Category Archives: Todd Bumgardner
I’m not an incredible squatter. On a spectrum of squatting proficiency, I’d fall somewhere at the far end of average, just before the transition into good.
However, lest you’re wondering if there’s even any point in reading this article, consider that I used to be a horrible squatter. For an extended portion of my training history, my squats looked more like good mornings bullied into knee flexion.
The problems never change – we all have variations of the same issues – but how we respond to a given solution is hugely variable. To practice variability and to solve training problems, we require an oversized tool box. I’m talking about one of those sumbitches that sits in the back of a jacked up diesel.
That’s the goal for this article – building your squat assistance toolbox so it rivals the Sears and Roebuck special. To do that though, we have to know what problems we’re dealing with, as well as objectively examine your deficiencies.
Before we go on, one more note: sometimes the best exercise to improve your squat is the squat, whichever variation you happen to fancy. While having a creative approach is at times necessary and certainly more fun, make sure that you’re building tension in the right places and squatting well before you worry about fixing problems.
These solutions are to be used in concert with great, submaximal squatting. They won’t fix anything unless you’re training yourself to squat well.
Let’s first identify the problems, though. After that, I’ll introduce specific tools you can use to fix them.
Identifying the Problems
It’s disconcerting how often eccentric strength is disregarded while squatting. Everyone seems to forget that we have to sit down with the weight before we stand up with it.
Unless you’ve become the ultimate master of reciprocal inhibition and turned yourself into super-elastic-bounce-man, some strength and tension during descent will serve you well. You need to learn to pull into the bottom position – it’s a precursor to bottoms up strength.
Here’s how to know if you’re doing it well enough:
- You feel tension across the front of your hips and in your abs as you descend.
- Your spine stays neutral with a relatively upright torso. (I know powerlifters lean a bit.)
- There’s no butt tuck at parallel. (Sure, this could be the place where we suggest an amazing corrective exercise to fix your anterior core instability, but it can be much simpler than that.)
If you’ve mastered these three criteria, you’re light years ahead of most. But if you’ve failed on any of the above, you’re doing it wrong.
Bottoms up Strength
I know what you’re thinking. “Bottoms up” strength sounds like beer muscles, but for our current purpose let’s skip the barley and hops and talk about strength out of the squatting hole.
Bottoms-up strength has several prerequisites. Is there air in the belly? Tension in the feet and hands? Are the lats tight? Strength out of the hole has a lot more to do with stability than anything else, provided you’ve chosen an appropriate load.
If you’re loose at the bottom – feet aren’t screwed in, shoulders aren’t torqued, and air is non-existent – then your strength out of the hole is piss poor. Like eccentric strength – which, by the way, prepares us for bottoms up strength – the fix is simple.
Irradiation, super stiffness, and co-contraction are analogous. The only difference is which coach’s mouth, or pen, that those words came from. And it’s important for all big lifts.
The first two problems I’ve mentioned cover irradiation for specific parts of the squatting task – the down and the bottom reversal. We’d be a yard short of a touchdown, though, if we didn’t talk about full body tension throughout the squat.
The differential diagnosis is the same as in the first two examples – are you tight on the way down and tight at the bottom? Yes? Good for you, but we have to carry that tension through to the finish. We need to make sure you’re tight in all phases.
Posterior Chain Involvement
Most lifters are inundated with developing their quads while squatting and forget how important the glutes and hamstrings are, but without good use of the posterior chain the hips are disproportionately loaded – quad development plays second fiddle to knee and low-back pain.
Every squat, be it front, box, side, or in the wilderness during a bowel-exiting endeavor, should begin with the hips travelling back in a hinge. If they don’t, you’re once again doing it wrong, and you may well end up with funky smelling feet.
For some folks this is a technique flaw, quickly remedied with instruction and coaching cues, but many times a forward jetting of the knees is indicative of lackluster posterior chain strength. In that case, it’s time to load the glutes and hams while educating the hips on the finer points of posterior movement.
Eccentric Strength: Squat Pull-downs
This drill teaches you to access the eccentric squat strength you already have. That’s right, Chill Rob G, you have the power. It’s good, however, to pull against tension before learning to pull down with weight on your shoulders.
Sink the band deep into the armpits, stay tall, and use the abs and hip flexors to pull into the bottom position. Did you notice how during the first two reps I still display the blasphemous butt tuck, but by the third rep it’s gone? It’ll take a few reps and someone else’s eyes to get you on the right track.
Also, keep in mind that I’m starting the tension by creating torque at my hips. I accomplished this task of major minutia by “screwing” my feet into the ground. Do this on every squat set and drill.
After you master the band in the armpits version of the squat pull down, use an unloaded bar with a reverse bands set up. To quote Coach Michael Ranfone, “It’s easier to pull with the right patterning and sequence.” This drill transitions nicely from the initial pull down lesson into the loaded bar pull down.
Josh, the guy in the video, moves seamlessly, but don’t be fooled – this drill takes mammoth lat tension and a colossal pull from the hip flexors and abs.
Bottoms Up Strength: Squat with Chains
It’s simple. Learning to stay tight in the bottom position requires a stimulus that forces you to stay tight. Send your appreciation to CaptainObvious.com.
Sometimes, however, it’s the obvious that catches us off guard, like when you’re looking for your hat and it’s on your head. There’s little difference between absent minded hat placement and what we need for bottom position squat tension. The obvious cues the light bulb.
Why the chains? Well, I dare you to squat loosely to the bottom position and stay there with minimal tension. You’ll get rag dolled, brah. The real test, however, comes when owning the bottom position transitions into ascension. You best have your air low and strong, your feet must be torqued, and those elbows better be worked under the bar.
To start, take ten percent of your bar weight and replace it with chain weight. As an example, if your squat sets are planned at 275 pounds, cut the weight to 245 and add 30 pounds of chains.
You’ll find that you’ll quickly be able to up the percentage of chain and decrease bar weight, but if you’ve never squatted with chains before, it’s best to be a tad conservative until you squash the learning curve.
Here’s a quick tutorial on how to set up chains to squat:
Full-Body Tension: Bottoms-Up Kettlebell Squats
Sure, the chains are going to train you to keep tight under load, but we can fine tune that tension by adding another stimulus. Besides, just because the chains work for me doesn’t mean they’ll work for you. Remember the tool box.
One of the first things that novice and mediocre squatters dismiss is upper-body tension. It starts in the grip. I haven’t found anything that challenges the grip while squatting more than holding a kettlebell upside down, as shown in the video below:
A strong grip on the kettlebell will transfer up the arms, into the shoulders, and end up in the torso. Combine that with a strong torque of the feet and properly placed air and you’ve built impressive full-body tension.
Posterior Chain Involvement: Good Mornings
To squat well your posterior chain must be strong. Deadlifts, glute-ham raises, and Romanian deadlifts must have seats reserved at your training table.
However, something magical happens when the hips have to move with a bar on the shoulders. I’ll even humbly posit that the good morning has greater carry-over to the squat than it does the deadlift, mainly because it teaches bar placement and a tight upper-back with good posterior hip movement. This all takes place as the posterior chain adapts and becomes a monster – a pillar that a humungous squat rests upon.
A good morning, however, is not a quarter squat. The knees unlock and the hips travel back – that’s it. There’s no butt drop.
Here’s a quick clue that you’re doing it right – your hamstrings scream the whole time. As you sit back and your chest lowers, your hamstrings should continually build tension until you reach end range.
Great! Now When Do We Use Them?
A big toolbox with a lot of tools that we don’t know how to use is, well, useless. Variation for variations sake is great for bored children and for info-marketers theorizing about neuromuscular confusion. Our tools, however, are applicable. Here’s how to use the four stronger squat exercises.
Squat Pull-downs: These are great for pre-squat warm-up as a gentle reminder for intermediate and seasoned squatters. Contrast them with your warm-up sets, hitting 5-8 reps if you’re using the single band variation and 3-5 reps if you’ve chosen the bar variation.
New squatters can implement these in a general prep circuit along with beginner squat variations such as goblet squats or dumbbell sumo squats. The same rep schemes apply, but new squatters beware the lat and back strength necessary for the bar pull-down.
Squat with Chains: It isn’t rocket surgery – remove some bar weight and replace it with chain weight. Sure, there are specific training waves during which lifters use chains to prepare for competition and boost their acceleration, but we aren’t worried about that.
If you’ve diagnosed yourself with poor bottom and transition squat tension, put some chains on the bar for a few weeks and then check yourself with straight bar weight. If you’ve done them right you’ll have remedied your deficiency.
Bottoms-Up Kettlebell Squats: The first prerequisite is a set of kettlebells. They don’t have to be heavy as this exercise is humbling. (The athlete in the video is using two 35-pound bells.)
Liken it to the senior girl that “showed you the ropes” during your sophomore year. You learned, your toolbox grew, and you realized that studying internet videos was no trade for real-world experience.
Be sure to squeeze the kettlebell like crazy while gripping the handle at the proximal bend. Bottoms-up kettlebell squats are a great warm-up exercise and fit nicely into a de-load plan. Since they’re high-tension low-load, they also keep the nervous system ramped up during off-day recovery work.
Good Mornings: If you’ve realized that a severe posterior chain deficit is killing your squats, back off using squats as a main exercise and replace them with good mornings. You’ll keep the upper-back and lat tension specific while teaching the hips to travel posteriorly. All the while, you’ll be building a monster.
At this point, you’ll also want to keep your posterior chain assistance work heavy, but be sure to keep a squat variation in the mix. My favorite combo is a ton of posterior chain work with front squats as an assistance exercise. When you return to sitting down with a bar on your back the pendulum will balance nicely and you’ll have built a solid, strong squat.
If you want size, strength, and improved athletic performance, you must be able to squat well. If you’re like I was five years ago, you have work to do. Throw these tools in your tool box and get to the grind.
I grew up in powerlifting gyms and played football into my early twenties. As reluctant as I am to admit it, this upbringing trained me to be a meathead.
I’ll give you an example of my problem solving logic as a nineteen year-old. Every problem could be solved by getting stronger.
Can’t squat deep? You’re weak. Get stronger.
Low back hurt? Stop being soft. Get stronger.
Can’t pick up chicks? It’s because they think you’re a pussy. Stop wearing your t-shirts tucked in. And get stronger.
Over the past few years, however, I’ve changed my focus a bit.
I’m still a big strength advocate, and I think toughness is something most people could use more of. But after some time, education, and experience, I’ve found there’s a lot more to getting stronger than stacking plates and hitting more reps. Clean movement is just as important for continually gaining strength.
Fillers: An Introduction
A few years back I was reading an Alwyn Cosgrove article when something clicked. He explained that making a distinction between strength and mobility training is pointless. They’re inseparably paired, each contributing to the other.
Around the same time, I was reading Eric Cressey’s programming and noticed the mobilizations he used during rest periods. He, and several other established coaches, called them fillers.
These days, the term ‘filler’ is part of training vernacular. Back then, however, I was blown away. What a great idea! Fill time, keep sessions dense, and feel better.
At that point, though, I didn’t understand how to pair the right lifts with the right mobilizations. And I didn’t understand the dramatic effect mobility has on improving strength.
Observation, experimentation, learning more about biomechanics, and reading up on the nervous system gave me the insight to develop a pairing process.
A Match Made in Rehab
Matching mobilizations with activation exercises started in sports rehab and has been adapted to fit in the strength world.
I’ve made friends with chiropractors that specialize in rehab – not just cracking necks and cashing checks. When they describe their treatment process to me it usually goes as follows:
That, of course, is my summary, most likely grossly over generalized. But it offers a simple template that we can apply for our own purpose – building mobility into our strength training sessions to add training density and improve big lift performance.
The treatment template above works from broad correction to narrow correction. That’s how we can apply mobility exercises to serve as active rest between sets of strength exercises. Applying a specific mobilization will be narrow, but will improve our overall movement for a given strength movement.
Three principles will guide our mobility exercise selection for each strength lift:
- Improving sequencing
- Improving patterning
- Alleviating tension created by the strength exercise
Muscles work in ‘force couples’ around a joint – agonists and antagonists, extensors in contrast to flexors, and vice versa. This arrangement allows for full joint range of motion with stability, but it can be limiting when trying to generate as much force as possible.
A tight, or short, antagonist limits the function of the agonist for a given movement. Not only will the tension in the antagonist limit joint range of motion, it’ll also divert neural drive away from the agonist. Recruited before the agonist, synergists are bumped from the supporting cast to the main roles.
Relaxing the antagonist while improving its extensibility will improve sequencing and function of the agonist for a given movement.
Improving Joint Positioning and Patterning
I use the Joint-by-Joint approach to picture joint movement during lifts. If you’re unfamiliar, it is the system of understanding mobility and stability developed by Gray Cook and Mike Boyle.
Here’s a quick and dirty synopsis:
That’s simple enough. We give joints that require mobility more range of motion while improving the stability of joints that move less. By doing so, we can better position our bodies at the beginning of the lift and through its completion. You move better within a given lift and put more weight on the bar.
However, you won’t perform optimally if you can’t put your body in good positions. The key is matching the right mobilizations with the right lifts to improve specific function.
Joint and segmental stability require a lot of tension. During the lift this is good – it means that you’re tight enough in the right places. Unfortunately, this tension can hang around even after the given lift, or session, is over.
Include drills that alleviate the tension during heavy lifts and you won’t have to buy slip on shoes and look like Herman Munster when you turn in your chair.
A Grand Interplay
The grand interplay between strength and mobility is facilitated by several factors: joint range of motion, joint positioning, patterning, and sequencing. These qualities are inseparable – they affect each other at all times, improving or impairing performance for each lift.
For example, poor thoracic mobility while squatting mars hip positioning. Sequencing is skewed, the wrong muscles fire at the wrong time, and the squatting task is unevenly distributed. Performance on a given lift is both affected acutely and over time because of sub-par mobility. Tragically, the story ends with a lot of shoulda-coulda-wouldas.
To avoid this, address joint limiting factors between sets of your big movements. Below is a chart that I put together to help with predictable limiting factors for each movement.
|Squat||Ankle dorsiflexion, thoracic spine mobility, hip mobility, anterior core strength|
|Bench||Upper-back strength/scapular stability, anterior hip mobility/hip stability, shoulder stability|
|Conventional Deadlift||Thoracic spine mobility, hip mobility, hamstring extensibility|
|Overhead Press||Thoracic spine mobility, shoulder stability, shoulder mobility, core stability|
These are typical limiting factors – you may have one or more, you may have none. This is where training partners and taping your lifts come in handy. If you don’t have access to a camera and lift alone, it’s easiest to address them all.
Make the Match
Based on the potential limitations of each lift, and in the spirit of hoisting superior iron, here are solid strategies for adding mobility fillers to the big four lifts. Remember, the goal is performance. Pre-habilitation is great, and necessary, but we’re here to kick ass.
Since the deadlift is all about starting strength, pre-lift positioning is big for promoting a successful lift. Check the chart above and you’ll find thoracic spine mobility listed first as a limiting factor.
Poor t-spine mobility devastates positioning, so train thoracic movement frequently before and between sets. Here’s how.
- Train t-spine mobility, extension and rotation
- Before starting deadlift sets, train t-spine extension using bench t-spine extension mobilizations.
- As a filler during your deadlift sets, train thoracic extension with rotation. The quadruped extension rotation series works well to meet this end.
Train extension before pulling to prepare for a neutral set-up. I like to avoid stretching the lats during deadlift sets – even if the stretch is active, I’d rather not take the chance and lose lat tightness. That’s why we use extension rotations as the filler during sets.
We also want the glutes to fire like a cannon. Screaming tight hip flexors limit glute recruitment, so we’ll use active hip flexor mobilizations to quiet them down.
Hit sets of five to eight between all of your deadlift sets. If you have a side that doesn’t extend and rotate as well, do more reps on that side.
The squat is a tricky vixen. Since the movement starts with full-body eccentric movement and reverses into a strong concentric movement, the mobility and stability needs change constantly. It’s not as simple as grabbing a bar and standing up with it.
Though the squat starts with top-down movement, I like to insert fillers starting from the ground and moving up.
Poor ankle dorsiflexion turns a squat into a grotesque good morning hybrid. It’s always the first limiting factor I address during squatting. Active mobilizations, such as ankle rocks and wall mobilizations, work well as fillers because weight bearing is required. But I also like to pull the ankle into dorsiflexion while it’s relaxed.
Pick a dorsiflexion move and hit five to eight reps between each squat set.
Avoiding the Knee Cave
Caving knees turn a powerful squat into something resembling the Carlton dance. Limited glute strength is a big player, but poor adductor extensibility also plays a role.
Pushing the knees out while ‘spreading the floor’ tracks the knees while creating tension and recruiting the posterior chain. As you sink into the squat, tight adductors will pull the knees in, causing them to cave. I use two strategies to avoid the knee cave.
- Simply foam roll your adductors between squat sets, as it’s often enough to calm those bad boys down enough for your knees to track well and get better drive.
Sometimes, however, rolling isn’t enough and mobilization is warranted. You need a great adductor mobilization drill. Here’s one I picked up from Steve Maxwell. It trains adductor length and internal rotation simultaneously.
Most great benchers have a great arch. It looks like the bench is the only thing stopping them from rolling completely into a circle. I’ve worked for years, training myself to arch this way, but it just won’t happen. Scoliosis is a mean bitch.
An impressive arch requires spinal extension out the wazoo. But it also requires something many lifters forget, namely glute drive. This is especially true for those of us without an impressively mobile spine.
Benching with rigid glutes facilitates your arch by giving you better leg drive. As a result, you’ll set up higher on your shoulders. Activated glutes also keep you stable on the bench.
For these reasons, I like to include glute activation in between sets of bench, especially when a lifter is learning to arch.
Typically, I use lateral activation drills or glute bridging variations. See the videos below.
Upper-back tightness necessary for heavy bench efforts locks up the t-spine. To perform well on squat and deadlift efforts, you have to keep your t-spine moving freely about.
Including thoracic mobility drills between bench sets is the best strategy I’ve found to keep heavy bench training from affecting squat and deadlift training. The drills included during the deadlift section work well, but standing thoracic mobilizations are great in concert with glute activation drills because they alleviate tension in the lower back.
The rest between overhead pressing sets is free time. Rather than spend it updating your Facebook status about your latest PR attempt (you know who you are), this is a great time to address mobility and stability weaknesses that can pay dividends in the rest of your training.
If you press at the beginning of the week, use t-spine mobility drills and glute activation exercises as your fillers. T-spine drills keep your scapulae moving well, and glute activation sets anchor your hips and core so you can press with optimal force.
Mobility fillers help improve patterning, improve sequencing, and keep unnecessary tension from affecting future lifts. Pairing strength with mobility is a no brainer – even for this meathead.
When I was a little kid, my parents once had to call 911 for me. It wasn’t for anything serious, though. I was going about my normal routine of being awesome – running like a maniac and jumping over stuff – when disaster struck. I fell into a hole.
My leg was wedged. My knee was pinned against the front wall and my foot against the back. It took two firemen to get me out.
I watched Rescue 911 for months waiting for my segment to air but it never did. I realize now, 20 years later, that a six-year-old stuck in a culvert isn’t exactly television worthy. But man, at the time, I was pissed at William Shatner.
A lot of deadlifts suffer the same fate – they get stuck in a hole. Sometimes the hole is deep and the entire movement needs an overhaul. But more often than not, a deadlift that needs saving is pinned in a shallow hole, not all that different from the one I was in. All that’s needed is attention to a weakness that’s pulling the movement out of balance.
This article will examine the pitfalls that can betray each phase, along with the best movements to save your deadlift. If you’ve felt your deadlift sinking slowly into a hole, here’s the answer to your 911 call.
Speed Off the Floor
The first question you should ask yourself when you’re having issues early in the pull is, “Am I tight enough?”
Check your grip, make sure you have the slack out of the bar, and secure a tight back – you can now confidently say that you’re tight enough. If you’re still slow off the floor, you need to develop speed and power.
Here are the best deadlift speed exercises.
Most jump training includes a full cycle of muscle contraction – eccentric on the down phase and concentric on the up phase. But the deadlift start is in the bottom position with limited stretch reflex, so we can’t count greatly on the elasticity of the myofascia.
Instead, we have to start jump training in the bottom position, using only the concentric phase to replicate speed off the floor. Remember that the stretch reflex can linger in the myofascia for close to a second, so when you prepare to do the following jumps make sure you’re holding in the bottom position for 2-3 seconds.
As you sink into the bottom position to start concentric-only box jumps, run your hands down your legs and set up in your starting deadlift form. Hold this position for 2-3 seconds and jump.
The videos below show the body weight version and the loaded version that includes holding two dumbbells.
Starting in a seated position limits the stretch reflex and has the added bonus of a strong glute and hamstring contraction as you start to jump.
Here are the box jump and broad jump versions of the seated jump.
Swings, Hang Cleans, and Dynamic Effort Deadlifts
Though they aren’t concentric-only movements, swings and hang cleans improve pulling speed due to the violent hip extension involved in both exercises.
Performing both exercises, however, can be frustrating. If the O-lifts cause you performance anxiety, forget about it. Extend your hips violently from the hang position and drop under the bar. Unless you’re planning on mastering the movement to compete as an Oly lifter, it’s no big deal.
Swings, though, shouldn’t be butchered, as they are the simplest exercise in the world. Start with the kettlebell in front of you and then, while keeping your back flat, pull the kettlebell between your legs and extend your hips violently to swing it.
Tighten up as the kettlebell levels out at the top and don’t break at the hips until your arms hit your torso on the way back down. At no point should it look like a squat/front raise hybrid. The video below shows a great looking swing.
Dynamic effort pulls must be in your training if you’re slow off the floor. Jumping, swings, and hang cleans are great, but if you aren’t specifically applying speed to the deadlift, you’re a few shovels short of a digging party.
Unless you can pull over two times your body weight easily, don’t worry about accommodating resistance using bands and chains. Work on being fast with good form and bar weight.
Drive off the Floor
Remember back in college there was that skinny wide receiver that could jump through the ceiling but collapsed like a pile of laundry as soon as a bar was on his back? We want to avoid being the deadlift version of this guy.
If you’ve got hops and can pull a lightly loaded barbell with speed but still struggle off the floor with heavier weights, you need drive, which is where speed and strength meet to create power.
Great drive off the floor requires strong legs (especially quads) and powerful glutes. Squatting develops quads of strength and fury while building glutes that could crush walnuts, but when it comes to driving your deadlift off the floor, we can get more specific.
Paul Anderson was a behemoth and his ‘bottoms up’ squat method is the most devastating strategy to overcome inertia ever invented. Lifters have been using Anderson squats to get out of the hole of the squat for a long time, but they’re also killer for deadlift drive off the floor.
Both the regular and front versions of the Anderson squat are great for building deadlift power. That is, if your hips and knees move in unison and you don’t shift your hips forward to put the stress of the movement entirely on your quads. Check out the videos below for solid performance visuals.
Barbell Glute Bridges and Hip Thrusts
Bret Contreras hit the nail on the head with barbell glute bridges and hip thrusts. Not only do both exercises mold a derriere into something magnificent, but also they train for immense amounts of glute drive.
Get your glutes involved early in the lift to compliment quad drive and your deadlift will climb, and effective glutes are strong glutes. Do your bridges and hip thrusts, and do them heavy. See the video below.
Pulling Through the Mid-Range
The mid-range is the deadliest phase of the deadlift, the area most likely to send you back into the hole.
The good, and the bad, news is that most mid-range emergencies can be narrowed down to three problems: inability to maintain power off the floor, weak hamstrings, and loss of back tightness – with the former sometimes becoming the product of the latter two issues.
If it’s mid-range power you seek, check my article Half Pulls – Not Half Assed for ideas on adding accommodating resistance to partial range of motion deadlifts.
Weak hamstrings and a tight back need direct assistance work. There’s no complicated schematic; just picking targeted assistance work and using rep ranges that work for your body.
Hamstrings are best hit with glute ham raises and RDLs. I keep the reps around 6-10 for each movement, but you have to do what works for you. If you don’t have a glute ham raise at your gym, substitute lying leg curls or Russian leg curls on a lat or seated calf machine like in the video below.
Training for a tight back is accomplished by doing good mornings, both heavy and for reps. Focus on keeping your lats pulled tight and maintaining neutral spine. If you feel your back round you’ve either gone too low for your mobility level or didn’t keep your back tight.
Finishing the Pull
When I think about training to finish the deadlift, I think of Matt Kroczaleski. It’s been that way ever since I watched the video of him explaining how he developed Kroc rows. He couldn’t find anything that worked – until he trained the balls out of his lats using high rep one-arm rows and, like magic, he finished his pulls stronger. Finishing is all about the lats. Check out the video below.
Train your lats heavy and train your lats with high reps and you’ll get better at finishing your pulls. Also, don’t count out heavy barbell rows and other rowing variations done in the bent position. Rowing while bent builds strength through the entire posterior chain, which carries over to deadlifting. Keep the barbell rows heavy and use one-arm rows to train for reps.
Discounting our old friend the pull-up would be a travesty. Outside of the rowing variations mentioned, no other exercises are as effective for building thick and strong lats. Do them heavy, do them fast, and do them for reps.
Core and Grip
The deadlift is a core and grip exercise. But as you add wheels to the bar each can become a limiting factor if not up to snuff. Like any other weak point, you must address it during your assistance work.
The deadlift is all about extension, yet one of the best core assistance exercises for the lift is based on anti-extension, the rollout. Being able to resist over-extension creates stability in the lumbo-pelvic complex, allowing you to recruit your glutes and pull like crazy. See the video below.
The front squat is a great exercise for building leg drive, but if you’re failing to hold extension as you pull, front squats also train you to stay tall by coordinating a hard abdominal brace with a contraction of the lats and upper-back musculature. Training for better T-spine extension while strengthening your abs will improve your deadlift.
Reverse crunches don’t meet the badass quotient of rollouts or front squats, but they’re useful for creating lumbo-pelvic stability. Excessive lordosis of the lumbar spine caused by repeated extension limits stability and hinders recruitment patterns. Reverse crunches correct hyperextension and create balance.
Barbell Suitcase Holds
I labeled them as a grip exercise, but suitcase holds combine grip and core training. They present a serious grip challenge, training crushing strength and forearm leverage strength. At the same time you’re presented with a strong stimulus to avoid lateral flexion. Your obliques, lats, and glutes work like crazy to keep you from bending like a willow tree.
Fat Bar Cleans
I won’t piss on your leg and tell you that it’s raining – fat bar cleans are rough. Any barbell exercise done with a fat bar requires a grip commitment, but adding the wrist extension of the clean marries you to the exercise. A few sets of five at the end of your training session and you’ll be steering with your elbows on the drive home.
Kroc rows train you to finish the pull out of the deadlift hole while training your grip for endurance, provided you don’t use straps. Grab a heavy dumbbell and rep it for 30. It could be the shovel that digs you out of the hole.
Make the Call
There’s no hole that’s too deep to pull your deadlift out of, and it’s never too late to call for help. But for the best assistance, you have to know why you got stuck. Give your deadlift an honest assessment and then come back to this article and make the call.
That’s what grandpa used to say when I’d help him with the yard work. Admittedly, I was quite the lazy ten year-old, but when the threat of the boot came down I’d straighten up and get the raking and mowing done. Instead of a half-ass, I’d become a full-ass.
Partial range of motion deadlifts, unfortunately, often receive a similar half-assed treatment. That’s a downright shame as partial pulls can transform anemic deadlifts and skinny hamstrings into impressive full deadlifts and a posterior chain that gets noticed. It’s time partial pulls get the respect they deserve.
Educating the Hips
Most of us have stupid hips. Sitting all day kills our hip IQ. It’s like the old egg in a skillet as your brain on drugs metaphor. “This is your ass. This is your ass after eight hours in a chair.” For normal working stiffs that just hop in the car and head home after work without a thought of deadlifting, that might be okay (although, it probably isn’t).
But we’re out for pulling dominance, so we need to reeducate our hips to recruit the right muscles at the right times.
Unfortunately, postural issues such as anterior pelvic tilt dominate many of us. This results in short (and usually weak) hip flexors, weak/inhibited glutes, and hamstrings that bail on us like a Kardashian with a pre-nup.
Without strong hamstrings to pick up the slack when our quad drive dies out, we’re left incapable of pulling the bar past the knee barrier – too low for our glutes (if they’re firing well) and lats to finish off the pull.
Basic partial-range pull variations like the rack pull and deadlift off blocks are great for taking the glutes and hamstrings to deadlift school. Because the bar is set anywhere from low on the shins to just below the knees, the involvement of the quads is limited. This gives the hamstrings a chance to let their true colors shine. Rather than hanging the glutes out to dry, the hamstrings get back to keeping the weight moving through the mid-range of the pull, provided we use weight that keeps us within the confines of good form.
As a bonus, we can also position our hips advantageously (with good hip-hinge mechanics) to recruit the hamstrings and glutes while the bar moves through the mid-range. Some coaches take exception to this notion, arguing that “pulling from an advantageous position doesn’t carry over to the full range pull,” to which I respectively say, “bullshit.”
A good coach teaches movements in segments so their clients and athletes learn good form through each portion of a movement before being subjected to the Full Monty. This is referred to as a top-down training progression. The deadlift is no exception.
Teaching the hips to pull from different starting points gives the body a memory to draw on when the going gets tough and form starts to break down. And this lesson isn’t just for the newbies – we veterans also need refreshers. Training for longer periods can often lead to subtle bad lifting habits. Breaking down the deadlift helps prevent these habits from becoming major issues.
Check out the video below for a rack pull refresher.
Notice that my hips are positioned where they would be if it were a full range deadlift. The glutes and hams squeeze the weight off the pins and the lats finish it off.
Below is an example of the deadlift off blocks. While they’re less convenient than rack pulls, they more closely replicate a deadlift off the floor as the plates are resting on an elevated surface rather than the bar resting on pins. As you initiate the pull, the “slack” will come out of the bar and you’ll get an inch before the weight starts moving, much like a full range deadlift.
The hip positioning is similar to a rack pull and deadlifts off of blocks can be loaded intensely. But if you’re planning on training with Jim “Smitty’ Smith of Diesel Strength, don’t make the mistake I did. Start out with a hook grip, not an alternated one.
Smitty recommends the double overhand grip (with or without the thumb hook) because it’s safer. Many athletes and gym goers alike stand with excessive internal rotation at the glenohumeral joints and kyphotic upper-back posture. This suboptimal posture puts stress on the biceps of the supinated arm during an alternated deadlift grip, thereby increasing the chance of a tear.
Speed-strength (high velocity low load) and strength-speed (high velocity high load) are both important for maximal strength. There are many technical terms that can be used here: rate coding, motor unit synchronization, and rate of force development are a few. But the important take away is the faster you move – or attempt to move – a weight, the more motor units you’ll recruit. It’s about hot, nasty speed.
Speed off the floor is necessary for a successful pull, and training for speed-strength can raise a deadlift number steadily, at least for a little while.
But where do we go when speed deads are no longer effective? When we’ve exhausted dynamic effort deadlifts versus bands and chains? When pulling from a deficit is no longer stoking the flame and heavy pull attempts are again failing at the knees, there has to be another strength catalyst. Thankfully, there is: the rack pull versus bands.
Rack Pulls Versus Bands
With speed deads being an application of speed-strength, rack pulls versus bands work well as an application of strength-speed.
Training speed-strength will take you a long way, but as the weight you’re able to move becomes heavier, strength-speed must become a focus. When max effort attempts become slow grinders it’s strength-speed that maintains the power you’ve generated off the floor. Having good levels of strength-speed means you’ll be able to keep the weight moving at a constant rate, rather than feeling it slow down as it approaches your knees.
Bands provide accommodating resistance by overloading the lockout, forcing bar acceleration throughout the entire pull. When training for speed, a standard rack pull won’t cut it because deceleration will take precedence over acceleration as the bar approaches lockout.
The bands also keep us honest. Rather than slapping plates on the bar with typical meathead disregard, we have to account for the tension of the bands. Add too much bar weight and you’ll be left doing the involuntary shakes when the bar hits mid-thigh.
To generate the most speed off the pins you must concentrate on tension and breathing. Make sure you’re belly breathing, setting your grip as hard as possible and bracing your core hard (lats pulled tight, abs contracted). Also, reset between each rep. This will make the exercise safer and give you a chance to produce more power. If you’re doing a set of eight, treat it like eight sets of one.
Like regular rack pulls, rack pulls versus bands can be done with the bar set anywhere from low on the shins to just below the knees. Just remember that the higher up your shins the bar is, the more band tension required.
Here are two examples of rack pulls versus bands; one mid-shins and one just below the knees.
Serious Back Mass
What if your goal isn’t to pull as much iron as possible? Maybe you just want bigger, thicker lats and traps; perhaps an upper-back that makes shirt collars scream uncle? Partial range deadlifts can help build a yoke that would turn an ox green with envy.
The “how-to” is relatively simple and follows the normal rules of muscle hypertrophy. More weight plus more time under tension equals bigger muscles.
Rack pulls, along with other partial range deadlifts, can be loaded at a higher intensity than a full-range deadlift can be, creating greater amounts of muscular tension. Since the range of motion is decreased, we can also work with higher loads for a greater amount of reps, increasing the total time under tension.
So rather than being able to pull 400 pounds for 1-2 reps with a rack pull, you can rip it for a set of 6-8. It’s a perfect equation for fantastic lats and traps, with the bonus being that the weight is moving mainly through the top half of the deadlift motion, where the lats are increasingly active.
Strong guys know that burning out your nervous system and diminishing your ability to recover by hitting high rep, full deadlifts isn’t necessary. Keep the full range deadlift sets heavy and for low reps (1-5) and then add in partial range pulls during your assistance work for higher reps (6-8). If you want to get your back big in a hurry, high-rep rack pulls are a tool you can count on.
Pulling into a Partial Range Cycle
A little while back I went through some deadlifting woes. Although it was a long, frustrating ordeal, it did allow me to experiment with my training. I eventually came up with a partial pull progression that had a great deal of carry-over to my conventional deadlift. If your deadlift is in a bad way, this cycle could be your guide back to the right track.
Check it out:
|1||Reverse band deadlift||7||1*|
|2||Mid-shin rack pull||5||2-3|
|3||High Bartley pull||4/2||2/1|
|4||Reverse band deadlift||4||1*|
So how the hell did reverse band deadlifts sneak into this cycle? It’s supposed to be a partial range of motion cycle, right? Well, I count reverse band deadlifts as a partial range deadlift movement because the full effect of the weight isn’t felt until the bar travels to your mid-shins, or beyond.
Not familiar with the reverse band deadlift? Here’s a video demo:
Notice the bands going slack as the bar approaches lockout? Take another look at the video. Right before the bar gets to the knees the band tension dies, so does the assistance provided by the bands. I’m left by my lonesome to lock out the weight – but this is a good thing.
Again, the concentration has to be on bar speed. As the plates break the floor, the goal is to “race” the bands to the top. If you win the race you’ll generate enough bar speed to keep heavy weights moving when the band tension dies, thus training you to pull fast during the top half of your deadlift. Lose the race and you’ll be a hunched, frustrated man with iron in his hands that’s dangling in rubber bands.
This cycle is great for training the lockout because it progresses from an assisted movement (reverse band deadlifts) to a movement that uses accommodating resistance (high Bartley pulls), then allows for the realization of the training adaptation during the fourth week.
You get faster while moving heavy weights because the focus is always on bar speed. The reverse band deadlift during week four can be replaced with conventional deads if you want to take advantage of the bar speed you gained during the previous three weeks. When I used this cycle, however, I waited until week six to test my deadlift, using week five as a down week and stepping away from the bar.
Pulling it all Together
I’ve got a little too much of my grandpa in me, so I’ll never pardon a half-assed effort, be it in the weight-room or out in the real world. And considering partial range pulls can save your deadlift and kick-start some serious posterior chain development, you’re only shooting your skinny self in the foot by not doing them.
So roll up your sleeves and hit those pulls with focus and intensity, and free yourself from deadlifting mediocrity. But before you do, finish your yard work – those leaves aren’t going to rake themselves!
I love the overhead press. It’s the consummate badass exercise. There’s a lot of testicular fortitude involved in loading weight on a bar, stepping back from the rack and pressing it overhead without so much as a dip in the hips or using the legs.
In a perfect world, everyone would overhead press. Grandma would hoist barbells while she baked pies, and setting a pressing PR would be an excused absence from school.
Oh, what a wonderful world it would be.
However, there are two factions at opposite ends of the overhead-pressing continuum. One says that overhead pressing is an unhealthy exercise for everyone. Those on the opposite side say that everyone should overhead press.
The reality is not everyone is ready to overhead press. Here are some telltale signs that indicate whether the overhead press is a good movement for you.
- Does your thoracic spine extend properly?
- Are you setup for impingement and/or scapular instability?
- Are you able to brace your core tightly and lock your rib cage?
Thoracic spine mobility is important for health in the majority of human movements, but in the overhead press its importance is compounded. If the t-spine isn’t extending properly during the overhead press, it will be difficult to fully flex the shoulders, resulting in the weight increasing the amount of lumbar extension during the lift, not to mention putting unwanted stress on the cervical spine.
The transfer of force will be altered, with the weight ending up in front of the head rather than overhead, and the lumbar spine taking the brunt of the extension needed to move the weight vertically. That range of motion has to come from somewhere and if the upper-back isn’t doing a whole lot of moving, the parts at each end of the chain will suffer.
There are two simple screens that you can do to determine if there’s sufficient extension in the thoracic spine for overhead pressing to be a fit in your program.
Option number one is to do a scapular wall slide. If you can keep your forearms, upper-back, and head against the wall throughout the movement without the arch in your lower-back increasing or your butt moving off the wall, you have enough extension in your thoracic spine to press overhead. If not, you probably have some anterior shoulder issues and lat tightness, and you also need more extension out of your t-spine.
Here’s a video of someone with sufficient t-spine extension through the wall slide.
And here’s yours truly butchering the wall slide.
Next is a simple shoulder flexion test, made popular by Eric Cressey, Mike Robertson, and Bill Hartman. Stand erect with your hands at your side and in the neutral position. From there, keep your elbows extended and raise your arms by flexing your shoulders. Have a partner watch from the side while you flex your shoulders until your arms are parallel with your ears.
Your partner should be watching for whether you can align your arms with your ears, if your rib cage sticks out more as your arms go up, and if the arch in the lower-back increases as your arms are raised. If you can’t get your arms parallel with your ears, or if your lower-back arches as your arms go up, your t-spine isn’t extending well enough. (Cressey, Hartman, & Robertson, 2009)
Here’s a solid example of the shoulder flexion test.
And a not-so-solid example.
Both these tests giving you trouble? You need to get your thoracic spine extending properly and make sure the lats have good extensibility.
The typical thoracic mobility drills and lat stretches apply. When it comes to t-spine mobility you have the quadruped extension rotations, extensions on a foam roller, and side-lying windmills. Lat stretches with a jump stretch band and the old squat rack post and lean-away also work, but there’s a great drill that hits thoracic extension and lat extensibility at the same time.
Tony Gentilcore took the time to teach me the bench thoracic extension mobilization while visiting Cressey Performance. If you’ve never tried them, you’ll feel the lat stretch and extension in your t-spine immediately.
Here’s a video of Tony Gentilcore doing the bench thoracic extension mobilization.
Continually monitor your progress by repeating the two thoracic extension tests discussed earlier (scapular wall slide and shoulder flexion test) while you include more thoracic mobility drills into your program. As you start gaining sufficient t-spine mobility you can start working overhead pressing back into your program.
Are You Setup for Impingement and Scapular Instability?
Movement at the shoulder joints is a complex operation. You could liken it to a government bureaucracy – if one guy (joint) is pissed off it can screw up the entire works. The act of pushing a barbell overhead requires effort from all the shoulder joints.
Before you start shoulder pressing we need to assess a few things:
- Excessive internal rotation at rest
- Scapular anterior tilt
- Scapular winging.
If you’ve done a considerable amount of benching throughout your training career, there’s a strong chance that at least one of these three issues is present to a certain degree. The key is to make sure that your shoulders don’t get beat down further because of them.
Internal Rotation at Rest
You need room in your glenohumeral (GH) joint to be able to vertically press and pull. Along with excessive internal rotation comes altered roll and slide mechanics within the GH joint. Impingement results from the bursa and rotator cuff tendon getting pinned beneath the acromion because the head of your humerus didn’t roll and slide properly.
If you’re excessively internally rotated at rest there isn’t going to be room for your humeral head to move within the GH joint when you try to press above your head.
An easy way to check your resting internal rotation is by using the time-proven pencil test. Hold a pencil in each hand so that most of the pencil is visible in front of your hand. Make sure that you’re relaxed and you aren’t trying to alter your normal posture in any way. Now, look down at the pencils and extend an invisible line out from each one.
In most cases, the invisible lines are going to cross at some point. But if they’d cross less than a foot to a foot and a half from your body, then you’re at a high risk for shoulder damage if you go overhead.
Scapular Anterior Tilt and Scapular Winging
Along with internal rotation, anterior tilt of the scapulae is common in lifters. It comes from tightness in the pec minor and weakness in the mid- and low-trap. It’s visible when the inferior angle of the scapula sticks out.
Anterior tilt doesn’t allow your scaps to rotate upward properly as you press overhead. Good upward rotation of the scaps while overhead pressing is necessary for healthy movement at the GH joint.
Winging of the scapulae is caused by weakness or inhibition in the serratus anterior (the muscle that holds your scaps tight to your rib cage). If the medial (closest to the spine) borders of the scapulae stick out or are prominent, you have scapular winging. This is bad when it comes to pressing overhead.
Normally, the traps, delts and serratus anterior work in a force couple to upwardly rotate the scapula as the humerus abducts and flexes at the GH joint. But if the serratus anterior, mid and low-traps are weak, upward rotation will suffer, messing with your range of motion and altering the way your shoulders move. (Neumann, 2002)
A Well-Rounded Strategy
Corrective exercise isn’t fun, but if you want to keep pushing and pulling heavy things (especially over your head), a certain amount is necessary. If you have the problems discussed above and want to keep overhead pressing, you need to take a break from it and do something preventive to keep the scalpel away.
The first step was addressing thoracic mobility. Now we have to get the serratus anterior firing, activate the mid and low-trap, and get the pec minor to relax. We also need to take care of the external rotators, as they dynamically stabilize the humeral head while the bigger muscles generate movement.
This is basic shoulder maintenance that everyone should be doing; it just so happens that problems become exacerbated with weight overhead.
Now I’ll hit you with some great drills to address the issue, followed by a sample routine that can help keep your shoulders in pressing balance. If you have specific questions shoot them on the LiveSpill.
GH Internal/External Rotation:
- Sleeper stretch with lacrosse ball
- Active pec mobilization with stick
- Lat stretch with jump stretch band
- No money drill (with or without bands)
Serratus Anterior Activation
- Forearm wall slide
- 5 count scap push-up
- Push-up plus
- Feet elevated push-ups
Mid and Lower Trap Activation
- Floor blackburns
- Band pull aparts (front, behind the neck and diagonal)
- No money drill with band
- Scapular wall slides
Here’s a sample routine.
|A||Sleeper stretch with lacrosse ball||3||5*|
|B||Active pec mobilization with stick||2||5**|
|C||Forearm wall slide||2||10|
|E||No money drill with band||2||10|
** each side
*** second hold each position
Is Your Brace Strong Enough?
One of the first things that any serious lifter should learn how to do is brace their core. I thought that I was doing a good enough job of it until Smitty (James Smith) of the Diesel Crew and Diesel Strength and Conditioning coached me up.
If your core isn’t as tight as it needs to be there’s going to be instability throughout your entire body. This can leave you with an undesirable over-extension in the lumbar spine, along with the extension issues in the t-spine. Keeping your core braced tight will not only keep you safer while lifting but will also help you push more weight.
I use four coaching cues when bracing for the overhead press: air, abs, ass, and lats.
The abs and lats steps are super important. Locking the rib cage with the abs ensures that there won’t be excessive extension in the lumbar spine. Tightening the lats helps to create a corset affect by pulling tight the thoracolumbar fascia, which will further tighten the rest of the core musculature. Of course, once you press the lats will relax a bit, but tightening them at the start helps sustain tightness through the press.
Follow those four steps and you’ll have a tightly braced core for the overhead press.
Coaching Cues for Solid Press Performance
Cue #1: Create as much tension as possible.
The goal is to create as much tension throughout your body before you lift, as more tension equals more strength. Tension starts with the hands. While I agree with other coaches that it’s advantageous to take a false grip while overhead pressing, that doesn’t mean you can’t squeeze the hell out of the bar with a full grip. You can create tension throughout the rest of your body simply by keeping everything tight and contracted.
Setting your grip wide on an overhead press isn’t necessary in most instances unless you’re training for the axel press at a strongman competition. It’s much better to keep your grip narrow (shoulder width) as it will help keep good shoulder alignment as you press.
It’s also important to get the elbows up. As discussed earlier, this helps create a lat shelf for bracing. This places the shoulders and arms in a safer, stronger pressing position.
Every press should finish with the weight directly over the head with the arms parallel to the ears. To finish in this position, the chin should be tucked and the shoulders fully flexed. “Pushing your head through” at the top of the movement can help accomplish tucking the chin and aligning the arms with the ears. It’s important to keep things simple, so one cue for two tasks makes things simpler.
Here’s a little pressing poetry in motion:
My business partner, Chris, shows us less than stellar form:
Progressing Back to the Barbell
I hope you take my advice and back off the overhead pressing with a barbell until your issues are resolved. After your hiatus, aim to get back under the bar and moving weight again with this sample progression.
|Week 1||Split Stance DB Press||4||12||Light Resistance|
|Week 2||Standing 1 Arm DB Press||3||8-10||Medium Resistance|
|Week 3||Standing 2 Arm DB Press||3||8-10||Medium Resistance|
|Week 4||Standing Barbell Press||3||8||Light Resistance|
Place this progression in your program where you’d normally barbell overhead press or as upper-body assistance work. Including other shoulder stability work such as different push-up variations during the overhead press progression is also a smart idea. Hopefully by the end your shoulders feel good and are moving well. If that’s the case, cut loose and start pressing some weight your grandma would be proud of!