As always this blog will be extremely straight to the point with no wasted fluff. My goal is to give you something actionable to take away and apply instantly to your training! Please watch the youtube video above to preface this article which is builds on the points mentioned in that video! While this blog is written directly for powerlifters (of all experience levels) you can apply most of this to your own training if if you don’t compete on the platform!
Determining Your Weak Spots in Your Powerlifting Total
Your powerlifting total is made up of 3 lifts and to neglect any area of it is a HUGE mistake. I oftentimes see trainees doubling down on what they’re already good at while neglecting what needs the most improvement. Long arms make for great deadlifters but usually poor bench pressers (like myself) and it is easy to ignore what you are already bad at while focussing on what comes easy. I did this for years only to realize how far behind some of my lifts were in relation to my counterparts in my weight class. At times I would mutter how the bench didn’t add much to my total however if you take a close look at the most competitive weight classes both in USAPL and UPSA feds you will see the top lifters are only separated by 5-15kg usually in total. While you may never find yourself in the top of a class this paints the picture of how much 5-10kg can go for giving you an edge. More than anything though, don’t be that guy who’s a one-trick pony!
Now after coaching for several years I noticed most lifters who came to me were unaware of what lifts were lagging behind in their powerlifting total. This was either due to lack of thought on the subject in the first place or just misinterpretation for what was on par. A quick way to determine if you stack up well on each lift is to take a look at the 10 closest totals to your total of the powerlifting weight class and federation you compete in. Take the five closest on the high side and five closest on the low side of your total. I showcased this in my video above which led me to discovering this:
Average strength in the 220lb/100kg USPA weight class nearest a 800kg total
My 800kg total in the 220lb/100kg weight class
Squat: 287.5kg/633lbs (+2.5kg above the average)
Bench: 187.5kg/413lbs (-7.5kg below the average)
Deadlift: 325kg/716lbs (+2.5kg above the average on a bad day)
As you can see I am pretty well rounded but definitely have a subpar bench press. However if you run these numbers yourself you may find the gaps to be much bigger which will show you exactly where you need to work the most. Now even more importantly lets again take a look at my goal total for next meet as well as the strength averages in that total range. Keep in mind this is a REALISTIC goal, don’t be that guy who thinks you realistically can add 100lbs to your total in 3 months, doesn’t happen often. I had the strength for more at this meet but due to the injury and forced overly deep squat I had to pull back so my goal total isn’t even that elevated when you take that into account.
Goal total for next meet: 825kg (+25kg to overall total which equates to around +10kg on squat and dead with +5kg on bench, very realistic)
Average strength in the 220lb/100kg USPA weight class nearest a 825kg total
Squat: 300kg/661lbs (requires a +12.5kg/27lbs increase to my current best meet squat)
Bench: 202.5/446lbs (requires a +15kg/33lbs increase to my current best meet bench)
Deadlift: 325/716lbs (already achieved the current average strength)
Now what is HUGELY important for you to understand is that these are averages to get an idea of what lifts are lagging behind. Realistically these numbers cannot be exactly matched as most of the lifters in the averages themselves don’t match this. Instead this will give you a clue as to what lifts need more focus. My deadlift will always be my main lift but as apparent my bench should be a HUGE priority of focus moving forward. Especially given the fact that i’m actually historically more consistent on that lift than my deadlift.
A few other side notes to mention are to examine your own misses/red lights. What did they come from? Why did they happen? This is huge to interpret for game planning your next meet. My misses are ALWAYS on deadlift or bench. I have yet to miss a single squat in a meet. Lets dissect (you should do this too) each lifts and what the misses happen.
Squat: Perfect execution and have never missed an attempt.
Bench: My bench has had multiple scratched third attempts due to cramping. Last meet and my meet in 2015 both had this issue and resulted in me scratching third attempts and being far weaker than normal on game-day. This tells me a lot about my rehydration protocol, what squats take out of me and what I need to do with my set up to avoid this. Put shortly I have realized I need to
Ensure my third squat isn’t too much of a grinder to allow my back to be fresher for both bench and deadlifts.
Change my set up, I have always used an ass up set up however this seems to give me huge back cramps and issues at max loads. When I do a ass down set up I never have this problem. I am the tinniest bit weaker this way but far more consistent which means on the platform where it counts I am going to total higher!
I need to rehydrate even better. While I may have gained an artificial 10lbs by meet day after weigh ins I can hold it much better during the meet both with pre workout timing and potassium/glycerin. I always seem to start cramping by bench which needs to stop.
Deadlift: My deadlift I have missed twice now in the same exact sticking point. Part of this is training related but the other part is two separate issues that both cause my hips to not pull through. The first is grip and the second is back rigidity. This means I need to:
Train my grip. My 2019 December meet I had grip issues which resulted in me pulling much less explosively and thus led my back to floding on my third attempt way easier than it should have. When my grip is strong I can rip deadlifts much faster and keep my back in better positioning.
Train the hell out of my low back so it doesn’t budge. If your hips can’t pull through its rarely glute “weakness” but more so back positioning. If the pelvis posteriorly tilts and back rounds you cannot engage your glutes. I must fix this.
Examining Your Sticking Points in The Big 3
In this next section I will break down for you the most common errors (not all errors as that would be a 30 page essay) I see as a powerlifting coach with new clients and what to look for in your movement patterns from a technique standard. For example in a squat I often times see lifters not properly timing their hips and knees causing them to sway from side to side. This isn’t something that needs specialty exercises to fix but rather just filming yourself, identifying it and altering your technique. Then after that I will break down the most common big 3 sticking points and how to solve those with specialty exercises. Sticking points require special strengthening exercises or drills as where technique flaws almost always just need to be fixed in the exercise itself with purposeful technical changes. Remember technical comes first than the weak point training since many technical flaws can cause false weak points to exist that may not even need special exercises to strengthen.
Squat Technique Flaws
On the unrack/brace the lifter does not create rigidity/neutrality of the spine. This is something I deal with. Film your squats from the side, see if you are over extended or flexed in your spinal column. If the low/upper back looks arched or flexed (not neutral) then you must change this.
Descent timing of knees and hips, are the synchronized? When viewing the squat from a direct side view do the hips and knees open and move at the same time and more or less travel the same distance? The hips should move down and back while the knees move forward and out. In my experience I often times find trainees bias one or the other (hips or knees) more. This can create the illusion of weak quads or back rigidity when in reality its improper loading mechanics.
Joint stability in the hole of the squat, do your joints look steady? Excess movement like valgus, ankle collapse, extreme pelvis movement etc. If you spot any excessive movement than solve this. The joints should look stacked and steady!
Bar path and torso positioning on the concentric. This one is more of a sign of weak points however often times it just takes realizing you’re tipping over too much in the squat to fix it. Examine your squat footage from the side, is the bar path falling forward causing a good morning squat? Maybe you are twisting in the hole and just need a tighter brace. Sometimes the real battle is just realizing you are doing this and the fix is mindfulness of movement.
Squat Sticking Points: Now here are movement faults that are actually strength weaknesses manifesting. The squat doesn’t have traditional sticking points. Almost everyone is weak out of the hole of the squat if they are a raw squatter. However there are unanimous movement flaws we can see and specialty exercises we can use to fix them.
Tipping over in the squat (falling over/forward out of the hole): Either weak quads, weak external rotators/hips or weak upper/mid back. Determining which of these is pretty straight forward. If its quads you will see very little knee valgus but large knee recession from a side view. In layman terms this just means your knees will shoot back out of the hole from a side view angle. If it is weak hips your will see valgus of the knees (knees kick inward) from a front view. This can cause the hips to recede back leading to tipping. Lastly if it’s the mid/upper back you will certainly see it flex over on heavy sets from really any view point.
Fix weak quads: High bar squats and High bar squat variants as a main exercise. For secondary work do belt squats or other machine squat variations. If you also lack the coordination to execute the knees staying forward, pause squats will help and emphasize keeping the knees forward on the concentric.
Fix weak rotators: Romanian Deadlifts, Stiff Leg Deadlifts & Sumo deadlifts will all help with weak glutes. Specifically though the sumo deadlifts a ton. They require a large amount of hip rotation strength which will carryover to your squat. Again for coordination try pause squats focussed on knee/hip positioning on the concentric.
Fix weak upper back: SSB squats, heavy high bar squats & front squats as the main exercise. I really like front squats here. They have been a god send to me and really one of the main reasons my squat is so strong even though I am not built well for the lift.
Unstable squats (uncontrolled movement) especially in the hole of the squat: Now this is mostly a technical issue with a slight need for end range strength and time under tension in your end range unstable position.
Fix: Long pause squats staying really tight for a full 2 sec. count, tempo squats & paused high bar or front squats for end range strength. The goal here really is just slowing down or stopping in your weakest position and spending some time strengthening it. I can’t tell you how many elite lifters I see who have extreme knee/hip/pelvic movements in the hole of the squat causing a ton of strength loss for them. Get comfortable in that hole!
Bench Technique Flaws
Lack of an arch. This might sound obvious but MAN do I get SO MANY athletes who come to me only to have the smallest arch I have ever seen. Now don’t get me wrong, in a perfect world I would remove the arched bench press from lifting lol I truly wish they would turn it into a larsen press with feet on a bench in front of you. However as of now the rules allow arching and your competition will do it so you should too! If your arch isn’t at minimum as big as mine it is too small lol. I am not the most flexible person and yet I have forced my arch to get bigger by just jamming into it as much as possible over time. Too few people try to turly improve their arch. It’s simple really, just jam into it harder and force it. Hurts but its worth it. Film your arch dead on from the side and wear a tight t shirt, get that gap to be larger.
Elbow positioning on descent. This is very common. Either the lifter flares the elbows too much even though they don’t have a large arch, or they tuck the elbows too much. Film your bench from a 45 degree angle and a side view. How far in front of the bar are the elbows? How underneath the bar are they? A general rule of thumb is the more you arch the more you can flare the elbows. However never should the elbows be completely vertical underneath and never should the elbows be more than an inch or so in front of the bar when viewing it from the side. Find a middle ground of stacked and packed.
Scapula activeness on the descent/pause. All this means is if you are actively engaging your scapula preventing bar dip/chest collapse. If your bar doesn’t lightly touch your shirt but instead dips into your chest causing a visual inward motion you are not engaging your scapula actively. Try to pause on top of your t shirt rather than your chest to get the idea of what a true active scapula is.
Leg drive (is it constant? does it kick on late?). If your legs aren’t driving the WHOLE set of the bench press you are doing it wrong. From the start of the unrack and descent to the pause and press the legs should be driving hard the whole time.
Bar path (is it slightly diagonal from chest to neck?) This one is obvious but often missed. Film from the side and ensure on heavy reps that your bench is going smoothly diagonal. I hate the old term “j path” it should never look like a J but rather a smooth diagonal line.
Bench Sticking points
Off of chest: usually weak pecs and stability/strength in end range eccentric position.
Fix: Long pause bench press 2 seconds, Spoto press & Larsen press with comp grip all will work beautifully for a main movement. DB bench press and machine bench presses for supplemental work after a main movement.
At lockout: Usually poor technique or weak triceps/serratus/pec minor.
Fix weak triceps: Close grip bench, close grip Larsen press & incline bench done with touch and go reps at 30 deg. seat height for the main movements. OHP & floor press as supplemental lifts after main movements.
Fix technique: tempo bench press, submax singles on bench around rpe 5-7 & tons of volume on main lift with an emphasis on technique. The goal here is really to focus on pushing up and back rather than just up which is a common error people make a habit.
Bracing/set up repeatability. Very rarely do I see intermediate trainees pull a deadlift the same exact way twice. It may LOOK the same from a birds eye view but up close you will see different slack pulls, different bracing sequence, different hip shoots and much more. It is imperative that you have a ritual every time when you approach the bar and execute every single step the same way so the bar is always pulled consistently.
Slack pull. WATCH MY VIDEO ON SLACK PULLING! I have tons of them actually. Then after your done watch again. This is the movement everyone THINKS they are doing and they aren’t even close.
Torso positioning off of the floor (excessive rounding? over extended?). While this can be strength related it is often times a technical issue. You must learn to resist flexion by extending your back against it. I actually cue to extend or arch my low back as I pull because this will never result in over extension since hundreds of pounds are pulling your back the opposite way. You must keep that back locked in.
Leg drive off of floor and through mid lift. This is especially true for conventional pullers but even sumo. View your deadlifts from a side view and see if the knees stay forward as long as they should. For conventional they should never lock until the hips do and they should be jammed forward with shins against the bar during the mid lift. For sumo the knees should excessively stay forward until the bar clears knee height then they should snap back locking before the hips.
For sumo are the hips opening through the ROM. Film from the front, do your hips stay in the same angle the whole time? This is wrong. The hips should open more as the bar comes up. If they are not this means you are either starting too open off the floor or not opening the hips up enough as the concentric goes on.
Conv. Deadlift Sticking Points
Weak at lockout: Usually poor positioning off floor/weak back or natural sticking point.
Fix: beltless paused deadlifts or beltless deadlifts for back rigidity and as a main movement. For supplemental movements try Deficit stiff leg deadlifts. Chained deadlifts and block pulls can also help but are more movement teachers rather than top range strengtheners. Ironically the top end strength comes from staying tight in the back off the floor!
Slow off floor: Usually poor bottom-up set up/technique or weak hips/legs.
Fix technique: Try changing to a top down set up while learning to be more explosive. A bottom up set up is slow and very non explosive. I have never once seen an explosive bottom up set up with immaculate form in a conventional deadlift. Either their back bleeds or they are slow.
Fix weak back: First learn to pull explosively WHILE keeping back tight. To do this pull more and fix technique but then also incorporate: Deficit deadlifts, deficit stiff leg deadlifts and RDLs. These will all help get the glutes more involved and stronger.
Sumo deadlift sticking points
Weak at lockout: This one is really straight forward. It is always back positioning because if you are slow at lockout in a sumo it means your back is flexed over.
Fix weak back: Tons of beltless and paused beltless deadlifts focussing on a rigid back.
2. Weak off floor: this is normal for sumo and usually a sign youre doing it well however if you are so slow you are losing positioning then its usually weak hips in the low mid range.
Fix weak hips in low mid range: Sumo deficit deadlifts off a very small 1 inch deficit can be helpful. Also a ton of sumo block pulls to strengthen the mid range but a low block. Lastly incorporate a ton of explosive stiff leg deads also from a deficit of 1-2 inches. All of these will strengthen your hips in the mid/low range. Lastly just learn to pull more explosively!
I hope this article served to help give you some ideas on where to go with your next training cycle! The goal wasn’t to be very specific but rather large general directions to guide you and give you an overall road map of where to travel to for optimal gains! I’ll see you guys in the next video/Blog!!