By Rickey Dale Crain IPF/WPC/AAU World Champion / 2000 Powerlifting Hall of Fame Inductee
Form, style and technique are everything.
Only in the world of powerlifting, when one is asked how to improve one's lifts, are we encouraged to try this new routine, or asked, "What is your routine?” If I was a baseball player, I might ask what technique do you use to swing the bat, increase bat speed or shorten the distance the bat travels? I would not ask what routine you use to become a better hitter. If I was a football player, I might ask what technique should I use to throw the ball more accurate or faster/harder? Surely I would not ask what routine would I use to accomplish it. If I was a shot-putter, I would surely ask what form and style do you use to throw the shot 50-60 foot or more, not what routine did you use to accomplish the feat. So why in powerlifting is the first thing asked and the first thing offered is a routine? We don’t ask how do we accomplish the lift he best way possible. The strongest do not always win. Instead, the best prepared and the ones who perform the lifts flawlessly are the ones who win. It is a goal orientated and a performance orientated sport like all others, so form, style and technique should be the first thing on the athlete’s mind, as well as the first thing on his agenda when trying to improve his lifts, i.e. his max single. I believe the reason we do not focus on form is that we have been influenced by our brother sport, bodybuilding, and its results orientated status. It has a big influence because of its popularity in magazines and books aimed at bodybuilders. It is, however, a different sport and has different goals and needs. We should not confuse the two, and allow it to get in the way of our goal as a powerlifter. Our goal is to become not only stronger, but in how to display that strength in the most productive way, i.e. a big single max lift. As we look into this phenomenon, let us describe what we are trying to accomplish. To describe this phenomenon, we need to understand some very simple terminology. Therefore, we shall agree on the following definitions:
Form: The shape or appearance of a thing that makes it identifiable, and/or the nature, structure, or essence of a thing, considered apart from its content, color, texture, or composition. It is visible, distinct, or discernible.
Style: A way of doing something; especially a way regarded as expressing a particular attitude or typifying a particular period (i.e. old style/school). A self-confident willingness in exhibiting skill or quality.
Technique: The procedure, skill, or art used in a particular task. The way in which the basics of something are done. Skill or expertise in handling the technique of something. Special ability or knack.
All three are separate and distinct, but all come into play and overlap in any sport when trying to achieve that maximum result. There are many areas of each lift: the squat, the bench press and the deadlift, that are effected by form, style and techniques.
Feet: in, out, straight, flat, raised
Hips: going back, staying where they are, raised
Hands: in, out, open, closed, palmed, on the bar, on the plates, on the collar, tilted in, out, straight
Head: up, down, straight
Arms: down, up, tilted in, out
Breathing: how much you breathe, when you breathe.
These all affect each other and in turn make up your form, style and technique, in conjunction with your body type and style and the length of your limbs, etc. These are just some of what is needed to be looked at to insure the best outcome of the lift. Your stroke (distance traveled) on the lifts, you can alter the distance traveled dramatically on the bench press and deadlift, but not so dramatically on the squat as to effect the increased or decreased leverage. So, as we begin to look at these always keep in mind: form, style and technique is everything. The squat and bench press seems to be more brute strength, but to excel at the deadlift, I always had to learn to finesse it up. I know for a fact that when lifting, through all the hundreds of state, regional, national, and world records I broke I was not the strongest on the platform. Instead, I was the smartest, the best prepared, and had the best form, style and technique.
Powerlifting became an official sport in 1963, thanks to Bob Hoffman and York barbell. The three powerlifts: the squat, the bench press, the deadlift are a true measure of strength and power. All are used, with success to train for almost all other sports in the world. When that contest time rolls around, however, the one who is the strongest does not always necessarily win. Rather, it is the one who displays the best combination of strength and power and is able to produce the big numbers coupled with form, style and technique. As in any sport these components are important and will usually be the difference in winning and losing. Better form not only yields more weight lifted, but also lessens the chance of injury and down time in training. Staying free of injury is as important as anything else, as longevity in this sport is determined by your health. The longer into your training career you go, the higher the numbers will be. Let us look at each individual lift and break down all the parts that will affect what weight is lifted successfully, and how to
perform them to your best advantage.
The Squat, the King of all lifts:
Everybody's body structure can and does dictate different form and style, but some things are the same or very similar (or should be to be successful) for the vast majority of lifters.
Let us take a look at these:
-Hand placement on the bar and bar placement on the back
-Arms and elbows -Thinking and concentrating through the lift from beginning to end
-Walk out and set up -Breathing and flexing of certain muscles
-Feet placement and hips -Head placement and eyes
Before you approach the bar, all your equipment should be fitted and fitting properly. All your psyching up and mental preparation should be pretty much done. It is time to perform.
Hand placement on the bar and bar placement on the back:
A person’s structure, limb lengths and size have a lot to do with hand placement on the bar. The main rule of thumb is the closer the better. It will keep the bar tighter on your back, and no chance for the bar to roll. The lighter lifter usually has no problem with this, but the bigger and heavier lifter, usually through inflexibility, wants put his hands out wide. Thus, he decreases his leverage by the fact the bar will have to be placed higher on the neck to keep it from falling. "I will say this once, and I am sure I will take some hits on it, but it is the absolute truth. The vast majority of bigger/heavier lifters have very poor form, for many reasons, but inflexibility and the refusal to practice good form is the main reason. They pretty much try to rely on their size to muscle up a lot of weight. That is one reason why the smaller lifter is so much superior pound for pound at all the lifts." The weight should be supported by not only the back of the deltoids where the bar sits, but some should be supported by the arms, forearms, elbows, wrists, hands. This dictates as narrow a hand placement as possible. Smaller frame people will have narrower grips than bigger
frame people, i.e. My grip is considerably narrower than Bill Kazmaier's. Grip the bar tight. The tighter the grip, the less pressure will be on the wrists and elbows and shoulders, and the bar will have less of a chance or almost no chance of moving or rolling.
Arms and elbows:
If your elbows, wrists or shoulders hurt, try tilting your elbows up as you get under the bar, and/or rotate your hands a bit inward. If you still have a lot of problems, you may need to move the grip out a bit, but work on flexibility constantly so as to keep them in as close as possible. The wider the grip the more the hands will probably tilt inward. I disagree with false grips. They are dangerous because you do not have the bar under full control, and it makes you place the bar higher on the neck, hurting your leverage. Also, some federations allow holding the collars. This practice is very dangerous and really cuts down the leverage. The key is to not only feel tight but also be tight and have everything under control. The lower the bar, the better your leverage is and the more the hips will be utilized. And the hips are where the power comes from. You should not squat totally upright utilizing the legs only. Only a few people are so big they cannot grip the bar fully and squeeze into a position inside the collars. Many big guys could work on flexibility and be able to achieve this.
Walk out and set up:
Walk under the bar, elbows high, squeezing the bar tight and pull yourself under the bar. With the bar about 1-2 inches or so below the deltoid or shoulder, there is a groove for every person that will be evident and sit comfortably. You may have to experiment to find it or it may come naturally. If you are having trouble finding it, ask an experienced lifter. After the bar is sitting tight on your back, set your feet side by side but with one foot just ahead of the other, i.e. heel to toe. Make sure your back is chalked up good to help keep the bar from slipping down your back.
Take a very deep breath, squeeze your hands, shoulders, abs, (i.e. everything) and swing the hips forward. Push up and come back out of the rack. The momentum of the bar and plates, while under control will help you to come out of the rack much easier. Walk out with a minimum of steps,
2-3 at the most. Practice your walk out with an empty bar and while warming up. Practice does make perfect, and learn to do it right every time.
Feet placement and hips:
After walking out and setting up, make sure your feet are the proper distance apart. What is that you might ask? Hopefully you have some idea what is comfortable, and best suited to your body structure, age and strengths. In case you have not a clue as to what planet we are now on, here a few helpful suggestions: Look at this chart to summarize stances:
Short Back Medium Back Long Backs
Short Legs: Medium/Wide Medium/Wide Short/Medium
Medium Legs: Medium/Wide Medium/Wide Short/Medium
Long Legs: Narrow/Med/Wide Medium Short/Medium
This is fairly accurate and there are reasons for the above. It would take a few pages and 20 minutes to put it down on paper to give it a fair discussion. If you really want to know call or e-mail and we will talk. Hip, leg, and back strength also dictate to a point where your stance might be at the present...but not where it should be. See the chart below to help with this area:
Strength comes from: Hips Legs Back
Stance: Wide Wide/Med Med/Narrow
Head placement and eyes:
After walking out and setting up, look out (not up too far), but never down! Now your head can be in 1 of 4 places:
1. Looking way up - for people with wider stances, and the bar higher on their back (and checking out for aliens and space ships in the sky).
2. Looking out - for the average lifter, and the most correct way.
3. Looking down - for the closer stance squatter with the bar really low on the back (and also allows you to check to see if you tied your shoes).
4. Looking at the mat, with a flat face, showing you screwed up and haven't listened to anything I've said to you.
Breathing and flexing of certain muscles:
You should still be holding that deep breath from the set up and walk out. Make sure as you get ready to descend (that means
go down for some of you), you are flexing everything: abs, face, hands, neck, and all upper body parts. As you go down, push your
knees out, hard. As you cock your hips and shoot them back (as if sitting on a chair), get your chest out, shoulders back, and have
a small arch in the back. At the bottom, your shins should be vertical or almost vertical and never past your feet. Michael
Bridges made this popular by giving it a name: The Bridges Fair. It has been part of my form, however, for 30 plus years.
As you approach the bottom of the lift, where the imaginary line from the top of the knee to your hip joint breaks parallel, you pull
yourself through the point with a slight bounce. Then drive upward with your upper body, hands, arms, legs, hips, back, or
otherwise with everything you own. Sometimes the imaginary line is more imaginary at times than others depending on how much
you paid the referee or whether you are dating his sister or daughter. As you stand up (or get scraped up, whatever the case may
be) and as you complete the lift, go ahead and walk forward and rack the bar. Hopefully the spotter/loaders are not taking a lunch
break and will help you a bit, hopefully a lot. Stop, walk, rack, and breathe. Finally it is over.
Thinking and concentrating through the lift from beginning to end:
Squat slow and under control.
Form is everything.
Always squeeze the bar.
Always squeeze your abs (or ab, whatever the case may be).
Always squeeze everything. Practice makes almost always perfect.
And remember, form and style is in essence more important than the workout itself. Age dictates style and form. The older you get, the more your form will need to be altered or adjusted. Sex (male or female, not the action) will dictate form changes. Experience in lifting, etc. will also be a factor.
The Bench Press:
Most people's concept of bench pressing is to just let the bar come to the chest stop and/or bounce it and just press it up. I assume this style is okay if you have no plans of ever improving a whole lot or ever competing. Bench pressing is divided into four main areas of technique:
-The set-up (which is you the person)
-The descent of bar
-The ascent of the bar
All areas are important to achieve the maximum amount weight lifted not only in the contest but also in training for the contest. As in squatting, tight is the key word, and working on the shortest distance the bar travels is what we are looking and striving for.
This is a very critical component of the bench press. Most lifters who fail in a big bench or raise the bar or level for injury do so because of a poor set-up. As you lay down on the bench we already assume you are stretched and as limber as you can be. Your feet should be in a position on the floor where they can get sufficient footing and traction. I realize that most meet promoters,
it is sad to say, fail more in this aspect of bench press platform preparation than any other area. Slick floors, dirt on good floors
make feet slip, and slick floors that allow the bench itself to slide when pushing with the feet can negatively affect your set-up.
Work with the judges and meet promoters before the meet to correct this situation. You have experimented and found the
best foot position to allow you to push hard with the feet/legs and not have your rear end come off the bench. For shorter people
this is almost anywhere. The taller you are the more your feet must be way out in front, way out to the side or way back underneath
you—your choice. Wear a shoe with a heel of some type. This type of shoe gives you an angle to push against and increases your
leverage to push. As you lay down on the bench push yourself into an arch. The bigger the arch, the higher the chest, the less
distance the bar travels—i.e. bigger numbers. You can work on flexibility exercises to increase your arch. This arch is a biggee
and very important—work on it. I push with my hands against the uprights, as they are right there by my shoulders. My feet are
under me, and my heels tilted out as far as they can. That feet set-up will lock you into position better. You should have those
shoulders and neck pushing down into the padding of the bench. Your thighs and hams should be wrapped around the bench
and your chin should be tucked into the chest.The way you grip the bar is optional in all federations except the IPF and its
affiliates, where you must use the thumb around.
If you desire other methods do so in other federations. A few (very few) use the reverse grip, but a vast majority uses the power grip
or thumb less grip. This grip is much preferred if allowed. It takes most all the stress off of the shoulders, elbows and wrists.
Thus, the grip alleviates a large percentage of lifters of tendonitis or similar problems. You should, however, use whatever your
federations rules dictate or allow. The width of your hands on the bar is crucial. We want the best leverage without compromising
our strong points or build. The wider the better is usually true. With the advent of bench press shirts, narrower grips are becoming
more common as the shirt helps more with the bottom part of the bench than the top. I really feel, however, that too narrow of a
grip is a bad choice for most lifters. It leaves out the chance of injury to weakened muscle groups—i.e. the chest—and leaves out
the largest muscle groups that could be involved in the bench press. More is better in this case. If they would continue with the
wide grip, until injury or age dictate a closer one, I think they would be much more successful. This grip brings more of the three
muscle groups responsible for benching into play than any other grip. Chest, shoulders and triceps should be put to the test, and
the maximum gain from each used to get the maximum results. Squeeze the bar, and pull the elbows in as much as possible.
Squeeze the shoulder blades together (or rotate the shoulders down), whichever way you understand it better. The result is the
same—it shortens the distance the bar travels to the chest. We are on our way to emulating a decline as much as possible
(since we all know one can decline more than you can bench).
Next, the spotter/loader lifts off to you, gingerly and gently, letting go at over the top ab or so. This position should be about the
highest part, i.e. shortest distance for the bar to travel. Take a deep breath as the bar is lifted out. I mean a big, deep breath—
get that chest in the air. So when you let the bar down, it is the shortest distance for the bar to travel. Did I mention this is the
shortest distance for the bar to travel? On some it may be a bit further down the ab (for those of you with only one ab, heh heh heh)
/abs. As the bar is being handed out, emphasize even further the pushing together of the shoulder blades. You should still be
squeezing the bar. Push hard against the floor with your feet as you take the bar from the spotter/loader.
Dr. Tom McLaughlin, PhD....in his book, Bench Press More Now: Breakthrough in Biomechanics and Training Methods,
he showed that beginners, and advanced bench pressers had different rates of descent on the norm. Beginning lifters usually let
the bar down to fast, out of control hitting a different spot on the chest each time. Also, they usually have difficulty in max weights
of stopping the weight for a pause and having success in pushing it back up. The more advanced lifter had twice the time
period in the descent and thus the even heavier weight was in control, more easily stopped and paused. Thus, the ascent was
more easily achieved.
The Deadlift: "The meet don't start 'til the bar gets on the floor."
-The immortal words of Don Blue, world record holder of the 70's.
The deadlift: just you, the bar and your mind. Even though incredible back strength and psyche is needed, good technique is a
must. There are two types of deadlift styles: the conventional, which most use, and the sumo (both narrow and wide), which most
do incorrectly for the ones that do use it. The deadlift is broken up into three parts
-The pre attempt scenario, i.e. getting ready for the lift
-The set-up, i.e. walking to the bar getting your feet set and gripping the bar
The pre attempt scenario:
A big psyche is necessary and you must have your mind set on the proper technique as you approach the bar. Concentrate on the
form so as not to let the psyche get in the way of the form.
The sumo set-up:
Approach the bar. Take one foot or the other; your choice as to which is most comfortable and depending on whether you are a
wide sumo or a narrow sumo. The shin goes up to the bar, and toes tilted out 45 degrees or even more in some cases. Shins
vertical, and knees slightly bent. Hands should be down inside the legs with the forearms touching the inside of the thigh if possible.
As you push your knees out (like the squat), you bend over slightly, with arms straight, and grasp the bar half on and half off the
knurling. Your arms should be straight vertically from the shoulders to the bar. This rule will determine exactly where the hands
are to be placed. For a very big lifter with wider shoulders this may be all the way on the knurling. For most, however, half off and
half on will insure the best and shortest pull.
The arms are straight, and the bar lies in the fingers, like it is holding a hook.
Thumb should be overlapping one or two of the first two fingers.
The bar should "not" be squeezed. Rather, it should just lay in the fingers/hand. Only the thumb should be flexed, or squeezed,
not the hands, not the forearm. If this is done incorrectly, most likely, the bar on a very hard pull will slip out of the hands. Also if
the hands are rotated as you grip the bar, it will most likely slip out as the weight pulls down, and pulls the rotated hands back to
a straight up and down position. One does not have to have a strong grip to hold onto large amounts of weight. I have a very
poor grip and grip strength and have never lost a deadlift, i.e. 716 at 165lbs.
As the bar is slowly let down, remember to pull the arms, flexing the lats. Do so as to get the triceps to come on to the lat area.
This action will act as a shelf on which to sit. As you start the upward movement the lats will be flexed and act as a launching pad.
It should take about 2.5 to 3 seconds till it reaches the chest. It will sit on the highest part of the chest/abs, stopping for a split
second pause, then exploding up as you push with everything (as in the squat). Your feet should be driving against the floor,
with shoulders and back against the bench, and with your arms against the bar. The bar should go straight up, the shortest
distance. Sometimes in the proper position, it will seem as if you are actually pushing toward the feet. The bar is actually going
straight up, not back toward the head, as we taught and were taught for 50 years. Think decline. You need to make sure in the
descent and the ascent the wrists are in a straight position. Do not let them curl or bend back. This action will let the bar
go in that direction. It also is hard on the wrists. A good set of wrist wraps will help some in this for support.
The eyes throughout the whole bench should be focused out toward where the bar would start and end, in line of sight. Racking
it should be an after thought. Let the spotters take it from you. Remember form, style and technique is everything.
The sumo attempt/pull:
As you are leaning over the bar knees pushed out, you dip the hips slightly to start your pull, short and sweet. The hips will pull in
towards the bar. The head will follow from down to out as you start the pull. You will pull the slack first out from the plate/bar.
Then, the bend in the bar slack will come next. The bar will pull into the fingers even more as this slack is pulled out and as all
the different areas of slack are pulled out you will explode up, with a very short in line stroke. The back will not be arched but
have a slight curve in it/or perhaps even straight. You should take a short half breath right as you go down to the bar.
Too much breath expands the chest and rib cage more than it need be. It raises the shoulders and lengthens the distance the bar travels, as well as forces the shoulders back while at the bottom right before the pull. A variation of the slow sumo pull is the drop and grab and explode method. Everything is still the same as far as the hands, but it is done very quickly. Many times, when done too quickly or out of control, one grabs the bar wrong and/or the hips rise to fast, giving way to a stiff legged deadlift.
The conventional set-up:
Walk to the bar with the feet about shoulder width apart. The shins should be 2-4 inches from the bar. Some minute
experimentation will find the exact spot you need to be. As you lean over to the bar, grab it the same way as you did in the sumo
except outside the legs a few inches on the knurling, touching the calves.
The conventional attempt/pull:
Take a small breath and dip the hips and pull. One variation of this technique used nowadays is to dip, roll the bar a few inches
out in front of you, and then reverse and pull it back in. As it gets to the shins start the pull upward. Some momentum can be
obtained from this and the bar can be started in closer to the center of gravity. If not done exactly right, however, a moving bar can
be a problem.
Form, style and technique are more important than the routine. We know this to be true in every sport and so it is in powerlifitng.
We need to concentrate more on it, and spend hours on it, consistently, every week, throughout your whole career. A baseball
player takes thousands of swings a week. So a lifter should do many, many reps with little or no weight to perfect his form, style