When you first get into powerlifting you might notice there are tons of details that are important in having a good lift. It isn’t just holding a bar on your back, dropping it like its hot, and bouncing back to the top. It isn’t holding a bar over your chest and bringing it down at the speed of sound and bouncing out of it however which way you can. And it isn’t lifting a bar up off the floor like its just another heavy thing on the ground. No, in powerlifting we take pride in our form. There is technique, form, stances and positions that use your leverages to your advantage, and there are cues to bring it all together to produce an efficient and effective lift. It can be quite overwhelming when you really start learning that each and every body part from your feet to your hands can play a role in making you stronger both under heavier loads and in technique. And remembering each detail? That takes a lot of mental power and consistency in practicing.
In this 3 part series I am going to share the best cues, tips, and advice I have found or been given (so far) to building a stronger, smoother, and safer powerlift. I hope you find them as helpful as I have but I would also love to hear what has helped you along the way! We are all here to learn everything we can to better help ourselves and others. The beautiful thing about the sport of powerlifting is we are all here for one another, rooting for each other, and lifting one another up to be better at the sport we all love. No matter what level we are competing at or if we are competing against each other, it is just what we strive to do. We may not be in a traditional team sport (unless on the world team, obviously) but we are still a community and a family. So if something has helped you, share it! I would love to learn from you, as well.
Tip #1: Screw your feet into the floor
Force comes from the ground up. The act of “screwing” your feet into the floor serves as a way to build tension all the way through your lower extremity, ground/plant your feet into the floor, and prevent your ankles from collapsing into eversion during your squat. After you un-rack the bar and take your steps back into your squat stance, literally make a screwing motion with the ball of your foot, pressing it and the heel of your foot into the ground (ending with your feet spaced apart in your preferred stance and toe-turned-out-angle), while simultaneously flexing your quads and glutes. From there you have created complete tension from the ground up that will keep you solid throughout the squat and increase your power output.
Tip #2: Bend the bar
The common theme to a good squat set up, aka everything you do to prepare your body to move the load on your back, is to build tension and activate the muscles that will keep your form intact. The cue to bend the bar is a way to increase tension from your upper extremity down to your trunk. This simple and well-known cue starts with your hands. Before you even get under the bar, find the place you want your hands to be once you are. Grip the bar hard then position the bar right where you prefer it, whether across your traps (high bar) or rear deltoids (low bar). Once its un-racked and your stance is squared away, pull the bar down while clinching/flexing your lats. By having a strong grip around the bar and pulling it down against your back to activate your lats, like with the first tip, you’ll have created more tension needed to move a heavy load.
Tip #3: Brace into your belt
This is probably the most incorrectly performed piece of the puzzle I see in new lifters. I was among them who did not understand what a deep breath exactly in meant. I would take a deep breath, sure, but not into the belt. The air I would grasp instead would fill my chest, which is a very common issue especially among bodybuilders who are accustom with keeping their abs sucked in, attempting to create a smaller waist. It isn’t a big deal if done just for and during shows, but when it becomes a habit to hold this position regularly it can effect a number of things (as I have experienced). But that’s another story for another time. It wasn’t until my chiropractor taught me how to correctly brace my core that it actually clicked.
Here is a great exercise she used on me that helped to visualize and feel proper breathing: In a deadbug position, hold a light kettlebell on your stomach and practice deep breaths in your lower abdomen that lifts the kettlebell.
Once under the barbell fill your belly with air (typically best results by taking it in through your mouth), creating pressure against your belt. I perform this technique before I un-rack it to preserve as much energy as possible in my body as well as during squat itself. Also, be sure to keep it all in until you are at least half way out of your squat. If you release the air from your core in the hole, you relax during the most demanding part of the squat.
Tip #4: Double chin/Push head back when coming out of the hole
Keeping the bar in the center of gravity (COG), which is a vertical line from the middle of your foot, is huge in not failing your squat. Keeping your core braced is one aspect to maintaining this position but another cue to keep the bar where it needs to be is pushing your head back so that your chest doesn’t collapse even a little when coming up from the squat. This is another cue I didn’t learn till later. I had heard “push your back into the bar” several times, but unfortunately that cue didn’t do anything for me because I couldn’t feel or picture what was supposed to happen with that phrase. However, pushing my head back and creating a “double chin” position was a light bulb moment and has helped me a ton with keeping my bar in the COG during the accent phase.
Tip #5: Drive hips forward
The process of the decent of a squat is pretty much a no-brainer. You’re going down. The real effort begins when you have to push the load on your back against the force of gravity. This process of acceleration can be stalled or go wrong all together if your action reflects the thought process “I need to go up.” By moving your hips up first, it inherently forces you to “good morning” out of the hole to get the bar back over the middle of your feet and/or begin the step to move your hips back under the bar at a less than efficient point in the lift. However, by initiating the accent with driving your hips forward (and knees out), it will help prevent the bar from swaying outside the COG and causing you to have to fight to bring it back.
IMPLEMENTING New Cues
The hardest part about all of this isn’t in doing each individual cue, but remembering them all when it’s clutch time. Hopefully you already do most of these and can take maybe one or two tips from the list to incorporate into your already strong performance. But, if there are multiple cues you might not be implementing, start by adding in one at a time. Do what you already know you need to and have learned to do and practice one more cue you haven’t been working with. Adapt to that addition until it is almost involuntary, because your mind and body know to do it without even thinking much about it, then add another if needed. Maybe you have been lifting for a while and are able to dial in on multiple aspects at once and can incorporate multiple new cues and techniques at a time. If so, go for it. Figure out what works best for you, how you learn new things, and how you best memorize and execute them. After a while all of these details will become second nature to you!