We've gone over how to do the Big 3, but what else do we do? Why do we do it in the way we've done it?
Luckily, James Kennedy is back with some information on Squat Accessories.
Whilst most of your training as a natural strength athlete should be focused on the big 3 - the squat, the bench and the deadlift - your programme should also include accessory lifts. Accessory lifts are used for a variety of reasons within your training. Primarily, accessory lifts are used as a way of getting targeted training for a specific muscle group without increasing the wear and tear that repeating the same movement patterns can cause.
The reason that accessory work is needed is for three reasons. Firstly, as you train a movement - for example the squat - you will develop muscular imbalances. The accessory lifts target the muscular imbalances, reducing your injury risk. Secondly, training compound movements can lead to overtraining due to the higher weights used. Using accessory work allows you to increase training volume but minimally increases the fatigue you accumulate. Thirdly, it adds some variety to training - training should be fun and doing the same exercises over and over again gets boring, fast.
The selection of accessory work is important. As accessory work helps develop more complete hypertrophy, it should be used to target specific weaknesses you have in a lift.
To give a very simple example - if you are struggling to lock out a bench press it suggests your triceps are too weak. Therefore, you should be using accessory work to target tricep strength and hypertrophy.
Why does hypertrophy matter?
Hypertrophy matters for lifters, even if you’re just trying to get as strong as possible. Simply put, the larger the muscle, the larger the force it can exert and the more weight you can lift.
With the squat, there are three main weaknesses; technical, leg strength and back strength. The technical weaknesses can be addressed through practice - i.e. doing more squats and focussing on the technical issues that you have with the lifts. Filming your sets and talking through the videos with your coach - or refering to the squat guide (link here) - will help you identify the technical aspects you need to work on within the squat.
The other two weaknesses - leg and back strength - can be identified from how you fail or struggle with the squat exercise. Generally, most people can deadlift more than they can squat and, generally, most people have a stronger back than legs. Whilst this is generally true, It is important to identify the weaknesses within the squat, to more specifically target the accessory work.
The most common weakness is relatively weak legs vs the back during the squat. Without going too deep into the biomechanics this boils down to being able to produce greater torque via hip extension than knee extension. When squatting, this results in people doing a so-called ‘good-morning’ squat. This is where the hips rise quickly but the bar doesn’t. The knees extend and shoot back, driving the hips up, but the bar does not move up. This leaves the lifter in a bent-over, good-morning, position, leaving them to use their hips and backs to lock out the lift. To address this weakness it is essential to train the quads directly using movements where the back cannot take over, allowing you to to isolate the quad muscles needed for knee extension.
The exercises that more directly target the quads can be split into several groups: squat variations, bi-lateral movements and unilateral variations. These variations all target different aspects of leg strength and have different degrees of crossover.
The squat variations are exercises with a high degree of cross-over between the primary squat movement (the low-bar squat) and the accessory exercise. The bi-lateral and unilateral movements have less direct crossover, however they help address muscular imbalances and weaknesses.
The secondary squat exercises which target the quads to a greater degree are the high bar squat and the front squat. If your gym has one, the safety bar squat also works really well for this. As these squats are accessory lifts which are being used to develop leg strength they should be performed at a lower intensity, with a higher volume, than the main squat movement. Ideally, perform 3-5 sets of 5-10 reps on the secondary leg training day.
The bilateral and unilateral movements are more varied. For bilateral movements, the hack squat and leg press are excellent exercises for isolating the legs and stimulating quad hypertrophy. Bilateral movements should be performed for 3-4 sets in the 8-20 rep range. Most lifters find that they can lift significantly more weight using bilateral movements.
Unilateral movements are movements where only one limb is used. In this case, we are using only one leg at a time, to isolate the quads and drive quad hypertrophy and leg strength. Classic examples of unilateral exercises are the split squat, rear-leg elevated split squats, lunges and step ups. You can also use machines to do single leg leg extensions. Unilateral movements should be performed for 3-4 sets for 8-20 reps per set per leg. Whilst you can usually lift more weight on a leg press than a squat, unilateral movements are humbling. Usually, a relatively low weight can be incredibly challenging.
The second major weakness in the squat is driven by relatively weak back vs strong quads. This is more common in olympic weightlifters than powerlifters, as weightlifters spend more time squatting and less time deadlifting compared to powerlifters. When a lifter has a relatively weak back to their quads they still end up in a ‘good-morning’ squat position. However, in contrast to strong backed lifters who can often grind out multiple reps from this position, weak-backed lifters fail squats once they reach this position.
If you’re failing squats due to back strength, the solution, obviously, is to increase your back and hip strength so you can lock out the hips and complete the lift. If you don’t already include it in your training, the conventional deadlift is the best exercise for back and hip strength development. Incorporating 3-5 sets of 5-8 reps will massively improve your hip and back strength.
If you are including the deadlift already there are still multiple good options. The Romanian Deadlift (RDL) - a top down deadlift, where you isolate the hips and glutes to develop hip and leg strength - is a fantastic developer of hip strength. For an in depth guide to the romanian deadlift, this guide from Eric Helms will teach you everything you need to know (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0Sd1AZZ77aw).
Performing 3-5 sets of 8-12 reps of RDL’s after your squat workout will develop hip and back strength.
As the weak-backed lifter ends up in the good-morning position, but is not strong enough to actually perform the good-morning, good morning’s are a good, specific way of targeting this weakness. To perform a good-morning, set up for a squat, then bend at the hips whilst keeping the knees softly bent. This movement targets the lower back, hips and spinal erectors - the exact muscles needed to lock out a squat from this position. Personally, I prefer to do this for high reps and lower weights, focusing on form and developing lower back hypertrophy. Programming 3-4 sets of 8-15 reps, with a lower weight, is ideal for this accessory movement.
Putting it all together
At this point you should have an idea about how to recognise if your back strength or leg strength is the limiting factor in your squat and what exercises will help you address these weaknesses. I’ve outlined a sample program below for weak legged and weak backed squatters.
Sample Program A - Leg strength weakness
Squat 3x5 @ 75-85%
Leg Press 4x8-12 @ 60-70%
Split Squats 4x15-20
Deadlift 3x5 @ 75-85%
Front Squat 3x12 @ 60-70%
Leg extension 5x10
Sample Program B - Back strength weakness
Squat 3x5 @ 75-85%
RDL 5x12 @ 60%
Split Squat 4x15-20
Glute Ham Raise 5x10-12
Deadlift 3x5 @ 75-85%
Squat 3x8 @ 65-75%
Good Morning 4x10-15
Back extensions 4x10-15
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Here we have the final of the main lifts for you - the sumo deadlift.
Sumo gets a bad reputation as being easier than the conventional deadlift, but this just isn't true. It's a very technical lift that shouldn't be taken lightly.
As usual, this post is written by our very own, James Kennedy.
The sumo deadlift is a variation of the deadlift movement where the lifter has a wide stance with their hands inside their legs at the start of the lift - like a sumo wrestler. The sumo deadlift works the same muscles as the conventional deadlift, primarily the posterior chain (back, hips and hamstrings), as well as working the quads to a greater degree than the conventional deadlift. For some lifters, the specific demands on the hips and the biomechanics of the sumo deadlift allow them to lift a greater weight, more safely than the conventional deadlift.
This style of deadlift is illegal (or at least, strongly frowned upon) in strongman competitions but is legal in powerlifting and is a good deadlift variation for a lot of people. For weightlifters it is often a better variation. This is because the conventional deadlift start position is similar to the clean start position used in weightlifting - which can lead to poor deadlift technique and poor clean technique for the weightlifter. The sumo deadlift leads to the same muscular development but has less chance of interfering with a weightlifter's clean technique.
For powerlifters and general fitness athletes the sumo deadlift can be a more comfortable and stronger deadlift variation. Generally speaking, if you are a smaller lifter or you have a relatively long torso the sumo deadlift can help you lift heavier weights as it is a more bio-mechanically advantageous lift.
The sumo deadlift is a more technical variation than the conventional deadlift, especially in the set up. When most people fail a sumo deadlift for a technical reason it is due to poor technique off the floor. Often, you will see or hear conventional deadlifts talking about gripping and ripping; basically just walking over to the bar and picking it up, a technique best exemplified by John Haack (video of his 400kg deadlift). The sumo deadlift is not so simple. The lift can be broken down into three phases: the set-up, the preparation and the lift. This article will outline the fundamentals of these three phases as well as how to troubleshoot the some common issues people have with the sumo deadlift
The set up phase of a sumo deadlift is important - errors in this phase makes it difficult to be in the correct positions to perform the lift. The set-up contains three parts - stance, grip and bracing.
When initiating the sumo deadlift, your shins should be perpendicular to the floor, with the bar over the midfoot. Your stance width for the sumo deadlift should therefore be the width that allows your shins to be perpendicular to the floor when you are initiating the pull. Your stance width then dictates your foot position. When performing the sumo deadlift, your knees should be in line with your first or second toe. The wider your stance, the more turned out your toes will need to be.
With the sumo deadlift, you can have a narrower grip on the bar as your knees aren’t in the way. Your hands should be directly below your shoulders - this makes your arms as long as possible - and shortens the range of motion. If placing your hands below your shoulders means your hand is on the smooth part of the bar you should widen your grip so your hand is on the knurling otherwise you will have trouble holding on to the bar.
In terms of grip style, overhand, mixed grip or hook grip all work. As discussed in our previous article (insert link), hook grip is the strongest but most painful. In my experience of the sumo deadlift, there seems to be a greater grip strength difference between hook grip and mixed grip, with hook grip being considerably stronger.
As in the conventional deadlift, breathing and bracing your core properly is essential for protecting the spine. As you place your hands on the bar, take a deep diaphragmatic breath, into your stomach and obliques and hold this breath throughout the lift. If you’re doing multiple reps, release this breath at the top of the lift, lower the bar and then take a new breath and rebrace the core prior to the next rep.
The three parts of the set-up phase - the stance, grip and breathing - all tie together. There are two ways to tie these events together to set up for the sumo deadlift. Firstly, take your stance. Once you have set your stance you have two options to get your hips into position to initiate the lift.
The first is to take your stance and grip on the bar before loading the hamstrings by straightening your legs. You then use your grip to pull your hips into position. As you pull your hips down, squeeze the chest up and pull your shoulder blades together. The second is to take your stance but remain upright. Breathe, brace your core and retract the shoulder blades to force the chest up. Then bend the knees until you can grip the bar.
Once you have your hands on the bar, it’s time to prepare to lift. With the sumo deadlift it is important to build full body tension. This comes from two places with the sumo deadlift - your grip and lats and your hips.
When you have taken your grip upon the bar it is essential to take the slack out of the bar. To do this, engage your lats and retract the shoulder blades - pinch them together like you are trying to hold a pencil between the shoulder blades. Doing this will force your chest up and help you pull your hips into the correct position.
The second part of preparation is to generate tension through the hips. To do this, try and tear the floor apart with your feet by trying to push your feet apart. Your feet won’t move, but this will generate tension in the hips and quads - the best analogy I have to describe this feeling is revving a car engine with the hand brake on. It should feel as if the bar is about to come off the floor before you actually try to do the lift.
Now you’ve set up and generated full body tension, it’s time to lift the weight. The pull can be divided into two parts; breaking the bar off the floor and locking out the lift. As you take the tension out of the bar and try to tear the floor apart with your feet, it should feel as if the bar is about to break the floor. The first portion of the pull is to drive the floor away whilst keeping the knees out. To keep your knees out, keep trying to tear the floor in half as you initiate the lift.
Once the bar reaches your knees, lock your knees out. As quickly as possible. The process of locking out your knees locks the hips out. This means your sumo deadlift can look and feel a bit odd. You build tension slowly before breaking the bar off the floor. The bar then moves slowly off the floor until it reaches the knees. At the point it reaches the knees the bar then moves rapidly to lockout as you lock the knees out.
If you're moving from a conventional to sumo deadlift this will be the opposite of what you usually experience - conventional deadlifts tend to be quick off the floor and slower at lockout. If you are doing sumo deadlifts, it’s important to stay patient. Take the slack out of the bar and build full body tension. Drive the floor away whilst keeping the knees out. Once the bar reaches the knees, lock the knees and the hips out.
When people are struggling with the sumo deadlift, it is often related to a poor technique or just not being strong enough. With the sumo deadlift, you will be weakest on the floor. If you’re missing sumo deadlifts at or just off the floor and there is no technical reason for this, you just need to get stronger at deadlifting. If you miss sumo deadlifts at the lockout without a technical flaw, then you just need to get stronger.
Conversely, if you start to miss sumo deadlifts in the midrange the main reason is usually due to your hips shooting up too quickly. This is sometimes due to having weak quads and glutes relative to hamstrings - an especially common problem if you’re moving from conventional to sumo deadlifts. As you initiate the lift, the hips shooting up allows the lifter to use the hamstrings to get the bar off the floor. This then puts the hips in a disadvantageous position for the midrange, causing people to fail the lift.
The solution to this is practice. Doing lots of reps with correct form will develop the glutes and quads and reinforce the correct position for the lifter off the floor. Once the lifter is in the correct position off the floor, the midrange sorts itself out. A really good accessory exercise to reinforce the correct position and strengthen the quad and glute muscles are paused sumo deadlifts, where you pause immediately when the bar breaks the floor.
The sumo deadlift is a variation of the deadlift that is a slightly more complicated, technical variation of the deadlift. It works and develops the muscles and strength of the posterior chain and is especially effective for those with relatively long torsos and short legs. For Olympic Weightlifters it is also a great deadlift variation to develop posterior chain strength without interfering with weightlifting technique. Hopefully, this article will help you perfect your sumo deadlift technique and improve your deadlift!
This next one is another one from James Kennedy as part of our beginner series.
While the deadlift is the final lift in a powerlifting competition, you do have the option of doing either conventional or sumo deadlifts. To lump them both together would be doing each one a disservice, so we've split them up.
So, for part 1 of the deadlift articles, we have the conventional deadlift.
Everyone can and should deadlift. The deadlift develops the muscles of the posterior chain (i.e the back of the body), from the traps to the hamstrings. Further, the deadlift is one of the best movements for developing total body strength and stability. Finally, for powerlifters and strongmen and women competitors, the deadlifts form a key part of competition.
There are two types of deadlift: the conventional deadlift and the sumo deadlift. For powerlifters, bodybuilders, weightlifters and general fitness enthusiasts either type of deadlift is suitable to achieve strength, physique and hypertrophy. For strongmen and strongwomen competitors however, only the conventional deadlift is allowed. This article will focus only on the conventional deadlift, with a guide on the sumo deadlift coming in the next few weeks.
The deadlift is pretty simple at heart. Walk up to the bar, grab hold of it, and stand up with it. Technically, it is by far the simplest of the big 3 power lifts, with the lift set up being the most technical component. Oftentimes, if the set up is correct, strength becomes the limiting factor as you just need to stand up with the bar.
When I am struggling with a lift it is usually because I have over complicated the lift in my head. Instead of just performing the lift I am worrying over a thousand little things that do not impact the lift. Getting back to basics is always the way to go - which for deadlifts means going back to the Starting Strength Deadlift technique. This technique is also brilliantly explained in this video (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wYREQkVtvEc). What makes this technique so brilliant is it’s simplicity; it works for everyone regardless of body type.
The first part of the conventional deadlift is the stance. As a starting point, perform a vertical jump and note what position your feet are in. Generally speaking, your feet will be around hip width apart with your feet turned out around 10 degrees but this varies from person to person. Some very strong lifters have very narrow stances (e.g. Lamar Gant) or very wide stances, which is especially common amongst larger lifters (e.g. Eddie Hall). Once you have established your preferred stance width,step up to the bar and set the bar over the middle of the foot. This is usually 1-2 inches in front of your shins - remember the midpoint of your foot includes the heel which you cannot see!
The second step is to grip the bar. To take a grip on the bar, bend at the hips until your hands are on the bar whilst keeping your knees unlocked. Do not bend at the knees to reach the bar. The hands should be just outside the legs - you want your grip to be as narrow as possible without forcing your knees in. When gripping the bar, irrespective of style, the bar should be just above or below the calluses of the fingers - having the bar too deep in the palm or too close to the fingers reduces your ability to grip the bar hard. There are three ways to grip the bar - double overhand, mixed grip and hook grip.
The first style - double overhand - is the weakest grip style and is not really used by competitive strength athletes. Your grip strength will not increase as quickly as your deadlift strength and you will quickly be limited by your grip strength when deadlifting if you use a double overhand grip.
The second style - mixed grip - has one hand supinated (palm facing forward) and one hand pronated (palm facing backwards). This massively increases your grip strength as it prevents the bar rolling in your hand - if the bar rolls towards the fingers of one hand it rolls towards the palm of the other, increasing your grip strength. This technique is most commonly used in powerlifting competitions.
The final method is the hook grip. The hook grip is the standard grip used in weightlifting and is becoming increasingly common in powerlifting. Wrap your fingers around your thumb, pinning the thumb between your fingers and the bar. The hook grip is stronger than a mixed grip - if you learn how to do this properly you will never have a grip issue with deadlift again. However, the reason it isn’t more popular is it has a significant downside - it hurts. If you do this for long enough the nerves in the thumb deaden, but prepare for sore thumbs for a few weeks.
The next step is to push your shins to the bar until they are in contact with the bar by bending the knees. When you do this, your hips will be in the correct position irrespective on your body type. For lifters with long legs, your hips will be higher than those with shorter legs. This is ok - your body's proportions mean that each person's lift will look slightly different.
Once your shins are in contact with the bar, brace the core by taking a deep, diaphragmatic breath, into your stomach and oblique and hold this breath throughout the lift. This creates intra-abdominal pressure, increasing your core strength and protecting your spine. As you do this, squeeze the chest up and drive your knees out. Grip the bar as hard as you possibly can; it should feel heavy in your hands. Doing these steps - squeezing the chest up, driving the knees out, gripping the bar hard and bracing the core - flattens your back and pulls the slack out of the bar, whilst creating the full body tension essential for completing the lift safely.
At this point, you’re ready to lift! Initiate the deadlift by pushing the floor away. Once the bar is around mid-shin, drive your hips forward and your shoulders back to drive yourself into the locked out position.Keeping your chest up allows you to maintain spinal tension and helps you to lockout the lift. If your chest is down your shoulders will round, making the lockout difficult, as well as increasing the risk of injury. Each rep should be performed as explosively as you possibly can, as research has shown that lifting at maximum velocity can increase strength gains.
This technique is simple but effective. It will work for anyone, irrespective of your body proportions. If you have long legs you will have higher hips, horizontal back angle vs someone with shorter legs. You will not be able to change this so don’t try. If you are struggling with your technique or have just started, this is a great way of starting out in the conventional deadlift.
Troubleshooting the deadlift
When lifters fail deadlifts due to strength issues it is due to three reasons: weak grip, weak hips or weak backs. If you have weak grip it should be obvious as you will struggle to hold on to heavy deadlifts. Performing some specialised grip training - e.g. farmers carries - will help you improve your grip strength.
A simple test to test whether your hips or back strength is a limiting factor is to perform a controlled eccentric rep with around 85% of your one rep max. A controlled eccentric rep is a rep where you control the eccentric (lowering) phase of the rep - if this causes your spine to round it would suggest that your back strength is the limiting factor in your deadlifts. If your spine remains extended, then hip strength is probably your limiting factor.
For those with back strength as a limiting factor, there are several good exercises which will help develop back strength. Primarily, focusing on heavy barbell rows and back raises will help, as well as rack pulls and block pulls for more movement specific training. If the eccentric test indicates that your hips are weaker, Romanian Deadlifts (RDL’s), good mornings, hip thrusts and glute-ham raises are all good options to strengthen the hips.
The deadlift is a simple movement pattern that everyone has done anytime they pick something up from the floor. This article outlines a basic technique for the conventional deadlift which is perfect for beginners or anyone who wants to simplify their technique. Whilst there are numerous variations on the conventional deadlift setup and technique outlined in this article, they all fundamentally place you in the same position as the set-up outlined here. Keeping it simple minimises the amount of things that can go wrong allowing you to just focus on the goal - lifting a huge amount of weight.
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This article is the second in our Beginner Series. It's all about the Bench Press, which, aptly, is the second lift you'll do on competition day.
As usual, it is written by our prolific writer James Kennedy.
(You can find the first part here).
Whenever people talk about the gym or find out that you go to the gym, it won’t be long before the eternal question gets asked: how much do you bench? Everyone wants an impressive answer to this question - but it also has value beyond just flexing.
For powerlifters, the bench press is the second lift within a powerlifting competition. It is the primary exercise for building the chest and developing general pressing strength.
Overview and Rules
The bench press is the most technical of the three power lifts. Within a powerlifting competition, there are three commands: ‘start’, ‘press’, and ‘rack’. After you have un-racked the bar, you hold the bar at lockout until the center referee says ‘start’. The lifter then lowers the bar to the chest, and, once it is still, the referee will give the ‘press’ command. At this point, the lifter drives the bar off their chest, using their pectorals, deltoids, triceps, and leg drive to press the bar to lockout. Once the bar is locked out, the center ref will then give the rack command. For all the powerlifters reading this, train with these commands wherever possible! Even if training alone, just pause at each point (after unpacking, at the bottom, and at the end of the rep) to build familiarity with the rhythm and tempo of the lift. Failure to follow commands is incredibly common, especially amongst inexperienced powerlifters, and is an incredibly frustrating way to fail a lift.
There are, of course, multiple ways to fail the bench press beyond failure to follow commands. The first, and obvious one, is being unable to complete the lift. The second is for your butt to come off the bench. This happens when people drive their legs through the floor to help with the lift (as they should) but overdo it, causing the butt to leave the bench.
Another way to fail a lift is by ‘heaving’. This is where, after receiving the press command, the lifter sinks the bar into their chest before pressing. Once you have received the press command, the bar can only move upwards. The final way to fail a bench press varies between powerlifting federation. Within the IPF, the lifter has to keep the whole foot on the floor during the bench press. In the ABPU or BPU, the lifter can do the bench press with just their toes on the floor. The pros and cons of these two techniques will be discussed later on in the article. Whenever you are competing at a competition, make sure you know the rules and are training with a technique that is allowed within the federation in which you’re competing.
The first thing to do with the Bench Press is to set up the equipment:
Setting up for the lift
Scapular (Shoulder blades) position
Similar to the squat, the shoulder blades should be pulled together during the bench press. This does two things. Firstly, it reduces range of motion by pushing the chest up. Secondly, and more importantly, it puts your shoulders in a safer position and reduces your risk of rotator cuff injuries and shoulder pain.
Foot position is key for the bench press. A key aspect of the bench press, like all lifts, is to maintain stability and create tension throughout the body, and that begins with the feet. For powerlifters, there are also rules about foot position. Within the IPF, the entire foot has to be on the floor. Within other federations, you are allowed to only have your toes on the floor.
IPF safe technique
This method is allowed within IPF competition and ABPU/BPU competition and involves your entire foot being in contact with the floor. As you lie on the bench, with the bar positioned between your forehead and mouth, pull your feet back a little bit, and as far out as your hips will allow. Keep pulling your feet towards your head until they are no longer on the ground; move them slightly forward from this point to maintain full foot contact with the ground.
Whilst this foot position is mandatory for IPF lifters, it is a good setup for all benchers. This foot position allows for a good arch, but also allows for excellent leg drive - as it is easier to generate leg drive when your feet aren’t excessively behind your body.
As you do not need to keep your whole foot on the floor in the ABPU, you can pull your feet back even further, until just the ball of the foot is on the ground. This technique allows you to create a larger arch, minimizing the range of motion and allowing you to lift more weight in theory. However, it is more difficult to generate leg drive with this technique, as you’re pushing through your toes, as opposed to having the whole foot push through.
Creating an arch
As a general rule, no matter your goal, everyone should arch when benching. Creating a proper arch makes the lift safer for the shoulders - as it raises the bottom position of the lift, where the shoulders are most vulnerable.
To set an arch, first lie on the bench, with the bar somewhere between your forehead and mouth. Set your shoulders by squeezing the shoulder blades together. Brace your hands against the uprights to keep your shoulders in place, and push your hips towards your shoulders, while driving your chest up. This creates an arch and keeps your shoulders in a sage and stable position.
Now you have set your shoulders, feet, and arch, it’s time to grip the bar.
In general, the wider you grip the bar, the heavier you will be able to lift. This increases your pressing strength for several reasons; it reduces the range of motion, it stops you from touching the bar too low on the chest which makes you stronger at the bottom of the bench press, and finally, the pectorals won’t be as stretched during the middle and lockout portion of the bench press which means they are capable of producing more force. The downside of this technique is that you may reduce the amount of chest hypertrophy you get (as your lifting through a more limited range of motion) and it can cause shoulder issues.
For powerlifters, the maximum grip width allowed is with the pointer fingers on the grip rings. As this will allow you to lift the most weight, the widest possible grip should be used by powerlifters when training the bench press. For non-powerlifters, who maybe have hypertrophy as a primary goal, there may be benefits from taking a slightly narrower grip, around 1.5 times shoulder width. This can be easier on the shoulders and could provide a better hypertrophy stimulus for the chest.
Once you have taken a grip, appropriate for your training goals, squeeze the bar as hard as you possibly can! This helps you maintain control over the bar and keeps your wrists in a better position as it stops you from bending the wrist back, which can cause wrist and elbow issues. Now, it’s time to unrack!
If you’ve been following along, your head should be positioned with bar over your mouth to forehead. Take a deep breath and brace your core.
Whilst maintaining the death grip on the bar - simply press the bar of the hooks and position it over your throat.
During lowering of the bar it is essential to maintain tension throughout the body, particularly in the upper back. Maintaining tension will allow you to lower the weight under control - elite lifters tend to take 2-3 seconds to lower the bench press. Whilst this seems counterintuitive, it is vital in the bench press to be in control at the bottom of the lift, as you have to stop the bar and it is very easy to lower the bar aggressively and then mess up the eccentric (pushing) part of the bench press. A common cue that people often give to maintain upper back tightness is to ‘rip the bar in half’ or ‘bend the bar’; either works, as attempting this forces the lifter to maintain tightness.
The bar should be lowered to touch the chest, somewhere between the nipples and base of the sternum depending on what feels better to your shoulders. This position on the chest should be the same on every rep, to ingrain the technique. A really nice trick to assess how well you are doing this is to coat the center knurling of the bar with chalk; if you have chalk all over your top at the end of a set, you haven’t been consistent with bar position.
For powerlifters, it is important to train the pause. On every rep, the bar should be lightly rested on the chest for 1 to two seconds, simulating the competition conditions. For non-powerlifters, it is ok to just touch the bar to the chest, whilst maintaining control.
The best way to pause the bench press is the ‘soft pause’. At the bottom of the lift, rest the bar very lightly on your chest, maintaining tension in your chest, triceps, shoulders, and upper back. Once you hear the press command, drive the bar back up. A handy cue at this point is, no matter the weight, try and only put 1kg on your chest when you pause at the bottom. By keeping as little weight as possible on your chest when you pause, you stop the bar from sinking in and decrease your risk of ‘heaving’ the bar following the press command.
Once the bar is steady on the chest and the press command has been given, aggressively drive the bar off your chest and keep driving until you reach lockout.
One of the key parts of benching huge weights is using your legs to drive the weight up. To do this, as you begin the ascent, try and push yourself back along the bench towards the rack. This can be hard to do without letting your butt come off the bench; film your training reps to make sure you’re not having your butt come off the bench as you initiate the leg drive.
You should start the press with leg drive and then push the back up and back towards your face. During the rep, you should have held your breath, only releasing it near lockout, to maintain that core and upper back stability.
A final consideration here is to press each rep as hard as you possibly can. This has been shown to double gains in the bench press, with no difference in training programs (link here (https://www.strongerbyscience.com/speed-kills-2x-the-intended-bar-speed-yields-2x-the-bench-press-gains/)).
Common weaknesses and sticking points
Aside from missing the bench press due to failure to obey commands, there are three points where people fail lifts; at the bottom, at the midpoint, and at lockout. Oftentimes, the solution is just to get stronger at the bench press. However, if you are consistently missing lifts at the same part of the lift, then there is often simple technical fixes that can help you push through plateaus.
At the bottom
Most of the time, you can get the bar moving off your chest at the bottom, until at least the midpoint. However, occasionally lifters will get pinned by the bar or only be able to the bar 1-2 inches off the chest. Technically, if you touch the bar too low to the chest, it is difficult to then press the bar back up, leaving the lifter pinned by the bar. If this is happening to you, try toughing the bar slightly higher up the chest. This will put your shoulders in a more stable position and enable you to push more efficiently.
At the midrange
This is where most lifters fail the bench press, and generally, it is due to either an improper bar path or just general pectoral and tricep weakness. If the bar is going vertically up off the chest, instead of up and back, you will fail in the middle zone of the lift as it becomes very difficult to continue to press the bar. Simply focusing on pressing the bar back towards your face will help correct this issue.
Missing lifts at lockout isn’t super common as it is usually the strongest part of the lift. If you find yourself consistently missing reps at lockout, it could be due to poor elbow position. As you approach lockout, your elbows should flare and end up pointing away from each other. If you struggle to lockout, consciously flaring the elbows towards the end of the bench press should allow you to power through the lockout sticking point.
The bench press is a complicated lift, with the most ways to fail the lift on a technicality. Hopefully, this guide will give you a guide to the technique needed to bench big weights and give a jaw-dropping answer to the question: how much do you bench?
If you're a Beginner yourself and want to get into powerlifting, check this out from Daniel Lee Fitness and Bold Body Squad -
A bit later this month but here we have an article all about the squat.
This one was written by James Kennedy - our resident writer here.
The squat is one of the ‘Big 3’ lifts (Squat, Bench, Deadlift) and is the first lift done at a powerlifting competition. It is a key lift for everyone; for powerlifters, it’s part of the sport, for weightlifters it helps develop leg strength and explosiveness for the Snatch and the Clean and Jerk. For bodybuilders, it is a key driver of lower body muscle growth in the quads and glutes, as well as the hamstrings and calves to a lesser extent. It is also an essential lift for athletes as improving squat strength will increase your vertical jump and sprint speed.
To get the benefits of squats, it is important to perform the exercise safely, with proper form. In this article, I will outline the key points to set up for and perform the low-bar squat safely and properly, allowing you to lift the most and stay injury-free.
Whilst there are many variations of the squat, all with slightly different techniques, this article will focus on the low bar squat. This squat variation is the one most commonly used by powerlifters, athletes, and bodybuilders as it allows you to lift the most weight, however, weightlifters should focus on the high-bar and front squats as these squat variations more closely mimic the bottom position of the snatch and clean and jerk.
The first stage of a successful squat is the setup - everything you do before you even lift the bar out of the rack. It is essential that you maintain upper body tension whilst performing the squat, to maximize the amount of weight you can lift. The perfect squat setup will create torso tension and put you in the proper position to complete the lift.
For the low-bar squat, the bar should be placed on the posterior deltoids - across the top of the shoulder blades. Actively pull the scapulae together - as if you’re holding a pencil between your shoulder blades. When you do this, it will feel like there is a groove across your back - this is where the bar should go for a low bar squat.
The hands should be as close together as you can comfortably get them, whilst keeping your elbows inside your hands to maximize upper back tension. How close this is will depend on your shoulder mobility - the key here is to get them as close as possible. This makes it easier to maintain upper back tightness and keep the bar in a more stable, comfortable position.
Your wrists should be in a neutral - i.e. straight - position. The tighter you can get your upper back, the straighter your wrists will be. For lifters with low shoulder mobility, it is a key cue to keep in mind as having your wrists bent can cause discomfort in the wrist and elbow. If you begin to notice the bar sliding down your back or pain in your wrist and elbow during your squats, focus on maintaining as neutral a wrist position as you can. This will reduce the strain on the wrist and keep the bar in place across your upper back.
The elbows should be pulled down and to your sides - creating tension in the lats, making the torso rigid, and keeping the upper back tight. During set up, a useful cue to pull the elbows to your side is to try to pull them to the middle of your back - i.e. down and in. During the lift, there are two ways the elbows can be used to help finish the lift. Some lifters drive their elbows up, to maximize the stability of the bar on the upper back. Others prefer to drive their elbows forward, as this keeps them more upright as they ascend from the hole. Which cue works best for you will depend on shoulder mobility, where you are strongest in the squat, and how much muscle you have on your upper back. Play around with it and see what feels best!
Once you are positioned under the bar - but have not yet un-racked the bar - it is time to brace your core.
When squatting, it is vital to maintain tension throughout the torso. If you fail to do this, as you approach the bottom of the squat you’ll be folded in half. Breathing and bracing for the squat - or any other major lift - is also key to making sure you can safely perform the lift.
The first step is to make sure that your hips and ribs are aligned - i.e. don’t stick your bum out when you are setting up for the squat. Maintaining hips and rib alignment will allow you to maximize core and torso tension, and reduce injury risk due to spinal flexion.
The second step is to brace your core and breathe into the brace. Firstly, breathe out completely. When you have emptied your lungs, tense your core muscles. Then breathe into your braced core. To do this you need to take what is known as a diaphragmatic breath - breath into your stomach, obliques, and waist, but keep your shoulders down. The legendary powerlifter Chad Wesley Smith describes this as creating ‘360 degree pressure’, attempting to push air into your obliques and making your waist as wide as possible.
There are two cues to use to help with bracing - one for squatting with a belt and one for squatting without a belt. For squatting with a belt, take a deep breath and push your stomach and obliques into the belt. If you have done this properly you should feel like you’re about to pop. For those squatting beltless, take your deep breath and brace the core as if you’re about to be punched in the stomach.
Now you have positioned the bar on your back, created tension through the upper body, and braced your core, it’s time to walk the bar out.
A secondary consideration for competitive powerlifters is seeing how wide you can stand while still hitting depth. In general - a wider squat stance will limit your range of motion, allowing you to lift greater weight. However, it is still possible to squat huge weights with a narrower, deeper squat - for example, Bryce Lewis.
3. Weight Distribution
When squatting, you want to maintain full-body tension and balance through the lift. To do this, you should maintain three points of contact with the ground, the big toe, the pinky toe, and the heel with your body weight evenly distributed across all three points. By doing this you will remain balanced and keep your center of mass over mid-foot.
Now it’s time to squat. There are two ways to initiate the squat movement - ‘sit-down’ and ‘sit-back’. There isn’t a huge difference in outcome based on which style you use - researchers have found that force and power output are broadly similar - so the style you feel most comfortable with is the one to use.
The actual cues are quite self-explanatory. The sit-down movement begins by unlocking your hips and knees simultaneously and try to sit down between your heels whilst keeping your torso as upright as possible. In the sit-back method, you unlock the hips and push your hips backward as if you were sitting on a chair directly behind you, which deliberately allows you to incline your torso.
Generally, the ‘sit-down’ technique allows you to squat deeper, with a greater range of motion around the knee leading to a greater muscle stimulus - as you’re lifting the same weight through a greater range of motion. This does require a greater degree of ankle mobility, as your knees will travel further forward.
Those with limited mobility may therefore prefer to ‘sit back’. This technique will naturally limit your range of motion and is suited to those with a wider squat stance. For powerlifters, squatting with a wide stance to just below parallel is deep enough to get three white lights in a competition which is the point of the sport. The deliberately limited range of motion of the sit-back technique could be an advantage for powerlifters, however, as mentioned there is little difference in force production between the two techniques; find which one works for you.
When you begin the descent, it is important to move as quickly as possible whilst maintaining control of the bar. This speed will vary between each lifter - the point is to be consistent in the descent and move as quickly as possible whilst maintaining proper tension throughout the body. Keep squatting until you can get no deeper - again this will vary greatly between each person, depending on mobility, hip structure, and stance. By squatting as deep as you can you will maximize your ‘bounce’ out of the bottom position (the hole), allowing you to lift more weight.
Sitting down with a weight on your back is the easy part - the challenge is standing back up.
Most lifters can squat down and begin the ascent, but they fail the lift somewhere above parallel - the so-called sticking point. This is usually just above parallel - broadly the midpoint of the lift. It is at this point that the focus on whole-body tension becomes essential; the goal of the squat set up, descent, and ascent is to put yourself in the best possible position to finish the lift once you reach your sticking point. There are a series of factors that enable you to maintain the correct positions and drive through your sticking point.
This article has gone through a lot of information about how to squat. Most factors come down to personal preference, so building a universal ‘checklist’ is challenging. The only two factors that are non-negotiable are don’t let your knees cave in and don’t let your spine round. In general, however, when doing any squat, the following pointers will help you lift the most weight:
By James Mellor.
“We keep moving forward, opening new doors, and doing new things, because we are curious and curiosity keeps leading us down new paths.” – Walt Disney
It is important to be grateful for what you have in life. I am thankful to have a beautiful family, a roof over my head, a steady office job. But there is something inside that always insists that I break away from normality and commit to do something out of the ordinary. Not to brag, or prove something to others, but to test my limits as an individual and to give me a personal outlet.
Over the last few years, my passion has been long distance running and I spent most of my spare time training for and competing in marathons and ultra-marathons. This was amazing for my physical and mental health and it allowed me to feel like me. I still have a huge passion for running, but in April 2021, I decided to put it on the back burner and enter the world of Powerlifting. I am not sure what first inspired me to try it, but at 6ft5in weighing 80kg, it was an obvious choice, right? Maybe not, but I decided to go all in and signed up to a novice competition in August 2021 to provide me with some accountability and an end goal for my upcoming training.
I was used to getting up at 5am and training before the family woke for breakfast, so time was not an issue. Coming at this new found hobby with no experience, I obviously hit the internet for my new training plan. For the first 3 months I did the Stronglift 5x5 programme on their free app. You start lifting with an empty bar and add weight every session until failure. It served me well and allowed me to practice proper technique in the main Powerlifting disciplines before starting to lift heavy weights. Also, with it being so simple, it removed any thought process; just go to the gym and lift. When I reached the point where I was constantly failing reps, I changed things up slightly and started to play around with the weight and reducing the number of reps in an attempt to ‘peak’. I was content with my ongoing progress and took advantage of the famous newbie gains through consistent training and eating. Truth be told, I was making it up as I went along and I have no doubt that with the input of an experienced trainer, I could have made more solid progress and this will likely become more beneficial in the future if I start to plateau in my training.
The principals of training for ultra-marathons and powerlifting are not too dissimilar in that you need to build a solid base and good form before slowly increasing the training load, whether that be speed and distance or reps and weight. Rest and recovery is of equal importance in that you need to allow full days of rest or active recovery and also add an occasional week where you lighten the load to prevent burnout. With this in mind, I did not find the training too much of a shock to the system (other than the dreaded leg day DOMS).
With a background in long distance running, I have a history of eating massive amounts of food to keep me going, but I never focused too much on what I was eating as long as I had enough carbohydrates to fuel my long efforts. I quickly learnt that to get through the taxing process of lifting weights 3 – 4 days a week and constantly increasing the load, I would need to focus more on what I was eating. My aim was 4,000 calories a day (20% Protein, 45% Carbohydrates, 35% Fat). You will notice a theme here, in that there was not much science in these numbers other than a few internet searches and a rough idea of what my body normally needs for fuel. This allowed me to continuously add weight to the bar and put on some muscle mass, but also resulted in a lot of fat gain too. Being a tall, lanky runner, I have never had to worry much about gaining weight, so I found it quite challenging to tread the line between eating enough food to put on mass and fuel workouts but not eating too much of the wrong stuff. For anyone interested, a typical day of eating consisted of the following:
Pre Workout: Banana, Peanut Butter and Nutella Sandwich – 400 calories
Breakfast: Mass Gainer Shake (50g Protein Powder, 150g oats, 1 banana, 300ml Full Fat Milk)
Snack: Roasted Salted Peanuts
Lunch: 3 Flatbreads with Chicken (250g), Halloumi, Hummus and Spinach
Snack: Can of Tuna
Dinner: 4 Chicken, Vegetable and Cheese Fajitas
Bedtime: Glass of Full Fat Milk
Total: 4,015 calories consisting of 440g Carbs, 142g Fat, 242g Protein
Firstly, I have a huge amount of respect for Powerlifters and Powerlifting. These people put their bodies through huge amounts of stress over years and sometimes decades, overcoming injuries and setbacks to get to where they want to be, mostly for little financial gain. Do not think for a second that I am saying that you can go from beginner to competitive Powerlifter in 4 months. That being said, I do like to compete and in running, there is a very inclusive atmosphere in that anyone can give it a go; we have all seen people completing the London Marathon in 7 hours whilst the front runners finish in 2 hours.
My preconceptions of Powerlifting made me think that I would be ridiculed by big scary blokes for showing up to a competition and finishing dead last. Once again, I consulted the internet and got a range of answers to my question; “How Strong Do I Need To Be To Compete In Powerlifting?”
Answer 1: You should be able to Squat 2x your body weight, Bench 1.5x your body weight and Deadlift 2x your body weight.
Answer 2: If you can lift the empty bar with correct form, you can compete!
Confused? Me too. But the main take away for me was that other than a few message board ‘coaches’, no one really cares what you can lift, people are more focused on their own results and are generally quite supportive when it comes to other competitors. So with that I signed up to the Raw Strength Powerlifting Competition on the 8th of August 2021. The competition was advertised as suitable for novices, which suited me, but was subject to IPF Rules so I still felt like it was the real deal.
Competition day was soon upon me and I headed to the Raw Strength Gym and found it to be a friendly, inclusive and an energetic environment. No meat heads who wanted to eat me for their pre competition snack, just nice normal but passionate individuals.
When I started training I was 80kg and on the day I weighed in at around 95kg. For a little while, I was focused on staying below 93kg so that I fit into that weight class, but soon realised that this was pretty irrelevant in my stage of training. Plus I was going to get beat by lifters with more experience, regardless of my weight class.
On the day, I was happy with my lifts. I will give you the numbers, but more importantly my thought process behind picking my weights and how it went on the day:
Squat: 130kg, 135kg and 140kg
I went with a comfortable opening lift at 130kg. The advice I followed was to open with something you can do for a treble in the gym. From there I took it conservatively and went up in 5kg increments and managed to get three good lifts.
Bench: 80kg, X and X
Bench has always been my weakness. Training alone, it is the one lift that I feel I could not push through fear of failing and crushing myself. I went for an 80kg opening lift for the same reason as above; I had done this for a treble in training. It felt good on the day so I went for 87.5kg on the next lift and failed to lock out. On the third lift I went for the same again but I got in my own head a little and bounced the bar off my chest. Two bad lifts, which was disappointing. If I had of stuck to my original game plan and gone up to 85kg, I might have fared better.
Deadlift: 160kg, 170kg and 185kg
The first two attempts went up quite easy so I jumped to 185kg for my final lift and managed to get it up, which I was super happy about. The most I had done in training was 160kg for a single. If the lesson learned during my Bench was to be conservative, the lesson here was to overreach and go for it. In terms of advice, I guess that is unhelpful, but your first meet should be your own learning experience.
Overall I placed 8th out of 10 competitors with a 405kg total and a 52.46 dots score. My plan for the day was to show up, have fun and get some experience, so overall it was a success. The parallels between competing in running and Powerlifting remain here in that they are both solo endeavours rather than a team effort and the only competitor you are really going up against is yourself.
Since the event, I have continued lifting, I am still enjoying the process and I am sure I will compete again. I have also been on a couple of short runs recently and unsurprisingly, I nearly died. Obviously I have lost a lot of cardiovascular fitness over the last few months and I am much heavier, but I am sure I will get back into running one day, when I am ready to shift the incoming power belly.
The key thing I have learnt over the last few months is that being a runner, or being a powerlifter, or whatever your thing is, bares little importance. It is important that we remove these labels that we think define us and just see these things as what they are; an outlet. Running makes me feel free, Powerlifting makes me feel strong, but the critical thing is to just do something that pushes your limits, forces you to learn about yourself and makes you feel alive.
This is James's first guest post on my blog and you can find his instagram @jamessmellor.
By James Kennedy.
Sleep. A health and performance essential that everyone loves. Yet, according to the ONS, nearly half of UK adults report not getting enough sleep, with a quarter surviving on less than 5 hours a night. The same survey found that despite people recognizing they have a problem with inadequate sleep, less than half of poor sleepers are actively trying to improve their sleep.
Within this guide, we will explore why we need to sleep and the special importance of sleep for strength and physique athletes. We will then explore how much sleep you need and whether catching up on sleep works as effectively as getting enough sleep every night. Finally, we will outline how to set up a bedtime routine to improve the quality and quantity of your sleep.
Why do we need to sleep?
Everyone needs to sleep. Getting adequate sleep is linked to better mood, better focus and better performance in every aspect of life. For strength athletes, who spend hours in the gym trying to maximise muscular hypertrophy and strength gains, sleep is even more important.
Sleep is a key factor in boosting recovery from training and maximizing muscle protein synthesis (MPS) i.e. muscle growth. Without adequate sleep, your body does not have the opportunity to recover fully from training, leaving you unable to perform maximally in subsequent training sessions and in competition.
For the bodybuilders, physique focused and powerlifters trying to move down a weight class for those sweet, sweet wilks gains, sleep is just as important for physique results.
Chronically under-sleeping is linked to higher body fat levels (1) due to a combination of altering hormone levels and limiting diet adherence. Studies have found that when people are systematically under sleeping, they eat an average of 350 extra calories per day vs a control group getting adequate sleep (2). This equates to an extra 2450 calories a week. To put that in perspective, the recommended daily caloric intake for a sedentary man is 2500 calories. Eating an additional 2450 calories a week equates to almost a whole extra day of eating per week, making weight loss even more challenging.
A lack of sleep also alters the hormone balance of the body. Being in a sleep deficit reduces the level of two anabolic hormones within the body - specifically testosterone and IGF-1 - hormones critical in muscle protein synthesis (3). The same research shows that a lack of sleep leads to a rise in cortisol levels - a catabolic hormone which increases rates of muscle breakdown. These mechanisms - overeating, a reduction in anabolic hormones and increase in catabolic hormones - all combine to hinder recovery, reduce lean body mass and slow weight loss.
Another consideration for strength athletes is injury risk. Multiple studies (10, 11) have investigated the link between under sleeping and injury risk. The findings are predictable: the amount of sleep an athlete gets is the biggest predictor of injury risk (10) and getting less than 6 hours sleep increases injury risk from the very next day (11). This is due to the combination of a decrease in coordination when tired and the reduced ability of the body to recover from previous training.
How much sleep do you need?
The standard recommendation for adults is for 7-9 hours of sleep a night, with some people needing more and some needing less. In all likelihood, as life happens you’ll find yourself needing more or less sleep at different times. Generally however, if you’re waking up tired or need a lot of caffeine to get moving in the morning then you need to sleep more.
A key distinction needs to be made however, between hours asleep and hours in bed. If you get into bed at 10pm then spend 3 hours scrolling through social media before drifting off at 1am and waking up at 7am feeling tired - you're not ’sleeping nine hours and still tired’. If you feel as though you need more sleep, make sure you're actually sleeping for 7-9 hours a night.
Can you catch up on sleep?
A common response to being tired during the week is to have a ‘lie-in’ over the weekend to catch up on sleep. Is this a good idea and does it work?
If the average adult needs at least 49 hours sleep a week (7 hours a night), the number of hours under this number is known as their sleep deficit or sleep debt. For example, if you slept 6 hours a night from Sunday to Thursday night with a sleep debt of 5 hours. The intuitive response to this is to get an additional 3 hours of sleep on Friday and Saturday night to make up the sleep debt. But does this work?
Maybe. It is possible to catch up on sleep - with studies highlighting that sleeping in on the weekend is linked with improved insulin sensitivity, fat metabolism, body weight, stress, fatigue and performance (12-16). Sounds good right?
The downside of this approach is that sleep debt - much like credit cards or student loans- accrues interest at an unholy rate. Getting one extra hour of sleep at the weekend does not compensate for an hour of lost sleep - instead the ratio is closer to 1:4 (17). For every hour you under sleep during the week an additional 4 hours are required at the weekend. Going back to our example at the top, the person with 5 hours of sleep debt heading into the weekend needs 20 hours extra sleep to catch up.
There are more downsides. By sleeping in on the weekend, you disrupt the bodies circadian rhythms, making it harder to sleep during the week and increasing your sleep debt.
Napping may provide an alternative - short, 30 minute naps, improve performance in the short term and longer naps (up to 1 hour) allow for muscle repair (18). However, napping can make it more difficult to sleep in the evening - leaving you unable to get enough sleep at night.
What are we to do with this information? Well, if you haven’t had enough sleep during the week, sleeping in on the weekend will help you feel better and may alleviate and offset some of the problems associated with under sleeping. The best plan however, is to avoid being in a sleep deficit at all.
How can you maximize muscle growth during sleep?
Sleep enables recovery and growth, as it is the period of the day where the body heals and your muscles grow. Studies have shown consumption of a protein shake before bed leads to increases in overnight MPS and subsequent muscle hypertrophy (6). This effect is observed even when the participants are consuming a high protein diet (1.3g/kg of protein/bodyweight) (7) and is independent of an increase in total calories (8). This strong body of scientific literature led the International Society for Sports Nutrition to recommend the consumption of 30-40g of protein before bed, as doing so acutely increases muscle protein synthesis and metabolic rate through the night (5). Further, consumption of a small meal before bed has been linked to improvement in sleep quality (9), which will enable further muscle growth by maximising the time your body has to repair and growth - win-win!
It is often claimed by supplement companies that you need special nighttime protein that breaks down slowly whilst you sleep. This is just an excuse to sell you casein protein. Whilst supplement companies advertise that casein - a more expensive product - is the only suitable overnight protein, multiple studies have found that whey protein is superior to both casein and soy protein for maximising muscle protein synthesis (3,4).
Now we have established why we need to sleep and how much we need to sleep, how do we set up a routine for us to get a good nights sleep every night?
1. Allow enough time to get enough sleep.
This might sound obvious, but if you want 7 - 9 hours sleep and have to wake up at 6am then you need to be asleep between 9 - 11 pm.
2. Establish a wind down routine
It’s important to take some time before you got to sleep to relax and get you ready for sleep. This can take anywhere from 20 - 45 minutes, depending on how stressful your day has been. Reading a book, doing yoga or stretching, meditating, journaling or planning out tomorrow are all good activities to do during your wind down routine.
During this time, the key point is to avoid activities that stimulate you or your brain, making it harder to drift off and sleep well. Try to avoid phone, tablet or laptop screens - blue light exposure reduces melatonin release which makes it harder to fall asleep. If you are going to use a phone, download an app that uses a blue light filter.
3. Stick to a schedule
Once you have established a bedtime routine and a wake-up time that enables you to get enough sleep, stick to it. Even over weekends. Allowing your body to go to sleep and wake up at the same time every day allows for the establishment of a strong circadian rhythm. After a while, you’ll begin to feel tired when it’s time to start the bedtime routine and alert when you wake up. Use your body’s natural rhythms to your advantage and you’ll sleep better!
Daily exercise helps you sleep more deeply. This doesn’t mean you have to hit the gym every day - even going for a walk during the day can help improve your sleep quality.
5. Be careful with caffeine
Caffeine is a stimulant - this is why we like it. It’s primary role is to increase awareness. Avoiding caffeine around bedtime will massively help improve sleep quality. Caffeine has a half life in the body of 6 hours - avoiding caffeine in the 6 hours before bed will allow you to drift off quicker and sleep deeper.
6. Improve your sleep environment
The sleep environment (i.e. a bedroom - hopefully), is a key component of getting a good nights sleep. It should be cool dark and quiet. Ideally, utilise black out blinds or sleep masks to reduce the amount unnatural light pollution from outdoors (street lights, car lights etc) . If your bedroom is noisy, utilise ear plugs or a sleep soundscape to block out external noises which can stop you drifting off to sleep.
1. Sleep is an important part of the recovery process; getting adequate sleep will help improve body composition, strength gains, mood, mental performance, recovery and reduces injury risk.
2. Adults need 7 - 9 hours of sleep a night. Setting a consistent bedtime and a wind down routine will allow your body to settle into a rhythm.
3. Catching up on sleep is not a viable long term strategy. Catch up sleep is lower quality and can prevent you establishing a healthy sleep routine. Napping (in the short term) and establishing a bedtime routine is essential to maximise the benefits of sleep and reap the rewards from training!
By Chris Rigby.
It is no secret that modern life is hectic. Even the chillest of us has something to worry about, work, family. Then there is the array of labels that BS society dictates we should be thicc, thin, married, successful (whatever that means). Ultimately all our lives come with anxiety, self-inflicted or otherwise.
The gym is where we go to escape these troubles, to vent our frustrations, and take out our aggression on a barbell. Not only is exercise good for our physical health, but it also helps regulate dopamine, noradrenaline and serotonin, chemicals key in fighting depression.
Unfortunately, there are times when the anxiety we desperately try to escape by going to the gym comes creeping into the weight room. Until recently, this was something I have struggled with. But over the last couple of months, I have begun to address these issues and have developed a few tips that I felt are worth sharing.
Before we get into all of the detail, here is a little more about me, just for some context. Typically I hate talking about myself, but this is important, so indulge me. Powerlifting is something I have been doing for fun for the past eight years. I know countless people who consider exercising a chore, so I consider myself lucky to have found a sport that I love enough to do four times a week. I was born without a competitive bone in my body, so I rarely compete. Regardless of what Instagram may tell you, your numbers only matter to you. To anyone outside of your sport, they mean less than nothing. Tell your Gran you can bench 50kg or 250kg, and her reaction will probably be the same.
With this hands-off approach to powerlifting, you would think that I was a Buddhist monk. The truth is I am not. I am my own worst enemy. I find it very easy to get into my own head and second guess myself, a mentality that has cost me many a lift. I have had deadlifts stay glued to the floor when 10kg ago it flew like nothing, and have given up halfway through a set of squats because another three reps felt impossible. I was trapped behind a barrier, not based on genetic potential or fatigue, but a mental barrier of my own making.
Such ‘mistakes’ not only made me feel anxious, they followed me around the rest of the day. I would beat myself up for not finishing a lift I knew I was capable of doing. It became a vicious cycle. Whenever I saw a heavy weight on the bar, I knew I would fail, no matter how hard I tried to convince myself. My progression stalled, made all the more frustrating by it being a limitation I had built.
Coming back after lockdown, having spent the better part of 18 months lifting little over 40kg, I was eager to hit the gym, see my friends and get back to shifting some heavy weight. Knowing that I could not go back to being afraid of the weight on the bar, I spoke to my coach, and together we came up with some techniques to deal with my anxiety.
That is me in a nutshell. Now onto the good stuff, the tips and techniques that have helped me personally overcome my anxiety when faced with a particularly heavy lift.
Admitting you have a problem
Think of it as writing a character in a story. Naming a character transforms them from an abstract concept into a real, tangible person. Anxiety is no different, by acknowledging that you feel anxious it becomes something you can begin to control.
This is a really underestimated tool. Often, when a weight wouldn’t move, I was asked, “what went wrong?” My response was a shrug of the shoulders, an idle “I don’t know”. Maybe I was too afraid or embarrassed to admit it. Still, once I acknowledged what I was feeling was anxiety, it became a lot easier to manage.
Eliminate ‘Background Anxiety’
As great as the gym is for blowing off steam, it can also be a huge source of what I call ‘background anxiety’. Gyms can be crowded, noisy, toxic places where you feel the constant pressure to hurry up, so some chicken-legged gym bro can do cheat curls in the squat rack.
Gyms are meant to be a safe space, and if yours is the one that perpetuates obnoxious lad culture, then honestly, they are not worth your time. However, commercial gyms are cheap and convenient. Not everyone has the time or the money to pay for a monthly membership at a private gym.
If you are one of these people trying going to the gym when it is at its quietest. Either early morning or late at night. Or, if you can, hit that 9-10 am sweet spot when all the students are in bed, and the fitness freak businesspeople are on their commute. If your gym tends to blast loud club music or heavy metal, bring headphones. They are a lifter’s best friend and can help you centre yourself. If you’re really anti-social, they are a great excuse to ignore that one gym creeper that is always trying to talk to you.
The Power of Music
As has been talked about on this blog before, music is a great tool to get into your zone, a way to block out any distinctions, and remain focused on the task of moving big weight. There is no correct answer when it comes to music. The stereotypical powerlifter technique of blasting 90s metal never worked for me, and the last thing I want before attempting a heavy squat or bench is someone screaming in my face. Typically I choose something peaceful, but my music taste varies depending on the day and my mood. One session, it’s Tyler the Creator, the next it’s rain noise and The Whisper of the Heart soundtrack (yes, my taste in music is that weird). Regardless of what genre it may be, the point of music is to eliminate distraction and keep your mind from wandering into a negative space.
Have a Totem
I’m stealing this idea from Christopher Nolan’s Inception here, so bear with me. In Inception, characters jump between reality and dreams. Each character has a totem, an item of significance that helps them distinguish between fantasy and reality.
Applying to this when you start to feel anxious, have something that can pull you from that bad mental space. It can be anything. For me, it is my wireless earphones. Even without music, they drown out background noise and also give my ears a comforting hug.
Again the point is to find something that suits you. Your totem can be small, a fidget spinner, stone or crystal you can hold in your hand to distract you. Or it can be a gym buddy that can recognise when you feel anxious and help pull you out of it.
Accessories and variations are your friend.
If a specific lift triggers your anxiety, try and identify what about it causes you stress. Is it the weight of the bar on your back, the eternal void of time between pulling the slack from the bar and it coming off the floor? Once you have identified the issue, find some accessories that can help combat the problem. I’ve had great success with heavy walkouts for my squat. While a combo of block pulls and hook grip, have helped me deal with being slow off the floor and grip failure. Such exercises are a great confidence booster and can help you overcome any mental barriers.
When all else fails?
No matter how hard you try, there will be days when anxiety and stress inevitably occur. So what do you do when all the above tips don’t quite work? Take deep, calming breaths and acknowledge that what you are feeling will eventually pass. Allow the anxiety to subside, and then continue with your lift.
If all else has failed, do not be afraid to move on. If the weight is not moving, then it is not going to move. You should feel no shame in dropping the weight a little and carrying on, or if it is causing you that much stress, leaving it entirely and carrying on with the rest of your workout. There is always the next session. Training is meant to be fun, so don’t lose sleep if the stress of your workday causes you to miss a rep. It is not the end of the world.
Hopefully, my tips will help bring your anxiety under control. While stress can never be entirely eliminated, these techniques can mitigate their effects to a negligible degree, keep you in a safe mental state and give you the confidence you need to smash PB’s and make your fitness journey more enjoyable.
By James Kennedy.
The global supplement industry was valued at over $160 billion in 2019. The supplement industry largely works by preying on people's insecurities, promising a magic pill solution that will allow them to achieve the photoshopped physiques on the side of the packet. The vast majority of these supplements do not provide any results and can be actively harmful to health and fitness. Some of them, however, have their place.
In this article, we will review which supplements work, what they do, how to take them and when. This post will be most useful to the committed strength or physique athlete (Powerlifters, Olympic weightlifters, Strongman competitors, Crossfit etc), however the casual gym goer will also benefit by learning when to keep their cash in their pockets.
Supplement research is a growing and changing field; as such the way I think about supplements is in a tiered system. Tier 1 supplements have multiple scientific studies proving their efficacy. Tier 2 supplements have some or weak evidence of a performance enhancing effect and no known health risks associated with taking them (for healthy people). Tier 3 supplements are supplements with no evidence of a performance bonus and/or a potential health risk.
Whilst this tiered approach to supplementation has helped me understand what is worth my money and what isn’t, they are not fixed. Ongoing research and new studies in these areas can cause supplements to move tiers; however if you’re currently spending a lot of money on tier 2 or 3 supplements it may be worth putting the powder down and spending the money elsewhere.
Finally, I will finish this first article by making the key point. Whatever your health, fitness and physique goals the most important factors determining your success, in order, are:
Tier 1 Supplements
How does it work
Creatine is stored in the muscles, where it combines with phosphates to form phosphocreatine. When muscles perform work they use ATP - adenosine triphosphate - as an energy source. During intense exercise bouts - a set of heavy squats or sprints for example - ATP demand within the muscle can increase over 500 times. The phosphocreatine in the muscle then allows for rapid replenishment of ATP during exercise, allowing the muscle to continue to work at the required intensity which increases the performance of the athlete. Creatine supplementation helps build up a store for replenishing ATP in the muscle, allowing you to push harder.
How to take it
When I first began reading about creatine and supplements in the early 2010’s, a lot of old-school bodybuilding types advocated for a loading phase, where for the first week you would take up to 20g a day. This is completely unnecessary. Take 3-5g daily, at any time. I use it in my pre-workout shake, however it can be taken intra or post-workout, or any other time of the day.
Creatine can be combined with protein to make a very effective pre or intra-workout meal. It can also be combined with caffeine, however if you take high doses of caffeine and load creatine (again, don’t do this), studies have shown the caffeine blunts the effectiveness of the creatine loading.
Potential side effects:
Creatine is safe to use, however it causes the muscles to retain more fluid. Whilst this makes your muscles look ‘fuller’, it can cause bloating in the first week to ten days even without a loading phase. If the powder is incompletely dissolved, it can also cause gastro-intestinal distress.
A quick side note for physique models or bodybuilders prior to a photo shoot or show, do not add in creatine to your diet during the final 2-3 weeks of prep due to this bloating. If you already use creatine, don’t stop in this phase either as it will add to the deflated look some people get when incredibly (sub 5% body fat) lean.
Supplement Scam to check:
Overpriced creatine variations.
Creatine Monohydrate is all that is needed, creatine citrate or creatine nitrate or creatine ethyl ester and so on are overpriced products with no known advantages over creatine monohydrate. Whilst they have never been shown to outperform creatine, they do outprice it, with creatine monohydrate typically being £5-10 cheaper per unit than the alternatives. Bottom line is, don’t look for a solution to a problem that doesn’t exist, creatine monohydrate is safe, effective and cheap, ignore the fancy alternatives.
Buy creatine monohydrate and take 3-5g daily, either pre, post or intra workout.
How does it work
Protein provides the building blocks for muscle (amino acids) and the stimulus for muscle growth through muscle protein synthesis (MPS). Protein should make up between 15-35% of a healthy diet depending on the amount and type of activity the individual does. For example, a marathon runner and weightlifter eating the same number of calories need vastly different amounts of protein and carbohydrates due to their different activities (long distance cardio requires higher carbohydrates than weightlifting, but causes much less muscle damage).
As proteins are a source of amino acids for MPS, the type of protein does matter to an extent. Plant based proteins are typically ‘lower quality’ - they contain less amino acids than animal proteins. Whilst this doesn’t mean the gym bros were right to say vegans or vegetarians can’t get jacked, it does mean those following a plant based diet should eat higher levels of protein and supplement with BCAA’s (to be discussed) to make sure they are maximising MPS. In terms of protein powders, vegan athletes should look for protein powders with around a 70:30 blend of pea:rice protein as this gives them a very complete amino acid profile for maximising MPS.
A common debate is between two types of milk derived protein: Whey vs Casein. For the amount of coverage this gets, you could be forgiven for thinking it matters. It doesn’t, unless you're trying to sell supplements.
Whey protein is a fast digesting protein, advertised as a pre or post workout protein, ideally suited to take advantage of the post-workout ‘anabolic’ window. Casein protein is slow digesting and is advertised as bedtime protein. It digests slowly throughout the night, allowing you to recover more effectively and improve your sleep quality. However, recent studies have shown protein timing doesn’t really matter, as long as you eat enough protein in total throughout the day. The supposed differences between Whey and Casein have not been shown in studies suggesting it doesn’t matter which you use. I have used both, Whey tends to make nicer protein shakes and smoothies than Casein powders. Casein is also slightly more expensive but it is down to personal preference which you use.
How to take it
The data suggests - from both experimental studies and a recent meta-analysis - that MPS stops increasing when protein consumption is around 1.8g/kg of bodyweight per day. For simplicity, rounding up to 2g/kg of bodyweight when setting up your macros is fine, although going over this is probably excessive. If you have a high body fat percentage, it may be worth calculating protein by using 2g/kg of lean body mass (LBM).
For those in a large calorie deficit, such as bodybuilders in the final stages of competition prep, there may be a value of increasing protein above these levels. Keeping protein intake high when losing weight is important; it helps you to retain as much muscle as possible and makes you feel satiated (fuller) for longer. This improves your mood, making it more likely that you will achieve your weight loss goals and mean you're more pleasant to be around during a weight loss phase. For the vast majority of people however, 1.8-2g of protein per kg of bodyweight will be enough protein whether they are aiming to build muscle or lose weight.
Protein intake should be spaced throughout the day to maximise MPS. The post-workout window is not more important than any other time of the day as long as the total amount of protein consumed within the day is high. Studies have shown that eating a mixed meal of protein and carbohydrates during training (a mixed protein and carbohydrate drink) does improve performance, however this is a minor boost vs consuming just protein or carbohydrates around the workout. If you can, a combined protein carbohydrate shake consumed either just before or during your workout is a good idea, however it’s not a deal breaker if you can’t.
If you are consuming a protein shake as part of your workout routine - whether pre,intra or post-workout - combining it with a carbohydrate powder and creatine is a great idea. A basic recipe is 1 scoop protein powder (~25-30g protein), 1 scoop carbohydrate powder (dextrose or maltodextrin) and 3-5g of creatine. As discussed below, it is always best to buy these ingredients separately and combine them yourself.
If you are using protein powders as part of a meal or snack, it makes a great addition to overnight oats, smoothies or just mixed into a bowl of greek yoghurt.
Supplement Scam to check
Sometimes protein powders are filled with cheap ingredients to claim a higher protein content - a practice known as protein spiking. Protein powders quality (i.e. protein content per gram of powder) is commonly tested by measuring the nitrogen content of protein as a proxy for protein content. Some companies take advantage of this by dumping cheap, nitrogen rich compounds into their proteins which do not help build muscle. This leads to a high nitrogen count and a high apparent protein content despite the product being low quality overall. Thankfully there is a relatively simple check: Leucine and Branched Chain Amino-Acid (BCAA) content.
In Whey Protein, 11% should be leucine and 25% should be BCAA. For 25g of whey protein ~6.25g should be BCAA’s and ~2.75g should be Leucine. If the leucine or BCAA content is much higher or lower than this, or are not listed on the list of ingredients, this product may have been spiked and should be avoided. Another red flag is if the protein is cheap - if it seems too good to be true, it probably is.
Protein powder is a useful tool to increase your overall dietary protein content, especially if you’re in a calorie deficit. Try and space your protein throughout the day, with some eaten around the workout and always check for protein powder spiking scams.
Tier 2 Supplements
Tier 2 supplements are supplements where there is some evidence showing their effectiveness in various situations however there may be a small body of literature, small effect size or a high proportion of non-responders within the studies. None of these supplements are critical to success; if you never take any of them it is highly unlikely you will look back in ten years and regret that decision.
Within the broader health research, habitual caffeine consumption of below 400-600mg of caffeine a day has a positive impact on a range of health outcomes, although consumption in the afternoon to evening can severely impact sleep. For athletes, and all those who wish to perform at their best, this is a large drawback. Caffeine use should be curtailed in the afternoon to early evening to minimise the impacts on sleep and recovery.
If you are a habitual caffeine user, supplementing with caffeine powders or pre-workouts is not worth it. There are benefits to using caffeine around the workout for both physical and mental reasons - it will benefit your work capacity and your mentality in the gym. If you do decide to use a caffeine powder as a supplement, avoid pre-workouts with a large number of other ingredients as the additional stimulants can accentuate the negative effects of caffeine on sleep and anxiety. The best form of caffeine for a pre-workout is a simple cup of coffee.
Similar to creatine, beta-alanine builds up in the body's cells over time so there is no time-dependent or loading phase required with beta-alanine supplementation. 2-5g, taken pre- exercise, is the recommended dosage. A common side effect to be aware of is paresthesia - tingling in the body - which is unsettling but harmless.
For most gym-goers it is an expensive luxury, however for crossfit athletes, strongmen and bodybuilders doing work in the aerobic-alactic zone it may provide some benefit.
Citrulline supplementation is beneficial, and there is a growing body of research into its use, short and long-term efficacy, however the long-term effects on health and performance are currently understudied.
Tier 3 Supplements
Tier 3 supplements are supplements which are either unproven, unsafe or ineffective. Primarily, the use of these supplements is unlikely to benefit your performance and may have severe short and long-term consequences on your health.
However, as discussed with protein powders, there is no time dependency to MPS if dietary protein levels are high. As amino acids occur naturally within protein, individuals eating a high protein diet, above 1.5g of protein per kg of bodyweight, do not need to supplement with BCAA or EAA. If you are eating a high protein diet there is no need to spend money on BCAA or EAA supplements.
For the vegan and vegetarian athlete there may be a benefit to amino acid supplementation, as plant based proteins can be lower in amino acid quantity and do not have a complete amino acid profile. If you are using large amounts of vegan protein powder, for example if you are in a large calorie deficit, vegan athletes would benefit by supplementing with BCAA or EAA as it would be challenging to get all amino acids through diet alone. To do this, take 5-10g of BCAA or EAA with each meal dissolved in water (note - you should buy flavoured BCAA or EAA powder as unflavoured powders taste awful).
These products also have a list of short and long term side effects, ranging from the hilarious to the scary. On the hilarious end, some male athletes who use fat burning products report getting erections which last for hours. The slightly more serious side effects include damage to the cardiovascular system, significant sleep disruption, reduced insulin sensitivity (the ability of the body to regulate blood sugar levels), significant gastrointestinal distress by blocking nutrient absorption. They can also cause intense feelings of anxiety and paranoia.
Using fat burners should be avoided. If you are going to use them, proceed with extreme caution; the benefits are non-existent, whereas the side effects are real, unpleasant and serious.
The side effects and long term impact of taking SARM’s on health have not been well studied, but people have reported side effects such as significant reduction in testicle size and impotence due to the body stopping natural testosterone production. Further anecdotal reports of side effects include high blood pressure, tinted vision and skin rashes. Some of these side effects could be due to people being sold steroids instead of SARM’s, highlighting the final risk associated with buying SARMs. Quality control on SARM products is generally low, so often what you order is not what you receive.
If you want to use SARMs as they are a legal steroid alternative, that is your choice but treat it like a steroid cycle and take the necessary steps to ensure your health. Get blood work done before and after the SARM’s cycle and the subsequent PCT cycle to keep an eye on your general health and hormone levels. Make sure your diet, training and recovery is dialled in before you start taking SARMs. If you are an inexperienced gym-goer or an athlete who does not compete do not take SARMs and be aware of any products which may contain SARMs as they could cause you severe side effects.
What You Can Do Next -
We have a number of options here at Daniel Lee Fitness to do with nutrition and training.
I would highly recommend checking out the nutrition coaching or the online coaching options here.
This year I will have been coaching for 8 years. In that time, I've butted heads with many clients, some more than once, about how they do not need to always be lifting at their heaviest or at their hardest. You will continue to grow with sub-maximal work, you'll continue to grow with rest and recovery and you will definitely continue to grow by changing things up a little bit.
I find that right now, May 2021, people are falling into two camps when it comes to their training.
They are either -
- Really surprised by how well their strength has maintained on their return to lockdown, or
- Trying really hard to make up for lost time with the gym.
The majority of people are experiencing the first one. Their body has thanked them for the forced rest and it has held on to the majority of their strength and muscle mass. If anything, they might feel a little fatigued when doing higher rep sets, but their strength is still comparable to when they left.
It's hard to gain strength, but luckily, it is also hard to lose it.
For me, I was competing quite actively between the end of 2014 and the beginning of 2016. In March of 2016, I got a pretty annoying injury, I kept trying to throw myself straight back into powerlifting but it never really worked again. I competed again in June and got somewhat close to my best, but not quite. I then got injured again, recovered, tried to come back, got injured again.
This cycle continued for a bit.
In 2018, I decided to take a step back and do more bodybuilding style of work. After a year, and a 22kg drop in weight, I then decided to pursue powerlifting again.
Between August of 2019 and January of 2020 I shifted my focus back towards powerlifting, but with a lot of bodybuilding elements. In this time my strength returned far quicker than I could have hoped for.
Despite competing 7kg lighter than my previous competition weight, I came very close to matching my old strength. A lot closer than when I focused purely on powerlifting with intense workouts and very little time to recover.
In no way am I saying that powerlifting = bad. What I am saying is that sometimes banging your head against a wall to eke out small improvements only leads to frustrations, sometimes it can be good to step back to rest, or step back to focus on the foundations.
What You Can Take From This.
If you're at a point where you're constantly trying to go a bit heavier or a bit harder with training but feel like you're not quite getting anywhere, maybe you need to step back and try something different for a bit.
You only have to look on social media to see a number of top powerlifters who step away from powerlifting to go into things like bodybuilding, or simply just don't compete for a while. This removal of physical and mental pressure can be crucial to bring you back to a sport you love, refreshed.