Saturday, February 11, 2012

Liftin' Skillz

By Andrew McGunagle

In the words of Napoleon Dynamite, "Girls only want boyfriends who have great skills!"

Yes, great skills can lead to many advantages in life; and the gym is no exception. While you might mistakenly believe that lifting weights is just about brute strength and sheer force of will, lifting skill is nevertheless an important factor in the training process.

To make this point clearer, let's think about the similarities between throwing a baseball and lifting weights. It would be difficult to find someone who wouldn't agree that throwing a baseball is a skill. Throwing a baseball takes time to learn; Tim Lincecum wasn't winding up and blazing fastballs by batters from the moment he first picked up a baseball. Finding the most efficient and effective throwing motion is a process, and it is a process that can be advanced by instruction, thought, and practice. The most advanced throwers in the world, guys like Lincecum, Roy Halladay, and Justin Verlander, are examples of individuals that have mastered the set-up and the execution required to achieve highly skilled performances in their sport. What does this have to do with lifting? Well, just look at the best lifters in the world; the majority of these guys are absolute technicians when it come to the actions of their sports. Watch a guy like Mike Tuchscherer squat (first video below), or an O-lifter like Pyrros Dimas perform the snatch and the clean and jerk (second video below). These guys are prime examples of highly skilled lifters, and you better believe that that skill is a vital component of their lifting success.

Perfect practice allows for perfect performance, but what should you practice? What, as a lifter, are the things that you should be able to do? In my list below, some of the points refer to lifting basics, others acknowledge subtleties that I see many lifters ignore, and a couple point out things that I simply don't like to see in the weight room. All of these points can improve your safety and your performance in the gym.   

So, without further ado, here are the 10 things (I believe) every serious lifter should be able to do:

1. Be able to maintain a neutral spine: Learning to adopt and maintain a neutral spine position is probably the most important thing you can do as a lifter. I am sure that most of my readers know what I mean by "neutral spine", but, for those who don't, a neutral spine position is the natural position of the spine. In this position, there are three natural curves in the spine, as seen below:

The trick is to be able to maintain this spinal positioning when the torso is inclined at a variety of angles in conjunction with various degrees of hip and knee flexion. Furthermore, this task has to be completed while heavy weights are doing their best to make your spine look like an inverted-U. Whether you are in the starting position for a deadlift, at the bottom of a squat, doing a bent over row, or doing single leg movements, you must do your best to maintain this position. Common cues to help lifters maintain a neutral spine include: "puff your chest up and out", "squeeze your chest out", "tuck in the low back", "brace your abs", and "get tall". Deviating from this neutral position under a load subjects the vertebral discs to much higher stresses, and I simply cannot in good conscience recommend heavy lifting with sub-optimal spinal positioning. Sure, there are successful lifters who lift with rounded backs. Also, it is nearly impossible to maintain a perfectly neutral spine position during a maximal lift. The two things to keep in mind, though, are, 1) rounded back lifters seem to be the exception rather than the rule. and 2) being unable to maintain a neutral spine when lifting sub-maximal weights does not bode well for the long-term health of your spine. If you want to lift big weights for a long time, then always do your best to adopt a neutral spine position.         

2. Be able to stay on the heels/mid-foot: Whenever I work with athletes, I always make sure to tell them that sports are played on the balls of the feet, but lifting is done on the heels (or, as is the preference of some lifters, the mid-foot). If you have ever played too much pick-up basketball or tennis without being adequately prepared, you probably understand that combining high forces on the forefoot with hard surfaces usually leads to sore knees. In the weight room, combining anterior weight shift, heavy loads, hard surfaces, and repetitive movements is the perfect recipe for anterior knee pain (pain just below the kneecap). This is one of the main reasons why nearly every lift requires the lifter to keep their weight back on their heels in order to achieve maximum safety and performance. Not only do lifters need to keep their weight on their heels, but they must understand how to push their heels down into the floor. Driving down into the floor helps you drive the weight up; it really is that simple.

Left foot = sports, right foot = lifting.
3. Be able to hip hinge: The hip hinge gets a lot of love these days, and for good reason. Knowing how to achieve this position is vital for the proper execution of a number of posterior chain exercises. The hip hinge can be summed up as follows: weight back on the heels/mid-foot, shins close to being vertical, femurs angled back, torso inclined forward while maintaining a neutral spine position, and chin tucked/neck packed.

The hip hinge is just your basic RDL, it has been around for years.
You will know that you are hip hinging correctly when you feel tension in the hamstrings in that position. The basic hip hinge is simple, but many people struggle with it. The majority of people have spent the bulk of their lives flexing at the spine whenever they need to bend over. Other individuals are unable to distinguish between a squat and a hip hinge, and they tend to let their knees drift forward while keeping their torso upright when attempting to hinge. When first learning how to hip hinge, pushing into the tension of your hamstrings feels strange and uncomfortable. Everyone is so used to moving from the body segments that feel loose and free (the lower back and the knees), that sitting back with the hips while keeping the lower back stiff and the shins vertical presents a unique challenge. If you have never hip hinged or if your hinging skills are sub-par, practicing the hip hinge is highly advisable. To do this, do your best to get in a hinge position and then mentally rotate through the important hinging cues. You can do this without weight or with an unloaded barbell and, if you do it right, you should feel very uncomfortable. Not in injurious pain, but uncomfortable. Practice the hinge until you get comfortable being uncomfortable and you are able to descend from a standing position to a perfect hinge position.

"Alright, weight on the heels? Check. Shins vertical? Check. Low back tucked? I'll try to get a little more. Ouch, my hamstrings! Okay, chest out? Good. Chin tucked? Whoops..."
4. Be able to "pop" the hips: Essentially, "popping" the hips is going from a hip hinge position to an upright position by quickly contracting the hip extensors (the glutes and hamstrings).This explosive hip extension, when combined with a neutral spine position, is the safest and most powerful way to lock out a deadlift. Some of you may have no idea what I am talking about, so let me give you some visuals:

You want to go from A:

To B:
And you want to go from A to B by throwing your hips into the bar as powerfully as you possibly can. A lot of high schoolers immediately understand popping the hips when I tell them, quite simply, "hump the bar once you get it past your knees." You might notice that, with this method, the bar momentarily loses contact with your legs immediately after it passes your knees. While this goes against the deadlifting principle of always keeping the bar in contact with the body that many coaches preach, I have found that that this disassociation only occurs with sub-maximal weights. Once the reps drop to 1-3 and the RPEs rise to 9-10, the bar remains in contact with the body throughout the lift. This is because, with near-maximal weights, the back tends to round slightly and the shoulder tend to drift forward; this positioning leads to constant contact. However, if you have been practicing popping your hips with sub-maximal weights, you should be able to combine this advantageous constant contact with a very powerful hip extensor-dominant deadlift lockout. If you still don't understand popping the hips, then check out this video of Tony Gentilcore ("Hips through! Hips through!):

Tony's hip pop is pretty stellar.

5. Be able to get leg drive when benching: Leg drive is the by-product of an excellent bench press set-up. As my readers have surely realized, a proper bench press set-up can be a lengthy topic. So, to do this point justice, I have to refer you to my bench press set-up article. Read it, practice it, and you will bench more. Why? Because leg drive allows you to achieve maximum stability while pressing. The legs do nothing to lift the weight, but they allow your arms and chest to display the strength that they have. If your leg drive is poor (or non-existent), then be sure to study my bench article and get your leg drive up to snuff. 

6. Be able to walk out a squat efficiently and under control: I always cringe when I watch a lifter nonchalantly stumble back out of the rack for a heavy squat. With heavy weights, efficiency becomes increasingly important. In my bench press article, one of my main points was consistency; if you want to get good at a lift, make a routine and do it every single set. When you watch great powerlifters and Olympic lifters, you will almost always see a distinct routine before each individual lift. This consistency is no accident; these athletes are deliberately working towards technical mastery. When I squat, I favor the 3-step walkout that is described in the excellent tutorial video below. Every set I do, I think "back tight, breath, drop-step, stance step, stance step". This consistency has helped me tremendously, and I believe it can benefit every lifter.


7. Be able to finish a heavy rep on the bench without squirming around: Squirming around while struggling to lock out a bench press is one of the most common mistakes I see inexperienced and unskilled lifters make. These lifters will get to their last rep in a set and, once they get the bar about half way up and the bar speed slows, they kick their feet and wiggle their torso in order to finish the rep. For these lifters, this habit always carries over into their maximum attempts. Instead of being able to grind a one rep max all the way to lockout, they almost always get stuck squirming around at that midpoint. The problem with lifting your feet and squirming around is that you are decreasing your stability at the time you need it most. The trick is to force yourself to stay calm when bar speed slows. Experienced lifters learn that staying calm, staying tight, and focusing on driving the weight all the way up is vital for successful maximal attempts.

8. Be able to maintain tightness during the big lifts: Squatting, benching, and deadlifting are all about tightness. Allowing certain areas of your body to loosen up during a big lift can decrease your stability, cause you to get out of position, and, ultimately, cause you to miss a lift that your prime movers are more than capable of making. In order to avoid this, you have to focus on certain areas of your body and ensure that they stay locked in throughout the entire lift. The trick is to have these areas in mind before every set and then reinforce them before every single rep you do. For example. before every set and every rep of squats I do, I think "back tight, breath". These two mental cues guarantee that I do not allow my back to loosen up late in my set (which can cause the upper back to round over) and ensure that I am able to transfer the forces generated by my legs up into the bar on my back through a solid midsection. Here is a list of areas to keep tight during each of the three powerlifts:
  • Squat: Squeeze the upper back, get a big breath while bracing the abdominals and hold that breath.
  • Bench: Squeeze the shoulder blades together, get a big breath and inflate your stomach, keep your glutes flexed, keep your legs tight by driving your feet down into the floor.
  • Deadlift: Get a big breath while bracing the abdominals and hold that breath, lock your lats into place by thinking about tucking your shoulder blades "into your back pockets".
Most lifters know these things, but how many actually think about them and force themselves to do them on every rep of every set? It only takes a couple of minutes on Youtube to infer that the answer is "not enough".
Jeremy Frey is the master of tightness.
9. Be able to do chin-ups through a full range of motion without leg kicking or swinging: To be honest, this is probably the least important item on the list; it is more of a pet peeve of mine than a lifting skill. Performing chin-ups and pull-ups through a full range of motion without kicking ensures that you reap all of the benefits of this movement. The top and bottom portions seem to be the most important for improving scapular function and shoulder health, but most people pump their legs to get out of the bottom and then fail to pull themselves all the way to the top. I can let some kicking to get one last heavy rep in slide, but kicking from the start makes the exercise pretty useless. Furthermore, kicking and not using a full range of motion makes it much more difficult to gauge progress. I know that my programming is working when I take individuals from dead-hang-to-chest-touching-the-bar-with-no-leg-kick chin-ups with a band to assist them to doing the exact same thing without the band and a 45-pound plate hanging from their waist. I am not trying to fool my athletes into thinking I got them better, I am actually getting them better. You should do the same with your own lifting; get better, don't fake it.
When it comes to pull-ups, Ben Bruno sets the standard

10. Be able to un-rack the weight during a bench press and not have to wiggle around to reposition: Most lifters know that squeezing the shoulder blades together sets a solid foundation for a strong bench press. While the majority of individuals will make sure to squeeze their shoulder blades together during their set-up, they do not focus hard enough on staying tight when un-racking the bar and end up a loose mess by the time they have the bar in the starting position. Rookie benchers will wiggle around under the bar and try to regain their tightness; experienced benchers will rack the bar and start over (if they even run into this problem in the first place). In order to avoid this, you must have a stellar set-up and you must know how to un-rack the bar properly. These points go hand in hand, as a solid un-racking relies on a solid set-up. Start by getting yourself into a tight, tucked position and make sure that your leg drive is transferring down into your upper back. Once you have that down, you have to make sure that you maintain that tight position as you un-rack the bar. All too often I see lifters go through great pains to get the perfect set up, only to lose their tightness and stability as they take the bar out of the rack. I always make sure to keep the phrase "back tight, legs tight" in mind from the start of my set-up all the way through to the end of my set. The other thing I do is make sure that I un-rack the bar with authority. This means that I am squeezing the bar, deliberately pulling it out with my lats, and guiding it to the perfect starting position. Loosely wimping the bar off the j-hooks is the perfect start to a terrible set; get tight, take the bar out deliberately, and then smoke the weight. The final tip I can give for a solid un-racking has to do with body positioning. As I alluded to in my bench press article, being too far under or too far away from the bar can make un-racking the bar more difficult than it needs to be. Make sure that you consistently set up in a position that allows you to pull the bar out of the j-hooks with your lats without having to move the bar too far. The distance in the pictures below is how far I move the bar when un-racking it, but note that this varies from person to person depending on their arm length.

I set up so I can go from A... B without losing my tightness.
There you have it; 10 lifting skills to work on in the gym. These skills take time and deliberate practice to master, but so does everything that is worth getting good at. Good luck with your lifting and keep getting stronger! That's what it's all about.

Feel free to leave questions or comments in the comments section below. Also, feel free to contact me at or find me at Andrew McGunagle on Facebook. Thanks for reading!


  1. Dope. I'm def going to share this!

  2. Thanks for sharing these all guidelines. Lifting process is very difficult and it takes much time to be good in these skills. Practice plays a key role in it.

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