity, time, and type of workout and manipulate these elements over time. A trainer can help you navigate the process, which includes:
Figuring out how hard to work during exercise and how to monitor your exercise intensity.
Show you how to choose exercises, weights, reps, and sets
Use different tools (such as a heart rate monitor or activity tracker) to enhance your workouts.
Here are some other areas where a trainer can help you get started: Figure out the right activities: You might not even know what exercise would work for your body, schedule, or available equipment. A trainer can suggest activities that fit all of those areas.
Maximize your time:
A trainer can help you get the most out of your workout while also making sure you don’t overdo it.
Put together a reasonable program:
A trainer can guide you as you start working out and help you figure how much exercise you can handle in the beginning.
Set your schedule:
Before you get started, a trainer can help you figure out when you can work out. They can also help you decide what you’ll do on the days you aren’t working with them.
3. You’re Bored With the Same Old Workouts
If you’re an experienced exerciser, you may not have considered working with a personal trainer. However, it can be a great choice if you need some variety in your workouts. It’s easy to fall into a workout rut, doing the same workouts over and over. Not only is this boring but it can also lead to weight loss plateaus, overuse injuries, and burnout. Here are some reasons you might want to work with a personal trainer even if you’re already workout-savvy: For a fresh perspective: A trainer brings an objective eye. They might see areas of your program that could be adjusted to make your workout more interesting, more challenging, or even just more fun.
To challenge you:
A trainer will look at your workout performance and let you know about any areas you could improve or where you might be able to push yourself a little harder.
New ideas and equipment:
Trainers are experienced in many different types of workouts. If there’s one you’ve been wanting to try, find someone who can show you the ropes.
Consider asking a trainer about:
High-intensity interval training (Tabata training)
Different methods of strength training including supersets and pyramid training
Challenging your body in a different way with new equipment like the water-filled Kamagon Ball
4. You Need to Be Challenged
If you feel like you’re stuck or you’re ready to take your training to the next level, an experienced personal trainer can help you find ways to challenge yourself by:
Helping you find and train for competitive events: A trainer can help you find and train for events like a “Tough Mudder” (where you run through an obstacle course) or a local race.
Pushing your limits:
If you want to blast past a plateau, go heavy with your weights. A trainer can help you choose the right weights as well as spot you as you do more challenging exercises.
Being a workout partner:
A trainer can also engage in the workout with you, adding a competitive element to your workouts or help you with partner exercises.
You’ll find it’s very hard to slack off with a trainer standing over you, telling you to do just one more rep. You may even find you have hidden strengths to tap, which can motivate you even more.
5. You Want to Learn How to Exercise on Your Own
Even if your goal is to create your own workouts and exercise by yourself, hiring a trainer for a few sessions offers the benefit of helping you learn the right way to perform a new exercise. This is especially true if you’re new to strength training and need to practice. A trainer can:
Bring in targeted exercises:
This knowledge is gold, especially for the home exerciser. Knowing a variety of exercises that target different muscles allows you to create your own workouts.
Demonstrate good form:
To get the most out of your workouts and avoid injury, you need to do each exercise in a certain way. A trainer can offer cues to help you get your body into the right position to ensure you are doing each move correctly (and safely).
Show you how to lift weights:
A trainer can help you decide how often to lift weights and how to choose your weights, sets, and reps. They can create a variety of workouts for you to continue doing when you’re ready to go out on your own.
Teach you about muscles:
Learning about your muscles, as well as how they work, is essential if you plan to work out on your own at home or at the gym.
Provide workout support:
Even after you stop training, a trainer can still be an available resource. Most trainers are fine with you contacting them from time to time for advice and you can always go back to training at any time.
6. You Need Accountability and Motivation
Motivation comes from all kinds of places, both internally and externally. You may already have some intrinsic motivation to exercise, such as wanting to be healthier or to get off your high blood pressure medication.
You also need extrinsic motivators to keep exercising. A personal trainer can be that motivator. By hiring a trainer, you’re creating motivation in several different areas:
Your trainer will probably ask about your week, wanting to know if you did your workouts and how your eating plan is going. Knowing that you’ll have to report in can make you less likely to skip your workouts.
There’s nothing like a regular standing appointment to get you in gear for a workout—you don’t want to let down a trainer or yourself.
You’re investing money into reaching your goal. Just showing up for your sessions to make sure you don’t lose the money might be all you need to keep going.
Money isn’t the only thing you’re investing—you’re also putting in the time, which is a precious resource.
7. You Have a Specific Illness, Injury, or Condition
If you have a specific injury or condition, your doctor may want you to exercise—but how do you do that if you’re in pain or have to work around an injury? That’s where an experienced trainer comes in. Trainers work with all kinds of people. Many trainers even have specialties that allow them to work with clients who have special needs.
A trainer might be able to help you with:
Creating a program that works on the areas you need without risking new or re-injury, as well as dealing with old or chronic injuries. Coming up with a fitness plan if you’re pregnant or want to become pregnant. Exercising with chronic health conditions such as arthritis, heart disease, or diabetes. Increasing your balance, core strength, and stability if you’ve had a fall or need to work on those areas. Overcoming back or neck pain.
8. You’re Training for a Sport or Event
An experienced personal trainer can be a huge help if you’re into a specific sport or you’re training for an upcoming event. Whether you’re a golfer, a runner, or into cycling, there’s likely a trainer out there who can help you to up your game. Just make sure they have specific education in an area like sports conditioning or a related field. Specialized trainers can:
Come up with the right workouts:
A sports conditioning trainer knows what exercises to do for a specific sport, such as golf or basketball. They can help you come up with workouts to strengthen the areas you need to work on while avoiding overdoing it.
Create a good training schedule:
Training is about more than working out. You also need to have the right amount of recovery time. A trainer can help you create a schedule that allows your body to get the most out of your workout while also giving it time to heal and recover.
Help you avoid injury:
One major concern in sports is that doing the same motions over and over again can cause an overuse injury. A trainer can help you with cross-training, which allows your muscles to rest or work in a different way.
9. You Want Supervision, Company, and Support During Workouts
Even if you know how to exercise and do so correctly, you might like to have a trainer around for support and supervision. A trainer can help you by:
Being a workout buddy:
A trainer can do more than tell you what to do; they can guide you through your workouts and even do them alongside you.
Keeping you in line:
If you know you tend to slack on your own, a trainer may motivate you to work harder because you know they’re right there watching you.
If you find it hard to exercise on your own, having someone show up at your door (or having an appointment to hit the gym or fitness studio) can get you motivated to show up and do the work.
If you’re lifting very heavy weights, a trainer can help keep you safe and rack your weights as well.
10. You Want to Workout at Home
If you’d like to exercise at home but you don’t have a lot of equipment. Perhaps you aren’t sure how to use what you have. In-home personal training is an excellent choice. Look for trainers in your area who offer that option and you’ll experience lots of benefits including:
You don’t have to pack a bag or drive to the gym if your trainer comes to you.
A trainer might bring equipment with them but can also make recommendations for home exercise equipment. This will help you reach your goals (i.e., equipment that’s worth the investment).
Learning how to workout at home:
A trainer can show you how to use common workout tools like resistance bands, dumbbells, and an exercise ball. A good trainer can also show you how to use unexpected equipment like a staircase, the couch, a chair, or even paper plates.
Not everyone wants to work out in front of other people at the gym. Working out in your own space can be more comfortable and make you feel less self-conscious.
A trainer can also change your workouts as often as you like to make sure you don’t get bored.
What a Session Is Like
A session usually lasts about one hour. Your first meeting with your trainer will be devoted to assessing your fitness level, taking body measurements, talking about the exercise you already do. Also getting a health history, and setting some goals. After your initial meeting, you’ll spend each session doing cardio, weight training, flexibility exercises, or other activities depending on your goals. A trainer will show you how to do each exercise. As well as help you figure out how much weight to use, and give you pointers for getting the most out of your workout.
Before we get started, I’d like to say that I drew heavily from the concepts I learned in Starting Strength to create this material. While Starting Strengthis not a book about powerlifting, it contains more than 300 pages of biomechanical analysis directly relevant to the powerlifts. If you grasp this knowledge, you will begin to develop your own ideas about optimal technique based on physics. I can’t recommend Starting Strength more strongly.
Executing an efficient deadlift is infinitely simpler than justifying what efficient technique actually is. If you’ve been following along with the deadlift article series thus far, you already know the following things:
1) The bar must start over mid-foot 2) The shoulders must start slightly in front of the bar (to establish the 90 degree angle between the lats and the humerus) 3) The hips must start relatively high in order to facilitate both 1) and 2)
Scapula, bar, and mid-foot are all in vertical alignment in the proper deadlift starting position.
If you find yourself shaking your head in disagreement, make sure you check out Part VI and Part VII where the scientific explanation for the necessity of all of the above three points is given.
Borrowing from Coach Mark Rippetoe, here is how to pull the perfect conventional deadlift set-up every single time:
1. Take your stance, feet a little closer than you think they need to be and with your toes out more than you like. Your shins should be about one inch from the bar, no more. This places the bar over the mid-foot – the whole foot, not the mid-instep.
2. Take your grip on the bar, leaving your hips up. DO NOT MOVE THE BAR.
3. Drop your knees forward and out until your shins touch the bar. DO NOT MOVE THE BAR.
4. Hard part: squeeze your chest up as hard as you can. DO NOT MOVE THE BAR. This establishes a “wave” of extension that goes all the way down to the lumbar, and sets the back angle from the top down. DO NOT LOWER YOUR HIPS – LIFT THE CHEST TO SET THE BACK ANGLE.
5. Squeeze the bar off the floor and drag it up your legs in contact with your skin/sweats until it locks out at the top. If you have done the above sequence precisely as described, the bar will come off the ground in a perfectly vertical path. All the slack will have come out of the arms and hamstrings in step 4, the bar will not jerk off the ground, and your back will be in good extension. You will perceive that your hips are too high, but if you have completed step 4 correctly, the scapulas, bar, and mid-foot will be in vertical alignment and the pull will be perfect. The pull will seem “shorter” this way.
Now, I’m sure you’re wondering, “But what about sumo”? Yes, in fact, sumo is just a tiny bit more complicated. For sumo, we need to add an additional step between Steps 4) and 5) and we need to add a final step at the end as well.
The interim step, between steps 4 and 5, is incredibly simple: push your knees out in line with your toes! DO NOT DROP YOUR HIPS. DO NOT MOVE THE BAR. Push the knees OUT in line with the toes without changing any other part of the set-up. Yes, that is it. That’s all you have to do different in terms of sumo set-up.
Deadlift Back Angle
When most people think of sumo deadlifts, they think of a vertical back angle. If you actually analyze a variety of HEAVY sumo pulls from the floor, from the best lifters to novices, you’ll notice that the back is more vertical than a conventional pull, but it is not necessarily upright.
World Record Holder Dan Green’s back angle is very far from vertical here. Photo: Dan’s YouTube Channel
The back may go from a 20 to 30 degree angle in the conventional deadlift to something closer to a 30 to 45 degree angle with the sumo style depending on your anthropometry. Almost no one will present a back angle remotely similar to a squat. Only lifters with long torsos, short femurs, and relatively long arms will have anything resembling an extremely upright sumo starting position.
Do not worry about this. We want high hips. Remember, so long as the scapula, bar, and mid-foot stay in vertical alignment, the pull has been set-up correctly and our leverages have been maximized.
Most people THINK their sumo deadlift starting position should be closer to the picture on the right. In reality, most people will be even more bent over than I am in the left picture (I have long arms and good flexibility).
Deadlift Knee Position
If you do not hold your knees out, you defeat the purpose of pulling sumo for the most part. Remember, the reason that sumo works is because we effectively shorten the length of the thigh segment by holding the thigh at an angle.
When you fail to keep the femurs held in external rotation, and the knees collapse in, the legs are held at less of an angle, the back folds over more, and what you’ve essentially got is a wide stance conventional deadlift. You’ve barely shortened the moment arm between the hips and the bar, which is the primary advantage of sumo, but you still have all the disadvantages that come along with the wider stance. Namely, your hip angle and knee angle are more closed.
When your knees are not pushed out (left), your hips are further away from the bar and your back angle is more horizontal. Compare the position to the one on the right. Get your knees out.
Frankly, this is one huge reason why most people do not experience the benefits of the sumo pull. They simply cannot open their hips adequately. If you cannot get your knees out, due to your hip mobility, hip anatomy, or adductor flexibility, you will simply not incur the biomechanical advantages potentially afforded by the stance.
In my opinion, this is why bigger athletes generally do not excel with the sumo deadlift. Even the heavyweights who pull sumo tend to do so because they’ve gotten too large to perform the conventional deadlift correctly. Most larger athletes have poor mobility. This directly translates to reduced sumo poundages.
If you cannot hold your knees out, you shouldn’t expect optimal sumo performance.
Deadlift Grip Width
If you want to maximize your efficiency in the deadlift, nearly all of your technique should revolve around making the arms as long as possible relative to your other segments. At the end of the day, arm length is the number one determinant of leverage in a deadlift.
The very last thing you want to do is a take a grip width that results in non-vertical arms unless it is absolutely necessary. When the arms hang at an angle, they are effectively shortened.
A wide grip (left) adds two inches of RoM to the bottom AND the top of the pull. Do you pull more from a 2″ deficit or from the floor? Pull with straight arms.
Shorter arms are a bit of a double whammy. They make both the lockout AND the starting position harder. You need to limit this by taking as vertical of a grip as your build will allow. For you conventional pullers out there, if you’re a relatively bigger person, you’re almost always going to have to compromise here somewhat. You need to make room for your legs and stomach inside of your arms. This necessitates a somewhat wider grip.
World’s Strongest Man Brian Shaw is 6’8″, 400lbs+. His large frame necessitates a wider stance and a wider grip to make room for legs and gut. Photo: flexonline.com
For sumo pullers, there is NO EXCUSE for this grip inefficiency. Most people, in the sumo deadlift, will do best with a grip that actually features 1-2 fingers on the smooth part of the knurling. You’ll have to experiment for yourself and find out exactly where you need to put your hands to ensure a vertical grip.
For me, a grip with all fingers on the knurling (right) produces diagonal arms. My arms only hang vertically with two fingers on the smooth (left).
Deadlift Stance Width
With all this in mind, let’s discuss the optimal stance width for both style of pulling.
For the conventional deadlift, it isn’t entirely uncommon to see everything from heels touching (or nearly so) to heels just outside of shoulder width. What is optimal? Well, realistically, the stance width that facilitates vertical arms is optimal. For most athletes, this will be approximately a hip-width stance. A good place to start is to use the exact same stance you would employ for a vertical jump.
However, for bigger athletes, one must be cognizant of the fact that they simply won’t be able to set their back into extension with a narrower stance. Again, they must stand wider to make room for their stomach and legs. They can also consider pulling sumo (if their mobility is adequate) or they can just pull with a round back which is what many heavyweights elect to do.
For sumo pullers, the wider you can effectively stand, the shorter your range of motion and the shorter the moment arm between the bar and the hips. For everyone but the very short, your goal should be to work towards a toes-to-plate (TTP) stance.
Work your way towards the full toes-to-plate sumo stance (left). Semi-sumo (right) isn’t as efficient.
That said, if you can’t keep your knees out, you’ll need to narrow your stance. Most people who pull on a deadlift bar don’t have the flexibility to use a TTP stance. As with squat stance width, your exact stance width needs to be titrated to your ability to keep your femurs held in external rotation. If you can’t keep your knees out, you’re standing too wide. It is really that simple.
Deadlift Foot Position
People very, very often have questions about what the “optimal” foot position is in the deadlift. There are at least two important considerations: hip “mobility” and, for sumo pullers, adductor flexibility.
You need to be able to fully extend your hips at the top of the deadlift. The less mobile you are, the more external rotation of the foot it will require to achieve full extension at the top of the pull.
Here is a quick test.
Take your deadlift stance. Flex your hips as hard as you can. If you can’t get them all the way through to full extension, your feet aren’t pointed out enough. In fact, you’ll notice that as you push the hips forward to full extension, the feet will tend to want to rotate. If you’ve never done this before, you’ll likely discover that you need your feet pointed out a bit more than you like. This one change alone can clean up a lot of lockout problems.
For sumo pullers, in addition to the need to get full hip extension at the top of the pull, you need to be able to keep your knees in line with your toes. Depending your flexibility, this will require a certain amount of external rotation of the foot. You’ll have to test it for yourself. Remember, the knees must stay out
I recommend that you only turn your foot out as much as you need to in order to achieve good positioning. If you can fully extend your hips at the top and keep your knees in line with your toes, your feet are pointed out enough. Further external rotation will decrease your stability. I have seen many sumo pullers miss pulls at the top because they fell backwards. This can be avoided with a foot angle that is pointed further forwards.
Turn your feet out only as much as you need to in order to keep your knees out and to get your hips through.
Though it is impossible to pin down a precise angle, most conventional deadlifters will be best served with a foot angle somewhere between 10-15 degrees and most sumo pullers will want something more between 30 and 45 degrees depending on exactly how wide they’re standing. Again, you have to experiment just a little bit to find the optimal angle for you personally. Keep those knees out and make sure you can fully extend at the top.
The conventional deadlift foot angle will usually be 10-15 degrees.
Deadlift Head Position
When the head is bent forward, the cervical spine drops into flexion. A flexed spine is not as efficient at transferring force as a rigid one. When the neck is cranked into extension, with perhaps an upward eye gaze, you place the neck in an unsafe position. Hyperextension under a load is not something you want.
Though I don’t believe it ultimately makes a tremendous difference to performance, you should aim to hold a neutral head/neck position throughout a pull. This is often best facilitated by looking at a spot on the floor 10-15ft ahead of you.
If your head position changes from neutral to extended during the pull, this is generally a sign of inefficiency. Usually, you’ve gotten forward and the body tries to compensate by throwing as much of its mass behind the bar as possible to get you back over mid-foot. If this is happening to you, make sure you are pulling from mid-foot. This error is usually caused by a starting position that features the bar too far forward.
Conventional Deadlift Execution
Frankly, the conventional deadlift is brutally simple. There are few things to worry about execution wise:
a) Hold your back flat (or prevent it from rounding further if you’re a rounded puller) b) Keep the bar close by dragging it up your shins (do not pull back into the shins; if you draw blood through socks, you might be overemphasizing this) c) Standing up straight at the top of the pull.
As far as keeping the bar close, you can focus on “packing” the lats during the set-up or on dragging the bar up the shin during the pull. Both have the same effect. If the bar gets away from your shins, you’re increasing the moment arm between the hips and the bar and making the pull way harder than it needs to be.
Loose lats (left) ; “Packed” lats (right).
As for keeping your back position from changing, this really comes down to practicing staying tight.
Lastly, just stand straight up at the top of the pull. Leaning way back at the top, by unlocking the knees and hyperextending the spine, is not only unsafe, but you might actually get red-lighted for it if you unlock your knees too much. Just stand straight up. That’s all you have to do anyways. Leaning back does absolutely nothing for you in terms of further muscular recruitment. You’re literally just putting your spine into hyperextension under a load. This is a terrible, terrible idea. If you do this, stop; stop now.
Not only is hyperextending your back (right) an unnecessary waste of energy, you might actually hurt yourself via pinching in the facet joints. Don’t do this. Just stand up straight.
Sumo Deadlift Execution
Remember, that final step I mentioned that had to be tacked on to Coach Rippetoe’s step-by-step deadlift instructions? Well, in the sumo pull, the knees must be locked out early. In a conventional deadlift, the hips and knees can be locked out at relatively the same time with no harm. In the sumo pull, if you get the bar to lockout height without locking your knees, your legs tend to sag and the pull becomes very hard to finish.
Pay particular attention to the 4th and 5th reps of this set to see this error in action:
As soon as the bar passes your knees, you need to get into the habit of jamming the knees into extension. The sumo lockout should be initiated by full knee extension and only then followed by full hip extension. If you get the knees locked early, the top of the sumo deadlift is nothing more than pushing your hips forward a few inches. This is easy; the leverage is great. If you do this without locking your knees, you’ll shake all over the place and you’ll make the lift much harder than it needs to be. I highly recommend studying the technique of the most sound technical lifter in the game (in my opinion), Andrey Belyaev:
Pulling the “Slack” out of the Bar
Many lifters are often cued to “pull the slack out of the bar” before they initiate their pull. This cue falls somewhere between set-up and execution because it is simultaneously the last thing you do in your set-up and the first thing you do to initiate the pull.
If you pull with a deadlift bar, “pulling the slack out” simply means pulling the bar taut. With enough weight on any bar, it will flex a little bit. If you initiate the pull without taking this “flex” out, some of your initial force is wasted because the bar must first flex that little bit before forced can begin to transfer.
Think of a piece of rope tied to something. The rope won’t tug anything until it becomes taut and thus capable of transferring force. You can pull several feet of rope before anything happens if it is loose enough. The same thing happens in a deadlift. Don’t waste energy. Pull the slack out.
This can often times be barely perceptible so look closely. Slack not taken out (left), slack taken out (right).
Keep in mind that this cue is mostly relevant to those who pull on a deadlift bar, but it useful for everyone to know.
Deadlift Grip Tips and Tricks
Outside of grip width, there are a few tricks you can use to either strength your grip or increase the effective length of your hands (and thus your arms).
First, let’s talk about the mixed grip. Far too many people try to hold the bar deep in their palm. Even when you do this, gravity is still going to pull the bar down into your fingertips. In the process, it will pinch a bunch of skin and destroy your calluses. Just start with the bar in your fingers. This not only avoids unnecessary damage to the hands, but it also increases the effective length of your arms.
Do not grip the bar deep in your palm (left). Grip the bar at the base of your fingers (right). This is where it will end up in a heavy pull anyways.
Next, consider how you’re locking your grip in. A lot of people overlap their thumb onto their fingers. Usually, this closes the hand. As in the example above, the bar pulls the hand open a bit anyways. The best way to lock your grip in is by setting your thumb across your finger nail(s). Finger nails, particularly when chalked, provide much more friction than skin. This strengthens the grip and allows the bar to sit further down in the hand.
Instead of using a “finger lock” (right), consider using a “nail lock” (left) to secure your grip. Nails provide more friction and the nail lock lets the bar sit further down in the fingers thus increasing the length of your arm.
Deadlift Hook Grip
The last grip consideration is pulling hook grip. I am a huge fan of hook grip and I believe that, if your hands are big enough, it is the best grip to use.
The hook grip, with the thumb inside, prevents the bar from rolling in the fingers.
Not only does hook grip minimize the chances for a bicep tear, but it also prevents a very common problem experienced in mixed grip: unevenness of the bar. When you try to take a narrow mixed grip, your tricep, on the side of the “under” hand, will turn and “run into” your lat. This tends to throw the underhand forward a little. When the bar is more forward on one side than the other, you get all sorts of imbalances and it can throw off the pull.
Usually, lifters resort to just using a wider grip to ensure their arms aren’t rubbing up against their lats excessively. As we already know, a wider grip means shorter arms. Shorter arms mean a smaller pull. Hook grip eliminates all of these issues and allows the bar to sit about as far down in the hand as is possible with a strong grip.
Notice how when the hands are supinated the triceps are pushed into the lats. This causes all sorts of friction and unevenness in the mixed grip pull.
If you have big enough hands, which I’ll define here as anything over 8” from your longest fingertip to the base of your palm, consider pulling hook grip. So long as you don’t have fat, short fingers, you should be able to strengthen it up enough over time that it is the best and most efficient grip for you.
For those with shorter fingers and smaller hands, you’ll have to find other ways to work around the limitations of the mixed grip. Do your best to keep your arms as vertical as possible.
Chalk and Baby Powder
First of all, I hope it goes without saying that you should be using chalk when you deadlift. If you aren’t, you’re making your grip unnecessarily weak for no reason. In powerlifting, lifting chalk is categorically allowed across all federations. Chalk dries out the skin and greatly increases friction. The result is that your grip is greatly strengthened.
Baby powder is not something that I personally use in training. Baby powder is notoriously hard to clean up and when it gets all over the place, it can become a huge hassle for the gym owner/keeper. Unlike chalk, which just sort of dries things out, baby powder makes them slick. A slick floor can be dangerous.
However, in a meet, baby powder is a fantastic tool. Usually, meets will have a designated area where you can apply baby powder. There are generally two useful places to put baby powder. For all forms of the deadlift, placing baby powder up and down the legs reduces friction as the bar drags against your body. When you pull the bar against your body, you’re fighting both gravity AND fraction. Because baby powder reduces friction, this lets you use a little more of that force towards combating gravity. You’ll lift more pounds and post a bigger total. For mixed grip pullers specifically, consider placing baby powder on lat of your underhand grip side. This will reduce the problems caused by the tricep running into the lat.
Pro tip: do NOT apply the baby powder yourself if you can help it. Avoid getting this stuff on your hands at all costs. If you do get it on your hands, it acts in the exact opposite manner as chalk. Your grip will be significantly worsened and you won’t be able to hold onto anything resembling respectable poundages. Try to get someone to help you rather than risking getting it on your hands.
Practice with it once or twice to see if it will make a difference at your next meet. If you pull sumo, and thus drag the knurling up your legs, I consider it mandatory.
Jordan Feigenbaum pulling with baby powder on his legs. Credit: barbellmedicine.com
Well, guys and gals, that concludes the technique series! I hope this was informative and helpful. If you have questions, now is the time to ask.
As I’ve said before and as I’ll say again, if you enjoy this type of biomechanical analysis. You need to do yourself a favour and grab a copy of Starting Strength.
I’ve mentioned this at the beginning of every article in this series and I’ll continue to do so here: I drew heavily from Starting Strength to create this material. If you enjoy biomechanical analysis, do yourself a favor and pick up a copy of Starting Strength. There is literally no other book in existence that spends 300+ pages analyzing the powerlifts in the context of physics and mechanics. If you grasp this material, you’ll begin to be able to develop your own ideas about optimal technique.
When this article is finished, a full argument for the optimal powerlifting deadlift technique will have been presented and articulated.
Before we can move forward, we need to take a look at what is already behind us. In Part VI, the mechanics behind proper deadlift setup were covered. In particular, Part VI established that: a) the bar must start directly over the middle of the foot, b) the hips must start relatively high, and c) the shoulders will start slightly in front of the bar. If you already find yourself arguing, and you haven’t read Part VI yet, I encourage you to do so now. The rest of this article hinges upon the foundation already laid down there.
To back track a bit further, the very first article in this technique series, Part I, presented a few of the most important criteria for determining optimal powerlifting technique. Chief among those not already mentioned are the ideas that we should minimize all relevant moment arms on the lifter/barbell system and that we should minimize range of motion whenever possible.
This is article is long and extremely detailed because the argument I’m presenting here is complex and very important. Picking a technique that is not optimal for you might cost you records, championships, and other rewards.
Deadlift Moment Arm Analysis
Are there any moment arms at work in the deadlift? As a matter of fact, there are. A short moment arm may exist between the knees and the bar depending on your technique. However, in all forms of the deadlift, a long moment arm between the hips and the bar can be observed. In nearly all instances, proper deadlift technique, for the purposes of powerlifting, involves minimizing this moment arm.
The white arrow represents the moment arm between the bar (orange line) and the hips (red dot).
Sumo Deadlifts The next logical question to ask is if there is any way to shorten this moment arm. And, of course, there is. You may have heard of the one of the more popular techniques used by powerlifters already; we call it the sumo deadlift.
The white arrow represents the moment arm between the bar (orange line) and the hips (red dot).
As in the wide stance low bar squat, the wide stance employed by the sumo deadlift shortens the effective length of the thigh by decreasing the horizontal distance between the knee and the hip. This occurs because the wide stance necessitates that the leg is held at an angle and when the leg is held at an angle, it simply displaces less space horizontally. This is easier to see than to describe.
Note how the sumo stance (right) makes the leg “shorter” from knee to hip.
Rounded Deadlifts There exists one additional way to shorten the moment arm at the hips and it is the more common “trick” used by powerlifters: back rounding. That’s right, rounding your back is probably the single best way to improve your leverage in the starting position of the deadlift. Let’s examine why this is the case.
For one, rounding the back depresses the shoulders which allows the arms to hang lower. This increases the effective length of the arms in starting position.
Notice the difference in bar height just from a tiny bit of upperback rounding. Imagine the difference when your back is in full flexion.
Secondly, rounding the back decreases the effective length of your trunk segment. A straight back will displace more space horizontally, as seen from the side, than a round back will. Basically, your spine’s length doesn’t change. The shortest distance between two points is a straight line. So, with a straight back, you can cover more ground because a straight line more efficiently covers a given distance. A round back, and thus a round line, can’t cover as much distance because it isn’t straight. Sorry if that is pedantic, but, again, this is easier to see than to describe.
Notice the shorter distance between the shoulders and hips with the round back. Also notice the shorter distance between the hips and the bar. Lastly, note the more open hip and knee angles when you round your back.
In combination, the above two factors allow for a greater hip height in the deadlift which does three very important and very interrelated things:
1) A greater hip height allows for the hips to be closer to the bar in the starting position. This reduces the moment arm as seen between the hips and the bar. A higher hip height equals better leverage. Better leverage means less muscular force is required to move the same weight.
2) A greater hip height allows for a more open hip angle. All things equal, a more open joint angle can operate more efficiently than a more closed joint angle. Can you quarter squat more than you half squat? Of course you can. A quarter squat puts the knee joint in a more mechanically advantageous position and has a shorter RoM. The same thing happens to your hip joint when you round your back at the beginning of a deadlift.
3) A greater hip height also corresponds to a more open knee angle in the starting position. This is advantageous for exactly the same reason that a more open hip angle is advantageous.
Rounded Pulling Analysis
So, as of now, we’re left with three pulling styles to consider: the flat-back conventional deadlift, the round-back conventional deadlift, and the sumo deadlift. It is only natural to ask, which is best for the purposes of powerlifting? First, let’s tackle rounded vs. flat and then we’ll address conventional vs. sumo style.
On the surface, a rounded back seems to be a huge win for the purposes of powerlifting. The rounded back decreases the one relevant moment arm in the movement and greatly improves our joint angles in the starting position. However, the case is not so clear because round back pulling constitutes a trade off.
When you pull with a rounded back, you must eventually straighten out your spine. The rules of the deadlift mandate that you stand up straight with your shoulders back. This is not possible with a spine that is in flexion. When you pull with a rounded back, the knees and hips can fully extend without you actually finishing the pull. Why? Because your back is still round; you must stand up straight. Simply put, your back, with no help from the hips or knees whatsoever, must finish the top of the pull all by itself.
What musculature is responsible for extending a curved spine under a load? The answer is the spinal erectors (erector spinae). This is a group of muscles that runs up and down either side of the spine.
Erector spinae’s natural function is isometric. Simply put, the lower back muscles are actually meant to prevent the back from rounding. They are not designed to extend a flexed spine that is under a load. They are inefficient at doing so.
The conventional deadlift has a reputation for being “strong off the floor” and “harder at lockout”. If you think about this, it doesn’t actually make any sense. Near lockout, the hips are closer to the bar, the knees are more open, and the range of motion is shorter. All signs point to this being the easier part of the lift. And it is. This is why people can rack pull (above the knees) far, far more than they can pull from the ground.
So why do conventional pulls get “hard” at lockout? Because the vast majority of competitive conventional pullers round their back. It is extremely difficult for the lower back to “unround” while it is being pulled down by hundreds of pounds. Again, this is not the job the erector spinae were designed to do; they are not good at this job.
The very strong Dave Hansen trying to finish a very round 705 pull.
If this is the case, why do most people round their back? The truth is that the hardest part of the deadlift is actually the bottom part of the range of motion. With a conventional deadlift stance, most people don’t have the isometric lower back strength nor do they have the hamstring strength to break the weight from the floor while holding their back flat.
Remember, rounding improves your leverage in the bottom position in nearly every single possible fashion. So, instead of just leaving the bar there stapled to the floor, the body assumes a position of better leverage by rounding the back bit by bit until leverage is improved enough for the bar to start moving.
Much like using a sink and heave technique in the bench, round back pulling is a way to overcome a weak point in the range of motion using technique. Sure, rounding your back screws up your leverages at lockout, but that doesn’t matter if you can’t even break the weight off the floor if you don’t round.
For those who can hold their back flat off of the floor, the lockout will not be the most difficult part of the range of motion even if they are a conventional deadlifter.
Rounded vs. Flat Pulling
This is all well and good, but the most important question here is should we round our backs or not? The reality is that there isn’t much of a choice for most people. For many people of average proportions, and for most with short arms, they’re simply going to be too bent over in the starting position to hold their back completely flat with a maximal weight.
Note the back angle of each lifter marked by the orange line. The shorter your arms, the more horizontal you’ll be in the starting position. Also note how literally every important moment arm or joint angle is worsened by having short arms.
The more bent over you are in the deadlift starting position, the more difficult it is for the lower back to prevent rounding. Why? Well, the more bent over you are, the longer the moment arm between the back and the bar is going to be. As we’ve already learned, the longer a moment arm is, the more leverage you have to overcome.
The longer the moment arm, the stronger the moment arm. Photograph: Mark Rippetoe. Starting Strength: Basic Barbell Training. Rev. 3rd ed. 2012.
If you have a relatively bent over starting position in the conventional deadlift, due to your body type, the limiting factor in your deadlift will probably always be the lower back. As your back fails to hold flat off the floor, you’ll struggle to “unround” at the top.
However, those who have long arms will typically be upright enough in the deadlift starting position that they don’t need to round their backs very much. The more upright back angle means that they simply don’t need as much isometric lower back strength to maintain their position.
Sumo vs. Conventional
Luckily for those who cannot stop their back from rounding on heavy conventional pulls there is a solution. You can pull sumo. Because the sumo stance shortens the thigh segment relative to the trunk, you don’t have to lean over as much to get the scapula directly over the bar. In other words, sumo automatically allows for a more upright back angle that requires far less lower back strength to maintain.
Note how the sumo deadlift has a much more vertical back angle. This position requires less lower back strength to maintain.
However, much like rounded pulling, sumo pulling also represents a tradeoff. That said, the sumo tradeoff is a much more equitable deal.
As we’ve already demonstrated, when you use a sumo stance, you decrease the moment arm between the hips and the bar. In effect, this makes extending the hips much easier. In addition to the shorter range of motion, this is why sumo pulls have a reputation for being easier to lockout.
The sumo stance shortens your range of motion because standing with your legs at an angle decreases the amount of vertical displacement they cause. In other words, when you stand wide, you’re shorter. Try it for yourself and see. Being shorter with the exact same arm and torso length means your range of motion is also shorter. As always, a shorter range of motion helps.
The orange line represents the height of the bar at lockout in the conventional pull. Notice how much lower it is with sumo.
So, if sumo minimizes both the moment arms and the range of motion involved in the movement, AND removes the lower back as the limiting factor in the kinetic chain, why doesn’t everyone just pull sumo? The answer is that, when the legs are shortened relative to the back, the hips must drop lower in order for the scapula to stay directly over the bar. This both closes the knee and hip angle.
Take a closer look at the knee and hip angles with each stance. Notice how much more open the knee angle is in the conventional deadlift?
The more closed hip angle tends to be mitigated by the shorter moment arm between the hips and the bar; however, there is nothing to mitigate the effects of the more closed knee angle. The reality is that the sumo deadlift requires significantly more quadriceps strength than the conventional deadlift.
Therein lays the tradeoff with the sumo deadlift. Yes, you shorten the range of motion; yes, you minimize the relevant moment arms; yes, you remove the lower back as the weakest link in the chain; BUT, you also make the weakest part of the range of motion, right at the bottom, even harder.
Taking a Stance
So… How should we pull? To answer this, we need to take into account the combination of both your anthropometry (body type) and your individual muscular strengths and weaknesses.
The hardest mechanical part of of the deadlift is breaking the bar from the floor. Off the ground, you must break the bar from the floor from a dead stop. Off the ground, the joint angles are in the most closed position that they will be for the entire lift. Off the ground, your leverage, the distance between the hips and the bar, is the worst that it will be at any point in the lift. The bottom line is that getting the bar off the ground is the hardest part of a raw deadlift.
Look at the back, knee, and hip angles of the bar in each position. Near lockout, every single one improves.
While sumo both improves our overall leverage, by reducing the one significant moment arm at the hips, and shortens our range of motion, it just so happens that it also tends to weaken us right at the hardest part of the lift: the bottom. Remember, sumo often removes back strength as the limiting factor. That said, it often just replaces back strength for leg strength as the main limitation.
For those with short arms, this is generally advantageous. People with short arms are usually so bent over in the starting position that they simply do not have the necessary leverages to stay flat on maximal pulls. Their pulls will always be limited by the ability to unround at the top. Rounding makes the lockout inefficient and forces you to rely upon a muscle group (erector spinae) doing a job that it is not even designed to do.
For those with medium arm lengths, things can go either way. Often times, through a lot of diligent training, people of average proportions can be trained to keep their back relatively flat. They usually still round noticeably, but it doesn’t get so bad that their lockout is completely compromised. Likewise, sumo can often be trained to be the more productive style for these individuals as well. Because they don’t have a naturally upright back angle in the conventional pull, it doesn’t take an inordinate amount of specific training for their leg strength to eventually overtake their back strength. For those of medium arm lengths, the style they pull more with depends more so on their individual muscular strengths and weaknesses than their leverages. Realistically, whichever style they train the most will be their strongest style.
For those with long arms, the conventional deadlift is generally going to be stronger than the sumo pull without a lot of specific training. It is important to understand why. Remember, back strength is often the limitation in the conventional pull. However, it takes less strength, less force production, to hold your back in place when it is at a more upright angle.
Imagine the following scenario. We have two lifters with the exact same lower back strength. However, one lifter has longer arms. The lifter with longer arms will be more upright in the starting position. Even though his back is only just as strong as his counterpart, the more upright back angle will reduce moment force on his back muscles thus allowing him to stay flatter with less effort. This is the advantage of minimizing moment arms. Thanks to his body type, this has already been done for him.
Because of their arm length, and thus naturally more upright back angle, longer armed lifters already tend to be more limited by their leg strength than back strength. Switching to sumo, for them, only exacerbates the problem.
The more naturally upright back angle produced by longer arms tends to shift the weak link in the system from being the lower back to being the legs.
But hold on, what tends to happen when leg strength becomes the limiting factor in a deadlift? The back rounds until leverage improves enough for the bar to leave the floor. That’s right; even for long armed lifters, usually the back will end up rounding anyways. The only difference for longer armed lifters is that, instead of the back rounding due to its own weakness, it rounds to offset the weakness of the legs. Because of this fact, longer armed lifters generally have more success “unrounding” at the top. Their back is still their strong point and they usually have enough in the tank to finish the pull. This isn’t always the case, though. Unless they do something to bring up their legs, eventually, back rounding will lead to missed pulls at lockout.
Bringing It All Together
So it would seem like I am parroting the oft-repeated cliche when it comes to deadlift style: sumo works better for short arms and conventional works better for long arms. Without specific training, this does tend to be the case. But what about with specific training? Now the answer isn’t so clear. Let’s recap what we know.
Regardless of anthropometry (body type), you will always be able to lockout more weight with sumo if you can get it to break the floor. This is primarily due to two things: a) sumo affords you the ability to keep your back flat quite easily due to the very upright back angle, and b) sumo both reduces the range of motion and brings the bar closer to the hips both of which make the lockout far easier. In the end, sumo is always limited by leg strength and the ability to break the bar from the floor.
Regardless of anthropometry (body type), you will always be able to break more weight from the floor with a rounded back conventional deadlift. This is primarily due to two things: a) the rounded back depresses the shoulders and increases the effective length of the arms in the starting position, b) the longer arms, in combination with the shorter, rounded back, open up the knee and hip angle in the starting position thus improving your starting leverages. This said, in the end, regardless of body type, the conventional deadlift is almost always going to be limited by your ability to unround at the top of the pull. And your ability to unround at the top is always going to be limited by lower back strength.
The rounded back puts the legs in a much more favorable position while placing the lower back in a much worse one. Notice how sumo does the exact opposite.
In the end, there is no way around it: each deadlift style is limited specifically by individual muscular strengths and weaknesses. Certain body types influence the relationship one way or the other, but the relationship remains the same. Sumo is limited by the legs and Conventional is limited by the back.
It is my opinion that you will be strongest with the style of deadlift that is suited best to your muscular strengths and weaknesses and not necessarily the style that is best suited to your body type. Again, your body type isn’t irrelevant; body type influences how easy it is, in the context of a heavy deadlift, for the back to be stronger than the legs or visa versa. Ultimately though, it comes down to your muscles and not your bones.
Because of this, my personal recommendation is to use the sumo deadlift. In the end, the “leverages”, as defined by the moment arm length between the hip and the bar, are still better with sumo. The range of motion is still shorter. And if it just comes down to which muscles are stronger, why not pick the style where our strength will go the furthest?
The moment arm at the hips is much shorter with the sumo deadlift. This improves “leverage”.
I’d rather be limited by my legs than my back for training purposes as well. Nearly everyone in powerlifting agrees that there is a unique phenomenon that occurs with regards to training heavy conventional deadlifts: localized lower back fatigue. The “lower back” is a relatively small group of muscles compared to the legs. When smaller muscle groups are exposed to huge loads, they experience huge fatigue. As a result, many powerlifters resort to pulling once every 7-10 days. Some only pull once every other week. Further still, some guys don’t even deadlift at all until they’re at the meet.
Frankly, training a lift that infrequently is not conducive to optimal progress. Shifting the fatigue load over to the legs allows for more frequency and higher volumes than you can use with the conventional deadlift. Not only can you use more frequency and more volume, but the legs are much easier to grow and strengthen than the lower back. The bigger a muscle group is, the more potential it has for mass increase and strength gains.
If you train with a deadlift bar, sumo is even more advantageous. Because deadlift bars bend and flex before they leave the ground, they help out at the bottom of the range of motion while not giving any specific help at at the top. After all, you’re still locking out in exactly the same place. You’re just starting off from a higher position. This higher starting position negates some of the disadvantages of the sumo style. When you have a higher starting position, the knees and hips can assume more open joint angles. Thus, if you pull with a deadlift bar, you’ll get more “carryover” from using the bar if you pull sumo.
Belyaev (top) is using a deadlift bar. Tuchscherer (bottom) is using a stiff bar. Note the difference in bar bend.
Lastly, grip is less of a factor in the sumo deadlift. If you have small hands, this may be an important consideration. For conventional deadlifters, the range of motion is longer, but, generally, so is the time under tension. People who round their backs, even slightly, tend to “grind” out their heavy conventional pulls. Grinding out a rep takes time. Taking that time gives your grip a chance to fail.
If you pull sumo, you either break the bar from the floor or you don’t. Generally, when the bar breaks the floor, it flies right up to lockout. Because breaking the bar from the floor is nearly universally the sticking point in sumo deadlifts, once you pass the sticking point, it is smooth sailing. This reduced time under tension gives less opportunity for the grip to fail. Grip limitations are frustrating and can take quite a bit off of your total. Sumo helps minimize this particular challenge.
To be succinct, I personally recommend the sumo deadlift over the conventional deadlift. The only exception is if you’ve already been training for years and years using the conventional style. It is likely that you’d need also need years for the sumo pull to catch up and surpass your conventional deadlift. For those who are already highly competitive, you might not be able to afford spending years totaling less than you otherwise would had you just stuck to conventional.
Deadlift World Records
I’m sure many of you think I’ve gone off the deep end here. Sumo deadlift… for (nearly) everybody? Sure, why not? If optimal deadlift style depends on individual muscular strengths and weaknesses (and technique which we’ll cover in the next article), why not pick the style that has the better leverage and is easier to train more often and with higher volumes? Why not?
If you think that this recommendation is unprecedented in powerlifting, you’re incorrect. Take a look at the raw world record list:
You’ll notice that nearly all of the lighter weight classes feature records set by sumo pullers. In fact, the 242 record is actually higher than the 275 record (we’ll talk in the next article about why most big guys don’t pull sumo). Next, I’m going to show a highlight video of all the raw sumo world records. I want you to pay attention to arm length:
All of these guys have long arms (besides Belyaev). They still use the sumo deadlift. And they’re world record holders to boot. You can see that even for people with long arms the sumo deadlift still often ends up being the most productive stance for powerlifting.
So, what have we learned? While there definitely exists a relationship between anthropometry and preferred pulling style, ultimately, you can find examples on both sides of the coin, long-armed-sumo, and short-armed-conventional, that seem to defy the stereotype. Why? Because optimal pulling style comes down to individual muscular strength and weaknesses. Body type is the secondary factor. If you have a super strong lower back, you’ll pull more conventional. If you have super strong legs, you’ll pull more sumo.
Ultimately, I recommend pulling sumo. The overall “leverage” is better for everyone, the range of motion is shorter, and it is easier to grow and strengthen the legs than it is to grow and strengthen the lower back. With sumo, you can pull for more volume and pull more often. In the end, I believe this leads to a stronger training effect. Check the world records. They seem to verify this exact sentiment.
At one point, Ed Coan owned four deadlift world records. Ed pulled sumo.
Again, I have to stress, if you enjoy this type of biomechanical analysis, you really need to do yourself a favour and pick up Starting Strength. All of the principles and tools I’ve used here can be distilled from reading that text. Trust me, the book isn’t just about the program; it is about physics and biomechanics as well.
In Part VIII, we’ll cover sumo deadlift technique. Unlike the conventional deadlift, which you can mostly “grip-and-rip” with good success, the sumo deadlift requires a significant amount of flexibility and technical skill. If you don’t perform the movement correctly, you get none of the advantages of the stance and you keep all the disadvantages. Technique is paramount to being a good sumo puller.
Whether you pull sumo or conventional, stay tuned for Part VII. Technique tips, tricks, and advice will be given that is pertinent to both styles.
I have to make it abundantly clear that many of the biomechanical principles and physics applications in this article are derived from Mark Rippetoe’s Starting Strength. If you enjoy discussions on leverage and optimizing technique, do yourself a favor and grab a copy of the book.
Of the three powerlifts, the conventional version of the deadlift is by far the simplest both in terms of set-up and execution. Despite this fact, among all three lifts, the deadlift is the lift most commonly misperformed by powerlifters all across the globe. As such, our deadlift analysis, unlike the other lifts, is going to take three phases.
First, we need to re-establish the scientific principles that govern proper powerlifting technique specifically as they relate to the deadlift. Second, we’ll analyze deadlift form and derive a model that optimizes the movement for powerlifting. Lastly, we’ll discuss how to actually perform the deadlift correctly.
The following article will attempt to establish three very interrelated things: a deadlift should begin with high hips, the front of the shoulders slightly in front of the bar (scapulas directly over the bar), and the bar must be pulled directly over the middle of the foot in a straight line.
The Vertical Bar Path
As discussed in Part I of this series, the human body balances directly over the middle of the foot. This doesn’t change in the deadlift. In powerlifting, lifters are often cued to “stay back” or “pull from their heels”. Understand that the point of these cues is to correct an exaggeration in the opposite direction. Namely, when a lifter has a bad habit of getting onto his toes during a lift, telling him to get on his heels tends to have the net effect of just getting him back over the middle of his foot.
Part I also argued that, in order to maximize efficiency, all work done should be work done against gravity. In order for this to happen the bar path has to be as vertical as we can manage because gravity operates strictly in the vertical plane. Any non-vertical displacement represents work not done against gravity. This work doesn’t help us complete the lift; it just wastes energy.
Both lines cover the same vertical distance but the bent line (left) is longer.
Work can be defined as force times distance. The shortest distance between two points is a straight line. A non-vertical bar requires us to move the bar further even though it travels the same vertical distance. The non-vertical bar path therefore requires us to do more overall work. We want to do less work so we can move more weight.
Hip Height in the Deadlift
These facts are both highly relevant to the deadlift discussion because the single most common and persistent form error on the deadlift occurs when lifters attempt to drop their hips too low to begin the movement. In fact, many coaches teach this as the correct way to pull. Further analysis reveals why this is incorrect.
When the hips are dropped too low, the shins incline and knock the bar forward of mid-foot. This creates a moment arm between the mid-foot and the bar.
Notice that as the hips come up, the bar moves closer to mid-foot. Even the picture on the right presents hips that are a little too low (my bad).
The further you drop your hips, the longer this moment arm becomes. In fact, because deadlifts are so heavy, most pulls simply don’t leave the floor in this manner; the moment arm is too great to overcome. When the lifter drops their hips, the bar simply stays glued to the ground until the hips raise high enough for the bar to return to mid-foot. Lifters then complain that their hips “rise too early” in the pull when in reality their set-up is completely wrong. As it so happens, this even happens to the greatest powerlifter of all-time, Ed Coan:
Go to about 32s into the video. Watch Ed drop his hips and push the bar forward. Now, move the video forward frame by frame. Do you see that the bar doesn’t leave ground until Ed’s hips come up and the bar returns to mid-foot? Why not just start there? When you start with the hips low, your body has to stay under tension longer because of that extra second you spend waiting for the hips to adjust to the correct height. This extra second of isometric effort takes a lot of energy. This is energy better used to pull heavier weights.
So, what’s the take away here? The correct deadlift starting position mandates that the bar remain directly over mid-foot. This is only possible with minimal inclination of the shins. When you drop your hips low, your shins assume an angle which makes it impossible for the bar to remain over mid-foot. This greatly decreases efficiency. The hips must remain relatively high when we pull because there is no other way to keep the bar directly over the middle of the foot. Sorry for being a bit repetitive there, but this is something that must sink in.
Deadlift Shoulder Position
Just as the body balances over the middle of the foot, the arms, when hanging, have a balance point as well. Though the following anatomical description isn’t perfectly accurate, it will work for our purposes: the humerus (upper arm bone) is suspended by muscle and ligament from the scapula; the “arm” articulates in the shoulder joint which is attached at the scapula.
Note relationship of the scapula and the humerus.
This being the case, the arms require the least amount of effort to be balanced when they hang plumb from shoulders and the scapula. Think of a dumbbell front raise. This movement purposely takes advantage of the moment arm that is created between the dumbbell and the shoulder joint, transmitted along the arm, in order to stress the front deltoid.
The white arrow represents the moment arm created between the bar and the shoulder.
This is all just a fancy way of saying that when your arms hang directly down from your shoulders they’re balanced. But not the front of your shoulders. And not the back of your shoulders, either. Your “arms”, the humerus specifically, hang plumb from the scapulae because that is what they are suspended from.
So, all in all, we want the scapulae directly over the bar to eliminate any potential moment arm between the scapular balance point and the bar being held in the hands.
Deadlift Arm Angle
If you’re following what we’ve been saying thus far, we’re currently left with a model where the bar is both directly over the middle of the foot (where our body balances) and directly underneath the scapulae (where are our arms balance).
This leaves us with a position where the arms are hanging perfectly vertical to the bar. There is one big problem. The arms don’t hang vertically in a heavy deadlift!
Note the angle of Ed’s arms here. There is a ~10 degree inclination
What gives? Let’s break it down.
When the arms are inclined, the arm is thrown out of vertical alignment with the shoulder joint. The bar will still rest in the hands directly under the scapula, but gravity will attempt to pull the arm into the greatest position of balance with the shoulder joint, arm, and scapula all aligned vertically. So, some muscle group(s) must be responsible for holding the arm at this inclined angle; some muscle group(s) must combat the tendency of gravity to pull the arms plumb to the shoulders.
The bar wants to swing out directly underneath the shoulder (left). The lats keep it from doing so (right).
As it turns out, this is properly the job of the lats. Before we get to that, we need to talk about hip position. When the arms are inclined, and the bar remains directly over mid-foot and directly under the scapulae, the hips can be held higher and thus closer to the bar. This is going to reduce the moment arm between the hips and the bar. As we’ve learned in Part I of this series, when the relevant moment arms are shortened, the movement becomes easier.
Consider the following three positions:
The arrows represent the moment arm between hips and the bar. As the hips raise, the moment arms shorten because the hips get closer to the bar
You’ll notice that as the arms become more and more inclined, the hips raise and get closer and closer to the bar. The net effect is that the moment arm between the hips and the bar is reduced thus improving our leverages. This raises the question: why don’t we incline our arms even more, push our shoulders even further out in front of the bar, and get our hips even closer to the bar?
Now we can get back to the lats. You see, the lats also attach to the humerus. They are the muscle group responsible for pulling on the arms and keeping them at the inclined angle they assume in heavy pulls. The amount of force required to do this is immense. As such, the lats have to maximize their efficiency by assuming the optimal angle of relationship.
Let me ask a question. At what angle is a wrench most effective when trying to turn a bolt? The answer is 90 degrees to the bolt. This is because a right angle is the angle which maximizes the length of the moment arm.
Moment arms are shorter and thus less effective when not operating at right angles. Photograph: Mark Rippetoe. Starting Strength: Basic Barbell Training. Rev. 3rd ed. 2012.
Similar to the fact that a wrench is most effective when held at 90 degrees from the object which you are trying to rotate, the lats are most effective when held at 90 degrees from the objective which they are trying to stop from rotating.
A 90 degree angle between the lats and the humerus is one of the primary determinants of proper hip height in the deadlift.Photo: Starting Strength 3rd Edition, Mark Rippetoe, 2014.
This is why the front of the shoulders must start slightly in front of the bar. In no other position, with either the shoulders more forward or more backward of the bar, can the lats operate at their maximum angle of efficiency while maintaining a bar position directly underneath the scapula. With the shoulders either further ahead or further behind the bar, you end up creating a position where the arms are out of alignment with the scapula or where the lats are operating from an angle other than 90 degrees.
Bringing It All Together
All we’ve done at this point is establish three important diagnostic checks for a proper deadlift starting position: 1) Is the bar over mid-foot? 2) Is the bar directly underneath the scapula? 3) Are the shoulders slightly in front of the bar?
If yes, we’ve at least started correctly.
Proper alignment in the deadlift start positions occurs when the bar is directly over the mid-foot and directly underneath the scapula with the shoulders slightly in front of the bar.
If you enjoyed this type of biomechanical analysis, I implore you to consider grabbing a copy of Mark Rippetoe’s Starting Strength. While I did my best to cover some of these topics in article form, there is nothing quite like 300+ pages of thorough discussion on a topic like this. If you want to learn more about how to apply classical mechanics to powerlifting, Starting Strength is a great resource.
In Part VII, we’re going to analyze deadlift form leverages and determine the optimal technique for the purposes of powerlifting.
If you weren’t aware by now, a lot of the concepts in this Powerlifting Technique series were distilled directly from Mark Rippetoe’s Starting Strength. While I’ll do my best to convey these complex topics in stream-lined article form, if you find yourself wanting more, note that Starting Strength contains 300+ pages of this type of discussion. It isn’t just a book about a novice program. You can grab a copy here.
In my opinion, the bench press is by far the most technically challenging movement of the three powerlifts. Because of this, the bench press is also the powerlift where you will see the greatest technical variety. And because of this, many would suggest that it simply isn’t possible to prescribe an optimal model for powerlifting that can be applied across populations.
My full bench set-up.
Bench Press Set-Up
Excuse my simplicity here, but all of the powerlifts can be divided into two distinct phases: set-up and execution. In all three lifts, the execution phase is simple compared to the set-up. Both phases will be covered in this article, but we shall begin with the more challenging set-up phase.
A powerlifter interfaces with the equipment apparatus at five important points: 1) Hands with the bar 2) Head with the bench 3) Shoulders with the bench 4) Butt with the bench 5) Feet with the ground
Each of these five distinct contact points present critical technical issues worthy of analysis and careful thought. No single aspect can be glossed over and they all deserve adequate attention.
Let’s begin in order.
Bench Press Grip
While Part IV has already established that as wide of a grip as possible should be used, I will briefly note that some part of the forefinger must be in contact with the “power rings” which are spaced 81cm apart on a properly marked bar.
Bar Placement However, where the bar is positioned in the hand is also of critical importance. Far too many novice lifters place the bar towards the top of the palm near the fingers. This creates an unnecessary moment arm between the wrist and the bar.
As we’ve learned in the foundational article of this series, the creation, or elongation, of moment arms increases the leverage we must overcome to complete the lift. This will directly translate to a decrease in efficiency and thus less weight will be lifted.
In order to minimize any moment force on the wrist joint, the bar must be placed as close to the heel of the palm as possible. In fact, proper grip technique entails first placing the bar at the end of the hand and only then wrapping the fingers around the bar. Most lifters reverse this order and it creates a small moment arm between the wrist and the bar.
Most people carry the bar too far back in the hand (left). Carry the bar as close to the heel of the palm as possible (right).
Thumbless Grip Many lifters employ a “suicide” grip. Why are they doing this? Well, often times, this grip allows them to get the bar closer to the wrist joint. If the bar rests in the back of the hand, switching to a suicide grip will indeed increase efficiency. However, this increased efficiency comes at a cost. Maximal muscle recruitment is decreased when the hands cannot fully “squeeze” what the arms are pushing.
If you doubt this, take your one rep max on a standard barbell and compare it to a max taken on a fat bar. The results should be enlightening.
The long and short of it is that, so long as you put the bar at the heel of your palm anyway, the suicide grip provides no competitive advantage. Not only is a thumbs-around grip safer, it is more effective as well. You should literally try to “leave your fingerprints on the bar”; squeeze it as hard as possible.
Notice how the thumbless grip (bottom) is actually further away from the wrist joint than the properly utilized thumbs-around grip (top).
Reverse-Grip Every so often you’ll see the rare lifter who prefers to use a reverse-grip bench. The reverse-grip should not be used by anyone who has the ability not to use it. Put another way, the reverse-grip is really only useful for those whose shoulder health does not permit a prone grip.
The reason for this is that, in order to maintain a position where the elbows are under the bar, the reverse-grip necessitates a much longer moment arm between the bar and the shoulder.
The reverse-grip bench (left) creates a much longer moment arm between the bar and the shoulder (represented by the white arrow).
Wrist Wraps It is my personal opinion that for all but the tallest and widest lifters, the wide grip bench press should not be performed without the use of wrist wraps. In lifters with smaller frames, wider grips tend to produce radial deviation of the wrist joint.
Note the unnatural angle that the hand and wrist sit at due to the grip width. This is called radial deviation. It isn’t safe. Wide grip benching necessitates wrist wraps.
Without wraps to help absorb these forces, the wrists very may well be damaged. If you do not own a pair of wrist wraps, you’ll need to narrow your grip.
It is important to note that many federations require the head to remain flat on the bench throughout the movement.
Unfortunately, there is no clear cut answer on what to do with your head during the bench press. However, I do think it is relatively clear that particular styles benefit more from the raised head than others. Let’s start there.
For those of you with a “low” touch point (further away from the shoulder), raising the head can be advantageous. Most shirted benchers raise their head because it raises the stomach/upper ab area thus making it easier to touch. Well, the same logic can be applied if you prefer to touch low in order to have the shortest range of motion possible. Lifting your head will further cut that range of motion.
However, if you tend to bench in more of a straight line, with a touch point closer to the shoulders, I’d strongly recommend against lifting the head. Lifting the head tends to depress the chest because lifting the head tends to cause a bit of thoracic rounding. Additionally, the head helps anchor the shoulders in place by preventing you from sliding. Not only that, the muscles of the neck can actually contribute to the movement itself if you dig them into the bench during the press. This is one reason people talk about “pushing the bench away from you” rather than pushing the bar away from you. Such cues improve overall tightness, muscular recruitment, and thus force transfer and the amount of weight you lift.
Head up, low touch bench press (left) vs. high chest, straight line bench (right).
The ability to set a high, tight arch is probably the single most important technical aspect of the competitive powerlifting style bench press. The remaining positions of the as-of-yet undiscussed contact points, the shoulders, butt, and feet, are completely dependent on the arching method selected.
Shoulders There is one exception. For all forms of benching, the shoulders should be held in a position of maximal scapular retraction.
Retracting the scapulas does two important things for us. First, it increases the stability of your shoulders on the bench by tightening the upperback. Second, the active retraction will pull the shoulders themselves further back into the joint socket which will decrease your overall range of motion. The scapulas must be held in retraction during the entire movement.
Full scapular retraction (left); zero scapular retraction (right).
As with head position, some federations mandate a flat foot.
There are two common positional questions regarding the feet in the bench press: 1) Should the entire foot be flat or should you lift on your toes? 2) Should the feet be tucked back beneath the lifter or more out in front of him?
Much like head position, the answer depends primarily on your bench press stroke.
Tucking your feet behind you tends to produce the largest overall arch because it allows for greater hyperextension of the lower parts of the spine (both thoracic and lumbar). This is due to the fact that tucking your feet behind you allows you to put the nearly entire lower body, even the hips, into a position of hyperextension. If the whole chain is hyperextended, you get a better arch. However, with this style of arching, the highest contact point tends to be the top of the abs or the bottom of the sternum. For those of you who prefer lower points, this is obviously ideal.
Having your feet out in front doesn’t tend to allow for the same level of arching, but it does allow for a more solid interface with the ground. This both improves leg drive and the ability to drive one’s weight onto their traps. With more of the weight on your traps, you tend to get a higher “chest” position closer to the shoulder even though the overall height of the arch is less. For those of you with straight line benches, this is preferable.
Note the different angle of the arch with the feet behind (left) versus when they are in front (right).
How to Arch on the Bench Press
While there are a thousand subtle variations of how to set-up an arch, I’m going show you two of the best methods: the slide through and feet on the bench.
The Slide Through 1) Start with your feet as close to the head of the bench as possible (on toes) 2) Sit-up on the front side of the bar (body on the wrong side of the bar) 3) Push your toes into the ground and use the bar against the pins to slide into an arch 4) Without moving your feet, push the uprights to set the arch deeper 5) Fight your heels flat (optional, depending on federation)
Feet on Bench 1) Place your head on the bench exactly where you want it to be in the final position 2) Pick your feet up off of the ground and put your heels on the bench 3) Walk your feet as close to your shoulders as possible while pushing up into an arch 4) Kick your feet back off of the bench one at a time 5) Fight your heels flat (optional, depending on federation)
Bench Press Leg Drive
Leg drive is a concept that falls somewhere between set-up and execution. Realistically, leg drive is involved in both phases. If you’re unfamiliar with the concept, leg drive, as it pertains to the bench press, is literally the active engagement of the lowerbody by pushing the ground with your feet. You “drive” your legs into the ground, hard.
Leg drive can be used in one of two ways. The first method simply helps to take the slack of the system. If you push the ground with your feet, you extend the kinetic chain to the ground. The force transferred from your legs tightens up your entire body and translates to a bigger arch and a higher chest position. As we’ve heard a thousand times already, a tighter set-up means more weight lifted.
Leg drive should begin during the set-up and it should be maintained throughout the entire lift. Just as you don’t let your air out during a big lift, you don’t stop with your leg drive either. Get tight.
The second method of using leg drive involves purposely leaving some slack in the lower body. With this method, the lifter waits until he is given the press command before he initiates his full leg drive. This creates a “jolt” effect that gets the bar started. I do not recommend this technique because it relies upon first being loose and then getting tight afterwards. I’m a proponent of staying tight throughout the lift. We’ll talk more about this when we get to whether or not you should sink the bar into your chest in the execution phase.
Zero leg drive (left); Using leg drive (right). Notice the position of the heels in both pictures. On the right, the heels are being driven down as the lifter engages leg drive. Look how much tighter the set-up is.
Lat Engagement in the Bench Press
Lately there has been a great deal of controversy over whether or not the lats actively contribute to moving the bar at the bottom of the bench press. That is an article for another time, though. What is important is that the lats, like leg drive, need to be activated and engaged at the end of your set-up and throughout your lift.
Tightening the lats is critical for two very important reasons. For one, contracting the lats improves overall tightness. Overall tightness improves our lifting. Two, when you contract the lats, the muscle belly shortens – both ends of the muscle are pulled closer together. This “shortens” the effective length of your upper back and drives your chest upward. The lats, in the context we’re discussing here, drive your chest up.
If you can’t flex your lats simply by thinking about it, the best cue I’ve learned to engage them is “break the bar”.
Not breaking the bar (left); Breaking the bar (right).
When you “break the bar”, you internally rotate your shoulders and this motion tends to lock down the lats. Making sure that you set your lats before the hand-off ensures that your chest is as high as possible and that your tightness is maximized.
Notice how when the lats are contracted (right), it pulls the shoulders closer to the butt thus raising the chest? Tighten your lats.
Bench Press Execution
Virtually every important technical aspect of bench press execution has to do with either where you touch your chest or how you touch your chest. Because we’ve already extensively dealt with where to touch, at least peripherally, this section will focus on how you touch your chest.
Breathing But first, we need to talk about breathing. The bench press, like all of the other powerlifts, should be done on a single breath. When you breath out, air escapes the lungs and this collapses the height of your chest. Additionally, holding your breath increases intra-abdominal pressure which improves stability and thus force transfer. Again, this is the importance of the magic “get tight cue”. The less slack the system has, the less force will be lost tightening that slack and this directly translates to more weight being lifted.
”Tucking” One of the most frequently given cues in the bench press has to do with “tucking” the elbows. This is an obnoxious cue and, depending on what is being taught, generally a bad one.
“Overtucking” occurs when a lifter attempts to keep his elbows so close to his body that they actually end up pulling the elbow out of line with the wrist entirely. This is poor form. When the elbow is pulled out of line with the wrist, an unnecessary lever arm is created between the bar and the elbow.
Overtucking the elbows brings them out of line with the bar and makes the lift harder.
If you just focus on touching where you’re supposed to touch given your technical style, the necessary amount of “tuck” handles itself. This is due to the fact that the body doesn’t generally voluntarily create unnecessary moment arms. It is harder to bench with the wrist out of line with the elbows and the lifter will perceive this fact. They’ll naturally avoid overtucking.
The “tuck” cue comes from shirted benchers who touch very, very low on their chest. This cue makes some sense for them. The shirt is going to fight that low touch position. Focusing on “tucking” improves their chances of touching where they want to. Raw lifters don’t deal with these forces and, generally speaking, they don’t need to be cued to “tuck” — at all.
Sinking vs. Holding Sinking the bar into your chest is not technically against the rules. As long as you don’t sink it further after the press command, there is nothing in the rulebook that says you can’t do this. Dan Green tends to bench this way.
However, I am not a fan of this style of benching. Generally, when lifters sink, they relax the entire chain and, then, when given the press command they try to quickly JOLT the system tight again. This produces a pop effect right off of the chest. However, it also frequently puts the lifter out of position or throws them out of their groove because they had to loosen up in order to then produce that tightening jolt. This decreases reliability and repeatability in the movement pattern.
Lifters who employ the sink and jolt technique usually do so to compensate for a weak RoM right off the chest. The jolt messes up the rest of the range of motion but as long as they can beat their sticking point, it is worth it for them.
Personally, I’d rather see lifters flatten out their force curve through their training rather than their technique. In this manner, they can keep the more efficient, “tighter” bench set up while still getting past those sticking points. Through the course of a lifter’s development, his sticking points will change. The sink and jolt technique only works best for those who are weak at the bottom. If they work hard to fix that issue through smart exercise selection and effective programming, the sink and jolt then becomes a technical weakness they must completely overhaul.
I’d rather stick with the technique that can be mastered over many years rather than use a compensatory technique. That’s just me. It might be worth it for you to try both methods. That said, my personal opinion is that the “hold” style of pausing is more efficient.
Dan Green sinks his bench presses.
Bringing It All Together
We’ve now covered some of the most relevant and important aspects of the most technically challenging powerlift: the bench press. Now, I want to walk-through a competition bench press rep, step-by-step to make sure that the entire process is crystalized in your mind.
Step 1: Set your grip width Step 2: Set your arch Step 3: Get tight: bend and squeeze the bar, take big air Step 4: Take your hand off, lower the bar down and pause Step 5: PRESS!
I know that was a massive amount of information to digest. Technique articles often don’t work as well as technique videos. If you prefer live demonstrations of many of the things discussed above, check out this video:
Guys, I can’t say it enough. If you’ve enjoyed this type of biomechanical analysis of the lifts, you will love Mark Rippetoe’s Starting Strength. The topics covered here are extended to over 300 pages in that text.
In Part VI of this series on powerlifting technique, we’ll analyze the biomechanics behind the deadlift. My opinions on the subject are definitely a bit controversial, but, as usual, they’ll be 100% backed by mechanical analysis.
I don’t care if I sound like a broken record: the principles used to create the optimized powerlifting bench press technique in this article were distilled from Mark Rippetoe’s Starting Strength. If you find yourself enjoying this type of analysis, you’ll love Starting Strength. Do yourself a favor and snag a copy of the book..
In the foundation article of this series, the concept of moment arms was introduced. The sum total length of all relevant moment arms on the lifter/barbell system equates to the amount of leverage the lifter must overcome to complete the lift. If you’re not aware of what a moment arm is, see Part I.
For lifters with “poor” leverages, 405lbs is not the same 405lbs that is for a lifter with “good” leverages. In fact, the strongest lifter doesn’t always win on a given lift. Sometimes, it is the lifter with the more advantageous body type. And, more importantly, sometimes it is the smarter lifter who knows how to manipulate the leverages of a given lift to his favor. Let’s analyze how we can do that in the bench press.
If you don’t mind missing out on a few of the finer details, the following video summarizes this article well:
Balance and The Shoulder Joint
In the squat, the mid-foot is the balance point of the system. Any time you bring the center of mass (CoM) of a system out of line with its balance point, you create an unnecessary moment arm. In much the same way that it requires greater effort to stay afoot when you’re leaning backwards, it takes greater effort to move a weight when it is being moved out of balance.
In the bench press, the shoulder joint is this point of balance; the shoulder joint represents the fulcrum of the system. Consider a wrench once more. The bolt is the fulcrum and the wrench handle is the moment arm. And the shorter the handle the less effective the wrench will be. Because our shoulder is that “bolt”, we want to minimize any moment arms in order to improve our leverages.
Benching in a Straight Line
Wait a minute; am I essentially advocating a straight line bench? In a perfect world, a straight line bench would be the most mechanically efficient way to press. However, due to the anatomical construction of the vast majority of shoulders, this is impossible.
You see, shoulder joints tend to “impinge” when the elbows travel in a line parallel to the bar. When you reach somewhere around 90 degrees, the bony parts of the shoulder run into rotator cuff. Over time, you can literally saw a hole into your rotator cuffs by benching with your elbows completely flared. This is why the bench press has a reputation for being a shoulder destroyer. Performed incorrectly, the movement can and will cause impingement which, over time, will lead to shoulder degradation.
If our career in the sport is to be a long one, and it should be in order to give us the necessary time to maximize our genetic potential, we must preserve the health of our shoulders. This requires benching with a non-vertical bar path
Avoiding Shoulder Impingement in the Bench Press
So, this raises the question. Exactly where should the bar touch on the chest in a bench press designed for optimal powerlifting performance? The answer is remarkably similar to our answer for squat stance width.
As you might expect, there are several common genetic variations when it comes to the shoulder joint. For some, impingement will occur with less shoulder rotation than others. Unfortunately, there is no way to prescribe a specific touch point except on a case by case basis. First and foremost, you must protect your shoulders. In order to do this, you’ll have to experiment to see what you can personally get away with. The closer to the joint, the more mechanically efficient you will be.
This is your shoulder joint.
This said, there are some ways that everyone can “move” their ideal touch point closer to the shoulder joint itself.
Bench Press Grip Width
Remember, impingement is going to happen at a particular degree of shoulder rotation given a certain amount of shoulder abduction (shoulder abduction is the degree to which the elbows are flared; 90 degrees being completely parallel to the bar). By taking a wider grip, we can decrease the amount of distance the bar has to travel in order to achieve full range of motion.
Look at the yellow arrows pointing to the catches on each upright. The wide grip bench (right) clearly cuts off 2-3″ of RoM compared to the narrower grip.
A wider grip also allows us to get closer to the shoulder before impingement starts to occur. Because the range of motion has been shortened, you’re getting “deeper” with the bar for the same amount of shoulder rotation. What this means in practical terms is that you don’t have to touch as far down your chest as you normally might with a closer grip.
However, I must make a cautionary note. Grip width itself will present shoulder problems for some anatomical variations of the shoulder joint. In this case, the same principles still apply, but the exact grip width must be moderated. Essentially, use the widest grip you can tolerate without pain. In the context of your circumstances, this will still result in the shortest range of motion possible and the touch point that is closest to your shoulder joint.
In sum, the wider grip both significantly decreases the range of motion and shortens the lever arm between the shoulder and the bar. Both of these factors will allow for more weight to be lifted even absent a gain in strength.
The Bench Press Arch
Developing a good arch in your back is one of the most critical components to perfecting your bench press technique.
Notice the elbow height relative to the bench pad. When you arch (left), you cut the range of motion another several inches.
First, let’s address the obvious. The arch significantly decreases the range of motion of the movement. In much the same way that you will always quarter squat more than you can squat to depth, you’ll always bench more with an arch versus what you can bench without an arch.
However, the arch also allows for a closer touch point to the shoulder for exactly the same reason that the wider grip does: less range of motion means less degrees of shoulder rotation at a given distance from the chest.
Shoulder impingement happens after a certain degree of shoulder rotation when the bar is traveling directly over the shoulders. Both positions start at 0 degrees of shoulder rotation. Which one do you think will cause impingement further away from the chest? Both arrows are the same exact size.
In combination, a wide grip and a sizeable arch allow a lifter to minimize the moment arm between the shoulder and the bar. If that wasn’t enough, this potent combination can also reduce your range of motion by ~6” depending on the size of your frame.
This is why we can have a 14 year old, 130lbs girl benching 255:
Touch Point in the Bench Press
So, let’s bring this all together. The shoulder joint represents the balance point, the fulcrum, in the lifter/barbell system during the bench press. While avoiding shoulder impingement, we want to touch as close to this joint as possible. In order to do this, we take as wide grip of a grip as we can manage without pain. We also use as big of an arch as possible.
Your personal touch point will be determined by a combination of all of the following factors: anthropometry (your segment lengths; arms, torso, etc.), the size of the arch you can produce, the width of the grip your shoulders can tolerate, and the highest point on your chest as a result of your arch.
Let’s address that last point. Sometimes, due to the way your body is constructed, it will be worth it to touch slightly further away from your shoulders in order to cut down on your range of motion. For example, some guys have bellies so large that, for them, touching the highest part of the abdominal wall allows them to cuts several inches off of the range of motion. Even though this increases the moment arm between the bar and the shoulder, they end up moving more weight due to the decreased range of motion and the improved leverage of their bottom position (joint angles when the bar touches).
The ideal spot to touch is a compromise between the highest touch point (right) and the straightest bar path (left).
All in all, the bench press touch point takes quite a bit of personal experimentation, but always keep in mind that, as in all of the powerlifts, you’re looking to minimize both the moment arms involved and the range of motion. Sometimes, you need to make a compromise between the two. Within this very, very small band of bench technique, you will actually have to find “what works for you”.
Bench Press Bar Path
Now that we’ve established that benching in a straight line is impossible when we stay over the shoulder joint, we have to wonder what is the precise way that we should move the bar?
The sooner we can get the bar back over our shoulder joint, the better. This is the position of best leverage. When the bar is over the shoulder joint, there is zero moment force between the shoulder and the bar. So, instead of perhaps a backwards diagonal line, a proper bench press employs a “J” curve bar path.
The proper bench press bar path.
The “J” curve allows us to most quickly get the bar back in line with our shoulder joint without causing any impingement. In terms of application in the weight room, this means your initial push is actually going to be up AND back. Once the bar finds the “groove”, right above the shoulder, you’ll be pushing straight up to lockout. That first part will be curved, though. And, overall, the bar path will resemble a “J”.
In this bench press form analysis we’ve established that the best way to bench for the purposes of powerlifting, the way that both minimizes range of motion and the relevant leverage on the system, includes as wide of a grip as possible and as big of an arch as possible. It also includes a touch point that compromises between being as close to the shoulder joint as possible without causing impingement and touching the highest point of the lifter’s arched body.
If you liked this article, you’d love Starting Strength. The book contains more than 300 pages of detailed biomechanical analysis and applied classical mechanics with the lens directly focused on the powerlifts. The foundation of my technique knowledge was forged through the book.
In the next installment of this series on powerlifting technique, we’ll cover how you actually bench. In Part V, I’ll describe and demonstrate all of the following: the optimal amount of elbow tuck, how to set-up an arch, how to get “tight”, how to use your lats in the bench press, and a variety of my favorite tips, tricks, and cues for increasing bench press performance.
Many of the core, foundational biomechanical principles discussed in this article were gleaned from Mark Rippetoe’s Starting Strength. Though the book is not about powerlifting per se, it contains over 300 pages of discussion on how to apply classical mechanics to the powerlifts. I highly recommend getting a copy of the book if you consider yourself a student of the game.
The first article in this series laid out the basic scientific principles that govern Powerlifting technique. Namely, the bar must travel in a vertical line directly over the middle of the foot in order for the lift to be efficient.
In the second installment, specifically focusing on squat mechanics, the wide stance, low bar squat was proposed as the best squat for the sport of powerlifting. The wide stance, low bar squat reduces our range of motion, allows us to be more upright, emphasizes using the larger, stronger posterior chain over the quads, and it also allows us to manipulate our leverages to make the lift easier. If you’re arriving here without having read Part II, I highly suggest that you do so now.
I realize that technique articles are simply not as effective as videos. If you’d prefer a shorter, but more visually oriented explanation of the PowerliftingToWin squat technique, check out this video:
How to get into Low Bar Position
For the high bar squat, all we have to do is place the bar on top of our traps and we’re set to squat. Not so in the low bar squat. The low bar squat is carried just above the rear delts. In order to get into this position most effectively, I’ll recommend what we’ll call the “click” method: 1) Take a grip on the bar 2) Place your body on the front side of the bar and stand all the way up so your rear delts are actually above the bar 3) Pinch your shoulder blades together and slowly start sliding your back down the bar 4) Once the bar “clicks” into place, it will be in the perfect low bar position
The perfect low bar rack position every time.
Now, I’m sure you’re wondering what is the best place to put your hands in step one? This is an easy question to answer. The narrower you can grip the bar, the better. The narrow your grip, the tighter your upperback muscles will be. The tighter your back muscles, the more secure the bar position will be.
The bar rests on the shelf made by your upperback muscles. Note how much tighter the upperback is with a closer grip.
If you struggle to get your hands closer in the squat, the number one mobility exercise that will help is shoulder dislocations:
Now, there are a few caveats here. If your grip is hurting your arms, it is too narrow. Don’t get me wrong, this is not supposed to be comfortable, but joint pain is a bad sign. We don’t want impingement and we don’t want the arms to carry any of the weight.
While I promise to devote an entire article to the proper use of wrist wraps in every lift, this isn’t that article. However, it needs to be said that wrist wraps are absolutely necessary if you plan to use bent wrist grips. Otherwise, the wrist intercepts some of the weight of the bar. This is a great way to get tendonitis. If you don’t want to get wrist wraps, you’ll need to widen your grip a bit so that you can keep your wrists straight. If you’ve been lifting a while, I’m sure you’ve seen that some people take a thumbless grip on squats whereas others use the thumbs-around grip. For bent wrist grips, I recommend a thumbs around grip. This will allow you to physically “squeeze” the bar with your hands. “Squeezing the bar” tends to tighten up the entire body. However, for straight wrist grips, I recommend the thumbless grip. When you wrap your thumbs around the bar with a straight wrist, “squeezing” the bar tends to invite the wrists to bend once you start actually lifting.
Straight wrist, thumbless grip (left) vs. the bent wrist, thumbs around grip (right).
We haven’t unracked the bar yet, but we’re going to skip ahead to stance width. If you don’t know where to put your feet BEFORE you unrack the bar, you’re in trouble. It is much harder to re-position yourself with a heavy weight on your back than it is to just get to the right spot in the first place.
Stance width is primarily determined by your ability to reach depth without hip pain. Something that many people don’t stop to consider is that there are different anthropometrical possibilities for how the femur and the hip socket actually interact. In other words, not everyone’s bones look alike.
A pair of femurs and hips.
Notice how one femur attaches straight in and the other clearly attaches at at angle. Likewise, one hip socket points straight out whereas the other points down and to the front. These angles have implications on squat technique. You can’t change your anatomy. You must work with it.
Recently there has been a huge trend to work on “mobility” in the Powerlifting community. For the most part, this is good. However, some people fail to realize that not all movement pattern problems come down to mobility. There are people out there who simply cannot squat with certain stances due to the way they are built. You might be one such person. If your hips impinge at wide stances, you’ll have to narrow your stance until it stops. It is that simple. You can work on mobility all day long, but if you don’t have the right structure to squat wider, being more flexible won’t help.
For those of you who struggle with hip pain, my recommendation is that you squat as wide as your circumstances will allow. After you finish your next squat training session, just dedicate some time to figuring this out. Bring a camera and film yourself squatting at a variety of stance widths. Pinpoint the set that allowed the widest stance without pain and start using that stance going forward.
For the rest of you, the process of determining stance width will be very similar. You’re going to film a bunch of training sets directly from side (where a judge would normally be looking to determine your squat depth). Start at your normal stance and slowly work your way outwards 1-2” at a time. When you reach a stance width that no longer allows you to hit depth, go back a few inches and there you have it: your new wide stance squat.
In order: narrow, medium, and wide stance squat comparisons:
You can see that, for me, the truly wide stance squat is just a bit too wide to hit depth. However, when over 315lbs are on the bar, I can do it. I typically only use that stance for wrapped squats done out of a monolift. For knee sleeve only squats, I typically use the middle stance. Take these same pictures of yourself and see what works best for your body.
A quick note, for those of you in the IPF, make sure that your stance width allows you to go at least 2-3” below parallel. In that federation, just cracking parallel isn’t usually enough; it has to be convincing. Another thing to keep in mind is that this exercise cannot be done without weight. The weight will actually push you down and allow you to get deeper.
Our primary goal here is to ensure that our natural squat “bottom” is just below parallel. The number one way to add weight to your squat is to squat higher. Squatting higher both reduces range of motion and improves leverage. However, we have to follow the rules, too. This exercise is designed to help you find the technique that allows you to hit the bare minimum depth without thinking about it.
Before you go about trying to determine your stance width, realize that foot angle plays a major role in this discussion. In a proper squat, the knees must track in line with the foot. If they don’t, you place the ligaments in an unsafe position.
Beyond that, let’s remember why the wider stance works: it facilitates more femur rotation. If you’re just standing wider, but your legs are rotated in, you’re not actually reducing the moment arms. We need to decrease the horizontal distance between the hip and the knee and this can’t be done when the femurs are not externally rotated. Here’s the short version: keep your knees out!
Left: Incorrect; Right: Correct. Keep your knees out.
The wider you stand, the more you’re going to have to point your feet out. For people with fairly wide stances, this may be as much as 45 degrees. For medium stances, you’re usually looking at 30 degrees. And, finally, for narrow stances, you may only point your toes out 15 degrees.
Take whichever foot angle best facilitates getting your knees out.
Don’t get caught up in the numbers. The only thing that matter is whether you or not you can keep your knees out, tracking in line with your toes. If you can’t, try turning your foot more. If that doesn’t work, the stance is too wide for your currently mobility. You’ll need to narrow your stance and/or work on adductor flexibility (muscle on the inside of your thigh).
This is my favourite stretch to improve adductor flexibility.
The Squat Walk Out
Now that we’ve got the bar position and stance handled, we actually have to unrack the bar and set-up to do the lift. When it comes to the walk out the only thing that really matters is that you do it as efficiently as possible. Don’t waste energy. You literally want to use as few steps as possible.
How many steps you need depends on your stance width:
So many people overlook the walk out for whatever reason. If you have a sloppy walk out, it WILL cost you pounds at the meet. Sure, you can walk out 75% without paying much attention but that is because it is 75%. When you are handling 90%+ of your one rep max at a meet, any extra steps that you have to take are going to tax your stabilizers and waste energy. This directly translates to less weight being lifted. Why do you think a monolift adds weight to people’s squats? It saves energy. You can simulate the same effect by having an efficient walk out. Even when you’re just taking the empty bar out of the rack you should be practicing and perfecting your walk out.
Preparing to Squat
After you’ve walked the weight out, it is time to get fully “set”.
The single most repeated coaching cue in powerlifting is “get tight”. If you know it what means, this is one of the best cues there is, period. If you don’t, you strain real hard, make some funny faces, and nothing really happens.
First, overall “tightness” mostly comes down to how you breathe. The most important thing you can do before you attempt a heavy lift is take a huge breath and HOLD IT IN. Holding in your air pressurizes your “core” which stabilizes the spinal column.
The more conformable the kinetic chain is, the less efficient the force transfer will be. For example, imagine trying to tow something around using a spring. Before you could move whatever it is you were trying to move, the spring would have to completely stretch out and “get tight” before any of your tugging and towing could amount to a damn thing.
Well, the same thing happens when you’re trying to squat and you have slack in your abs, back, or anywhere else. We want ALL of that slack GONE before we try to squat. Otherwise, we lose some of our very valuable effort (force production) because it goes into straightening and tightening all of the elements that we didn’t address before we started the movement.
The following is my personal procedure for squat “tightness”: 1) Make sure my feet are set where I want them 2) Set my whole back into extension by shoving my chest up 3) Tighten up my lats by pulling down on the bar with my hands 4) Take as big of a breath as I can and hold it in 5) Set my head position 6) Squat!
Squat Technique: Descent Speed
Ready to squat?
If you’ve followed the model above, there isn’t a whole lot left to discuss. The vast majority of your success in the lift is determined before you ever begin your descent. However, there are two technical issues that I want to address in more depth: descent speed and hip drive.
One of the most common concerns people have over the actual execution of the squat is how fast they should perform the movement. The answer is relatively simple: you should descend as fast as you can without losing ANY tightness. Now, some people interpret this to mean that they should just divebomb as fast as possible into the hole. You cannot “drop” into the squat while remaining tight. You MUST loosen something up to do this.
The faster you descend, the harder you will rebound out of the bottom of the squat. This is due to something called the “stretch reflex”. Whenever any movement is preceded by a loaded eccentric contraction (weight pushing you down), the muscles will stretch out past their normal capacity and, once the concentric movement begins (going back up), the muscles will reflexively contract harder because of the preceding stretch. Think of a vertical jump. Can you jump higher with a sharp dip or can you jump higher by bending, waiting, and then jumping? The reason you jump higher with the sharp dip is due to the stretch reflex of the relevant muscles.
We want to take advantage of the stretch reflex effect, but we don’t want to loosen up to move faster. Remember, any “slack” in the system must be removed before efficient force transfer can occur. By divebombing, you’re setting yourself up for a very nasty whip once the rebound stops and all of that slack has to be removed.
Bottom line? Descend as quickly as you can while maintaining maximum tightness. This takes practice. So practice it.
Squat Technique: Hip Drive
Let me quickly remind you why we picked the low bar squat: to emphasize posterior chain usage. Many people have been taught a version of the squat where the lifter leads with their chest. This throws both the hips and knees forwards. The net effect is that the lever arm at the knees is increased and the lever arm at hips is decreased. This defeats the whole purpose of picking the low bar position.
Instead of driving up out of the bottom by leading with your chest, you need to drive with your hips. This does not mean that you push your hips up while letting your chest fall. Your back angle should be maintained the entire time. That is the point, actually. Leading with your chest alters your back angle leading to a more upright posture. Instead, We lead with our hips to preserve our posterior chain dominant squat style and maintain the back angle we’ve so carefully chosen.
In the pictures below, the top image demonstrates the incorrect way to begin your ascent. The bottom image shows the correct way. Lead with your hips, not with your chest:
Notice how leading with the chest really throws the knees forward.
Common Squat Form Errors
Nearly all of the most common errors in squatting result because the lifter has failed to follow the guidelines we’ve already talked about. In each of the following pictures, the error is depicted on the left with the corresponding correction shown on the right.
Mistake #1: Rounded Back
Coaching Cue Fix: Chest up!
Mistake #2: Getting Forward of mid-foot at the bottom of the squat
Coaching Cue Fix: Chest up!
Fix, Coaching Cue: Chest up!
Mistake #3: Knees In
Coaching Cue Fix: Knees Out!
Fix, Coaching Cue: Knees Out!
Mistake #4: Leading with the chest
Coaching Cue Fix: Hip Drive!
Mistake #5: Timid descent speed If you have a tendency to get nervous and approach the descent too slowly, you’re going to squat less. Not only is this going to diminish the stretch reflex, but it shows your head isn’t in the right place. Get your mind right and hit the hole with aggression. Fix, Coaching Cue: Fast Down, Fast Up!
Well, there you have it: The Powerlifting To Win Squat Technique. If you haven’t watched the technique video yet, I highly recommend you do so if you’re a visual learner:
If you found this content interesting, intriguing, hell, even fascinating, I know you’ll love Mark Rippetoe’s Starting Strength. Starting Strength is the only book I am aware of that analyzes lifting from a framework of biomechanics and classical physics. If you haven’t read it yet, you should.
In Part IV, we’ll be discussing the mechanics of bench press technique.
As far as I am aware of, there is only one book in existence that analyzes lifting from a framework of biomechanics and classical physics: Mark Rippetoe’s Starting Strength. Though the book is focused on general strength techniques, the powerful powerlifting optimizations contained in this article were distilled from principles found in Rippetoe’s book. If you like to learn, grab a copy of Starting Strength.
In the first installment of this series on powerlifting technique, we established four scientific principles to help us determine the optimal form for any given lift. They were as follows:
The lifter/barbell system balances directly over the middle of the foot
The bar must travel in a vertical line to maximize efficiency
We must minimize all the relevant moment arms
The range of motion should be as short as possible
Today, in this piece on powerlifting squat technique, we’re going to analyze each of these variables and how best we can manipulate them to produce the biggest squat possible.
At heavy enough weights any attempt to squat forward or backward of mid-foot is futile. This imbalance is going to create an unnecessary lever arm between the middle of the foot and the bar. Remember, we want to minimize lever arms NOT create new ones! Fortunately, the body doesn’t usually allow for imbalanced positions under a heavy load.
Because the bar must remain over mid-foot to be balanced, the way you carry the bar is going to have a big impact on your back angle and knee angle in the bottom of the squat. Take a look at the front squat, high bar back squat, and the low bar back squat respectively:
Rippetoe, Mark, and Lon Kilgore. Starting Strength: Basic Barbell Training. 2nd ed. Wichita Falls, TX: Aasgaard Co., 2007. Print.
Note where the bar is being carried in each movement. In the front squat, it is carried just behind the anterior deltoids. In the high bar squat, it is carried atop the traps. In the low bar squat, it is carried just above the rear deltoids.
Bar Positions, in order from left to right: Front Squat, High Bar, Low Bar.
The Front Squat
Let’s examine the front squat in more depth.
The Front Squat requires a very upright position because if you lean over too much the bar simply falls off your shoulders. Because the bar must also remain directly over mid-foot, this means that, in order to produce this upright position, the entire movement is going to consist mostly of forward knee travel. There is no other way to get the bar over mid-foot without it falling out of the rack position.
Before I go any further, can you use more weight on the front squat or the back squat? I’ve literally never seen anyone capable of front squatting more than they can back squat. The primary reason for this has to do with the manipulation of lever arms caused by the upright front squat back position.
As you can see, the front squat brings the hips very close to the bar. In some very flexible lifters, the hips are almost directly underneath the bar. The implication here is that the moment arm between the hips and the bar is almost eliminated entirely. However, the moment arm between the knees and the bar is lengthened in direct proportion to how much the moment arm between the hips and bar was shortened. So, basically all of the leverage that was on the hips, is shifted onto the knees.
The reason this causes you to lift less weight is very simple. When nearly all of leverage is between the knees and the bar, the quads must do nearly all of the work against gravity. The quads, while big, are but one muscle group. The hips, on the other hand, consist of the glutes, the adductors, and the hamstrings. Together the “posterior chain”, as it is popularly known, is simply a much larger, stronger group of muscles than the quadriceps.
High Bar Squats vs. Low Bar Squats
We want the posterior chain to do most of the work because it is more capable of doing so. In order for this to happen, we to need ensure that most of the relevant moment is between the hips and the bar rather than between the knee and the bar. Here we run into a “problem”.
With the typical high bar position used by many powerlifters, particularly bigger guys with inflexible shoulders, you must remain relatively upright or the bar will simply roll off your traps onto your neck. The high bar position certainly allows for more hip involvement than the front squat, but there is an even better option: the low bar squat (left, below):
Notice that the low bar squat trades a shorter lever arm at the knee for a longer one at the hips
Very frequently, lifters will criticize low bar squats as “good mornings” because squatters who employ this style often lean over quite a bit. While it is true that the more leaned over style of the low bar position is harder on the lower back than the more upright high bar position, calling it a “good morning” is completely inaccurate.
The good morning purposely uses an unnecessary lever arm between the bar and mid-foot to challenge the stabilization capacity of the spinal erectors. The large moment arm between the foot and the bar makes the erectors have to work overtime to keep you from falling over whilst simultaneously holding such a horizontal back position.
While a low bar squat may be bent over, it has little else in common with the good morning. The point of the low bar position is to allow you to carry the bar in such a way that it both: a) causes you to lean over more and b) allows you to do so without the bar slipping off of your back. In fact, if necessary, your back could be almost entirely parallel to the floor and the bar still wouldn’t move with a low bar rack position.
The reason why a low bar squat is superior to a high bar squat, for the purposes of powerlifting, is for the exact same reason that you can back squat more weight than you can front squat. The posterior chain is a bigger, stronger group of muscles than the quadriceps; the low bar squat uses more posterior chain and less quad than the high bar squat. Even though the low bar squat is harder on our lower back because it requires us to lean over more, the fact we get to use more posterior chain is a net win.
For the purposes of powerlifting, low bar is nearly always superior to high bar.
Minimizing Moment Arms
So, we’re left here with two important moment arms to discuss: a) the moment arm between the hips and the bar and b) the moment arm between the knees and the bar.
The primary determinant of the how long these moment arms are is the length of your thigh. The shorter your thighs, the less moment you’ll have to overcome when you squat. This is why guys with longer torsos relative to their legs have reputations as good squatters.
Taking a hacksaw to our bones isn’t a realistic option, but, luckily, there is something we can do anyways: stand wider. Yup, that’s it. All it takes to artificially shorten your thigh segment, for the purposes of the squat, is to take a wider stance and make sure you keep your knees pushed out.
Obviously standing wider doesn’t actually shorten your leg. All it does is put your legs at a more diagonal angle which shortens the horizontal distance between the hips and the knee. The leg length remains the same.
A wider stance is also going to allow you to be far more upright when you squat. The reason for this is very simple. If you’ve decreased the distance between your hips and the bar, you don’t have to lean over as far to get the bar over the middle of your foot. Not only does the wider stance manipulate the moment arms involved in the movement favourably, but it also mitigates the disadvantage of the low bar position. When you squat wide, you get the best of all worlds: an upright hip dominant squat with small moment arms.
Minimizing Range of Motion
If that wasn’t enough, standing wider also reduces the range of motion in the movement. The diagonal position of the legs in the starting position is going to reduce the vertical distance between the hips and the knees. Remember the squat’s rules; squat range of motion has to bring the crease of the hip below the knee. The further apart the hip and the knee are, the longer you have to travel. By standing wider, and bringing these two points closer together, we don’t have to move the bar as far.
Knee Travel in the Squat
So, even if you’re low bar squatting, how far forward should your knees go?
Some of you may have realized that you can actually completely eliminate the lever arm between the knees and the bar just by shoving your hips back even more and leaning even further forwards.
First let me be clear, this does not work at light weights. You still need to keep the center of mass (CoM) of the system over the middle of the foot. However, at heavy enough weights, the bar itself approximates the system’s CoM. At this point, putting your body behind behind the bar has a nearly negligible effect on the balancing the system (your body weight will always factor into CoM at least a little no matter how much weight you use). In the case of high bar vs. low bar, if less knee travel is better than more travel, why isn’t no knee travel even better?
Well, in fact, sometimes it is. For example, in geared powerlifting, where lifters wear specialized squat suits, minimizing any knee travel makes a great deal of sense. After all, the suit is helping hip extension. To take advantage of the suit, you’d want as much leverage as possible to be acting at the hips.
But what if you’re a raw squatter who is wearing knee wraps? Entirely eliminating the moment arm between the knees and the bar in this case will result in your not getting very much carryover from the wraps. Further still, what if you’re a raw squatter wearing nothing more than knee sleeves? In this case, you’re not getting equipment help at either of the relevant joints.
Here’s the thing. It isn’t possible to make a recommendation for knee travel except on a case by case basis. For people with long legs relative to their torso, zero knee travel will put their back nearly horizontal to the floor in the bottom of the squat. This just won’t work. It is too hard on the lower back. For others, having your knees go all the way out over your toes, even in a low bar position, will result in something that resembles a high bar, upright squat.
What you’re really looking for, as a raw lifter, is an amount of knee travel that will result in a back angle of approximately 50 to 60 degrees in the “hole” (at the bottom of the squat). Though I hate using this argument, this is the back angle most often observed when watching world recording holding squatters. From my experience squatting 551 at 220lbs, this is also what has worked best for me personally. At this time, I don’t have a recommendation for knee travel that is based on physics and biomechanics.
The back angle of the greatest squatter of all-time: Andrey Malanichev.
Anything more upright than a 50 to 60 degree back angle in the hole just isn’t necessary. If you’re more upright than that, you can afford to lean over more and shift some leverage onto the hips. Anything less than 50 to 60 degrees results in a squat that is very taxing on the lower back at heavy weights. This isn’t ideal because we want our prime movers to be the limiting factor. Prime movers are big muscles that are easily hypertrophied and trained. Stabilizers, generally speaking, are smaller and harder to improve upon. If you’re very bent over in the squat, you’ll usually benefit from a wider stance and more knee travel. Of course, for some folks, no matter what they do to manipulate the leverages, they’ll still be quite bent over because that’s just how they’re built. Nonetheless, you must do your best to optimize what you were given.
With that in mind, let me reiterate that the exact back angle and knee position that you’re looking for is completely dependent on your muscular strengths and individual anthropometry (limb lengths, muscle attachments, etc). However, more often than not, raw lifters can be observed to have a final knee position in the bottom of the squat that is within 1-2” of their toes in either direction (behind or in front).
Never in my life have I ever drawn so many stick figures. If you’re anything like me right now, you probably want some examples of the concepts we’ve discussed that actually use real human beings. If so, this video is exactly what you’re looking for:
How to Squat
Thus far, we’ve established WHY the optimal squatting technique for powerlifting includes a low bar position and a wider stance. Next, we’re going to discuss HOW to actually perform a powerlifting squat.
If you found this style of analysis to be refreshing, intriguing and valuable, Starting Strength is a must read for you. The book contains of 300 pages of detailed analysis on how to apply the principles of physics and biomechanics to the major compound lifts. This isn’t just about about some newbie’s program; the book is a veritable reference guide for how to analyze the lifts through a scientific lens.
In Part III, we’ll cover exactly how to get into the low bar position, how wide to stand, where to put your hands, and a variety of my favourite coaching cues that increase squat performance.
In Powerlifting, athletes often select their technique in one of two ways: a) they simply “do what works for them” (what is most comfortable, usually) or b) they copy great lifters. While both of these methods have their merits, unless you get lucky, both tend to cause more problems than they solve.
In this article, we’ll endeavor to use a different approach to optimizing technique. Instead of trial and error, or attempting to mirror successful athletes, we’re going to analyze each lift from the framework of classical mechanics and biomechanics; we’re going to look at the scientific principles that govern optimal technique.
If this sort of science based information appeals you, I highly recommend that you grab a copy of Mark Rippetoe’s Starting Strength. The book contains over 300 pages of mechanical analysis on the big, compound lifts.
“Do What Works For You”
When lifters are left alone to self-select their technique based on what “feels” the best, a great deal of their technique is determined arbitrarily. If you’re just doing what is natural and letting the chips fall where they may, chances are very high that you skipped over a few important details that could’ve helped increase your performance.
Even Tiger Woods has a coach help him analyze the details of his technique. Photograph: Eric Risberg/AP
There is a reason that nearly all athletes have coaches. Athletes, left to their own devices, do not self-select optimal techniques. They self-select comfortable techniques. As competitive lifters, we can’t afford to do what is comfortable in favour of what is best. As competitive lifters, we can’t afford to leave pounds on the table.
Copying great lifters can often be a fantastic way of coming up with a good starting point for your own technique. However, for whatever reason, many times people think that the amount of weight that someone can lift is an accurate measure of how knowledgeable they are about the sport. This simply isn’t true. While being incredibly strong is the best indicator that someone knows what they’re doing, it isn’t infallible. Many lifters succeed in spite of certain things that they do rather than because of them. If you’re one of the hardest workers in the world, and you have great genetics, technical errors can easily be overcome. That said, why not accumulate every advantage that you can? If you’re not a particularly talented lifter, you NEED every advantage that you can get.
Additionally, if the lifter you try to copy doesn’t have the same leverages as you, in terms of body type, you might be trying to put a square peg into a round hole. If you have a short torso, you shouldn’t ever expect to have an upright squat like a long torsoed lifter will. Likewise, if you don’t have gorilla arms, your back angle off the floor in the deadlift will be more horizontal.
Two World Record holders, two completely different body types. Photograph: jtsstrength.com
Selecting Your Techniques
So, if we’re not going to just “do what works for you” or copy our favorite lifter, how exactly should we determine what technique is best for us?
Well, first, we need an objective way to evaluate various techniques and their efficacy for the sport of powerlifting. This requires two things: a) solid understanding of our objectives and b) a framework capable of accurately modeling what goes on when you lift weights.
Luckily, both problems are easily solved. Our objective is quite simple in powerlifting; we’re trying to lift the most weight possible. There is no other objective. People often balk at sumo deadifts or bench presses done with a huge arch, but the bottom line is that there are no style points in powerlifting. You don’t get extra credit for doing extra range of motion. Our techniques should be optimized for lifting the heaviest weight possible while following all the rules of the given event. Anything else is sub-optimal.
This is not cheating; this is fantastic technique.
As for b), well, luckily we have the study of classical mechanics. By understanding some basic physics, we can actually construct a model from which we can begin to manipulate the various lever arms involved in squatting, benching and deadlifting. In short, with the help of some elementary science, we can maximize our leverages for powerlifting.
Principle #1: The Straight Bar Path
Before we can go any further, we need to discuss a few simple facts about gravity.
First of all, gravity operates perpendicular to the surface of the Earth. For our purposes, this means gravity is pulling straight down towards the floor. As such, the most efficient way to oppose this force is by acting directly against it in the vertical plane. You can roll a loaded barbell half-way across the gym, but you won’t have done any work against gravity.
This means that (with the exception of the bench press) a completely straight up and down bar path is the most efficient way to lift weights. Make no mistake, it still takes force production to generate horizontal movement; and yet, none of that force is going towards actually helping you beat gravity and finish the lift. In simple terms, this is wasted energy. This is inefficient. This is bad technique.
To be succinct, good technique means moving the bar in as vertical of a line as is possible.
Notice that both lines have an equal amount of vertical displacement yet the redline is much longer. A non-vertical bar path results in more work needlessly being done. A vertical bar path is most efficient.
Principle #2: The Mid-foot Balance Point
One of the most common technical mistakes in powerlifting occurs when lifters shift their weight onto their toes when squatting or deadlifting. The best way to correct an exaggeration in one direction is with an overcorrection in the opposite direction. Hence, some of the most popular “coaching cues” in powerlifting are “get your weight on your heels” and/or “push through the heels”. The contexts of these cues have been lost for whatever reason and many people have been led to believe that optimal technique actually involves being balanced on your heels. This is certainly not the case.
The human body balances directly over the middle of the foot. This is due to the fact that the very middle of your foot is the point at which there is an equal amount of distance from the front to the back of the shoe. As such, the middle of the foot is the balance point which takes the most force to disrupt in either direction, forwards or backwards. Naturally, this is the point your body favors for balance.
Confirm this for yourself with a simple test. Stand up. Put your hands on your hips and lean forward slowly. Do you feel the tension in your calves preventing you from falling forward? Now, lean back slowly. Did you just shoot your arms out in front of you to counterbalance? Your body has to do isometric work in order to stabilize itself when you’re not balanced over mid-foot.
The mid-foot balance point. Photograph: Rippetoe, Mark (2012-01-13). Starting Strength (Kindle Location 377). The Aasgaard Company. Kindle Edition.
The situation isn’t different with a barbell on your back. If a lifter is to maintain balance, with the bar forward or backward of the middle of the foot, his stabilizing muscles will have to work that much harder to maintain proper position. Why work harder to lift the same amount of weight? Even more aptly, why not work just as hard, but lift more weight?
If you’re still not convinced, exaggerate the effect. Try to do an air squat with your shoulders (where the bar would be) a full foot behind your feet. A brief word of caution: when you fall, try not to hurt yourself.
Principle #3: Minimize the Moment Arms
So, in consideration of Principles #1 and #2, we now know the bar must travel in a straight vertical line directly over the middle of the foot. Next, we have to determine the best possible arrangement of our joints on either side of that mid-foot line.
Before we can do that, we need to understand moment. Think of a wrench. Moment is the force that is transmitted down the handle to turn the bolt. In broad terms, for our purposes here, moment is the force that causes rotation at pivot points. For example, our knees and hips would be pivot points in the squat.
More importantly, a moment arm is the distance between the pivot point and the point of force application measured at 90 degrees from the point of said force application. Let’s use the squat as an example. Our knees and hips would act as the pivot points; the heavy barbell is the point of force application due to gravity pulling it down; as such, the moment arms are the distance between the hips and the bar and the knees and the bar.
In terms of powerlifting, we can think of the size of the relevant moment arms of each lift as the amount of leverage that we have to overcome to lift the weight. The longer these moment arms are, the more effort we have to exert to move the same amount of weight.
The single most important purpose of powerlifting technique is to minimize the relevant moment arms as much as possible.
THIS is why you want to minimize moment arms. Photograph: Rippetoe, Mark (2012-01-13). Starting Strength (Kindle Location 958). The Aasgaard Company. Kindle Edition.
If the moment arm concept is still a little fuzzy for you or if you’re interested in seeing some actual application of the concepts discussed above, definitely check out this video on powerlifting leverages:
Principle #4: Minimize range of motion
Now for the factor you were probably expecting a whole lot sooner: minimize your range of motion.
Simply put, work can be calculated by multiplying force times distance. The longer you move a given weight, the more work you’ve done against gravity. Generally speaking, the more work you have to do, the harder your effort is. The harder you have to work to do a given movement, the less weight you can use on that movement.
In powerlifting, there are a variety of tricks we can use that minimize range of motion in each and every lift. Fortunately, the vast majority of these tricks simultaneously reduce moment arm lengths while also allowing for a vertical bar path.
Pulling Sumo (left) instead of Conventional (right) is one way to reduce range of motion.
In the instalment of this series on powerlifting technique, I’ll begin discussing some of those tricks. Part II will focus on how to optimize your powerlifting squat technique.
Starting Strength for Barbell Training, 3rd Edition
Before I conclude this article, I want to emphasize that I drew heavily on Starting Strength to create this content. To my knowledge, Rippetoe is the first (and only?) strength coach to provide an in-depth, biomechanical analysis of all of the powerlifts. Additionally, he explains their application and use for general strength trainees in a masterful manner that is literally unmatched any where else.
While Starting Strength is not a powerlifting book per se, it is one of the most important pieces of strength literature that a powerlifter can own. This is one of the few books that I can confidently state will change your understanding of the game forever. I personally don’t believe you can achieve your full potential as a powerlifter without a solid understanding of the physics behind barbell training. Starting Strength will provide you with the necessary tools and the framework to evaluate your technique in a whole new light. If you don’t get this info from Rip, get it from somewhere.