Become a better lifter: Start Here pt. 2.

Google search the phrase “beginner powerlifter” and hundreds of results will flood the page. Everything from sample training programs to “how to low bar squat” manuals can easily be accessed. The question must be asked though: is this information where beginners should really be looking? Is the strength community overlooking critical, rudimentary skills and concepts? This article is going to uncover those basics and pay homage to the fact these skills are not only necessary for proficiency in “the Big 3”, but for overall general fitness. These skills? Bodyweight exercises.

Before the case can be made justifying this importance, the concept of skill acquisition needs to be discussed. During childhood, movement patterns are developed. These patterns are classified as either gross or fine motor patterns. Gross motor patterns involve the major muscles of the body that allow us to walk, run, jump, etc. Whereas fine motor patterns require “higher level” skills such as coordination and balance; often needed by smaller muscle groups such as those in the hands, feet, etc.

So when we look at skill development from this standpoint, it makes sense. We would not ask a child to perform complicated agility exercises involving cutting and changing directions if the child could barely walk or run. The same construct should be considered when we are learning the skills of lifting. Adding weight through whether it be a barbell or dumbbell adds another layer of “skill” one must possess. If the gross motor pattern of squatting one’s bodyweight shows compensation patterns or faulty form, is a barbell really going to “fix” the problem?

With this understanding, one should start (or if you’re a seasoned veteran, take a step back) to critically analyze the following: can you perform bodyweight exercises correctly and proficiently? What does “perfecting the basics” even look like? The following section will give you a crash course on some of the most influential movement patterns as they relate to the “Big 3”.

If you want to barbell back squat you should be able to a:

Bodyweight squat

Every movement of the human body derives from one of two patterns: the ability to walk or the ability to sit and stand (aka squat). Simply put, this is one of the easiest yet best ways to develop a great squat. Incorporating a bar and depending on the placement of that bar, will yield a refinement of this skill, but generally speaking, when one squats the following elements should be seen:

  1.  The feet are in a stance slightly outside of the hips or wherever the hips are able to “sit” so that they are in between the feet at the bottom of the squat. The direction of the toes will be determined on the person’s Q-angle of the hips but, generally, most will find a 30-45 degree angle will feel the most natural and comfortable. 

  2. Initiating the movement, the knees should start to break as the hips start to sit slightly back and down. This synergistic movement is key and one of the most important aspects of a bodyweight squat. A premature bend of the knee before the hips will most like cause knee strain while an over-emphasis of the hips will cause the torso to lean excessively forward and potentially cause more strain on the low back.

  3. The bottom of the movement should show the hips sitting directly between the feet with a relatively upright torso based on your individual body type. Weight should be evenly distributed between the big toe, pinkie toe, and heal while the knees sit directly over the ankles.

  4. Coming out of the bottom, begin to straighten the knees while bringing the hips forward in order to stand. Again, keeping the distribution of the weight equal within the foot-

If you want to barbell bench press you should be able to a:

Bodyweight Pull Up 

Performing a bodyweight pull-up is a feat within itself, but when a focus on proper form is also added into the mix, this challenging exercise packs a punch. The pull-up shows great carry over into the barbell bench press due to the combination of necessary upper body strength and ability to effectively control and stabilize the important muscles of the back and shoulders. To effectively perform a pull-up the following steps should be taken:

  1.  Using a prontated (overhand) grip, place hands outside shoulder-width. Allow the body to hang in a hollow body position (legs slightly in front, ribs down engaging the core, and shoulders away from ears allowing the scapula to slightly depress).

  2. Initiating much like a lat pulldown, pull the scapula down and together to lift the body up towards the bar. Maintain a hollow body position, being sure not to lose the tension created by pulling the ribs down and pelvis up.

  3. After the chin has cleared the bar, lower in the same way, using control and allowing the scapula to protract and return to the starting position.

Push Up

The pressing motion of the push up is very similar to that of the non-competition bench press. Doing the push up under the premise of “pushing the floor away” and using the following considerations can help one perform this staple exercise with greater ease and efficiency:

  1. Place hands between the shoulders and armpits with elbows pointing behind or at a 45-degree angle. Refrain from “chicken winging” or positioning the elbows pointing out at a 90-degree angle.

  2. Controlling and aligning the body, lower by bending the elbows, again sustaining the 45-degree angle and allowing the chest to fall toward the floor. During this step, the shoulder blades should retract slightly.

  3. Press the floor, maintaining a straight line with the body, allow the shoulder blades to protract as you return to the start.

If you want to deadlift you should be able to do a:

Glute Bridge

Both the conventional and sumo deadlifts are movements in themselves requiring a unique skillset and understanding. However, there are key aspects of the glute bridge that prove worthy in terms of carryover to both variations of the deadlift, making it a great exercise for both learning and strength development. When performing this bodyweight exercise keep the following considerations in mind:

  1.  Foot placement, shin, and toe angle will vary to each individual. Generally speaking, the feet should be hip-width apart, shins vertical to the ground, and feet either facing straight forward or slightly out.
  2. Before the move can begin, it is important to actively engage the core. To do so, bring the ribs down towards the hips and tilt the pelvis up thus allowing the low back to flatten into the ground and the mid-section to brace.
  3. Pressing equally through the heel and forefoot, bridge the hips toward the ceiling while avoiding excessive arching in the low back.
  4. At the apex of the movement the shoulder blades should remain in contact with the floor, torso straight and rigid, and shins vertical to the floor.

Bodyweight exercises have stood the test of time and for good reason; they are effective at instilling the basic movement patterns needed for all compound lifts, especially the Big 3. Success aside, longevity in both the sport and life depend on this aspect. Move well with the basics to build a solid, efficient foundation that will carry over into compound, heavy lifts.

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