Start with the Setup

Most of the time, the perfect rep doesn’t happen, not immediately, and not without considerable effort. You start trying to find the combination of cues, thoughts, movements, and the approach to the lift that led to the perfect rep in the past. But it's like trying to recreate a memory, the more you try to make it happen, 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. So why can’t you just “do the same thing” again? Why does the perfect rep feel so elusive?

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.

Chasing the perfect rep can feel like you are aiming at a moving target. When you lift with perfect form, you feel strong. You can imagine that PRs and progress are possible because you feel in control of the barbell, in balance enough that you can fight for a slow, grinding rep if you had to. When the stars align, and you execute a perfect squat, press, or deadlift rep, you feel like you can exert your full potential. A heavy rep, lifted with perfect form, teaches us what it feels like to feel strong and to really use all the strength we’ve been building. And it usually comes with some “aha!” moment, with an almost audible “click,” as some piece of the lift finally makes sense (that is how it is supposed to feel).

But then, you have to do it again. And, most of the time, that perfect rep doesn’t happen immediately and not without considerable effort. You start trying to find the combination of cues, thoughts, movements, and the approach to the lift that led to that perfect rep. But it’s like trying to recreate a memory, the more you think about it, 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” again? Why does the perfect rep feel 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. Either, 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 full depth, your knees bouncing forward, then shooting backward on the ascent, as you turn your squat into what looks more like a good morning on the way up. So, you try and correct the movement on the next repetition, 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. You finish your set, rerack the bar, and sit for a few minutes, wondering what just happened.

A lot of things can go wrong during a single repetition, but they started with your voluntary movement. How your balance shifted, or how you controlled the barbell on your back, causes sensory changes and conscious and unconscious reactions as you try not to get squashed. If you misdiagnose the root cause of the problems, 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 creation. Unintentional? Yes, but our fault nonetheless. The external forces acting on you and the barbell during any given repetition and your physical surroundings do not change. Gravity is constant in its magnitude and direction. 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 make your odds better (and improve how quickly you learn the lift) if you can control for as many of these self-made variables as possible before the lift even starts. And that is easier than it might seem.

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 the example above, a small movement early in the lift, caused deviations from the ideal rep, each deviation forcing the lifter to react to it with subtle shifts in balance or movement, adjusting the lift consciously, and unconsciously reacting to unexpected changes. A small change at the beginning of the lift can lead to a whole heap of problems in the movements that follow, like the butterfly effect applied to your squat.

Errors beget errors, and they tend to multiply during the course of a single repetition or set. To limit the number of errors you have to deal with during your lift, start at the beginning, with your setup.

Start with the Setup

Start at the beginning and make your setup exactly the same (and correct) every time you lift, every set, and every repetition, and you will eliminate a great many of the possible deviations in your lifts. 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. Lifts in which your setup is not set are haphazard.

There are conditions for each lift before the movement begins that, if done incorrectly, will cause deviations from the model of the lift. And learning to acknowledge these positions with your setup (stance, grip, and position) will help to make the lift the same every time, giving you the best shot at that perfect rep.

Stance, Grip, Position

Your stance, grip, and position are learned pieces of a lift, changing a little bit from person to person. Once you have learned the correct setup for each lift, there are a few things you can do to help you set up the same way every time and recognize the correct stance, grip, and bar and body positions that are prerequisites for a good lift.

Squat: Get Setup Before You Unrack the Bar

Too often, we see a lifter 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 entirety of the movement. Place your feet in your squat stance under the bar (no more one-foot-forward 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 of your positionings. 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 lift. 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.

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