Bodybuilding Exercises for Powerlifters: The Vacuum and Reverse Hyperextension

TAGS: building the posterior chain, How to Perform a Vacuum, brace your core, ab activation, vacuum, bodybuilding exercises for powerlifters, ben pollack, hamstring weakness, glute weakness, reverse hyper machine

COACH

No, squats and deadlifts don’t have to make your waist wide. In fact, keeping a narrow waist can help you hit PRs!

This article series describes how you can incorporate bodybuilding exercises into your powerlifting training for big benefits in strength and aesthetics. We’re beginning with one of history’s most iconic ab movements: the vacuum.  Done properly, a good vacuum gives your waist a tight, tapered look and strengthens the transverse abdominis — a muscle crucial in maintaining a strong, braced core during squats and deadlifts.

Sports have become practices in specialization. In the NFL, it’s rare when you find a player like Deion Sanders or William Perry who can play both sides of the ball. Most baseball leagues allow a DH so the pitcher can focus on pitching, not batting. In powerlifting, we’ve gone past the bench-only era: you can be a one-lift wonder in the squat or deadlift, too, and still succeed at the highest levels.

It wasn’t always that way. Back in the 1940s, for example, bodybuilders didn’t just need to look big and strong — they needed to perform that way, too. Take a look at the program for the 1946 “America’s Most Muscular Physique” contest: between every posing session, there’s a demonstration of strength. Great bodybuilders of the past, like Al Treloar and John Grimek, won physique contests and set strength records.


WATCH: Table Talk — Muscular Balance in Training Programs


But like it or not, specialization is a reality of modern life and of modern sports — it’s not going away. Even if you compete in only one discipline, though, you can still learn so much from studying other fields. That’s “the darkside” — bettering yourself by learning from others, even if they think differently —  and it’s a core part of why elitefts is such a successful powerlifting community.

The darkside explains why I’ve chosen to compete in bodybuilding — I know that by learning to activate certain muscle groups, building symmetry, and adding muscle, I’ll become a better powerlifter. In fact, that’s the only possible outcome, because I’m at the point where I must address my weak points to grow stronger, and I want to fill out the 198s. In my case, the best way to specialize is by diversifying. And in my first week of training, I’ve already learned a few tricks that have added 50 pounds to my yoke bar squat and helped me take a shot at Tom Platz’s historic record!

So the rest of this article — and future installments — will share the bodybuilding tips and tricks I pick up, and explain how to apply them for powerlifting success. We’ll start off with one of the most fun (and one of the most difficult) bodybuilding movements: the vacuum.

The Vacuum

If you’ve ever looked at pictures of bodybuilders from the Golden Era, you’re probably already familiar with the vacuum. It’s what Frank Zane used to hit his most iconic pose of all time, but it’s also what nearly every top-level competitor practiced to maintain that tight, tapered torso so common among legends from the 1970s and ‘80s.

You might be less familiar with using vacuums to improve your powerlifting performance. And for good reason: while nearly every instructional article about the squat and deadlift emphasizes the need to brace your core while performing the movement, very few go into detail about how to brace effectively. It’s more than just taking a deep breath and pushing your abs out! You need to activate your abs, maintain a neutral spine, and maintain good intra-abdominal pressure, all at the same time. That’s tough, but with enough practice, it’s possible — and, as it happens, vacuums are great practice.

Before we get started, we need super-quick anatomy lesson about the abs. For our purposes, your abdominal muscles can be divided into three groups: the rectus abdominis, the transverse abdominis, and the obliques. It’s actually much more complicated than that, but for this article, the nuances aren’t important. The rectus abdominis helps flex your spinal column; it’s what gives you the “six-pack” look.  The transverse abdominis lies under the rectus abdominis and helps stabilize the spine, and it’s the muscle trained with vacuums. Think of the transverse abdominis like your invisible, internal weight belt.  (The obliques are important, too, but for the sake of brevity we’ll address those in another article.)

How to Perform a Vacuum

Most descriptions of a vacuum are pretty simple. There’s two steps:

  1. Exhale forcefully, trying to expel all the air from your lungs.
  2. Suck in your gut, trying to pull your navel towards your spine.

These descriptions are pretty lousy because they leave out some hugely important parts of a proper vacuum. First, while you’re performing the vacuum, you need to contract your abs (or, more precisely, your rectus abdominis). This makes your abs stand out while you’re performing the vacuum, for a more defined look, and it’s a great way to practice activating your rectus abdominis and your transverse abdominis at the same time. As we’ll see later, that’s the secret to a perfect brace for squatting or deadlifting. Second, we also need to be able to breathe deeply while lifting, and if you just follow the two steps above, that’s pretty difficult.


RELATED: Breathing IS NOT Bracing


So, instead of just breathing out and sucking in, we need to add a few steps. Try this instead, and see how much different and more difficult your vacuum feels!

  1. Flex your abs, as if you were preparing for a heavy squat or deadlift.
  2. Exhale from your diaphragm, keeping your chest high and abs flexed.
  3. Use your abs to pull your navel towards your spine.
  4. Hold the position while taking shallow breaths and keeping your abs flexed.

Try to work up to holding this position for ninety seconds. If you can’t do a full ninety seconds at first, try this:

  1. Set a timer for ninety seconds.
  2. Start your vacuum, and hold for as long as you can.
  3. When you can’t hold the vacuum any longer, relax, and rest for ten seconds.
  4. Repeat steps 2 and 3 until the timer goes off.

Once you can hold the vacuum for ninety seconds straight, start performing multiple sets (so hold for ninety seconds, rest for ninety seconds, hold for ninety seconds again, and so on).

Vacuums and Bracing

Squats and deadlifts begin with your core — your abs and lower back. These major muscle groups stabilize your torso during the lift, keeping it in a strong and safe position that balances the load between your back, hips, legs, and glutes. This process is called bracing. Many trainers use a cue like “push the abs out” to convey the idea of bracing, but that’s not nearly enough.

First, you need to properly engage your upper and lower abs. I like to start with the lower abs, and I think about using them to rotate or pull my hips towards my shoulders. Some other good cues include “scooping” your abs, or “drawing in,” trying to pull your navel towards your spine. If you have trouble with this and cues aren’t helping, try lying down flat on the floor and crunching your abs together, as if you were trying to squeeze a penny in your belly button. Then push your lower back into the floor as hard as you can. Try to replicate that feeling of tightness while standing up.

Second, you need to engage your upper abs in the same way. I use almost the same cue here, thinking about using my upper abs to crunch down and rotate my shoulders towards my hips. If that doesn’t work for you, trying thinking about “bearing down” with your rib cage. The overhead pulley crunch or crunch on a swiss ball are both great ways to practice this feeling of tightness.

Once you’ve fully engaged your abs, you need to generate intra-abdominal pressure. While holding the crunch position, exhale forcefully, trying to blow all the air out of your lungs. Then — keeping your abs tight the whole time — inhale deep into your diaphragm and “push out” against that tightness, like you were drawing in a huge breath to blow up the world’s biggest balloon. When done properly, you should feel like you have a wall of muscle supporting your entire core, from your hips to your rib cage.

The first time you do it, this whole process will seem exhausting. You’ll need to practice. Here’s where the vacuums come in. You’ll find that by practicing vacuums (and therefore strengthening your transverse abdominis), you’ll be able to hold a braced position for much longer while using less effort. In fact, you’ll find that strengthening the transverse abdominis will significantly strengthen your brace, too — and lead to bigger squats and pulls!

The Reverse Hyperextension

Over the past few years, strengthening my posterior chain, especially my glutes and hamstrings, has transferred into big gains on my squat. Even for raw squatters, the posterior chain is essential for building a strong descent and power out of the hole. I have a tendency to let my strong lower back take over in both my squats and deadlifts, so bringing up my glutes and hamstrings to balance that out really improved my positioning and ability to demonstrate strength. From a bodybuilding perspective, that strong lower back is overdeveloped relative to my glutes, and — especially since the glutes are one of the body’s largest muscle groups — that’s a problem for overall symmetry.

A good reverse hyperextension can solve both those problems.  But, like with vacuums, I prefer to perform them in a pretty unconventional way:

  1. Load the machine with a very light weight — I usually start with 20 pounds.
  2. Position yourself in the usual way, with your chest as close to the pad as possible, hip crease against the edge of the pad, and strap behind ankles.
  3. Keep your toes and heels together throughout the entire movement.
  4. Begin the lift by contracting your glutes, while keeping your abs tight. Try to bring your feet up to the level of your torso.
  5. At the top of the movement, squeeze your glutes and hold for a one-second count.
  6. Lower the weight under control.
  7. Repeat for fairly high reps (up to 20).

You’ll probably find this is a much more demanding way of performing reverse hypers compared to swinging a heavy weight with momentum. But in my experience, despite the lighter loads, the strength built using this style transfers much better to the powerlifts, and develops the glutes better, too.

Using the Glutes in the Squat and Deadlift

To some degree, using the glutes depends on your ability to “feel” the muscle working, especially at the bottom end of the movement (in the hole or off the floor). However, there are some cues and techniques that can help you to recruit the glutes even more.

Foot Positioning

Both the squat and deadlift start with your feet, and how you use them makes a big difference in recruiting your glutes. First, you’ll want to take the right stance.  A very narrow stance can make it a bit more difficult to feel your glutes working, but if you lift raw, a very wide stance can shift too much emphasis to your glutes and hamstrings. For most lifters, a moderate stance will work best, especially for the squat.

Next, you’ll want to balance your weight properly. This is very much an individual thing — some people prefer to keep their weight over their heels; others distribute the weight more evenly, between their heel, big toe, and small toes. Personally, I try to keep my weight over my heels and towards the outside of my foot. Whatever you do, don’t shift all of your weight onto your toes — it might feel easier, but when you do that, you’re taking your glutes and hamstrings out of the movement.

If you’re having trouble with foot positioning, try doing some squats with an empty barbell while standing with 2.5-pound plates under the middle of your feet (so you have to balance on the plates). This will force you to keep your weight distributed evenly and engage your glutes and hamstrings, or else you’ll fall over.  Obviously, do this one in a rack with safety pins!

Bracing

Believe it or not, vacuums can actually help you use your posterior chain. Keeping a proper braced position requires that you keep a neutral spinal alignment, and that requires that you keep your hips under your shoulders, where your glutes and hamstrings can do their best work.  If you’re having trouble with this one, try doing some heavy pull-throughs using a low cable.  The weight will want to pull you forward onto your toes, and to resist that, you’ll need to brace your core and engage your glutes and hamstrings. Give them a shot for sets of 12 or so reps after your reverse hypers and see whether they make a difference on your squat and deadlift!

Wrapping Up

In his Iron Evolution, Dave Tate talks about how bodybuilding can help even a dyed-in-the-wool powerlifter. It’s important to not only think about your accessory work, but to understand the movement and how to incorporate it into the bigger training picture. Hopefully, this article got you started with some ideas. Try them out in your training, and, if they work for you, start thinking about taking some cues from other disciplines and using them to enrich your whole experience as a powerlifter.

And, as always, if you’ve got questions or want to see more content like this, hit me up in the comments!

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