A squat, bench, or deadlift actually starts way before just doing the movement. There are many important steps that need to be done to set up the lift that gives you the best chance of performing the lift successfully and while losing the least amount of energy. The biggest part of this has to do with utilizing proper pre-lift technique. Basically, the better the technique before the lift, the better the technique through the lift, and therefore, it’s the best chance of a successful lift.

I know technique is not a popular thing to work on for most lifters. Many lifters have the “just work harder and get stronger” attitude. This attitude probably plays a major role in the reason so many lifters also think they know technique when they really do not. They gloss over it in training so they have more time for the easy stuff, like working your ass off lifting.

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Listen: Technique is a major part of why all top lifters are top lifters. It is crucial to being a successful strength athlete and getting the most out of your training for all athletes. Technique before the lift is just as important as during the lift. Once you pick a weight up incorrectly, you are at a disadvantage. It is just not logical to think you’re going to get into proper position with maximal weight on your back or in your hands. Think about it: You’re trying to go from a horrible, weak position to a strong position? Start right, perform right, and have the best chance to finish right.

squat setup chad

Let me start with the squat because it is actually the inspiration for this article. First of all, slow down. It is not a race, and taking a few extra seconds here can secure making the lift. As soon as you grab the bar, set your grip, and then retract the shoulder blades, and pull the lats down toward the glutes. You will hold this upper back tension until the weight is re-racked (this will take time to build up and control).

I am personally not picky about whether you get your feet set now or get under the bar and then get the feet set. In fact, I think I have done huge squats both ways. I prefer to set my feet at this point, though. I do this by getting them in the right place and then rooting them, which I will do throughout the lift.

Now I get under the bar, and I put the bar higher up on my trap. I do this so I can get some drive against the bar, and as I gradually drive myself up, I feel the bar coming into the correct position on my back (right below the traps and above the rear delts). An additional benefit of this is that the force driving up into the bar helps squeeze the shoulder blades together while pulling shoulders down with my lats even tighter. All of this helps stack the vertebrae tight while locking them in with the lats.

Once the bar hits position, I get my hips under me, and then find my neutral low back position. I re-check that everything is tight and that nothing is relaxed. I am still rooting as hard as I can, which activates all the muscles to squat. It is time to get a huge brace, which increases intra-abdominal pressure (IAP). I usually let my hips out, which allows me to get a better brace, and then I wedge myself back under the bar.

By this time, I usually have so much pressure against the bar that it comes out of the rack easily. Still, I do not try to slam the bar up quickly. I do it under control, making sure everything is tight while using the weight of the bar to help tighten me up even more as I stand. I control my walkout with every step on purpose, and I do not look down. OK, sometimes I do, but I work hard to keep my head in neutral and only look with my eyes when I absolutely have to.

Once my feet are in position, my body is all ready to go. I stay tight during my walkout so I am not hunched over with my shoulders and upper back loose or out of position. All I have to do is get a second breath, make sure everything is still tight, and then make a clean squat in my strongest position.

bench setup chad aichs

The bench has essentially the same principles, except the lift actually starts once you lie on the bench. I am a legs-out bencher because I prefer to force myself into position as opposed to wedging myself into position with legs under. I say both ways are good, though. That being said, I lie down on the edge of the bench, and the first thing I do is squeeze my shoulder blades together as tight as I can. Then, I pull my shoulders down as hard as possible.

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Next, I lift my head and my hips so I can drive my body up the bench and into position with my legs. On a quality elitefts competition bench, you can use that leg drive to help really squeeze those shoulders together and down hard. This will also help you get into a good position on the traps and neck.

Once I am in position, I grab the bar and root my hands by giving them a little twist against my thumb. This helps activate the upper back and lats. I then let my feet out to the point I can drive my butt into my shoulders but not raise my butt off the bench. I also root my feet. Everything should remain tight and in this position until the weight is re-racked.

Next up is getting a huge brace, then double-checking everything for tightness. The unrack is where many lifters make serious mistakes. You will have a tendency to let the shoulders rise up to your ears or up to the sky and out of position. If you are truly as tight as possible and braced, this should not happen; it can only happen if you relax.

If the weight is too heavy to get off in position, you need a hand-off. Help them out as much as you can while staying in position. At this point, I will take a second breath while keeping everything tight as possible, and then bench upon re-bracing. There is a lot of stuff that needs to happen before you ever even start to bench, but it will set you up to do your best bench.

deadlift setup chad aichs

The deadlift is a slightly different story because there is no eccentric phase, but this actually makes the technique before the lift even more important. Some lifters prefer to get in position and then create their tension, but I am not a huge fan of this. Not saying it is wrong; I’m just saying I prefer to wedge myself under the bar.

Once I step up to the bar, the lift begins. With my feet in position, I start my root. Next, I pull my shoulders down, stacking my vertebrae as hard as possible with my lats. I tighten my upper back, but I do not retract my shoulder blades; I keep my shoulders neutral. Next, I check my lower back so it is in neutral.

At this point, I get my brace and jack my IAP up as much as possible. Then, I bend over and get my grip. It is difficult to get down enough to grab the bar, so make sure you get a good grip set. I teach some lifters to get their brace in this bent-over position because it can be easier than holding the brace from the top. Now I am bent over with a strong root, big brace, and tightly stacked back.

Next, I pull up and slightly back against the bar, taking what slack is left out (if any because I already have huge IAP) of the bar. I pull myself into the bar, not down to it, but into it. I am wedging myself into position to the point where lighter weights pop off the floor before I even get into position. Once in position, all you have to do is keep pulling the back up and slightly back while continuing to wedge the hips under the bar.

Technique is hugely important, but remember: It actually starts way before the lift itself starts. It is also important to remember technique is built by reps and can be done with light weights. Every single rep counts, even if it is with an empty bar.

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The best athletes in almost every sport do the exact same thing before they perform. Have you ever really watched a baseball hitter with a high average? They do the exact same thing every time they get up to the plate. Golfers, tennis players, pitchers, etc., all do the same thing.

Sure, you can get away with a lot when lifting light weights, but all you are really doing is creating bad habits that will come back to haunt you when you go heavy. As they say, practice makes perfect. If you really want to get strong and lift big, then give technique the time and energy it deserves. Work on it from beginning to the end and see just how much of a difference it will make in your numbers!