Weightlifting - The Little Things Are A Big Deal
As in life, in weightlifting sometimes it's the little things that can make a big difference!
When I coached football in the early 1990’s at Gardner-Webb University, my roommate on road trips for games was “Cheese” Harbison. He was a helluva coach, eventually ending up coaching at Clemson, Alabama and Mississippi State. He coached the wide receivers at Gardner-Webb and did a great job. He used to always say to his athletes, “It’s the little things, the little things!" Focus on the little things. “Little things” could mean getting the proper rest or nutrition or it could mean stepping with the right foot instead of the left foot on a wide receiver release off of the line of scrimmage. He felt like if you do all the little things right, the big things on the field would take care of themselves. That expression has always stuck with me and there is no question that the “little things” are also key when training with weights. Intricacies in form can make a huge difference in both strength and size. Proper mindset, exercise selection, periodized training, etc. are also factors to consider.
Below are just a few random “little things” that I think are important and may help you on your quest to get bigger and stronger. There are so many that I have to share, which may take another article or two, but for this article, I have chosen a few of the most important tips to assist you on your training path.
When squatting, make the weight feel light when you take the bar off of the rack. Never attempt to “feel” the weight, you must dominate the weight. In order to do that, you should get totally “tight”, flexing all your muscles and staying rigid, just like you would do before you actually go down with the squat. Think of taking the bar off of the rack as a “mini-squat”. Get all the way under the bar (usually a half a step more than you think is close enough) and flex and tighten everything, your grip, your glutes, your legs. Squeeze your elbows together, shrug slightly. Make that weight feel light by staying tight! Take a huge breath and hold it. Pop that bar off of the squat rack with some authority, dominating that weight, and don't move. The weight should not bounce on your back, but rather be pushed into your upper back. Let the weight settle, still with everything tight and flexed, count for a slow 2 count. You should let the breath out slightly and slowly as you begin to take your steps back into your stance, but don’t let it all the way out. Now you're ready to squat!
Always Get Your Rest. I’m referring to your rest periods when lifting heavy weights. Football coaches used to ask me, “Why are the kids sitting around between sets?” You see, they just wanted the kids to exercise, not train, to just be hot and sweaty without a goal. I’d say, “ Because we are trying to get strong.” When lifting in excess of 85% of a one rep max, a big rest is paramount. Replenish that ATP and give overall fatigue from the set a rest. Take up to 2- 5 minutes or even more if needed. Nobody remembers how long or short your rest periods were, they only remember whether you successfully completed your set. Some lifters can go on less rest, and there is definitely a conditioning aspect to shortening the rest periods, but overall, to get strong, you need to sit around!
Just an Inch Makes a Huge Difference. When bench pressing, if you miss the correct spot on your chest by an inch when pressing heavy, if you happen to come towards your feet just a little instead of driving back, you can miss the lift. If you are deadlifting and you begin the lift too far out in front of your shin, your low back is compromised and with a heavy enough weight, you will fail the lift or get injured. If you are squatting and you do not keep the pressure on the mid-foot, a lean of an inch or two forwards or backwards may cause you to miss the lift. Your focus should be on performing each lift perfectly and with the same form every set. You need to grease the correct groove and when the weights get heavy, do not change that form.
How to Find your Correct Press Grip. Having trouble finding the correct width grip for your press? Stand with your feet in a “jump stance”, like someone told you that you are going to get tested in your vertical jump. The width of your feet is usually right inside your shoulders. Now, put your arms right outside your thighs and hanging straight down. Then bring your arms straight up like you are going to press. There you have it, a beginning width for your press. It should be the same width of your power clean grip. In fact, the grip width is usually the same for bent rows, Romanian deadlifts, hell, even curls. Some adjustments may need to be made for biceps size and grip width. If you have a guy with huge biceps, you may have to widen the grip out some. Nothing wrong with experimenting, but the “jump stance” width is a good place to start.
How to Get Good at Barbell Lifts. One of the issues that I have with beginners only performing one all-out set of squats, benches and deadlifts is that they haven't had the opportunity to perform enough sets to ingrain the correct exercise pattern. This can be accomplished with performing an exercise for multiple sets and/or multiple times weekly. Take the squat as an example. The lifter needs to find the right place for the bar on the back, the correct descent and the ascent speed, the correct lean to get keep the bar over the middle of the foot, etc. It is tough to get all of that right when only performing one set. The beginner’s program can have three days a week squatting to get the form correct. Program a light, medium and heavy day, doing 5x5 for a few months and that should do the trick to ingrain the correct form. After your body “accepts” the pattern of the movement, you are ready to get really strong.
Be totally Prepared. Let’s assume that you are preparing for an interview for the biggest job of your life. The night before that interview, you would have all of your clothes set out just right, the alarm set, and you would be rehearsing what you are going to say, what the room will look like, how great you would perform, how to answer any question that may be thrown at you. It’s the same thing with the importance of the training session. Do not go into it haphazardly, prepare. The more prepared that you are, the better your training session will be. If it is important to you, prepare like it is important. All the stuff that you do, the gym membership, the food, the rest, the programming is important, just as the “pre” preparation of the night before. Why go through all the effort of going to the gym if you aren't fully prepared?
You only have so many bad repetitions in you. To protect against injury, you should always strive to use perfect form. Take the conventional deadlift for example. You have been performing set after set, keeping your back flat. You have made your erectors (the muscles on either side of your spine) strong and muscular. Then, one day when you are attempting a max lift, you round your low back some to complete the lift. You didn't blow a disc because: A) Your low back is super strong because all of the perfect reps you have performed in training and B) Because you have done only one “ugly” rep in all of the reps that you have performed, thereby also decreasing your chance of injury. I know you see some folks rounding their back plenty, but I'm telling you, eventually, they will get hurt. Protect your body with correct form so that you can survive the rep where you get out of position.
My hope here is that these tips will help you in your lifting journey, help you increase your poundage, add muscle and stay healthy. Focus on these “little things” and you will become a complete lifter, ready to succeed in your quest for size and strength!
About The Author - Jim Steel
Jim Steel has been immersed in athletics and the Iron Game for most of his life. He has been a college football player and coach, powerlifter, Muay Thai fighter and is currently a competitive bodybuilder. In 1999, Steel was named Assistant Strength and Conditioning Coordinator at the University of Pennsylvania, and moved up to Head Strength and Conditioning Coordinator in 2004. He is the owner of the blog Basbarbell and is a motivational speaker, frequent podcast guest and the author of two books, Basbarbell Book of Programs and Steel Reflections. Steel is a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist with the National Strength and Conditioning Association. Jim Steel is co-host of the RAW with Marty Gallagher Podcast along with Marty Gallagher and J.P. Brice and is a monthly content contributor at IRON COMPANY.