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By: Josh Henkin

I originally started writing this article with the premise of how to improve one's bench press. Then I thought how
extremely redundant and limiting that idea has become. How many articles have we all read promising huge
gains in our bench, but with further examination we see it is just another bodybuilding routine?
Plus, if we as lifters only improve our bench that leaves many other aspects of training left behind. For example,
how good of an athlete will you be in you can only bench press, or how great of a bodybuilder will you become
only having a chest? So, instead I thought I would focus on three of the most important lifts instead, the bench
press, deadlift, and squat.
Why I chose these particular lifts is very easy to explain. They are at the core of developing any type of strength
training program. Because of their ability to develop the overall body the should be thought of the essential lifts
for anyone interested in increased athletic performance, strength, power, physique transformation, or advanced
rehabilitation.
In the following series of articles I have discussed some of the most effective way of improving these lifts.
However, this article is going to be a little different than previous articles you may have read. Science and sound
training philosophy will back this article not solely my personal experience as a strength coach.

Health History:
When embarking on a program involving the big three lifts it is vital to examine someone's health history. Have
they experienced injuries that could alter their technique or make it an unwise choice to even utilize these
exercises?
There is a great saying about exercise selection, "there is no such thing as a bad exercise, only the
inappropriate usage of an exercise."
If you are healthy enough to perform these movements, then looking at what injuries you have suffered
previously will give us insight into where to begin. Many times injuries to the head and neck region will cause a
significant loss in strength because of the many nerves that bypass this region. I always encourage those that
have suffered injuries in the head and neck to make sure their spinal alignment is good and their soft-tissues are
healthy. Both of these structures are needed to ensure proper transmission of nerve impulses throughout the
body. The National Institute of Health found that the weight of a dime compressing a nerve can cause a
decrease of 40% of nerve strength and power!! This can cause significant weakness in different movements.
We must also examine the shoulder, low back, and hip structures. Old injuries may have caused scar tissue to
develop in these structures altering proper movement patterns.
In this case I would advise the lifter to seek out a skilled soft-tissue therapist. Active Release Techniques have
been shown to be very effective in removing these scars to allow increased mobility. Structural damage to these
areas such as dislocations or disk damage must be fully evaluated. If these injuries are still persistent then I

would be weary of the weights used and make sure these areas are healthy before trying to break any new
records.

Flexibility:
Stretching may be one of the most boring aspects of training. However, it is crucial to have proper range of
movement for these lifts. From personal experience I have had clients improve 10-15% percent in their lifts just
from improved range of motion. Discussions with World-Renown Strength Coach, Charles Staley, have also
confirmed my findings.
Coach Staley has also had situations where athletes break personal records from just improving the flexibility in
the tight structures.
From my experience these muscles can attribute to disrupting one's ability to reach their full potential in the big
three lifts.
1.

Bench: Serratus anterior, pec minor/major, rotator cuff, latissimus dorsi, long head of tricep, biceps

2.

Deadlift: Hamstrings, external hip rotators, glutes, low back, hip flexors, and calves

3.

Squat (Olympic style): Hip flexors, calves, external hip rotators (especially piriformis), and low back

Technique:
This may seem like a no brainer, but you would be surprised at how many coaches are unable to teach basic
lifts like the bench, squat, and deadlift. Plus, having been in many gyms it is obvious to me that many of the
best-intentioned lifters have never learned the fundamentals of the big three.
The description of each lift could go on for pages so I am going to touch over the basic mistakes individual lifters
commit during the performance of these lifts.

Bench Press:

1.

Feet are not firmly placed on the ground and at least bent 90 degrees in relation to the upper thigh.

2.

No arch placed in the thoracic spine. Many lifters may argue with this technique as solely being that for
powerlifters, but I find it increases the usage of the lats and helps stabilize the shoulder joint.

3.

The bar does not start over the place where it will land. For increased strength purposes the bar should
start over the lower aspect of the chest and touch the lower part of the sternum.

4.

Not pulling back the shoulders before the descent of the bar.

5.
6.

Not pressing through the bench with the body.


Not using a Valsalva maneuver (where one purposefully holds their breath for increased strength past
the sticking point) to blast past the sticking point.

Deadlift (traditional):

1.

The bar starts too far from the shins.

2.

The movement is initiated by the hips rising instead of the knees moving back.

3.

Upper back is too rounded and the shoulder blades are not being actively pulled back.

4.

The bar drifts away from the body during the raising of the weight.

5.

The descent is not suppose to be done the reverse of the concentric and if it is will throw off the lifter.

6.

Not consciously pushing through the floor instead of trying to raise the weight with the low back.

Squat (Olympic):

1.

The bar should be just below C7 (the very bony vertebrae of the neck) and the elbows should be
pointing straight down with the hands as close to the shoulders as possible.

2.

Hips should be hip width or just slightly wider with the feet pointing out no more than 30 degrees.

3.

The movement should be initiated by bending of the knees than the hips. This is to prevent too much
initial forward lean.

4.

The knees should be actively pushed out by the lifter to help with strength and to avoid the knees falling
inwards in relation to the thigh.

5.

Pushing up should not cause the torso to automatically increase its forward lean. The push should allow
one to remain relatively upright.

6.

The flexibility and goal of the lifter dictate the depth. Most times I will not want to squat at least parallel,
more ideal is below parallel. If you can not go this deep determine if it is due to flexibility issues or the fact you
that are using too much weight!

Understanding Science
A colleague once made the statement, "the worst thing to happen to strength training is bodybuilding." This may
appear very shocking for most people to hear, but what this coach was mainly referring to was the myths that
surround bodybuilding and impede serious strength improvements. While bodybuilding has made valuable
contributions to the world of strength training, training like a bodybuilder is far from optimal in achieving
significant weights in big movements like the big three.
In Vladimir Zatsiorsky's excellent text, The Science and Practice of Strength Training, he outlines three ways in
which strength can be improved. These methods are repeated effort method, dynamic effort, and maximal effort.
Let us examine what is involved in each of these methods.
1.

Repeated Effort and Submaximal Effort Method:


These methods are the most familiar to most people as it is the closest resemblance to typical bodybuilding. The
repeated effort method is mostly used for hypertrophy and recovery training. It is generally categorized by
repetitions in the 6-12 range and sets of typically 2-5. Sets are taken to failure with repeated effort, while the
submaximal method does not take one to failure.
In beginners this method is dominant because of increases in the cross section of muscle will lead to some
gains in muscular strength. Beginners also need to build up the strength of their connective tissue and this type
of training does not inappropriately overload these structures.
There are three distinctive methods that are related to this type of training. World Reknown Strength Coach,
Charles Poliquin, has outlined these methods in his book, The Poliquin Principles. Below I have provided these
methods from his text, I highly recommend the complete book as well though.
Method 1 - Adequate Rest and Constant Weight
Set 1: 100 lbs X 10 reps, rest 3 minutes
Set 2: 100 lbs X 9 reps, rest 3 minutes
Set 3: 100 lbs X 8 reps, rest 3 minutes
Set 4: 100 lbs X 7 reps, rest 3 minutes
Average weight lifted: 100 lbs
Total Reps performed: 34

Method 2 - Adequate Rest and Decreasing Weight


Set 1: 100 lbs X 10 reps, rest 3 minutes
Set 2: 98 lbs X 10 reps, rest 3minutes
Set 3: 96 lbs X 10 reps, rest 3 minutes
Set 4: 94 lbs X 10 reps, rest 3 minutes
Average weight lifted: 97 lbs
Total Reps performed: 40

Method 3 - Inadequate Rest and Decreasing Weight


Set 1: 100 lbs X 10 reps, rest 1 minute
Set 2: 90 lbs X 10 reps, rest 1 minute

Set 3: 80 lbs X 10 reps, rest 1 minute


Set 4: 70 lbs X 10 reps, rest 1 minute
Average weight lifted: 85 lbs
Total Reps performed: 40

The first two methods cause hypertrophy mainly through the growth of the contractile proteins while the third
method causes hypertrophy through increased substrate storage. Changes in the contractile are usually
associated with better gains in maximal strength.
2.

Dynamic Effort Method:


This method is probably the least used by both athletes and bodybuilders. The main purpose of this method is to
increase rate of force development and explosive strength. Just developing maximal force is not good enough in
most circumstances, there is usually an optimal time when that force must be developed. For example, in most
sporting situations the athlete that can generate the most force in the shortest amount of time is the one that will
have the advantage.
The utilization of the dynamic effort method is also vital in sports like powerlifting and weightlifting. These are
sports where speed-strength is important. This type of training involves moving a weight as fast as possible.
Sounds easy enough, but there are very particular ways to ensure you are doing this correctly.

1.

The weight must be submaximal. Some texts advise lifting weights 66-85% of one's maximal
effort. However, possibly the best powerlifting coach in the world, Louie Simmons, has found 50-60% of one's
contest maximum to be optimal. Coming from the head of Westside Barbell Club you can ensure this is a well
thought out manipulation.

2.

The weight must be moved eccentrically quickly as well as concentrically explosively. This can
be the scariest part for people that have never used this method before. Through some trial and error you will
find the optimal speed to lower the weight to make sure it is moving up fast enough. If you move the weight too
fast it will be almost impossible to reverse the weight because of the extreme eccentric force the body must
absorb and must change its direction. At first I teach people to move slow then slowly try to increase the speed
with a warm-up weight to introduce them to such an extreme change. NEVER try learning this method with
heavier weights or anything the least bit challenging. It is so very important to remember the whole purpose of
this method is to see the bar move quickly and not how much weight you can put on the bar.

3.

The repetitions used with this method are also very low. Even though some authors suggest
repetitions of 3-6, I have seen good results with reps 2-4. Again the most important aspect is the speed of the
bar. You do not want to see a lot of fatigue as this will cause the bar to slow down.

4.

The sets should also be high, some may do as many as 12, but I recommend beginners begin
with 5-6.

5.

Hello to weightlifting. Many people overlook the great strength the Olympic lifts can provide
someone. Ever notice how it is easy for many powerlifters to go into weightlifting or vice versa? Exercises like
power snatches, power cleans, high pulls, jump squats, and jerk variations can greatly increase one's explosive
strength. However, do not attempt these lifts unless you have been taught by a reliable coach. I have seen
some FRIGHTENING interpretations of these lifts by gym members and that is when someone can get hurt.

6.

What you don't know can hurt you. Although many people assume moving fast or explosively
will cause injury it is really when people do not understand how to do things correctly. You can still have horrible
form moving slowly and obtain an injury. So, I will say if you do not understand this section avoid it until you
have sought out additional information and have full confidence.

3.

Maximal Effort Method:


It KILLS me when I see an article on how to increase the strength in a lift and it has repetitions of 6-12 in it. Like
I discussed earlier, those repetitions are more commonly associated with lean body mass increases. The
dynamic effort and maximal effort methods cause great increases in strength because of their improvement of
the central nervous system.

That is why you can see people with small bodies lift huge weights. Strength Coach, Chad Ikei, has benched
330 pounds at a weight of 150 pounds, over twice his body weight!
However, because there is such a high level of stress to the central nervous system with this type of training I
advise one do a cycle of four weeks devoted to this training then go back to higher repetitions, or use two lifts a
week that use this method and switch the lifts every three weeks. Otherwise it is very easy to see overtraining
symptoms develop.
This method is classified by performing repetitions of 1-5 with sets of 5-15 against a maximal resistance. The
exercises selected for this method should be compound movements and not isolation exercises. The only
exception could be if you are trying to develop bicep strength.
However, I believe chin-up variations should be used first. Even though I said one works with maximal weights
in this method I hardly have someone work with their top weights all the time. For example, if someone can
bench 225 for five reps and they are using the classic 5 sets of 5 reps method, I usually will not have them start
with 225. Instead, I may have them use 220 the first workout and see the results of the residual fatigue. Then
every workout they may be able to go up a little more weight.
The biggest mistake I know I will see from programs utilizing this method is everyone will use this for their
squats, deadlifts, and bench work. That makes sense though right? You want to improve those lifts. A beginner
can get away with using that line of thinking and occasionally an advanced athlete will do the same, but a lot
less.
A more experienced coach or athlete will devote a lot of this method to work on the weaker areas that are
related to the big three lifts. For example, improving the strength of the triceps using close grip bench work often
has a very positive effect on the strength of one's bench press.
There are many different set and repetition schemes to improve one's maximal strength. Some of my favorites
are listed below. I have to credit Charles Poliquin to introducing me to many of these methods.
Wave Loading:
5, 3, 2, 1, 3, 2, 1 or 1, 2, 3, 1, 2, 3
During these waves the second singles, doubles, and triples use more weight.
Pyramiding:
2, 4, 6, 6, 4, 2 or 1, 3, 5, 5, 3, 1
Most people use too many different repetitions during their pyramids and therefore don't improve any one motor
quality significantly.
Cluster Training:
This training is done with intermediate sets. You will perform a series of single or doubles with a ten-twenty
second rest in between. For those that what increased body mass or trying this for the first time I suggest using
doubles. Also decrease the weight by 5% after every set.
Example: One set do two repetitions, rack the weight, rest 10 seconds, perform two repetitions, rack the weight,
etc. This is continued for five intermediate sets and a total of 3-5 sets. Use approximately 85% of maximal
weight.

Partial Range of Motion


I am a very big advocate of full range of motion training. However, there is a time and place for every
methodology. Partial range of motion training allows one to overload a range that is generally not loaded to its
full potential.

For example, during a full range of motion bench press, one is in their weakest position from the chest up and
will be able to lift more weight halfway up to the top.

The shaded red area shows the weakest position.


Because of this situation one can always handle more weight from halfway up to the top. So, during a full range
of motion bench we do not load the range from halfway to the top maximally. This is usually important triceps
work and improving lockout. So, what can we do? Using a power rack you can set the pins halfway so the bar
will be stopped at this point You can also include board presses as well as floor presses.
This principle can also be used with deadlifts effectively. You can set the pins higher so the pull will load the
back extensors more. You may also get upon a platform and go deeper to improve glute and hamstring strength.
Usually you will use one of these variations for a cycle and then return to full range of motion training.
Remember that the point is to overload ranges that normally do not receive maximal loading because of
strength curves.

Chains & Bands


These methods are most associated with top strength coach, Louie Simmons. The chains and bands are known
as accommodating resistance. Meaning, when you are at different points in the exercise the amount of weight
you are lifting changes.
This is very helpful because most commonly the weakest portion of the lift is OVERloaded, but other ranges of
motion are UNDERloaded. The chains and bands apply an increasing level of resistance throughout the range
of motion. This method is also very helpful in improving acceleration. One must accelerate the weight
throughout the movement instead of decelerating after the initial sticking point.
Regular Bench with Chains
View Exercise: With Chains And Bands

Start with a set of chains. Work up to a bar weight with the one set of chains, do a single, then add a set of
chains. Work up to another single, and continue until you fail. Use at least two grips, medium and close to make
personal records (PR's)... one per workout.
In the previous article I described how speed-strength is helpful towards building maximal strength. Well, one of
the problems with any type of acceleration training is that you must take a significant portion of the lift
decelerating the weight so the joint does not get damaged. This is very natural and very much a part of sport,
however, if one could accelerate throughout the entire range of motion.
Some may say just use more weight, but if we look back to the dynamic effort method, it is predominately about
the speed of movement of the bar. Adding weight will eventually slow down the bar speed. However, by using
chains and bands you are forced to accelerate throughout the entire range because as you lift the bar the
weight increases.
Even though this is a great way of manipulating the exercise and nervous system it is also incredibly stressful to
the body. So, do now use this method all of the time, just like everything else use it as a tool.

Assistant Exercises
There are many exercises that can help build the big three lifts directly. Depending upon the weakness in the lift
you can use a variety of exercises to increase the strength of the muscles holding the lift back. For example,
most great benchers will have very strong triceps and shoulders.
Most top benchers do not spend a lot of time on their chest. Below I will list some of the best exercises for
improving the big three. Whether you are performing the low bar squat (as most powerlifters use) or the olympic
bar squat you will have to place some different emphasis. Classically powerlifters because of their particular
squat will use predominately glute, hamstrings, and low back. The olympic squat uses much more quadriceps
and would have to be trained differently.

Assistant Exercises For The Bench Press


Wide Grip Bench Press
Close Grip Bench Press
Dumbbell Bench Press
Chin-up Variations
Rowing Variations
Rear Shoulder Work
Rotator Cuff Work
Overhead Pressing
Overhead Squats
Incline Dumbbell Raises
Front Dumbbell Raises

Assistant Exercises For The Deadlift & Low Bar Squat


Goodmornings (all stance widths)
Romanian Deadlifts
Squat/Goodmorning Combination
Front Squats
Reverse Hyperextensions
Glute-Ham Raises
Sled Dragging
Olympic Lift Variations
I wish I could take credit for these very innovative techniques. However, I learned these methods from other
great coaches. What I hope to accomplish with this article is passing on effective methods to improving the big
three lifts. Maybe a powerlifter will see a technique they have not tried, or others will find techniques that will
bring new strength to their routine.

Usually strength will bring positive body composition changes. Too many trainees become consumed with hitting
a muscle at every angle and becoming very lean. Sometimes the most effective ways of accomplishing the body
composition goals is to go back to the classic methods of lifting.