There’s nothing like a Biblical allusion to make a topic feel important. However, I’m not a religious guy – and definitely not one to impose my moral objections on others – so if you want to covet your neighbor’s wife, it’s not my place to tell you to clean up that filthy mind of yours.
But if you want to be the best lifter you can be, there are guidelines to follow. Rather than imposing a Decalogue, I came up with the five must do’s for each lift.
1 – Squat for Reps
Growing as a lifter means getting outside your comfort zone. I can’t think of anything more uncomfortable than squatting for high reps. High rep squats conjoin the best of all worlds – hypertrophy, conditioning, and toughness training. It’s no wonder guys like Dan John and Jim Wendler speak so highly of them.
2 – Shoe Up According to Stance
Squatting starts from the ground up – all other mechanics depend on your stance. How you set your feet also determines what you put on your feet. If you squat with an Olympic stance, wear weightlifting shoes. They’ll give you the ankle mobility you need to hit good depth.
Squatting with a powerlifting stance requires flat-soled shoes (Chuck Taylors or indoor soccer shoes). The flat sole will let you push on the outside of your feet to spread the floor.
3 – Create Tension in Your Hands and Feet
More tension equals more strength, so if you want to squat heavy, you have to create as much tension as possible.
It starts at the top with your hands and at the bottom with your feet. Setting your grip hard on the bar creates tension that runs into your upper-back, solidifying a solid shelf for the bar to rest on.
Squeezing the floor with your feet creates tension that’s transferred through your legs and into the hips.
4 – Set up Efficiently
Setting up to squat should use as little energy as possible. You’re about to sit down with considerable metal on your back and that takes enough energy. Here’s what an efficient set up should look like:
- Take your grip (set it hard) and get underneath the bar so that your shoulders and upper-back are aligned to the position where you’ll carry the bar. Your feet should be directly underneath your shoulders, not behind them. Your elbows should be under the bar.
- Tighten your upper-back by squeezing your scaps together and set an arch in your lower back while squeezing your lats tight.
- Fill your belly with air and un-rack the bar by tightening your back more and squatting the weight off of the hooks.
- Take one step back with each foot so that they’re square and focus your eyes on an object directly in front of you. Your eyes should stay focused on that spot throughout your set.
- Reset your air and squat!
5 – Be Strong
TC has a great quote: “What’s the sense in looking like a Ferrari if you’ve got a Volkswagen engine under the hood?”
If you want to be bigger, you need to get stronger. Is it more athleticism that you fancy? You need to jump and sprint. Oh, and get stronger.
Since everyone needs a barometer to be measured against, I’ll give you one. To be a strong squatter you need to squat two and a half times your bodyweight. And unless you are a world-class bench presser, you better be able to squat more than you bench. If you can’t – start making the squat rack your church.
6 – Forget Your Chest
The emphasis of the bench press is not on your chest. EMG studies show that the muscles that do the most work are the triceps and deltoids. Check out a Louie Simmons bench press article or video. He’s been saying the arms are the emphasis for years.
If you want to develop a big chest, keep the flyes and cable crossovers. But if you want to bench a lot of weight, overhead press and develop your triceps with board presses and floor presses.
7 – Stay Tight
If you’re comfortable while benching, you’re doing it wrong. You should feel like you might soil your underoos at any second. This tension and pressure comes from staying tight.
- Press your heels into (or toward) the floor hard and squeeze your glutes hard throughout the movement.
- Grip the bar until your knuckles turn white. A good cue is “melt” the bar with your hands.
- Arch your lower back slightly and pull your lats tight by squeezing your scapulae down.
- Push your chest up to the bar on the descent and drive your shoulders into the bench as you press.
- Spread the bar throughout the movement. This will tighten your upper-back and make good use of your triceps.
- Fill your belly with air and keep it there. Only breathe while resetting to complete the next rep. Never breathe during a rep.
Does that sound like a lot? It is – benching is hard.
8 – Align Your Wrists and Elbows
Practice throwing a punch. Provided you punch like you don’t have a purse on your shoulder, you kept your wrist and elbow in a straight line directed toward the intended target. You have to bench in the same way. If your elbows are in front of the bar (too much shoulder external rotation) or behind the bar (too much shoulder internal rotation), you won’t be as powerful.
Spreading the bar should help, but practice with an unloaded bar. A good bar path that keeps your elbows under the bar should start and end with the bar directly above your throat, with the bar touching just below your nipples in the bottom position.
9 – Use Partial Range Max Effort Training
Max Effort training is important for a great bench number. Sub-maximal training zones are used to hone technique and build mass, but Max Effort training prepares the nervous system to do some damage on the iron.
Most bench training should be done with sub-maximal weights and through a full range of motion, but twice per year you should include a partial range of motion Max Effort training cycle. At the end of each cycle your nervous system will be primed to return to full range benching.
Here’s my favorite partial range bench cycle:
- Week 1: Floor press: 5-rep max
- Week 2: Floor press: 3-rep max
- Week 3: 2-board bench: 1 rep max, then 2-3 singles at 90%
- Week 4: Mid-point pin press: 3 heavy singles
- Week 5: 3-board bench: 3-rep max
- Week 6: 3-board bench: 1-rep max
- Week 7: 2-board bench: 1-rep max, then 2-3 singles at 90%
- Week 8: Complete de-load. No benching.
10 – Be Strong
I’m not a fan of bench pressing for reps.
You can make hypertrophy gains and improve upper-body muscular endurance by other means that aren’t as hard on your shoulders. Where I’m from, we do our benching heavy and fast. Use the bench to push the limit strength of your upper-body; hypertrophy your upper-body with push-ups, dumbbell press variations, and pulling movements.
That limit strength should be 1.75 times your body weight if you want to be considered a strong bencher. I don’t base this number off a scientific formula. Paying attention to what strong guys can do has led me to decide that it’s a respectable ratio.
11 – Know it’s not a Squat
A rugby player I train was required to train at his university’s varsity weight room this past fall. The strength coach told him that he was to “Drop his ass low because the deadlift is just a squat with the bar on the ground.” This is a popular misconception, and a bad one.
Deadlifting and squatting are not the same. One is hip dominant and the other is knee dominant. Treating them as interchangeable and teaching them with the same cues doesn’t make sense. Doing so sets an athlete or lifter up for poor performance and injury.
12 – Train it Every Day
Dan John had it right when he said the deadlift should be trained daily. The best part is you don’t have to deadlift every day to train your deadlift every day. You can, however, train the components of your deadlift during every trip to the iron house.
Each day you train include hip mobility training, upper-back training, hip extension movements, and grip work – no matter the split. All of these components, minus the direct grip work, can be included during your warm-up.
A basic strategy is to do kettlebell swings and pull-ups every day. Circuit them with a hip flexor mobilization and a standing core movement and you’ve hit all the components while developing a great warm-up routine.
13 – Prioritize Your Back and Hamstrings
You shouldn’t prioritize low back training to improve your deadlift. Actually, it’s last on the priority list – most sticking points are a result of deficits in the upper-back and lats or the hamstrings.
If you’re training your upper back and hip extension movements well, your low back is going to get stronger. Although there’s movement in the low back during a deadlift, the main role of the spinal erectors is stability. You can train for a stable low back with plenty of Romanian deadlifts, good mornings, and glute ham raises.
A lot of direct lower back training will exacerbate hyperextension of the lumbar spine, resulting in limited neural drive to the glutes. Work on keeping your low back in the same position throughout your pull and it will get stronger.
14 – Grip the Bar Based on your Elbows
Biceps tears are an unfortunate injury that frequently occur while pulling with an over-under grip. The biceps of the supinated arm are put under extreme tension that causes them to pop like a jack-in-the-box. This has a lot to do with congenital laxity and elbow structure.
A chiropractor friend assessed me using the Beighton Laxity Scale, a test designed to determine how congenitally lax a person is. He found that I am congenitally lax, and that my elbows hyperextend at end range. Check out how my elbows lock at the end range of a push-up:
I’ve never felt the slightest twinge in the biceps of my supinated arm while deadlifting. My biceps are already long due to the laxity of my elbow, lessening the tension on the supinated arm. I’ve never read a study on this, but I have a hunch that there’s little chance that I’ll tear my biceps using the over-under grip.
If you, however, have shortened biceps because you’ve been curling like a mad man since the 80’s, avoiding the over-under grip is probably the right choice. Without the necessary length, your biceps will be under too much tension as your elbows extend further, and you’ll likely suffer a tear if you pull a heavy weight. Use a double overhand grip until your grip fails and then switch to the hook grip.
15 – Be Strong
I’ve never met a man that was a strong deadlifter and weak in every other aspect of training. That would be like meeting a lumberjack that doesn’t look amazing in flannel.
A strong deadlift has a powerful effect on strength in your other lifts. Gaining size and improving athleticism are also products of a solid pull, as powerful hip extension and a strong back are necessary for a strong and efficient body.
To be a strong deadlifter, you need to pull at least two and a half times your body weight. When you can, you’ll have the strength base necessary to develop your body in any way you choose.
Following the Rules
For many, the big three lifts can be likened to a religion, and those that train them habitually as disciples of power and strength. From one disciple to another, I hope you’ve developed your training commandments for each lift. But if you’re lost, follow these fifteen rules to the iron promised land.