Written by: Kevin Cann
As I was writing my last article about programming, I mentioned that the program was written for the client’s specific weaknesses. This is a very important piece of writing a program to truly maximize your strength potential. Whether you train on your own in the gym, do Crossfit, or compete in the strength sports such as strongman and powerlifting, the big 3 lifts play a major role.
By the big 3 lifts I am referring to the squat, bench press, and deadlift. Whether you are training for life or for sport, these lifts should make up the main focus of your program, in my opinion. I call myself a strength coach and there is no better way to get strong than to load up a barbell appropriately and lift.
While coaching my clients I am always assessing and looking for the weak, or sticking points of the lifts. Once these weak points are identified, we will add in corrective exercises to make those positions stronger. When I mention corrective exercise, I am not talking about a particular stretch (although sometimes that is the answer). I am referring to a particular variation of the exercise to strengthen that position, or accessory work addressing weak muscle groups.
All too often we see some type of technical breakdown in a lift and we just want to throw a corrective stretch or dead bug exercise on top of it to fix it. More often than not people are just weak and need to get stronger. Coach them into good positions, strengthen those positions, and improve upon the positions that they cannot get into with the appropriate exercise.
Someone’s knees caving in on the squat does not necessarily mean they have tight hip external rotators. In fact, this is very rarely the case in my experience. Most of the time they lack the ability to create tension and the motor control to properly execute the movement. Coach them through this and you will be surprised how quickly it improves.
With that said, technique can never be overstated. Having a quality coach watch your reps is very important in maximizing your potential. Now that I have stated that, let us look at the lifts, some common weak points, and exercises that I use to help correct them.
Missing the squat in the bottom: This is the most common spot for people to be weak in the squat. Often times you will see the torso lean forward, knees cave in, and butt slide backwards, making it look more like a good morning than a squat. What happens when we do this is the weight is shifted from our hamstrings and glutes, and placed more onto our lower back. Our hamstrings and glutes are much stronger than the muscles of our lower back (or should be at least) and we want to keep the weight there.
Any exercise that we do to strengthen our hamstrings and glutes here will be beneficial. However, just because we strengthen our hamstrings on a GHR, it does not mean that they will be strong in a squat. The more that we can emphasize these muscle groups in movements similar to the squat the better off we will be.
Exercises that are great for helping to build the bottom portion of the squat are pause squats, wide stance squats, wide stance box squats, sumo deadlifts, 1.5 squats, and using the safety squat bar. Pause squats are squats in which we hold the bottom position for a given amount of time, usually 2-5 seconds. These build our starting strength out of the hole and teach us how to stay tight in the bottom position of the squat.
Wide stance squats, and wide stance box squats are similar. Make your stance a couple of inches wider and squat. The wider stance puts a greater emphasis on the hamstrings and glutes. From here perform a regular competition style squat. If you choose to use the box, you need to push your ass as far back onto the box while keeping your back tight. When you sit on the box you should have a negative shin angle. This ensures it is all hamstrings and glutes. Make sure to stay tight when sitting on the box and that you do not just drop onto it.
Sumo deadlifts also utilize a wider stance to put greater emphasis on the hamstrings and glutes. The difference between the deadlift and the squat with wide feet is the bar is starting from a dead stop on the floor. The sumo deadlift looks very much like a squat. This builds starting strength for the posterior chain.
1.5 squats will help teach the lifter how to stay tight into and out of the bottom position. You perform your completion style squat by going down to depth, coming out of the bottom position to the halfway point, going back down to depth, and then locking the weight out. These are brutal and come with some added time under tension. The safety squat bar is a squat bar that is cambered and also has a harness that makes it look like a yoke. It is often referred to as the yoke bar for this reason. This bar is made to push you forward and force you to drive back into it the whole time. You can use this and perform the competition style squat, or any of the other squats mentioned above. If you have trouble with leaning forward in the squat try a narrow stance SSB low box squat.
Middle of squat: If you are missing the squat halfway up then there is something going on with the technique. Often times position is lost out of the hole and this is where the lifter fails. If this is the case, chances are you are weak in the bottom position of the squat. If you do miss squats here try some high box squats, rack pulls, and front squats.
Bottom of Bench Press: The bottom of the bench press is where our pecs are emphasized the most. If you are weakest off of your chest, definitely add in some direct pec work such as flies, pushups, dumbbell bench, and so on. Utilizing a wider grip than your competition style grip can help build the pecs within the movement. This can be as little as 1-2 finger widths wider or more.
Just like with the squats where we paused at the weak position, we can do that with the bench. Utilize the 2-5 second pause with the bench the same way as the squat. In competition you are required to pause the bar on your chest for roughly 1 sec, so I recommend taking all of your reps in training with at least a 1 sec pause. Weighted dips are another good addition if you struggle from the bottom of the bench press.
Middle of Bench Press: Does the weight come off your chest, get a portion of the way up, and then just stop? You can use a pause in this position as well. When I have programmed these in the past take it down to your chest, pause for 1 second, bring it up to the sticking point and pause for 2-5 seconds, and then lock it out. This is where bands and chains can come into play as well. They teach the lifter to push through those sticking points.
I also like using board presses. As a raw lifter you do not need anything more than a 1 board (basically a 2×4). If you lift in gear other board variations can be utilized. Close grip bench press can also help strengthen the triceps and get you past this sticking point. Move your hands in 1-2 finger widths or more and perform the competition style bench press.
Problem at Lockout: If you struggle to lockout those last couple of inches you need to start hammering your triceps. Overhead press and pin presses are also great for getting through this sticking point.
Off of the Floor: This is similar to missing squats out of the hole. Often times you will see the legs straighten, the hips move away from the bar, and the back round. Deficit deadlifts are great at building strength off of the floor. Sheiko recommends a deficit of around 10cm. This is what I use with myself and my clients.
Utilizing an opposite stance deadlift can help make you stronger off of the floor by targeting different muscles. If you pull conventional try sumo and vice versa. May be a good idea to add this in for a month or two to see which stance you prefer more.
With the deadlift, Sheiko has had me use many variations such as deadlift to the knees. This is where you pull the bar off of the floor and pause right below the knee, often for a 2-5 second pause, and then return it to the floor. Building eccentric strength is also a great way to improve your strength off of the floor. One way you can do this is by lowering the bar under control every rep instead of letting it drop to the floor. Also, deadlift + deadlift below the knees.
This is a full deadlift followed by a number of reps where the lifter lowers the bar towards the floor as low as they can without touching the plates to the floor and then locking out the weight again. A good rep range to start is a 1+2 for 4-5 sets. This means you lockout the first deadlift, lower the bar to the ground in a good deadlift position without touching the plates to the floor, and lock it out again. You repeat that one more time without touching the floor. So it is 1 full deadlift followed by 2 reps that do not touch the floor.
Midway: If the bar gets stuck midway, often times the lifter needs to learn how to use the glutes and hamstrings to lockout the weight. Deadlifting off of 4 inch blocks can help here as well as bands and chains. Pausing below and/or above the knees for 2-5 seconds just like the squats and bench press can also help strengthen these positions. I love pauses and feel they should be a staple in everyone’s training regimen.
Lockout: If you get stuck just before lockout, using higher blocks and overloading that position can really help. Bands and chains can help here as well, as they overload that top position with weight.
Assess where your weak points are in your lifts and start to institute some of these exercises into your program. Try to utilize a wide variety of them so that your body does not adapt to the stimulus. I usually rotate these exercises through from week to week. The emphasis changes as the lifter’s strengths and weaknesses change. If you are unsure what to add in or subtract, just utilize a bunch of different pauses at different spots throughout each of the lifts and you will see improvement in all three.