How to Perform Your Lifts
The first thing to remember when you’re headed to the gym is this: performance is key to progress. How you perform in the gym – specifically, how hard you train and how carefully you execute each movement – will spell the difference between long-term success and failure.
This lesson specifically deals with technique and execution of exercises. The distinction between technique and execution is important: technique generally refers to the position of your body and the bar throughout a movement, but execution can include factors like rep speed, range of motion, and mind-muscle connection. Execution is hugely important to powerbuilding, because to achieve the optimal balance of strength and hypertrophy, you’ll need to use execute different lifts in different ways (and, of course, you should always use good technique).
The Main Lifts
The squat, bench, and deadlift aren’t just for powerlifters. If you’re focused on powerbuilding, these three lifts still must form the foundation of your program. That’s because of their huge potential for building size and strength – few other lifts come close.
First, let’s tackle technique. For these lifts, you should focus on two aspects of technique:
- Safety. The importance of safety is obvious, although the idea of “safe technique” is pretty broad and means different things to different people. Here’s the rule of thumb: if you have any doubts about your safety training with a given weight, you should lighten the load. Injury will derail your progress far more than over- or undertraining, more than missed workouts, and more than a lack of motivation. So trust your gut, warm up well, and make sure that you are controlling the bar throughout each and every rep.
- Effectiveness. For the squat, bench, and deadlift, effective technique generally requires the use of a full range of motion: squatting at least to parallel, touching your chest and locking out on the bench, and deadlifting from the floor. Safety is always paramount! If you can’t move through a full range of motion without pain, then don’t. At the same time, don’t “invent” injuries to make these movements easier.
As long as you’re performing the main movements safely and effectively, you don’t have to worry too much about the nuances of technique. Competitive powerlifters will need to optimize the details, but if your goals are more broad, you’re perfectly fine just using the technique that feels most comfortable and natural to you.
Again, remember that technique is only one aspect of performance. Execution is equally important. However, when it comes to your main lifts, I don’t want you to worry about details like rep speed, mind-muscle connection, or anything else. You should move the weights as confidently as possible, regardless of whether that means fast and explosive or slow and deliberate. In fact, I would prefer that you prioritize hitting your prescribed weights on the main movements over any of these factors.
The Assistance Movements
The squat, bench press, and deadlift are the kings of strength, but when it comes to optimal hypertrophy, they’re just not enough. That’s because an aesthetic physique is a balanced physique, and everyone has natural strengths and weaknesses in that department. The squat, bench, and deadlift alone don’t provide enough work for some of the smaller muscles that can provide that balanced appearance: muscles like the medial delts, the biceps, the vastus medialis, and even the calves.
So, to address those shortcomings, we’ll be using a wide variety of assistance movements. Many of these will be compound movements, even variations of the squat, bench press, and deadlift; or other mass builders, like weighted dips and chins. But these compound movements tend to be very demanding in terms of recovery, and many smaller muscle groups, like the arms, shoulders, and calves, usually need a huge amount of volume to grow. Doing a ton of sets of close-grip bench presses and front squats can be a great way to give yourself an overuse injury.
So, instead, we’ll also use simple, single-joint isolation exercises designed to target the smaller muscle groups. These have a very low risk of injury, because you typically can’t use very heavy weights for exercises like leg extensions or lateral raises; and, for the same reason, they require relatively fewer recovery resources, so you can train them using higher volume than you can compound movements.
For the main movements, we really focused on technique over execution. The opposite is true for assistance movements: execution is absolutely paramount. Here’s what to focus on:
- Focus on the muscle, not the movement. By that I mean you’re keeping tension throughout the range of motion, especially on the eccentric, getting a good stretch at the bottom and squeezing at the top. If you feel that you have a strong mind-muscle connection, this is the time to use it.
- Control your tempo. Lower the weight slowly, but raise it quickly – a 3-0-1 tempo is good. You don’t need to obsess over this tempo; don’t bust out a metronome or anything, but do try to be cognizant of your rep speed.
- Keep constant tension. It’s easy to hang out in some positions, even if you’re using a heavy weight, and it can be tempting to do that if you’re performing a high-rep set. Resist this temptation, and try to keep your entire set smooth and continuous. Again, don’t get too caught up in this: it’s okay to lock out, just don’t take excessive pauses between reps.
The weight used on assistance movements is secondary to execution. However, you should try to be progressive if possible: add a few pounds or a rep or two to each set every week. Because we’re rotating assistance movements each training block, this type of progression should be sustainable over the course of the entire program.