Start with the Setup

Perfect form in lifting is a moving target. What you do with the empty bar as you are warming up is not so easy when you get to your work sets. But when you hit that perfect, heavy rep, you feel strong. Most of the time, that perfect rep doesn’t happen immediately and not without considerable work. The perfect rep comes from controlling your body and the bar in specific ways. That is far easier said than done, but you can minimize the extra variables and improve how quickly you learn a lift by controlling the setup.

Start with the Setup: Fix Your Lifts Before they Start

“Past and future are different from each other. Cause precedes effect. Pain comes after a wound, not before it. The glass shatters into a thousand pieces, and the pieces do not re-form into a glass. We cannot change the past; we can have regrets, remorse, memories. The future instead is uncertainty, desire, anxiety, open space, destiny, perhaps…. Time is not a line with two equal directions: it is an arrow with different extremities.” Carlo Rovelli, The Order of Time.

Perfect form in lifting is a moving target. What you do with the empty bar, as you are warming up, is not so easy when you get to your work sets. But when you hit that perfect, heavy rep, you feel strong. You start to imagine that PRs and progress to come; you feel in control of the barbell and in balance enough that you could fight for a slow, grinding rep if you had to. A heavy rep, lifted with perfect form, teaches us what strong feels like and how to use all the strength we build in the gym. And, it usually comes with some “aha!” moment, with an almost audible “click,” as some piece of the lift finally makes sense. Then, of course, you have to do it again.

Most of the time, that perfect rep doesn’t happen immediately and not without considerable work. Reenacting the right combination of cues, self-talk, and movement as the weights continue to creep up is like trying to recreate a memory. The more you try to make it happen exactly the same way again, the farther away it seems to get. The best lifts often happen with the least amount of thought. They come together where intent and execution meet with minimal translation or interference. So why can’t you just “do the same thing” over and over again? Why is the perfect rep so elusive?

It is the same reason that you might throw a bullseye at the dartboard one time and be unable to do it again in your next one hundred throws.

Errors that affect your form are internal, beginning and ending with your movement. Think of the cascading effects during a squat if you start the lift incorrectly. Perhaps you get overeager and shoot your hips way back without also bending your knees as you start the descent. You will immediately feel your balance shift forward toward your toes. As you continue to descend, one of two things will usually happen. You will end up squatting high with your knees held back and shins almost vertical, as if you are performing some kind of hinge movement instead of a squat. Or you will experience aggressive forward knee movement near the bottom of the squat as you commit to hitting depth, your knees bouncing forward, then shooting backward on the ascent, turning your squat into what looks more like the second half of a good morning. So, you try and correct the movement on the next rep, sending your knees forward first as you start. Now, your back angle is too vertical as you descend, and you end up squatting high, unable to get your balance back, and feeling like you might jump forward out from under the bar.

A lot of things can go wrong during a single rep, but they start with your voluntary movement. How your balance shifts, how you initiate the movement, or how you control the barbell causes sensory changes and conscious and unconscious reactions as you try not to get squashed. If you misdiagnose the subsequent errors’ root causes, you will get frustrated trying to fix them—“Hold your knees in place” or “Bury the rep” will not fix the good morning squat or the depth issue in the example above.

We often forget that problems with lifting form are our own creations. Unintentional, but our fault, nonetheless. The external forces acting on you and the barbell during any given rep and your physical surroundings do not change. Gravity’s pull and magnitude are constant. The weight on the bar, once loaded, stays exactly the same. If you removed your body from the system and simply dropped the barbell, it would fall in a straight, vertical line downward. The perfect rep is an effect of controlling your body and the bar so that as few things change as possible.

That is far easier said than done, but you can minimize the extra variables and improve how quickly you learn a lift by controlling the setup.

Cause and Effect

“[T]he whole of our physics, and science in general, is about how things develop ‘according to the order of time.’” —Rovelli

Cause leading to effect only works in one direction. In our squat example above, a small movement early in the lift caused deviations from the ideal rep. Each deviation would force a lifter to react with subtle shifts in balance or movement, adjusting the lift consciously and unconsciously. Errors beget errors. Most of them are minor and won’t limit the value of the training you put in that day, but they make the perfect rep elusive and may undermine your confidence when it’s time to hit a big PR. Like the butterfly effect, a small change at the beginning of the lift can lead to multiple errors or deviations from the model. Let’s look at how to get the perfect setup and limit the ways these errors can creep into your lifts.

Start with the Setup

If you can make your setup exactly the same (and correct) every time you lift, every set, and every repetition, you will eliminate a great many of the possible errors. While this may seem obvious, surprisingly few lifters pay as much attention to their setup as they do to the actual movement.

The setup defines the lift as a whole. A low bar squat cannot be correct if the bar is not in the correct position. A deadlift in which you continually change your stance width or the bar’s position over your feet is not the same movement performed over and over again. And a press will vary widely with your grip width and elbow position.

There are conditions for each lift, which you can think of as stance, grip, and position. If any of these are incorrect or inconsistent, the perfect rep will elude you.

Stance, Grip, Position

Your stance, grip, and position are learned pieces of a lift, changing little for an individual once learned. The goal is to repeat those key elements every rep and every set. For the squat, press, and deadlift, here are the best ways to approach the lifts so that you can practice your setup every time you lift.

Squat: Get Setup Before You Unrack the Bar

Too often, a lifter will put the bar on their back in more or less the right place, take it out without gusto, walk back while looking down at their shoes, and only then start getting serious about the lift. By the time they lift their chest, squeeze their abs, and generally try to get tight, it’s too late. The heavier the bar gets, the more difficult it will become to set up after you have taken the bar out of the rack.

The goal should be to “squat the bar out of the rack”: When you get under the bar, set your grip width so that your back is scrunched together and tight, creating a shelf for the bar. Lift your chest, extending your thoracic spine and adding tightness to your upper back, getting your back and chest into the positions they will hold for the entire movement. Place your feet in your squat stance under the bar (no more one-foot-forward, lunge-stance business). Take a big breath, and squat the bar out of the rack as if it is the first rep of your set.

Then, since you went through all that work to get set up under the bar already, do not give up any part of your position. Stay tight as you step back into your correct stance. Learn to see or feel your stance without rounding your back to look down. Now that you’ve got a good setup, hold everything in place (“set it, and forget it!”) and focus on whatever your movement cue is for that set or rep.

Press: Take the Bar out With Authority

The press is a high-energy lift and tends to go better when you unrack the bar with the same intensity that you commit to the rest of the set. Set your grip width. Rotate your elbows under the bar as you approach it, getting your elbows slightly in front of the bar with neutral wrists. Then, take the bar out of the rack like you mean it.

Very often, lifters will try to set their wrists after they have unracked the bar. This is incredibly difficult to do well. Instead, before you unrack the bar, squeeze hard and move your elbows and your body so that your wrists can stay straight when you unrack the bar. Often this will mean you have to get closer to the bar to take it out of the rack than you might be used to.

After you take the bar out of the rack and take your stance, set your body position before your first rep. Turn your body into a column by lifting your chest, squeezing your abs like you are bracing for a punch to the stomach, and squeezing your quads tight, locking your knees straight. Now, you are ready to lift—stance, grip, position.

Deadlift: Pause Before You Pull

There are certain conditions precedent that have to occur before a heavy deadlift: 1) bar position, 2) balance, 3) shin contact, 4) shoulder position, 5) hip height. Read about these conditions in detail here: “5 + 1 Deadlift eye,” by CJ Gotcher. Acknowledging each of these conditions before you start the lift and committing that feeling to muscle memory makes for a consistent deadlift.

In addition to the five-step deadlift setup, try adding a short pause before you pull. During this pause, pay attention to your balance; you should be heavy on the middle of your feet. Pay attention to your grip; the bar should be heavy in your hands from squeezing all the slack out between your arms and the bar. Pay attention to the bar’s position; the bar should be touching your shins. This is the pulling position, which you should pass through before every single rep. A slight pause here—no more than a moment—gives you the opportunity to recognize and confirm the deadlift setup position.

Next time you are feeling overwhelmed by one of your lifts, take a step back and focus on the setup first. See if you can identify any obvious issues before you get into the weeds trying to fix nuanced errors with your movement. Very often, a good setup will prevent or cure downstream errors and will allow you to focus on parts of your lift that will help you find and repeat, over and over again, your perfect rep.




twitter2 twitter2 instagram2 facebook2


©2024 Barbell Logic | All rights reserved. | Privacy Policy | Terms & Conditions | Powered by Tension Group

Log in with your credentials

Forgot your details?