Ever Felt Like You’ve Lost A Lift?

By: Brian Carroll

I have enough times in my time lifting and it sucks.

The key that I’ve always found with this is always be willing to learn, adjust, analyzing and never being complacent with a particular lift. Sometimes (not always) the fix is easier than you think and all you have to do is go back to the basics. Sometimes it’s more complicated than that. Video your damn lifts from multiple angles and watch them!

Unlimited Variables and Factors

Leverages change with bodyweight and bodyfat composition differences, injuries mount up over time (for EVERYONE) and make you adjust, sometimes things just feel locked in and solid and sometimes they feel off no matter what. For a lot of people, it’s a matter of feeling comfortable. Practice does make perfect (never totally perfect) and experience is huge with anything, especially when it comes to ‘mastering’ a lift or movement.

BTW: I don’t believe you can ever ‘master’ the squat, bench or the dead. I think there is always a way to get better, faster and more efficient in each lift… and things are ALWAYS ever-changing.

In my book 10/20/Life, our seminars and our content on powerrackstrength.com, we have a certain way of teaching the big 3 lifts. This is not the only way to do these lifts, it’s just the way we teach them and how we believe they should be approached in a perfect world. It’s systematic and a great baseline to start with. I’ll be doing the same thing at the Canadian Strength symposium as I’ll be explaining the 5 main points of 10/20/Life along with two parts being a practical with a demo (squat/bench/dead and the warm-up).

For the sake of this article, we will discuss the squat as this has been my best lift for most of my time lifting but it’s also been my bane more than once.

Coaching The Squat

There could be about 10-15 things to focus on when teaching the squat, but for the sake of people’s sanity, brevity at the seminars and not beating things to death we go with 5 points for each lift and here, the squat.

We teach the squat just the same raw vs. equipped but the key is some adjustments need to be made for the equipped squat. The raw squat is very easy to teach and this is the base, the foundation. When you add lifting gear in, some things change and some don’t but, most things stay the same. The margin for error is just so much slimmer and form has to be even more perfect in equipment.

Side Note on Coaching and Cues

I don’t care who squats a certain way, how they pull or how so and so teaches the movement. We all have our ways of teaching the lifts (squat in this case) and I’ve learned from trial and error, testing different approaches and technique tweaks with beginner, intermediate and top lifters. I’ve also coached or advised everyone on the PRS site with their lifting. Even talking to biomechanical experts like Dr. McGill about which head, bar position and angle the back should be in to have the most power, be the most efficient and the safest (relatively).

Not everyone will be able to squat with this ideal “perfect and efficient form” like a Lisa Guggisberg, Beth Thomas, Jonathan Byrd or Adam Driggers. Even if you utilize 2-3 of these tips, I bet your squat can benefit from a few cues to keep you locked in.

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Here Are The 5 MAIN Cues We Teach

  1. Push about 10-20% of effort into the bar before unracking. A bar loaded less than 50% will want to start coming out of the rack before you ready when this is done correctly. This is a neuromuscular prime that is used to get your body ready for the load, get tight from the ground up and to lock in mentally.
  2. If you’re walking the weight out, then take 2-3 steps (one step back with each leg, then one more to even out if necessary) while being as stiff, tight and locked in as much as possible, let the weight settle, and then be ready to squat. Now, if you’re in a monolift, then you will follow the same steps, but getting tight in your squat stance and unracking ready to squat and locked in top to bottom. Some actually prefer the walkout to feel the weight and like to get into the squat stance while having feeling the weight. It’s all preference.
  3. Utilize and maintain the lifters wedge (lats locked in and maintained pulled down as you descend) Head position stays the same throughout the lift, looking forward where the wall meets the ceiling. Your head position should not change and you should find something to focus on somewhere up, but not too far up on the wall, but not straight forward and do not move your gaze throughout he whole lift.
  4. Every squat we teach starts with a hip hinge like a one arm KB swing. The hips go back and then the knees bend, then push knees out. BUT – here is the key – flex your quads, stand tall before starting the descent and don’t start with soft knees and try to hip hinge. You wont be able to do so properly.
  5. To come out of the bottom of the squat, lats are maintained in the pulled down position (arch is maintained) and pulled down even more as you drive your heels through the floor to start the ascent of the squat. And wedge/arch is maintained throughout the lift.

** Few Notes: Bar position (high or low) and squat stance (how wide or narrow) is too personally specific to really cover properly in this article, but see the “bullet proof your back” article series for more on this and why this varies so much person to person.

I’ve been squatting at a high level (over 1000lb in competition) for 10 years. I have somewhere around 40 official squats over 1000lb in competition in 3 different weight classes. The squat is something that came natural to me and has been my best lift, most of the times. But at times, I’ve felt as if I’ve lost it. Why? It’s a very technical lift. Most (not all – I don’t like to speak in absolutes since there are so many exceptions) big squatters have perfect technique and the form is exactly the same from 225 -800. I don’t need to name them, you know who they are.

One thing I suddenly realized after my last training cycle and meet….I WAS TOO WIDE IN STANCE WHICH LEAD TO SOFT KNEES. I have the femurs of a 5’2’ lady and I was, at one time 5’10”. I cannot squat wide, and I’m not built for it. One little change to your form, technique and approach could be a huge improvement or a huge mistake.

I felt off on the squat at times during my last training cycle. To be specific, #4 started to become very difficult for me and I was slowly taking each heavy lift (over 90%) with soft knees. This was not allowing me to hip hinge properly to sit back, open up and squat like I know how to and have done for a long time. What slowly started happening was as the weight got heavier, I started to realize that my stance was not only a little too wide but I was not standing tall during my unracks and had soft knees (which will quickly fatigue the quads with no real benefit).

We teach one to hip hinge to start the squat but what I was doing in actuality was accidently breaking at the knees to start the lift (which fucked me). When I did this, it made it nearly impossible to sit back properly. My hips started drifting all over the place and that not only makes it harder to reach depth but I was making my ROM way further by not hip hinging at the start.

It took a very bad showing to realize this and a few people pointing this out to me with different camera angles. Suddenly, the weeks the squat didn’t feel good (including the meet) made sense to me and was confirmed after watching the meet video. Too wide, and soft knees make for a bad start. And for me, I usually finish the way I start.

The Fix

Right now, my emphasis is on the following to fix the issues and after only 2 weeks, I feel so much better:

  1. Wedging harder under the bar before the unrack. You can never be too locked in and tight.
  2. Moving my stance closer (back to where it was). Again, personal preference but I find it easier to hip hinge if I’m not super wide and I’m not built to be squatting wide anyway.
  3. Flexing quads hard at the top and not letting them be soft in the last before I start the descent.
  4. Over emphasizing the hip hinge to start and locking the arch in.

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Basics

As you can see, I’m really just starting back from the basics that I teach at every seminar and lecture that I do and this pretty much covered it for me. I think at the end of the day, when one struggles one should always check out and revisit the basics, then go from there. Again, I believe one must look at the BASELINE – a starting point. Once you have covered the basics and revisited them, you can then know if it’s just something simple you’re missing, like mine, or if it’s time to move down the line and look at other things ie your diet, weak points etc.

Nobody is too good to go back to the basics on occasion and go backwards a little bit to move forward. Remember that. This is not a linear process, progression is not linear. It’s a lifetime  process with many bumps and obstacles in the road.

If injuries didn’t happen, set-backs, life happening, personal issues, bad meets, having to change form due to leverages being different, then everyone would be a WR holder. Everyone would be making huge gains every year for 20 years and everyone would be an online coach and expert. Wait… One of those is true. But only one.

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Brian Carroll

Brian is a world-class powerlifter with over two decades of elite and pro-level powerlifting under his belt. Coming back from a devastating back injury in 2012 that broke multiple bones and that most experts said he would never recover from, he has returned to the pinnacle of world-class lifting (while 100% pain and symptom-free) and is now dedicated to helping others avoid the same mistakes that he made in the past through private and group coaching in Jacksonville, FL. Brian’s impressive recovery has given him the opportunity to teach and deliver talks to physical therapists, chiropractors, medical doctors, professional strength & conditioning coaches and experts from all facets of sport, on how to avoid injury, while building anti-fragile strength and resilience in athletes.
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