Iron Evolution: Phase 5
Westside Barbell, Technique
In the last installment in this series, I described the mental aspect of training at Westside Barbell in Columbus, Ohio.
I'm grateful for the mental toughness I acquired training under Louie Simmons for 12 years as it defined me as a lifter, a businessman, a father, and as a man.
In this article, I'll discuss an aspect of Westside training that's even more important, and further establishes Louie Simmons as the greatest powerlifting mind of all time: the technical aspect, or technique.
Note: I can only discuss what was going on at Westside when I was there. I can't tell you what's going on at Westside today; there are only a handful of people who can, and those people train at Westside Barbell. Anyone else is bullshitting you.
If you spend enough time on powerlifting message boards you'll eventually come across posts saying that technique isn't that important.
"Powerlifting isn't rocket science," they say. "They're simple lifts, and if you can't learn near perfect technique in just a few months of lifting then you're probably not cut out for the sport. You're probably just not meant to be strong."
I couldn't disagree more. Technique is a huge factor in powerlifting success. I maintain overcoming a sticking point is 10% mental, 20% physical, and 70% technical. The problem is, everyone wants "physical" answers to what are really "technical" issues.
Sure, some guys are naturally gifted, and can rack up impressive numbers with just brute effort and minimal coaching. But their performance usually plateaus quickly, and it's often a bitch for them to ever break through. They're also usually the ones who disappear after their fist bout with adversity (injury, criticism, or bomb outs).
For example, I've come across hundreds of guys who've benched 400 pounds in high school but were still fighting to break 455 ten years later, despite trying every program available. What finally gets them busting through their plateaus? Technique.
I was already a pretty successful powerlifter before I showed up at Westside, but was also a complete mess of injuries and basically ready to retire. Louie's technical wizardry saved my powerlifting career, allowing me to set new PR's for another 12 years. Not bad for a guy who was told by dudes in labcoats the he'd never even lift heavy again!
Since powerlifting is defined by the squat, the bench press, and the deadlift, this article will focus on those lifts. I'll describe how I performed each lift pre-Westside, what changes Louie made, and how I teach the lift today. The goal is to help make you a smarter, better lifter than I ever was. If you have the humility to learn, you just might get there.
My best squat pre-Westside was good; 765 pounds at 242. I'd missed 800 by a hair (depth) on more than a few occasions.
From a technique perspective, my pre-Westside squat couldn't be more different from today. Back then I squatted with a medium-width modified Olympic lifter stance.
I didn't care for the look of most Olympic weight lifting shoes so I squatted in Timberland boots because they looked cooler and still gave me a solid base and a bit of an arch, making it easier to break parallel and get depth with bigger weights. As a result of my stance and choice of footwear I was very quad dominant.
Gear wise, I used very little. I was very much a raw lifter. All I had was a single ply suit that I only wore in competitions. This isn't to say I wouldn't have worn more gear had I known about it – I wore what I knew was available at the time. Double ply gear wasn't even advertised at the time.
I can still remember the first day I squatted for Louie. As soon as I walked onto the gym floor he told me that my quads were way too big and that I walked like a duck, meaning my toes flared out from having a weak ass and hamstrings.
Despite the initial barrage of insults (a duck?), Louie said he wanted to see me squat anyway. I put the empty bar on my back and did a few reps, to which Louie said, "You have no fucking clue how to squat."
Did I mention I'd squatted 765 in competition? Louie knew that, but it didn't change his opinion.
Louie slid a medium box behind me and had me put the bar on my back again, this time loaded with 135.
"Grab it tight," he said. "The squat begins the second you grab the bar."
"Now get big air and get your upper back tight. Tight!" he yelled.
Then he turned his attention to my feet. "Get your feet wider," he barked. "Wider."
Louie must've said it 30 times. By the end it felt like I was doing the splits.
My groin started to scream so I tried to turn my toes out. Louie spotted that right away. "Keep your fucking feet straight," he yelled. I found out later that turning the toes out allowed my dominant quads to take over. Louie wanted my feet facing front.
"Now sit back," he said. "Back, back, back!"
I felt like my groin was going to rip in half. I slowly sat back for what felt like an eternity, drifting into dead space, waiting to feel this stupid box that was nowhere to be found.
"Back!" Louie yelled.
I finally felt the top of the box and crashed down, stuck to the box until the guys helped me back up. A 765-pound squatter getting stapled by 135. I wasn't happy.
But I also knew I was onto something. Looking at the knee angle of the box squat, I realized that this was a much healthier position for the knee. I'm not saying that regular squats are bad for the knees, but mine always hurt and took forever to warm up. And shit happens once you have max poundages on your back, and knees aren't that forgiving.
I also saw how to get to regulation depth with this style – the bar only had to travel about half the distance versus my medium stance squats. From an efficiency end, it just made sense to squat this way.
Next, Louie addressed my breathing. He said I was a chest breather, and to prove it had me stand in front of a mirror and take a deep breath to see if my shoulders came up. This isn't the case with belly breathers, who inflate their core instead.
Louie said that the core was everything, as it acted like a transmission in the transfer of power from the floor to the bar. When your core is expanded, you have a bigger base, and a larger base is usually a stronger one. Louie said that if I could expand my belly with air by four inches it would increase my base of support by four inches as well.
Until then I'd been flexing my abs but didn't think much about it. I just pulled the belt super tight and that was about it. Now I was being told to set the belt one notch looser and then make it tight by expanding and flexing.
Louie's own core strength and control was ridiculous. I've seen him hold a broomstick with his obliques and then flick it across the gym floor simply by flexing his core. He went to great lengths to develop this in all his lifters, even having us hit each other in the core with a metal pole to get used to contracting hard, much the same as a fighter getting used to a punch.
Another way Louie taught me to engage my core was by having me lie on the floor with a heavy hexagon dumbbell propped onto my abs. He'd get me to suck it in my gut and then expand out, as if trying to touch the ceiling with the dumbbell, for multiple reps.
In my first meet after applying all this new technique, I barely hit a 740 squat. I was a little disappointed, though Louie put it best when he said that my strong points were incredibly strong, but my weak points were like that of a three-year-old child's. Bottom line was, it was going to take some time. "Sometimes you have to take a few steps backward in order to move forward," he said.
He was right, and I soon squatted 935 pounds.
Teaching the squat
Today I teach the squat one way: wide and on the box.
That's straight from Louie and it's how I teach everyone, and I mean everyone. Why? Because it's the best. I've seen it work thousands of times, and every time a lifter learns this method, whether they're a rookie or advanced, their squat improves dramatically, often by hundreds of pounds. If something works every single time it has to be the best, right?
- The squat starts between the chalk box and the bar. From that moment on you require 100% focus. If someone approaches you during that brief time you have every legal right to punch them in the neck.
- Chalk up.
- Get the bar even in the rack – adjust the bar as necessary
- Grab the bar with the one hand (right or left, it doesn't matter) in the position you'll squat in. Now it doesn't move. Squeeze down. I don't mean just grab the bar. I'm talking about squeezing the shit out of it.
- Grab the bar with the other hand and squeeze.
- Step forward half under bar, duck under, with the bar on the back in a tight and uncomfortable position.
- Pull the blades together. Now it should downright hurt.
- Grab big air in the stomach and push down on your belt.
- Arch back and lift the bar out of rack, and step back into a wide stance.
- Position your toes slightly out, but not flared. Keep your base of support rigid.
- Spread the floor apart with your feet (push against the side of your shoe) as hard as possible. This is why flat soled shoes like Chuck Taylors are ideal.
- Keep the lower back arched, abs flexed, upper back tight.
- Knees flared out hard.
That's the starting power position. Now the descent.
- Start with the hips going back, not the knees.
- Focus on driving the hips back and the knees will eventually bend. Trust me.
- Chest high, head up, and push your belly out hard against the belt.
- Keep going back. Picture me yelling in your ear if it helps. Back, back, back, back, back...
- Hit the box (PAUSE for a second) and then drive the head and traps into the bar.
- Chest comes up first, then the hips. The hips must always follow the chest or the chest will fall and the lift will turn into a good morning.
- Stand up.
The key is for this to become automatic. Louie had me do 1000 reps a week with a broomstick onto a couch or chair until it was second nature. A light weight allows you to think your way through the execution and follow a mental checklist of steps, but a lot changes when there's weight on the bar. Shit happens under heavy weight, and it's rarely good shit. Ingraining good habits until they're as automatic as breathing is crucial.
Although the description above is solid, it's nothing compared to real life instruction. So we took care of that for you. Just watch the following video. You kids starting out today have no idea how good you have it.
I arrived at Westside with a history of pec problems. I estimate that I'd strained or "tweaked" my pec upwards of 50 times in my young career; it had reached a point where it wasn't if I was going to strain my pec during a cycle, but when. Despite this, I'd reached a respectable 540-pound raw bench at the time of my last pre-Westside meet, when I tore the left pec right off the humerus.
Back then I never considered the bench a complex lift. You unrack it, hold it, lower it to your nipples, pause, then press it out. Simple.
I benched "elbows out," and over time brought my grip in narrower and narrower to help take some strain off my messed up pecs.
That was the first thing Louie had me change.
- Louie had me bench wider. He explained that the pressure on the pec was determined by the degree of shoulder rotation, and that with a wide grip there was actually less shoulder rotation than my more "pec friendly" close grip.
- Switch to thumb-less grip. Since my pecs were a mess, Louie wanted to switch the stress off my pecs and onto my triceps. That's why today I always laugh when people ask how I came to have such big triceps. Easy, I say. Just tear both pecs.
- "Pull the bar apart" at the top of the movement. This again activated the triceps.
- Tuck the elbows, tuck the elbows, and tuck the elbows. This spared my pec and shoulder and greatly enhanced triceps recruitment.
- Get my legs out in front of me. I had a habit of letting my ass come off the bench by a half-inch or so. By putting my legs out in front of me my knees were dropped lower than the bench, making it difficult for my hips to flex off the bench. This seemed to take some of the stress off my pecs. I'm not entirely sure why but I felt a big difference.
My first meet after switching to Westside I hit 520 pounds, 25 pounds off my old PR but with a torn pec and a brand new technique. A year later I hit 610.
Keep in mind this progress was accomplished with the same basic style of bench shirt. Years later I had a near miss (hit the rack on the way up) with 700, although that was with a super-gangster jacked shirt. In other words, my progress is a testament to Louie's coaching, not improved gear.
Teaching the Bench Press
The first thing you have to wrap your head around is when you decide to bench, it's time to bench. No more texting, blabbing with your buddies, or checking out the gym receptionist's behind. It's on. No more fucking around.
Like the squat, rule number one for proper bench press technique is tightness.
- Pull yourself under the bar, shoulder blades off the bench.
- Press back against bench and pull your body up.
- Get your feet tucked under the bench. If they're wide, you won't be able to arch.
- Grab the bar with a wide grip.
- Pull the bar apart.
- Tuck the elbows.
- Keep the bar under the wrist at all times, whether thumb-less or a full grip. Keeping the wrist in line with the elbows is the most important point of all.
- Lower the bar down to the lats, not the pecs. Even if you're trying to hit the pecs like a bodybuilder, doing a high bar bench press is stupid. Use dumbbells to isolate the pecs if that's your goal.
- Push the bar straight up or slightly towards the rack. At the end of the day, even if you press straight vertical there's going to be a slight pattern towards the rack anyway.
- Lock out smooth and solid. Don't hyper-lock like a douchebag but get in the habit of finishing your reps.
For those with pec strain issues, how you warm up is critical.
Pre-Westside, I'd just find a bench with 135 and start loading. At Westside we took a much slower approach. We'd do five sets with just an empty bar, then five sets with 95 pounds, then five with 135, then 185, etc.
If I was having pec issues, by 135 pounds the pain would start to subside to a manageable level, and by 185 it would basically be gone. (Of course, we'd still scale back the heavy singles.) If warming-up this way wasn't effective, we'd simply repeat the process with a different exercise.
Dynamic days were also huge for technique reinforcement. Pre-Westside I had no idea what dynamic training even was; we'd just go balls out every bench session and strain. Louie's system had the Maximum Effort days for straining, but it was usually a variation of the bench press like the close grip incline or the floor press, never the actual bench press. The dynamic days on the other hand always used the bench press and were all about speed and reinforcing technique.
This is a lot to take in, so check out this video I did with T NATION a couple years ago. This is required viewing.
Let me begin by saying that I hate the deadlift.
I don't know why, it just was never fun for me, even when I was young and healthy and putting up decent numbers. As I got increasingly beat up over the years I found deadlifting killed my pecs more than anything so my dislike grew to outright hate.
As for today, well, I never do it. I'd rather do three or four exercises that make up for the deadlift. That's right, I'd rather do quadruple the volume than do a single deadlift. How's that for hate?
The squat was my baby. It was a struggle at times, but I just loved the feeling of the heavy bar on my back. When you first walk out of the rack, all your senses seem to light up and your focus intensifies like a laser. The world closes in until it's just you and the weight. The pressure on your shoulders is incredible, like at any second you're simply going to crumple and get squashed, but then everything just clicks. Your legs and hips load like a spring and you blast the weight back up.
I loved the bench too, mainly because I was good at it – I benched 500 in high school – but the injuries I acquired from not really knowing how to bench eventually wore me out. By my last year at Westside I'd finally learned how to effectively train around them, but by then the damage was done. Cumulative injuries had gotten the best of me.
But I disliked deadlifting since day one and that never changed. Guys say all the time that it's the "king of exercises." I disagree. Some lifters are just built to deadlift and can pull a house simply due to favorable leverages.
Pre-Westside I pulled sumo or conventional, which as I got heavier changed to exclusively conventional. I tried a number of ways to get my deadlift stronger and nothing really worked. Every ten pounds was a motherfucker, and it only made me hate deadlifting that much more.
When I went to Westside, one of the first things Louie said was that they didn't deadlift, except in competitions. "Sweet," I thought, "I'm home!" Little did I know what I was about to embark on was much harder.
Louie explained that they used the Dynamic squat days plus glute ham raises, pull throughs, good mornings, and pin pulls to build the deadlift, plus plenty of heavy abs.
I liked what I was hearing but was also skeptical. To me it sounded like a bunch of bullshit exercises cooked up by fat guys who also hated deadlifting as much as I did.
Again, I was wrong, and within just a few months I pulled a competition PR of 720 pounds. A few years later I pulled 740 and 775 to lockout only to lose my grip before the down signal. I point this out because it's funny for me to think back on. My deadlift always sucked and I hated it. Then one day it came together and I almost pulled a decent number but lost it at the last possible moment.
After the meet I expressed my frustration to Louie, complaining that I'd never had a grip issue in my life and why out of all the times to have one did it have to be now?
Without skipping a beat, Louie said my deadlift wasn't strong enough to have a grip issue until I tried that number.
Towards the end of my time at Westside we started doing speed deadlifts on Dynamic day to reinforce technique, usually 5-8 singles at 50%. I also know they do even more deadlifting today at Westside, but Louie's overall system remains the same – to build a competition max deadlift, find a way to build the lift – not train it.
Teaching the Deadlift
Before Westside I kept it real simple. I bent down and grabbed the bar and picked it up. All I did was keep my shins against the bar and make sure I scraped them as I pulled up "through" my head. That was about it.
When I teach deadlifting today, I find it most effective to take a lifter's natural pull and modify it as little as possible.
- A deadlift is like a teeter totter, and the goal is to get the weight moving backward, not upward, by getting your body moving backward, which will pull the barbell with it. The end product should look like a door hinge.
- If you're a conventional deadlifter, then you should line the bar up with the top of your quads.
- As for sumo, a perfect sumo deadlift should look like a leg press. The upper body shouldn't move very much. Position the shins against the bar, push the knees out, and drop the nutsack down against the bar. Get tight and keep the back arched, stomach tight. Flex the abs and pull up.
The key to sumo is to remember that the closer you keep your center of gravity to the bar the stronger you'll be. It's funny, people bitch about sumo saying that it's "cheating," but at the end of day, very few pull over 900 pounds sumo, and many more pull over 900 conventional. So if it's cheating, where's the advantage?
You probably need a video? Greedy bastards. Here you go. This is easier to do in video anyhow.
Do Things Different?
Rounding up this technical installment, you're probably wondering what I might do differently if I had the chance to repeat this phase?
The answer is absolutely nothing. Louie Simmons knows powerlifting technique better than anyone else on the planet, and his tips literally resurrected my career. And his squat, the box squat, is the best squat, period.
This brings me back to the beginning, to the guys who chirp that technique isn't that big a deal. They don't get it.
Technique is the catalyst behind all strength training, and when it's dialed in can determine exactly where your training emphasis should be.
If you go for physical therapy you always get an assessment. In powerlifting, technique is your assessment. You squat and your knees come in, and you know what you have to work on. Same thing if you bench and your elbows move or your chest falls when you squat. Every rep is essentially an assessment.
The beauty of training at Westside under Louie was that we'd seen everything a thousand times before, there was nothing new. So that bench with the elbows moving would get diagnosed instantly. "Dude, you need face pulls and band pull aparts." Six weeks later their elbows would be rock solid.
That's the stuff you don't learn at meets. Meets are the reward, the fun part of all this. Learning happens in the gym, busting your ass in front of quality lifters and an expert coach.
So I'd change nothing. Louie was, and is, that good. Because for the most part, guys who rip their pecs off the bone and undergo multiple shoulder surgeries don't end up coming back and benching a 90-pound PR. It doesn't happen. And if I'd stayed with my old pre-Westside technique, it never would've happened.
So that's the technical aspect, and why I consider it to be the most important component of powerlifting. Next up is the physical aspect of training at Westside.
Have any questions about technique? First, watch the videos, you lazy bastards. Your question is probably answered there. If not, hop on the LiveSpill. I'd be more than willing to take a look at your technique if you have videos you'd like to post up. I may not have the time to check them all out but will do as many as I can.
I look forward to hearing from you.
Until next time.