How To Upgrade Your Power Lifts
Upgrade your three power lifts with expert advice and assistance work (below) from the man himself. “But don’t forget to keep doing the classics,” says Walker; what he refers to as the “meat and potato exercises”: the three powerlifts and the other compound moves like pull-ups and lunges. Walker does the main three lifts, three times a week, but his main goal is to avoid adaptation – never get used to any training. “Doing assistance work will never remove the need to perform the lifts themselves, it’s simply there to improve weaknesses, allowing for a safer, more constant progression.” The magic formula: there are three things that make you stronger: speed, intensity (working at a high percentage of your one rep max), and volume. Read on to learn how to use all three for more muscle and better lifts.
Set the barbell as low down on your back as comfortable, preferably across the lower part of your rear deltoid (1). Tense your upper body and core while squeezing your shoulder blades together as you slowly unrack the bar. The most powerful stance is standing with your feet slightly wider than shoulder width apart, toes pointing slightly outwards (2). Take a deep breath in and tense your core. Start the descent with a break at the hips – you should sit back, not down (3). Think of sitting back into a chair. Your knees should point out in the same line as your toes, don’t let them track inwards. At the bottom, your hips should be slightly below the line of your knees (4), your back straight and head in a neutral position. When you’re squatting a max weight, a pause an the bottom is counter-productive. You need to emphasise the change from the descent to the ascent as quickly as possible, you want a powerful “explosion” out of the bottom as it initiates the surrounding musculature’s stretch reflex – this results in a stronger contraction. When coming up, maintain the same upright position so that your legs and glutes do the majority of the work and you save your lower back (5). Don’t lean forwards, aim to keep the bar moving in a straight line while going down and coming up.
1. Getting stuck at the bottom? This is where most lifters, both beginner and advanced, get stuck: at the bottom of the squat, known as the “hole”. The primary movers in the bottom are the glutes and hamstrings, so to progress you need to strengthen them. Some great exercises to build up these posterior chain muscles include: 3 second paused high and low bar squats; sumo deadlifts; glute ham raises; stiff legged deadlifts and hamstring curls. Pick 1 or 2 of these moves and perform 3 to 5 heavy sets of 6 to 10 reps after traditional squatting. Do the exercises that you’re weakest at for a 3 to 5 week cycle.
2. Leaning too far forwards? I used to think this was due to a weak lower back, so I did endless good mornings and back extensions, but I still squatted heavy weights with bad form. After watching how easily Olympic weightlifters stand up with heavy weights I realised I didn’t have the quad strength to stay underneath the bar. I began doing heavy front squats and high bar Olympic style squats to build up my quads. I’m a big fan of front squats – they’ve added more to my overall strength and size than any other accessory lift. Alternate between front and high bar squats weekly, doing 3 to 5 heavy sets of between 3 to 8 reps.
Grasp the bar with a grip that suits your frame. To give yourself the most stable base to press from, the shoulder blades should be retracted and pushed down (1). This shortens the range of motion of the movement and puts the chest in a stronger and more shoulder-friendly position. The ideal position is to have a slight arch in your lower back (2) while maintaining a stable base with your upper back and butt pressing into the bench and feet flat on the floor (3). Squeeze the bar tightly and tense your entire body. During the descent of the bar, imagine using your upper back to row the bar towards your chest while tucking your elbows into your sides. The bar should touch the chest at the lower chest, sternum area (4). A brief pause on the chest is required in competition, but a touch-and-go approach is fine for guys who aren’t competing. The bar should always be under control – bouncing the bar off the chest isn’t doing anything but training the ego. Try press backwards at a slight angle towards the head rather than vertically upwards, it’s a more efficient bar path and it takes a lot of strain off the shoulders (5). As you approach the top of the press, it’s important to flare the elbows to get more tricep involvement, and a better lockout (6).
1. Struggle locking out? Train the triceps hard. Close grip presses, dips, JM presses (a combination of a standard close grip bench press and a tricep extension), dumbbell and barbell extensions and rope pushdowns. Chains and bands can also be added to the bar to provide accommodating resistance – this results in the bar getting progressively heavier during the concentric phase of the movement. This teaches the body to accelerate through weak points. The compound moves should be performed first for 3 to 4 sets of 5 to 8 reps followed by 1 or 2 of the isolation exercises with 2 to 3 sets of 8 to 15 reps.
2. Weak pressing off the chest? Do bench presses with a controlled 3 to 5 second pause at the bottom – to develop explosive power. The focus of your training: getting bigger and stronger in the chest and deltoids. Do bench presses with varying grip width; lots of barbell and dumbbell flat and incline presses followed by military presses; and behind the neck presses for shoulder strength. Isolation exercises such as flies and lateral raises have their place but should be performed after the pressing movements. Do 1 or 2 heavy compound moves for 3 to 3 sets of 5 to 8 reps followed by 2 to 3 sets of 8 to 15 reps of the isolation moves.
The ultimate lift, it builds a back that would make a lumberjack envious. I use bodybuilding-style back training to increase deadlift strength: barbell rowing and pull-ups. To start, the bar should touch the shins (1). Keeping the bar close to the body is vital to reduce the distance it needs to travel. Use a mixed grip: have one hand going over the bar (pronated) and one hand going under (supinated) (2). Grip width can vary but generally a narrow grip with the arms as close to the sides of the body as possible is best. Your knees should be bent as much as is comfortable with your shoulders above the line of the hips (3). The back should be flat, shoulder blades squeezed tightly together, and the head in a neutral position (4).Your arms should be straight and hanging like ropes attached to the bar (5). Take a deep breath and pull just enough to take the slack out of the bar. When people try tear the bar off the floor, their technique crumples. As the bar begins to lift, don’t let your hips rise too quickly. It weakens the leverages of the lift and puts more strain on your lower back. Fix it by lifting lighter weights correctly and strengthening your hamstrings and glutes. When the bar passes the knee, drive the hips by contracting the glutes (6). This thrusting movement creates a huge amount of power in the lockout.
Troubleshoot: 1. Starting issues? Glute hamstring raises, good mornings, hamstring curls, front squats and high bar squats will build up the muscles you need to explode the bar off the floor. You will also need to work the bottom portion of the movement, this can be achieved by deadlifting from a deficit (standing on a plate or small box with the bar on the floor) or by taking an extremely wide snatch grip. If done correctly, the snatch grip can help to combat the weak beginning position. Do these for 3 sets of 6 to 8 reps after your normal deadlift work followed by 1 or 2 hamstring and quad exercises for 3 to 5 sets of 8 to 10 reps.
2. Struggle locking out? It’s a difficult problem to fix but I’ve had success in the past with deadlifts from just below the knee (the bar is raised on blocks), deadlifting with chains and bands on the bar and even horribly painful sets of 20 rep shrugs. These exercises have contributed a little to my lockout strength but nothing has helped my lockout more than simply deadlifting for sets of higher reps. Deadlifting for heavy sets of 3 to 5 reps is brutal but it’s far more beneficial for max strength than actual singular max attempts. Go up to a max set of 3 of 5 heavy reps then drop 20 to 30kg and perform another 2 sets of 3 to 5 reps.