One of the easiest ways to make progress in powerlifting (and just about any pursuit) is to improve upon your weaknesses. The analogy most often thrown around is that of a chain. It’s clichéd to say it, however, a chain is only as strong as the weakest link. So obviously it’s in your best interest, as an athlete or a coach, to be able to identify and address your weak points. It’s pretty straightforward or so the internet would have you believe.
I’m a member of several powerlifting and/or strength training related groups on Facebook and one of the most common types of questions asks for help with identifying and addressing a specific weakness. They often take the form of questions like ‘I have trouble locking out my deadlift. What exercises should I do?’ Or ‘What’s the best exercise to address lockout in the bench press?’. To the untrained eye, these look like reasonable and legitimate questions however I believe that most, if not all, of these people are missing a fundamental piece of the puzzle.
The way I see it there’s only ever going to be 3 reasons you missed a lift:
1) Strength – You’re not strong enough.
2) Technique – You’re not in a good position.
3) Mentality – You quit.
Now, these 3 categories aren’t a new idea I devised while contemplating the universe seated in my meditation tree. They are reasonably well established as the main causes of missed lifts in powerlifting and often spoken about. My problem is not with the reasons themselves but instead, I find issue with the order in which people approach addressing these areas. I believe that too many people place an uneven emphasis upon strength and specifically the strength of certain muscles or groups of muscles as the main focus. This often leads to very generic statements about what exercise you need to use to address a weakness. Chances are if you’ve ever stepped foot in a strength-based gym you’ve probably had someone tell you that you need stronger triceps to cure your bench press lockout woes or that your posterior chain is weak and that’s why your deadlift lockout sucks.
Are these people wrong?
Should you ignore them completely?
I don’t disagree that weak triceps can be a contributing factor to a lockout issue in the bench press and a weak posterior chain almost always has a role to play in your shitty deadlift lockout, however, I think these people are offering a band-aid solution to a problem that, more often than not, needs stitches. Doing a large amount of tricep based training is likely to make some difference to your bench lockout however you haven’t addressed the underlying issue.
I recently recorded some episodes of a new podcast (Peak Speak – coming early 2018 – stay tuned) that I’m working on with Thomas Lilley from PTC Gold Coast. In procrastinating while writing this post I was watching back some of the footage and there was a concept that Thomas spoke about from a coaching perspective that I think applies in a similar way to identifying and working on weaknesses. Thomas spoke about the idea that there are 3 levels to coaching a movement – first you are able to identify what good and bad movements look like, secondly you are able to change the movement in a way that you can achieve a more aesthetically pleasing lift and thirdly you are able to understand the biomechanics behind the correction and how to prevent it happening in the future.
It’s that third step that I believe most people miss. Let’s use a deadlift lockout issue as an example. Let’s assume you’ve been deadlifting for a few years and every time you take a max attempt it rockets off the floor at a million km/h before basically hitting a brick wall mid-thigh. This usually results in a slow and painstaking grind to finish the last few centimetres of the lift. At this point, it’s pretty obvious to even the casual observer that you’ve got an issue with your lockout.
Now the traditional approach would be to pepper your training with some block pulls, good mornings and the occasional hip thrust, run a full training cycle and see what happens. Sure you might make some gains initially but will it stand the test of time?
In order to claim you’ve ‘fixed’ an issue, you must address the underlying cause, not just the muscles involved. The issue with the lockout is often just simple biomechanics. The bar is at mid-thigh and your body is not in the appropriate position to apply the force required to finish the lift efficiently. So how do you fix it?
Work on your technique.
Everyone has a natural point in each lift that will be the hardest. The exact moment varies based on your biomechanics and skill set however it is possible to minimise the impact of that point through efficient lifting technique. Ideally, you should aim to get the bar to the mid-thigh position in the deadlift while maintaining a relatively neutral spine and keeping your shoulders over the top of (as opposed to in front of) the bar. By doing this you are maximising your biometrical advantage for as long as possible. You’re simply able to apply more force and thus lock the weight out with ease.
Strength is a skill and without an adequate grasp of the concepts that go into that skill you’re going to find making long-term progress is hard.
Don’t fall into the trap of assuming that all the bros at your gym are right and you just need to do more tricep extensions to fix your bench. Think critically about the advice you’re being given and look deeper than just the muscles on the surface.
Don’t use a band-aid when you should be using stitches.
Until next time,