Tag Archives: powerlifting

When A Picture Cannot Tell A Thousand Words

heartpicI’m not really much of a crier. The only time that I was a weepy mess was when I was pregnant. Those were the days when I sobbed because my husband couldn’t find me a slice of cheesecake on a road trip. Or during commercials. Or even while watching a sad episode of Law and Order. Maybe my soul is cold and dead now… nah. Not a crier.

Until the other day. I opened up Gmail to work with my online coaching clients. And this popped up from my client who I’ll just call “T”:

 

newcapture1taylor

 

Yeah, I was a bit of a blubbery mess, simply because seeing her write those words about herself stunned and touched me.

You see, T is a friend of mine here at home. I’ve watched her struggle over the years with not only her weight: she felt constantly overwhelmed, anxious, and stressed out. She took care of everyone else except herself. And she rarely talked about herself in a way that made me believe she valued herself.
T came to a few of my classes at different gyms. But nothing really stuck. I could tell she was interested in strength training, but gyms terrified her. She felt like she didn’t belong in any of them. It wasn’t until I hauled her down to our dirty, dank powerlifting gym that I saw the light come into her eyes. Not because of the gym, but because of what people were doing in it.

I’ll confess that I was a little excited to be the one showing a newbie the ropes down there that day. I’m one of the young scrubs on my team full of veteran powerlifters. I expected I’d have some big work to do to help T learn the basic movements.

But then she surprised me.

T squatted with the stability and grace of someone who had been at it for years. What? How? Hmm. Then I took her over to the bench press, where she picked up the basics easily… then proceeded to out-bench me by a large margin without much effort. And deadlifting…. don’t even get me started. She nailed it, of course. Not even baby weights – like an actually sizeable weight: off the damn floor with nearly flawless form.

It was right in front of us: T was born to lift. She seemed almost giggly down there. And I became giggly too, just watching her blossom.

I expect a lot of exciting progress out of T in the next few years. She found a way of moving her body that not only is good for her health: it has made her feel capable, strong inside, and allowed her to look beyond the size of her body as a measure of her worth.
T signed on for a month of coaching with me before starting her powerlifting program. I wanted her to have a jump start on building habits that would keep her from reverting to her former “yo-yo”patterns. T wanted to slowly begin making changes in her body composition as well, so along with  working on movement,  we worked on nutrition as well and monitored her fat loss progress. I was blown away when I checked her measurements:

Capturetaylor2

Sorry, I get a little sweary when I’m jumping up and down in excitement.

But when I saw T’s progress in how she felt and talked about herself, the inches seemed a lot less important.

newtaylor3

This lovely woman used to speak as though she was helpless against the forces of life. Now she speaks as someone who is fully in control of her destiny. When things get rough, she rolls with it. Like a BOSS. She is able to evaluate what she needs to improve and celebrates the things that she does well.

That progress is worth a hell of a lot more than a pants size to someone who has struggled with their self esteem, isn’t it?

They say a picture says a thousand words.
Yes, pictures can be great. It’s okay to want to pursue aesthetic goals. Pictures are also an easy reminder of transformation:

audraanonback

This is one of my clients who asked to remain anonymous because she’s not quite ready to be “internet naked”. Here is her body comp progress after 1 month of coaching. It’s pretty cool to watch change happen in front of your eyes. The picture shows lower body fat, but it doesn’t tell you that she’s begun taking time for herself to move each day even though she has a baby at home.

Angie progress back 12 week

This is my client, Angie. Her 12 week progress picture helped her realize that sometimes the scale doesn’t show improvement in body composition. And the picture is a wonderful reminder that all her strength training paid off. But the picture doesn’t let you know that Angie was really frustrated after her first year back into teaching threw her routine out the window. The picture can’t tell you that Angie’s work on her fitness put a spring back into her step that had been missing for a while.

amyprogress

This is my own progress pic. My body fat percentage lowered quite a bit and I gained some sweet muscle over 6 months. But it can’t tell you that powerlifting not only gave me bigger muscles: it made me feel unstoppable and more confident about other challenges in my life. It can’t show you that I can run faster, move with less pain, and feel more energy with better nutrients humming through my body. 

When you hear the stories that come with no progress picture, you realize that the most important transformations cannot be captured with a before and after shot.

After all, how do we capture the transformation of someone’s heart?

T has a big heart, and instead of pouring every last bit of it into everyone else, she’s learning to save a little bit for herself. Establishing the practice of strength training and developing the mindset required to work at fitness played a huge role in improving her self-image.

And that’s why I cried tears for T. 

Do you wonder what your own transformation story will be? Sign up below to receive my newsletter. You’ll get articles delivered to your inbox that will help you on your own fitness journey as well as my  FREE copy of my book, Fat Loss on a Budget.

 

 

The Strength Move That Transforms You Inside and Out – Learn to Deadlift Today

deadlift favorite

Gather round for story time today, friends – the book is Deadlifting: The Fairytale. Or something equally dreamy and dazzling.

Are you ready to learn the most fun strength move – one that will also make you feel mighty? If you’re already doing the deadlift, then follow along anyway, because I have some help for you too. But if you have never tried a deadlift, I’m going to help you get ready to run to the gym and have a blast. So let’s go.

I just like to deadlift. Deadlifting is my favorite.

I turn into Buddy the Elf when it’s deadlift day. Why? Because this movement is like nothing else. There’s something about pulling heavy stuff off the floor that makes us feel powerful. It makes us stand tall and strong and somehow begin to feel an inner reserve of fortitude that we didn’t even realize we possessed.

You might say deadlifting is the heavy metal of strength training. And I want you to try it.

If you’ve been following my newsletter this week, you’ll know that I’ve been outlining the “big three” lifts of powerlifting. Not because I’m trying to get you to drink the Kool-Aid and become a powerlifter. Although it is delicious.

In actuality, these three lifts are cornerstones of an effective strength program, whether you want to build muscle, gain athleticism, or work on your body composition. Today is the BEST day because it’s deadlift day.

Pulling sumo deadlift makes you feel majestic. Like a lioness or something.

Pulling a deadlift can make you feel majestic even while making a dorky face. Like a lioness or  the queen of the gym or something else magnificent.

What Deadlifts Will Do For You
Aside from the rock star feeling you get, you’ll get rock solid fitness benefits. Among them:

-A movement that works nearly every muscle in your body.

-Huge metabolic demand with extra fat burning and conditioning.

-Focus on our back side, which usually needs more help anyway. It’s a very functional lift for life.

-It translates to real world demands. Every summer, clients joke with me about using their deadlift technique to safely pick up heavy things in the garden. Ever want to get better at holding onto things? The deadlift will improve your grip.

-It makes you more powerful and explosive. If you’re after athletic benefits for other sports, deadlifts will help you out.

What a Deadlift Is
If you’ve never deadlifted before, don’t be shy. It’s really not all that complicated to learn. It’s a lift that requires you to pick up something heavy. Sometimes we do them off the floor, as in the variations called conventional or sumo style deadlifts, and sometimes starting at the top of the movement out of a rack with moves like the Romanian deadlift. Every variation is based on the basic human movement of hinging your hips.

When I teach beginners to deadlift, I first make sure that they can hinge their hips properly. A hinge is simple in concept – imagine trying to touch your butt to the wall behind you. We do drills to reinforce a good hip hinge:

butt to wall collageYup, we try to touch our butts to the wall. The better we get, the farther away from the wall we go.

PVC Pipe Drill
You can also see if you’re hinging well or not by holding a PVC pipe against your butt, upper back, and head. You want the pipe to maintain contact with those parts at all times during the hinge.
good hinge
A Good Hinge

bad hinge collage
A Not-So-Good Hinge

See the difference in how the back looks and where the hips go?

Once you’ve mastered a basic hinge, you can go on to more exotic things to practice your hinge with some load. I like starting with things like:

-Banded Good Mornings
-Sumo Kettlebell Deadlift
-Romanian Deadlifts
-Hex Bar Deadlifts
-Hip Bridges

Some people do just fine getting behind a bar and starting from the floor if they are hinging well and are eager to get going. We just keep the weights light enough to work on technique.

The Basics of a Conventional Deadlift from the Floor

My friend Jen Sinkler doing a conventional deadlift. Rawr.

My friend Jen Sinkler doing a conventional deadlift. Rawr.

So you want to do a deadlift from the floor? Either in the sumo position (where your feet are in a wide stance and your hands pull from inside your legs, as I do in my picture) or in a conventional stance, where you stand with your feet about shoulder width apart, you will have a barbell loaded with plates.

If you aren’t ready to use 45 lb plates yet, you’ll need to use either light bumper plates or elevate the bar with something like steps to get the bar to the appropriate height – roughly at the middle of your shin or so.

1. Step up to the bar and line it up with about where your shoelaces are tied.

2. Shift your hips BACK as you reach down to grab the bar on either side of your legs. You can start with a double overhand grip. If you plan to powerlift eventually, you might consider learning a mixed grip (one overhand, one underhand) right from the start.

3. Imagine you have oranges in your armpits. Squeeze some juice for me. (Yeah, really!) That gets your lats tight. Show me the logo on your t-shirt so that I know your chest is high enough.

4. Take a deep breath. Brace your abs like someone is going to punch you. Then push your feet into the floor, drive your hips forward as you pull the bar off the ground.

5. Finish the move by squeezing your tuckus at the top, then set the bar back down.

That’s a deadlift. The most fun move in the gym.

Movin’ On Up
If you’re ready to improve your basic deadlift, I would like to point to powerlifting as a prime resource for making your deadlift more… powerful! As your form improves, so will your ability to lift some seriously heavy weight.

As a powerlifter, I make micro adjustments with things like my foot angle, the width of my stance, and the height of my hip. Sometimes I pull with a sumo stance deadlift – that’s where my feet are outside my hands. Other times I pull with a conventional stance, as Jen Sinkler is doing in the picture below.

Deadlift_FB_Preview_1

Remember the “Unapologetically Powerful” e-course I’ve been so excited about all week? Well, one of the reasons that I keep talking about Jennifer Blake and Jen Sinkler’s production of the video series is because Jennifer’s input got me through a tough spot in my own deadlifting. Her advice helped me learn to respond to what my body is telling me as I lift. When my hip started bugging me a few weeks before my first meet, I drew upon her wisdom and ended up changing my variation based on what she taught me. I hit a huge PR when the meet arrived.

Jennifer really knows her stuff, and if you’re aiming to improve your own deadlift, definitely sign up to watch her free video on the deadlift. You will get a video link you can watch as often as you want, as well as an accompanying guide to download.

Here’s what I like most about Jennifer and Jen’s series:
-They help you improve your form, which will make you feel better as you lift and keep you lifting safely.

-You will feel much less fearful of deadlifting, and instead can have fun being a powerful badass.

-You’ll get hella strong if you take their advice – you are going to still have to work really hard, don’t be mistaken. But their tweaks will make a big difference in your results.

So are you ready for deadlift day? Go get ’em!

Leave a comment below and tell me if you’re like me and have a deep, abiding love of the deadlift. Or leave a comment and tell me about what drill or variation you’d like to try!

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99% Of Women Skip This Exercise – Are You Missing Out On Its Big Benefits?

the bench press

“So how much do you bench?

If you’re a guy who’s into fitness, this is the entry-level question for the bro club; a dude handshake, if you will. But if you’re a woman, you’ve probably never been asked that: mostly because not very many women do the barbell bench press.

However, the dynamic seems to be shifting as more and more women fall in love with how classic strength training moves make them look and feel: powerful, toned, and badass.

Still, the bench press might not be high on your list of priorities: many female clients come to me wanting to shed belly fat, get a juicier looking butt, or even shape up their arms. Yet not a single one has approached me asking for “a firm chest”. But here’s the thing – getting a stronger chest and shoulders via exercises like the bench press will help you accomplish a few different things that I think you’ll appreciate.

Benefits like these:

    • You will be able to more easily lift heavy objects. That’s pretty useful for life.

 

    • It will help you build a more balanced, strong, lean-looking physique.

 

    • By incorporating chest exercises into your overall training, you’ll ensure that you have a balanced routine that prevents injury.

 

    • You’ll burn a ton of calories – the bench press is more of a full body lift than you’d think. Your back, abs, and legs also activate – and that gives you a lot of “bang for your buck” if fat loss is a goal.

 

    • Better posture. You’ll look great just standin’ around and your body will feel good too.

 

  • You’ll feel powerful. The bench press is way more fun than pushups. It just is. Because science.

Here is what getting a strong chest via the bench press will NOT do:

  • Take away your boobs (losing some boobage usually comes from weight loss, not strength training.) You may notice a bit more cleavage though as you develop muscles.
  • Make you look masculine. Nope, not happening. Women just don’t produce the amount of testosterone that men do, and that minimizes the “bulking” effect. It takes a ridiculous amount of effort to become a very muscle-bound looking woman. So if that’s not your jam, you can rest easy.

So you want to bench now, right?

Well, the bench press is easy… and not easy. Yeah, you read that right. It’s easy in that to actually do the movement as you typically seen it done in the gym, it’s pretty straightforward. Let’s tackle the basics first:

Barbell Bench Press – The Easy Part
BENCH PRESS HOW TO

  1. Get a bar set up on the bench press rack. Once you’re strong enough to handle plates, you will add those too.
  2. Lay down on the bench with your eyes lining up under the bar. Put your feet on the ground, or if you’re a shorty, slide some plates beneath your feet.
  3. Grasp the bar at a comfortable width – this takes some time and experimentation to find a good grip width. If you go too narrow, you’ll turn the move into a triceps exercise. If you go too wide, you might wreck your shoulders and actually make the lift harder than it needs to be.
  4. Unrack the bar. Control it as you aim it down to just below your bra line, letting it barely tap your chest. Then push the bar back up. Your elbows shouldn’t be tucked in, nor should they flare way out as you push back up.

Oh, one more thing – keep your butt on the bench the entire time please. Thank you very much.

And you just did one rep. Not so hard, right? It just takes a little practice.

 

The Not-So-Easy Part
Performing an optimal bench press for the sport of powerlifting takes the movement to a new level. If you never plan to compete you don’t have to get too wound up about mastering the finer points of the bench press. Yet, you might want to consider borrowing some of their “secrets” for your own workouts. Here’s why:

A powerlifting-focused bench press technique takes time and patience to improve. There’s no way around that. But even if you don’t plan to become a powerlifter, I find that many of the strategies that powerlifters use in their bench press will help give you a safer, more stable base to work from. You’ll be able to leverage some more weight this way and you’ll also engage more muscles while you work by borrowing some of those powerlifting tricks.

With powerlifting techniques, you’ll work on skills like driving with your legs, engaging your back muscles, keeping your chest as high as possible, and you will even learn to breathe more effectively.

That’s a lot going on, I know.

Bench_FB_Preview_1

If you read my email newsletter about the squat this week, you’ll remember that Jennifer Blake and Jen Sinkler have a free video e-course happening right now. The series is a helpful resource for getting you better at performing the big lifts of powerlifting. Today, they have a bench video to share with you. There’s no way that I can go into all the finer points of making your bench press rock in one post, but they do it for you in their video, “6 Ways to Healthier Shoulders And a Stronger Bench Press”. You can learn more by getting it here.

FYI – again, you definitely DON’T have to be a powerlifter to get something out of these videos.

Jennifer also shares tips for keeping your shoulders healthy while bench pressing – something I can’t emphasize heavily enough. I wrecked my own shoulder by benching without good advice years ago. I wish I’d had this instruction back then. Thankfully, you can learn and develop good habits right off the bat.

Also you’ll get chances to win prizes- some seriously good stuff to be won just from signing up for the free course. Yay for prizes!

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If you watch it, leave a comment and let me know your favorite take away from their lesson. I love talking about bench pressing. (As if you couldn’t tell!)

Happy Lifting!

Amy

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11 Things I Learned At My First Powerlifting Meet

I finally bit the bullet and decided to enter a powerlifting meet. I have a solid base in strength and conditioning, but powerlifting is a sport. In the sport of powerlifting, I’m a scrub.

#noscrub

#noscrub

I trained hard under the guidance of my wise and wonderful coach, Jordan Syatt. Jordan got my butt ready to smash some weights and gave me the last minute pep talks I needed to stop freaking out long enough to drive to Omaha for the meet.  Once I saw my teammates at weigh-in, I began to get pumped up to participate. I asked a million questions. Then I finally felt ready.

Still, even if you grill your coach and teammates like I did, there are some things you might not know before you show up on meet day. Here are my biggest takeaways that can help you feel more confident at your first meet.

11 Things I Learned At My First Powerlifting Meet

1. Getting PRs and big lifts is cool. Exhilarating, even. But being surrounded by people who share your love of lifting and really want you to succeed more than anything will make your heart grow. I was so lucky to be at mine with teammates from 22nd Street Barbell who served as cheerleaders, mentors, and handlers all day. Even complete strangers will walk up to you and encourage you. Powerlifters are really special people. I love this community.

lady bros

lady bros

2. If you decide to hyper hydrate, make sure there’s a bathroom nearby and plan to use it allllllll dammmmnnn day.

3. Maybe it’s because I’m a 41-year-old female who’s birthed three giant babies. Or maybe it’s just incredible exertion. But it’s very possible that you may pee while you squat and deadlift. Bring extra underwear, I beg you. I’m glad I did, because during my final squat, I PEED DOWN MY LEG! One of the judges kindly and quietly handed me a towel. The bonus of being a 41-year-old female is that you may have lost your ability to become fully embarrassed. I laughed a little and changed my panties. OMG! Luckily this didn’t make it into the video.

4. Bring food that you normally eat, and plan to strategize your eating around your lifts to keep a constant stream of energy. I need to keep working on this – I felt kind of gross as the day went on, full of water, energy drinks, preworkout before events, and rice krispie treats. It’s not how I normally eat. Blech.

5. I have new respect for big deadlifts at the end of a very long day. We arrived at 7 a.m. They didn’t actually start the rules meeting until 8:30 a.m. We were supposed to begin at 9:30 but we didn’t really get going until nearly an hour later. The meet had 3 flights of lifters but only one went at a time. Also, one flight was equipped, which takes even longer. It made for a day that seemed to go on forever. Knowing when to take down time, when to rest, when to amp yourself back up is a skill that you probably won’t nail the first time but is one to keep working on.

6. Practice the commands so you’re not stressed out about them when you get ready to lift. I did not do this. I ended up being fine, but doing a “mock meet” set or two would have made me less anxious.

7. Once you get out there to do your attempts it goes by like a whirlwind. I felt like I had tunnel vision, and all I heard and saw was the judge (or in bench, my guy giving me a lift off.) And that was good.

8. Once you get your first squat attempt done, 95% of the crazy in your head will probably melt away as you realize a meet is mostly a really cool chance to test yourself. Nobody in the crowd is thinking poorly of you, regardless of how your lift went. Everyone wants you to have a great day.

9. Choose openers that you can do at 2 a.m. for your first meet. I low balled mine, and I’m glad I did because it built confidence. It also ensured that I could move on to the next event and have the experience of completing the meet. Plus totals in the books!

10. Ask someone to video you and take pictures. We had a professional photographer so I’ll have meet photos soon. However, if my teammate hadn’t decided to film one of my attempts on a whim, I’d have nothing to look back on from the day. I’m kicking myself for not having more. Not only are they helpful for assessing how you performed in your events, they’re a memory. Someday you can look back on this experience and realize how far you’ve come.

Hardcore powerlifters waiting to warm up: smashin' weights, knittin' sweaters.

I’m a hardcore powerlifter waiting to warm up: smashin’ weights, knittin’ sweaters.

11. Drink it all in. Learn more stuff. Have fun. No matter how it goes, you gain knowledge and excitement that you can pour into your training once you return home.

As for how I did in the meet, it was a wild, wonderful day and I want to compete again. I made 8 out of 9 lifts, and hit new PRs in all 3 events.  My  goal for the meet was to not get disqualified and hopefully get hooked on powerlifting. I can check those both off my list. Most importantly, I am excited to get back into the gym and get better! If you’ve been considering a meet, just go for it! It’s a great way to test yourself and get reinvigorated about your training.

1stplacelastplace

What I Learned – The Weekend Review

Hi lovelies!

I hope you’re all having an amazing weekend. The weather here is perfect, and I’m…. sitting at my computer in my dark dungeon of a basement cranking out work. But I’m grateful – I have some big things coming for you very soon (how’s that for mystery) and my husband took the boys out for the day so I could have time to focus and make progress. Checking things off lists can feel glorious when you’re a habitual procrastinator.

picardgetitdone

I’ve been a scattered bundle of nerves lately, which has contributed to my lack of focus on everything else. Next weekend I’ll compete in my first powerlifting meet in Omaha and I’m trying to remind myself that it’s supposed to be for fun. Most of the trepidation is due to having little idea of what to expect, so I’m looking forward to just doing it (insert Nike swoosh). I’m not sure I’d ever feel like I was completely prepared, so I’m going to just go in and do my best. Eeeeek!

Training

deadliftday
Since I’m prepping for my meet, my lifting sessions have been focused on getting me ready. My hip has been bugging me so I’ve been playing with trying conventional deadlift instead of sumo deadlift. It’s been awhile since I’ve pulled that way and it feels strange but good!

Pumpkin Everything

funnypumpkinspice
It’s officially fall and I don’t care if it’s been 85 degrees, I’m ready for pumpkin spice everything. Yeah, I’m a basic bitch. I just need some Uggs, right? I found a few great recipes to pumpkinify my life. These protein pumpkin pancakes from Muy Delish are ahhhmaaaazing. You need them in your life. I’ve also been adding a few tablespoons of pumpkin puree to some hot milk and mixing it with pumpkin pie spice + coffee. It’s not quite Starbucks but it’s healthier and satisfying to boot. Yum.

Reading List
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I managed to break my web site this week, so I spent most of my time trying to fix it instead of writing new content. However, I did read great thoughts from some other bloggers. Check these:

How to Weight Train Without Getting Hurt – Bryan Krahn
I’ve injured myself way too many times. I wish I’d read these thoughts years ago.

2 Essential Lessons that Dissolve Stress – Kia Khadem
There’s some major wisdom here about the expectations we put on ourselves. A big part of a healthy life is our emotional health.

3 Reasons to Include Cardio in Your Lifting Program – Tanner Baze
Cardio has become the red-headed step child in fitness. It’s still important for your overall health and burns extra calories to boot. If you’re a weightlifting junkie like I am, you may fall into the habit of letting it go entirely. Here are some strong arguments for incorporating it into your weekly routine.

If How You Eat and Work Out Doesn’t Make You Feel Good About Yourself, Read This Now – Nia Shanks. When I first read Nia’s blog, a light bulb clicked on. Her voice is one that helped me find a healthy place in my own fitness journey. Our fitness practice should enhance our lives, not be a ball and chain. She should mic drop at the end of this.

6 Habits of Successful, Long Term Dieters – Eric Bach on Adam Pine’s site. I’ve used all of these strategies for my own fat loss. They’re simple and they work. No hocus pocus needed.

33 Things I Do Almost Every Day That Make My Life So Much Better – Money Saving Mom
There were so many things on this list that spoke to me. Little gestures of self care like lighting candles in the house, getting up early enough to have some quiet moments alone before the kids are up and running around, and learning to create time blocks so that our days are more organized. Life can feel hairy and out of control, but small changes in what we do during our days can lead to better overall feelings. Self care is really important for our overall well being. Read her thoughts and find new ideas to breathe some new life into your own days.

So with that, it’s time to get out of my basement and find some sunlight. It’s a perfect day for a walk! Have a great weekend everyone!

Setting up to Squat – 5 Pro Practices that Anyone Can Use

squatforfun

It wasn’t until I took up powerlifting as a hobby/sport/crazy obsession this year that I really started to rebuild my squat. I had the basics covered: my body gave me a decent amount of stability and mobility that let me move through the pattern appropriately. But when I saw others around me leveraging a hell of a lot more weight than I could ever imagine lifting, I wondered if there was something more than raw strength at play. Was it the doughnuts? (I wish it were doughnuts).

You can see it as they prepare to squat. The folks at my powerlifting gym looked different than I did even before they got under the bar. And yes, those small details can make a big difference in our ability to not only lift more weight but feel better doing it. There are a billion resources to help you improve your squat mechanics. I won’t cover those here today. But just setting up effectively will  make an improvement in your ability to squat.

I’m not a squat guru but making these changes has quickly improved my overall lift. And you don’t need to be participating in a strength sport to use these techniques! They can help anyone get a more powerful squat. Even grandmas. That’s right, badass grandmas who squat.

1. Know your stance. 
Take time in your warm-up to play with foot position. There is no one correct way to position your legs in a squat. It’s more of a continuum of positions that work depending on your mobility and hip anatomy.  Many, many people feel better when they turn their toes out just slightly. Some people move more easily with a wider stance, others narrower. If you take the time to groove that stance, you won’t have to think about it when you approach the bar (or the kettlebell or whatever you’re using for your squat variation).

2. Get your mind right. 
Go into your happy place, or your zen place, or your asskicking place. For my own needs I prefer a zen/asskicking combo of self talk that says “f**k yeah, I’ve got this.  I own the hell out of this weight.” But in a calm way, so I’m not so amped up that my heart races too much. I might be a weirdo, but hey, it works for me and many others. Every experienced lifter I’ve seen has used some kind of focusing technique before they approach the bar for their working sets.

2. Walk it out.

When you’re getting ready to go for a really heavy squat,  the way you walk the bar out matters. A lot. Wasting energy on too many steps can kill your effort. Even if you’re not going for a huge lifting attempt you will have a better set if you take a little time to get your bar positioning set up well. For a high bar back squat, pull that bar right down into your delicious cushion of a trapezius muscle and pull your shoulders back to make a shelf. Awww yeah, sweet spot.

Some people squat with the bar lower. It doesn’t really matter for most of us: just get the bar into a good place.  Most advice for hand placement directs us to keep our grip fairly narrow because it helps create stiffness. If you have shoulder issues, a medium to wide grip might feel better. Do what works for your body.

Grab the bar hard. From the moment you touch the bar, you are creating tension.

Finally, stand up and walk the bar out like you’re large and in charge instead of wobbling around without much thought. From the moment that the bar leaves the rack, you are ready to lift. No Gumby bodies.

photo credit: worker101 flickr

photo credit: worker101 flickr

3. Show me your t-shirt. 
Puff your chest out a little, like you have swagger.  This helps keep your spine from flexing. Some people like to think about arching their upper back a bit too. That way you end up getting your chest out and help set your back into a good position to squat.

4. Keep it tight. 
Get tight get tight get tight! This is what I’ve heard yelled at me.  At first I felt confused by this. What does this mean exactly?  I didn’t yet understand what a big advantage tension can bring. I’m not talking about emotional tension. I mean bracing the abs and getting the lats tight.

Understanding and executing are two different things entirely. In the back squat, pulling the bar as if you were pulling it down to you will help activate your lats. This will give you more stability through your torso. That translates to a bigger squat that feels better.

As in any other movement, your abs need to come to the party too. You’ll brace them as if you were about to be punched in the stomach. Again, this creates stiffness that makes it easier to squat more powerfully. However, I brace just as I take my breath. Learning to set my air is the most dramatic change I made in my squat set up. Let’s take a look at that next.

5.Breathe, baby.
Learning to take in and hold air for heavy squats was my biggest game changer. This is something that every serious strength athlete knows how to do but the average gym goer rarely practices. Take in a huge breath that expands your entire rib cage. Not a dainty breath – you need a big, POWERFUL breath.

Put your hands just above your waist and try to push them out. If you have a hard time doing this, lie down on the floor. This forces you to use your diaphragm instead of taking shallow breaths. Get comfortable with how that feels and then go back to try it before your squat.

As you take that big breath, do you notice how your ribs flare? Now lock it down as you brace those abs. Here’s what that looks like:

 

This is me practicing my breath for a set. 

It’s go time. Reset between reps. When we lose our air during a squat, we lose our power. We bleed the capacity to generate force because we lose so much tightness. I blow out my air as I finish my rep. Then I reset and do it all again.

How to get started: if you haven’t been doing any of these things, don’t smash all of these cues into your head at once. That would hurt. Use warm-up sets to practice. Work on your breath for one. Think about your lats on another. In time, those new habits will become second nature. Squat smarter and improvement will come.