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Proper Performance of the Powerlifts
(Squats, Bench Presses, and Deadlifts)

by Gary F. Zeolla

This article describes how to properly perform squats, bench presses, and deadlifts. These are the three lifts that are competed at a powerlifting contest. They are also the three most productive weightlifting exercises that anyone, powerlifter or not, can perform.

Without performing these three lifts, weight trainees will never reach their full potential in terms of strength and size. These lifts have also been shown to be the best exercises to perform to prevent osteoporosis, to improve functional strength in senior citizens, and to raise testosterone levels in men of all ages. So they are truly lifts that anyone should be performing. But to get the full benefit from these lifts, they need to be performed correctly.

Proper Performance of Squats

Squats are one of the best exercises there is for overall strength development. Squats work the entire lower body, including the quadriceps, glutes (buttocks), hamstrings, and calves. And due to the training effect of utilizing such large muscles groups, the entire body receives benefit. So despite being somewhat hard to perform, they are worth the effort.

To perform squats, be sure to use a squat bar (with knurling in the middle) to prevent slippage. It is best not to use any type of padding. Get used to using just the bar without padding as the pad can cause slippage.

Set the racks so that the bar is a little below shoulder level, duck under the bar. It should then rest on the upper back (on the traps, just above the scapula). It should not be placed high on the neck. Powerlifters will want to carry the bar as low as possible, but by rule, the top of the bar cannot be more than two inches below the top of the deltoids.

Initially, just the weight of the bar should be used. The amount of weight is not important; what is important is being sure to use correct form. In fact, it would be good to do a few “free squats” without weight first to more easily learn correct form.

Foot spacing will affect which muscles are emphasized in the lift. A narrow (closer than shoulder width) stance emphasizes the quads and outer thighs. A wide (greater than shoulder width) stance will emphasize the glutes and inner things. A medium (shoulder width stance) will put equal emphasis on all of these muscle groups. Powerlifters generally use a wide stance as greater weights can be utilized with this stance.

For beginners, it is recommended that a shoulder width or slightly wider stance be utilized as it is easiest to perform. The toes should be facing slightly outward. Keep the head straight, looking forward throughout the performance of the lift. The elbows should be elevated so as to be better able to hold onto the bar and keep it from feeling like it will slip. There should be a slight arch in the back, with the lower part of the pelvis rotated backwards. This position should be maintained throughout.

Once the bar is raised off of the squat racks, the lifter needs to walk back with the weight. This is called the “walk out.” However, it is neither necessary nor desirable to take several steps. Instead, take one step back first with the right foot, then one step back with the left foot. Then step out with the right foot and then with the left to get into the proper foot position. So that’s right back, left back, right out, left out. And that is all that should be needed. If the lifter hits the racks with the bar, this means he/she is bending too far forward during the performance of the lift.

The lifter should look straight ahead and continue to do so throughout the lift. This will help prevent the lifter from bending too far forward. And slight forward bend is okay, but the lift should not be turned into a “good morning” exercise. The upper back should remain arched and the shoulders back.

The lifter should sit down and back into the squatting position, with the buttocks going back some so as to keep the knees from coming too far forward. The knees should not go past the toes.

The feet should remain flat on the floor. The heels should not come up, and nothing should be placed under the heels. If the person has difficulty with this, then flexibility exercises for the Achilles should be performed.

However, it is okay and even helpful to use shoes with a slight heel. But the heel should less than an inch thick. Such a heel will help to prevent loss of balance backwards that some experience when doing squats.

The knees should stay in line with the lower leg and foot throughout. There should be no inward or outward turning of the knees.

How far down the lifter should squat is a matter of some controversy. Some authorities believe that going to or below parallel places undo strain on the knees, while other authorities do not believe this is the case. By parallel is meant when the top of the knees are below the top of the thighs at the “cease” where the thighs connect to the torso.

But a couple of points in this dispute are without dispute. First off, by rule, powerlifters MUST break parallel. So powerlifters and anyone aspiring to be a powerlifter must get in the habit of breaking parallel. But “break parallel” means just that. A fraction of an inch below parallel is all that is needed.

Second, if the lifter chooses not to break parallel, he or she should still go down to almost parallel. Don’t waste your time by only doing “partial squats” (barely bending the knees) as many do in gyms.

Another area of controversy is at the top of the lift. Some authorities believe that locking the knees at the top places undo strain on the knees, while others do not believe this is the case. But again, by rule, powerlifters must have the knees locked at the start and completion of the lift. So powerlifters and aspiring powerlifters should get into habit of doing so in the gym. For others, the legs should be basically straight even if the knees are not locked.

As for breathing, the lifter should inhale during the descent and exhale during the ascent.

Beginners should not use weight belts and knee wraps. These should only be used by more experienced lifters when doing low  reps (less than five) or if the lifter is susceptible to back injury. In the latter case, the weights should be kept light while the back problem is worked on.

For those who are spotting someone else on squats, the spotter should watch closely throughout the performance of the lift. The spotter should stand behind the lifter as close as possible without interfering with him/her. The spotter’s hands should be kept below the chest (male) or under the arms (female). The spotter should be in position to lift the lifter up and backwards as need be. The spotter should squat with the person. In this way, the spotter’s legs will be bent so they can be used if the lifter needs assistance.

For a video of proper squat form, click here. For a video from a different angle and with full powerlifting gear, click here.

Proper Performance of Bench Presses

The bench press is a great exercise for developing upper body strength. It utilizes the chest (pectrolis major and minor), shoulders (anterior delts), and triceps.

To perform benches, the lifter should lie flat on the bench. Beginners should not arch their backs. However, powerlifters and more advanced lifters will find that arching enables greater weights to be handled.

The shoulders, head, and buttocks should be flat on the bench, and the feet flat on the floor. And these should not move throughout the movement. Any such movement could be cause for disqualification at a powerlifting meet. Only the arms should move. The bar should be grasped with an overhand grip, thumbs around the bar, and slightly wider than shoulder width.

Lift the bar off of the uprights to arm's length. Lower the weight to the chest, and then pause momentarily at the bottom. The bar should not bounce at the chest nor sink into the chest after the pause. Then press it upwards to arms length.

Now some authorities recommend that at the start of the lift to hold the bar so that it is above the chin. The bar would then be lowed in an arch until it touches on the lower part of the chest. But other authorities believe it is best to press the bar up in a straight line rather than in an arch. In this case, the starting position would also be directly above the "target" location on the chest. And some authorities recommend pressing the bar slightly towards the feet. So the three options are: pressing the bar in an arch towards chin, pressing it in a straight line up, or pressing it in a straight line slightly towards the feet. It would be advisable to experiment with each form to see which works best for you.

Exactly where to touch the chest is also a matter of experimentation. Personally, I touch the chest about an inch below the nipple line. The elbows should flare out somewhat during the descent but not excessively as this could cause rotator cuff damage.

During the ascent it is helpful to bring the elbows in slightly so as to more fully utilize triceps strength. The lifter should inhale during the downward motion and exhale during the upward motion.

The spotter should stand at the head of the lifter, behind the bar and uprights. The spotter should hand off the weight to the lifter using a three count. Some authorities recommend that the spotter uses an underhand grip, but many will find this to be awkward. The spotter should squat down as needed so as to be ready to grab the bar at any time. In this way, the spotter’s legs can be used to lift the weight if needed. However, the spotter should not grab the bar too early. Do not touch the bar unless the lifter asks for help or if the bar starts to go back down.

There are several common variations of the bench press. The first is wide grip benches. The purpose of using a wide grip is to put emphasis on the outer chest (lateral pectoralis major). Use as wide a grip as comfort allows. Too wide of a grip would place undo stress on the wrist. About one hand width wider than ones regular bench grip would be a good place to begin.

The second variation is a narrow grip bench. The purpose of using a narrow grip is to put emphasis on the inner chest (medial pectoralis major) and the triceps. Use a grip of hands about 6-12” apart. The hands should be at least one hand width narrower than for ones regular bench. To emphasize the inner pecs, the elbows should flare out comfortably to the sides. To emphasize the triceps, keep the elbows in.

The third variation is incline benches. The purpose of doing incline benches is to emphasize the upper chest. The incline of the bench should be 15-30 degrees. Large volumes of incline work should not be done so as to not overtax the rotator cuff.

The path of the bar on inclines should be basically straight down and up, to and from the middle of the chest (halfway between the clavicle and nipple line).

The fourth common variation is decline benches. These emphasize the lower pecs. The angle of decline should be 15-30 degrees. The path of the bar should be basically straight down and up from the bottom of the chest.

Inclines and declines can be varied by doing them with a normal, narrow, or wide grip. And flat, incline and declines benches can all be varied by using dumbbells.

For a video of proper bench press form, click here. For a video wearing a bench press shirt, click here.

Proper Performance of Deadlifts

Deadlifts are the best exercise there is for developing overall body strength. Almost every major muscle group is utilized while performing deadlifts. Deadlifts utilize the entire lower body (hips, buttocks, quads, hamstrings, and calves), the entire mid-section (low back, abs, and obliques), the upper back (lats and traps), and the forearms. So despite being a difficult exercise, they are worth the effort.

There are two ways to perform deadlifts: with a “conventional” (close) stance and with a “sumo” (wide) stance. For the former, the hands grasp the bar with the arms outside of the legs, and for the latter, the arms are inside of the legs.

The difference between these stances is that conventional stance deadlifts emphasize the lower back and hamstrings while sumo stance deadlifts emphasize the hips and quadriceps. But all of these muscles are worked to some degree with either stance. I would recommend that beginners start with the conventional stance, but then sometime later the lifter might want to experiment with the sumo stance.

When deadlifting, it is important to use a bar with knurling on it; otherwise, the lifter might lose his/ her grip. Start with the bar lying on the floor, and the lifter standing in the middle. Bend at the knees and grasp the bar on the knurling, with the legs inside of the arms. Most find that a “reverse grip” works best. Grasp the bar with one palm facing forward (supine grip) and with the other palm facing toward the body (pronated grip). Usually, the dominant hand should be in the pronated position.

The heels should be about 6-10” apart and the arms as straight down as possible. The bar should be one to two inches in front of the shins. If the shins get hit as the bar is raised, the lifter is starting with the bar too close to the shins.

The lifter should look forward the entire time. The back should be arched so that there is no rounding of the shoulders. This position should be maintained throughout the lift. The lifter’s back should never round forward and the head should never tilt downward. This position can be maintained by looking forward the whole time. Do not look up or down.

The legs should be bent so that the buttocks are a little higher than the knees. The beginning position should be such that the lifter can push with the legs with about the same force as pulling with the back. It is a matter of how much the legs should be bent and how high the buttocks should be at the start. If the lifter starts with the buttocks too low and the legs bent too much, then the initial drive will be mostly with the legs. Conversely, if the buttocks are too high and the legs are too straight, the low back will do most of the work. It will take some experimentation to find the balance between these two extremes.

The lift is started by simultaneously pushing with the legs and pulling with the back. The lifter should picture driving the heels into the ground and pulling back with the back. It is helpful for some to drop the buttocks down some before starting the pull. As the buttocks are raised begin pushing with the legs when the buttocks are in the correct start position.

Keep pulling upward until the body is in an erect position. The shoulders be straight, not rounded forward at the end of the lift. However, it is neither necessary nor desirable to round the shoulders backwards. Simply be sure that the body is straight.

Pause at the top, and then slowly lower the weight back to the floor, bending the legs and lowering the buttocks. Do not drop the bar nor bang it onto the floor.

Pause at the floor before starting the second rep. Do not bounce the bar off of the floor. If the bar is bounced between reps, then the bottom part of the lift will not be strengthened.

As for breathing, inhale, taking a deep breath before starting the lift. If the lifter uses the method of dropping the buttocks before beginning the pull, then this is when a breath should be taken. Then exhale as the bar is raised. Inhale again as the bar is lowered. During the pause at the floor between reps, the lifter might want to take a breath or two in and out before inhaling to begin the second rep.

If the lifter has problems holding onto the bar, do not resort to using wrist straps. If the lifter does, then the forearms will not be strengthened and grip strength will not be improved. It is preferable to do some forearm work to improve grip strength than to resort to lifting straps. Reverse curls done with a straight bar are a very effective exercise for this purpose.

Beginners should not use a weight belt. A belt should only be worn by more experienced lifters when doing low reps (less than five) or if the lifter is susceptible to back injury. In the latter case, the weights should be kept light while the back problem is worked on.

For a video of proper deadlift form using a conventional stance, click here. For a video wearing full powerlifting gear, click here. For a video of sumo deadlifts, click here.

Dumbbells

For those who only have dumbbells, not a barbell, you can still do squats and deadlifts. The difference will be, for the squats hold the DBs to your sides, so they drop below your thighs when you squat down, and use a shoulder width stance. For deadlifts, hold the DBs in front of you, so they hang in front of your shins when you squat down, and use a close stance.

The pics on the following page will give you an idea of what I mean by the stances: APF PA States Powerlifting Championships - 2006 - Pictures.

For dumbbell benches, see the discussion near the bottom of Bench Press Assistance Exercises.

References:
The links below are direct links to where the books can be purchased from Books-a-Million.

Bell, James T. and Karl M. Dauphinais. The Book on Personal Training. Tampa, FL: International Fitness Professional Association, 2001.
Delavier, Frederic. Strength Training Anatomy. Paris, France: Human kinetics, 2001.
Hatfield, Frederick, C. Bodybuilding: A Scientific Approach. Chicago, IL: Contemporary Books, 1984.
Schuller, Lou. The Testosterone Advantage Plan. USA: Rodale, 2002.

Proper Performance of the Powerlifts. Copyright 2003 by Gary F. Zeolla.

The above article appeared in the September 12, 2003 issue of the free FitTips for One and All newsletter.

Powerlifting and Strength Training
Powerlifting and Strength Training: Proper Performance of Exercises

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