Powerlifting has been around for as long as civilization has existed. Although the sport has evolved throughout the years, individuals were engaging in feats of strength to prove their worth as far back as ancient Greece.
Today, powerlifting exists all over the world in multiple countries, federations, and gyms for men and women of all ages. Currently, the sport consists of 3 major lifts: the squat, bench, and deadlift. Athletes attempt to lift the highest total in each of these 3 lifts with 3 attempts per lift, for 9 lifts total. Individuals are then scored by taking their best lift from each of the three (squat, bench, and deadlift) and combined for a total.
This total is then ranked within the lifter’s age, sex, and weight class to determine a winner for that category. A separate category, called the “Best Overall Lifter,” is also scored in which lifters compete across weight classes on a pound for pound basis. This is calculated via a mathematical formula in order to determine the winner.
To be an exceptional powerlifter one must put their body under immense stress. High level lifters are in peak physical condition in order to withstand the crushing weight they place themselves under. This level of stress and loading goes past that of normal “training to stay healthy” and into the competitive sphere. However, just because the movements performed by high level powerlifters are done with hundreds of kilograms doesn’t mean we can’t learn something important from these three movements.
The squat, bench press, and deadlift are fundamental motions that we can all implement into our daily movement practice. These movements are used by human beings EVERY day, no matter their age, occupation, or fitness level, although not in the ways you might think. For example, every time we pick up an object from the floor, that is a deadlift!
When we sit down in a chair and get up, that’s a squat! And finally, when we push a door open, that is a bench press! Of course, these motions are not exactly the same as what is seen in the sport of powerlifting. However, the fundamentals remain the same, therefore these archetypal shapes are completely transferable between multiple movements and domains.
Excelling at these three shapes will increase the performance of almost all daily and athletic tasks. However, the question remains: How can we master the three fundamental powerlifting movements? What do these movements require of our body? Below, we will go over the basics for each motion and describe what it takes to become a more competent mover.
The squat is possibly the most important movement for a human being to perform. The squat’s transfer to many sport specific skills like jumping, running, and cutting, as well as daily tasks like sitting, lifting up odd shaped objects, and using stairs.
Not only does it require the most range of motion (ROM), from the most joints, when compared to the deadlift and bench press, but it’s perhaps the greatest way to KEEP our strength and motion as we get older. To squat properly, we must be able to express full ROM in our ankles, knees, and hips. Below are the points of performance we look for when assessing a proper squat:
- Feet flat on the floor with weight on the midfoot
- Knees tracking in line with the middle of the foot (can go past toes)
- Hips flexed past 90 degrees (below parallel)
- Spine braced and in a neutral position
If any one of these rules is violated, we must examine the root cause of the movement dysfunction. A trained physical therapist can help you if you have common movement faults like heels coming off the floor, knees collapsing inward, or excessive rounding of the back. Overall, the squat is perhaps the most bang for your buck movement, and has the most carryover to athletic performance and success in daily activities. If your movement practice doesn’t involve squatting, you’re leaving untapped potential on the table.
The deadlift is a movement that is second nature to most. When we pick up anything from the floor we are performing some variation of the deadlift. Whether it’s a thousand pound barbell or a bag of groceries, most people do some form of deadlift every day, sometimes without even realizing it! Despite its seemingly simple nature, there is nuance to the deadlift.
Countless youth have been scolded by their parents for lifting something too heavy off the ground. “You’re going to hurt your back,” is a common phrase uttered in many households. However, there is NOTHING, I repeat, NOTHING, inherently dangerous about deadlifting. In fact, deadlifting with PROPER mechanics is actually GOOD for our spine! Before I go further, let me clarify my point to appease the worrisome weekend warriors. Deadlifting with a properly braced spine allows us to practice handling heavy loads without compromising our position. The better we are at creating stiffness under load, the less likely we are to compromise our position when we lift something up.
Yes, the spine is very strong and meant to bend, twist, rotate, etc. However, when deadlifting, our goal is to create as much stiffness as possible in order to have proper force transfer through our postural muscles and prime movers (hamstrings, glutes, etc.) as opposed to the passive structures of our spine. This in turn allows us to lift maximal weight without injury.
There are many kinds of deadlifts including sumo, clean grip, and jefferson to name a few, however we will focus on the standard conventional deadlift. The positions below can be generally applied to most forms. Below, I’ll go through the points of performance that I look for when assessing a conventional deadlift:
- Neutral spine position (not excessively rounded OR extended)
- Hips higher than knees (above parallel)
- Foot pressure neutral with slight bias towards heels
- Upon pulling, hips and knees rising at the same time
- Keep the weight/object/bar close to you, do not let it drift away
Similar to the squat, if any one of these principles is violated, we are not only creating a higher risk of injury, but leaving valuable strength on the table. Remember, the safest position is often the strongest, so focusing on mechanics is key to staying healthy and getting the most out of our body!
A favorite among all lifters, few exercises are as satisfying as the bench press. For decades teammates, friends, and casual gym goers alike have compared their bench press to each other to determine the strongest among them. A better comparison would surely be the squat or deadlift, but come on, that just wouldn’t be as fun!
Despite generally less carryover to athletic performance, there are still practical benefits to bench pressing that can be transferred to real life activities. Learning the press can even transfer loosely to pulling tasks! For example, any time we reach overhead, across our body, close a car door, etc. we are doing some form of pressing/pulling.
Knowing how to properly brace the shoulder to generate force during reaching tasks is vital to maintaining function in our upper extremities as we age. In fact, almost 50% of people over 60 years old will have some form of rotator cuff tear!
The exact reason why this occurs is not completely clear, however, seeing how the shoulder is one of the most mobile joints in our body, learning how to properly control its movement will help us decrease the likelihood of an injury. In order to properly brace the shoulder during a press, whether it be horizontal (bench press, pushups, etc.) or vertical (overhead press, reaching, etc) we have to focus on the points of performance below:
- Keep the shoulder blades depressed downward (keep in back pocket) and avoid shrugging
- Externally rotate the shoulders (think bicep pointing up, or thumbs up position) almost like you are “breaking” the bar in half
- Squeeze the lats (wing muscles)
- Keep the feet firmly on the ground
- Finally, press the object straight away keeping a relatively consistent path
If this seems confusing, or like you are trying to rub your belly and tap your head at the same time, fear not! These motions can be very challenging from a coordination perspective. When in doubt, keep the shoulders down and press the bar/object out. Believe it or not, this can also be applied to pulling.
The same emphasis should be applied to keeping the shoulders down and avoiding an excessive shrug. Instead of externally rotating as we press, now we will be externally rotating as we pull towards our midline. Although this can all seem confusing, the simplest advice I can give is keep the shoulders down, and when in doubt, press out.
With all your newfound knowledge of the powerlifting movements, don’t forget one simple fact: with great power comes great responsibility. Before you say, “Hey thanks Uncle Ben,” what this really means is that no matter the weight on the bar, we have a responsibility to maintain proper mechanics.
Not only will this keep us healthy and injury free, but allow for proper skill transfer to ALL aspects of our life in the strongest position possible. Don’t stress if you don’t get it right away, as these skills can take months and years to fully develop. If you aren’t sure what to focus on just remember, move well, move often, but most importantly, just move.