How to Break PRs

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How Joseph Campbell and Tony Robbins Can Lead You to a PR!
By Casey S. Rusbridge

What I intend to offer you is an example of what has helped me increase my own lifts. For more detailed examinations of each lift, check out the exercise DVDs and re-read a lot of Louie and Dave’s early articles. While I’m certainly not an elite lifter, I think that some of these tips can help out beginner lifters and provide food for thought for someone who hasn’t progressed in quite a while.

Okay, by now you’re probably asking yourself what the hell Joseph Campbell and Anthony Robbins have in common. And more importantly, how is this going to lead to PRs on the platform? Well, they share one common belief—the importance of ritualizing our lives.

Campbell was one of the most influential men of the twentieth century in the field of world mythology. His studies of nearly every religion in the world led him toward a theory that Carl Jung first explored—the archetype. In a nutshell, Campbell argued that instead of being divided by religion, all spiritual beliefs were linked in several archetypes that define the human condition. He also argued that although we lack the traditional rituals in our lives that our more religious ancestors performed, we go through our own rituals in a modern spirituality. Whether you belong to a faith or not we all enact an archetypal journey of sorts.

I’m sure more of you are familiar with Anthony Robbins and his self-improvement tactics. By bringing advanced neuropsychological discourse to the masses, he has revolutionized pop psychology and helped millions toward their financial, spiritual, and personal success. One of the key points in Robbins’ work is modeling—acting exactly as one’s role models would to gain success in a particular field. This means copying the core values and attitudes of the role model in order to model their psychological state and project this onto your daily actions and thoughts.

Right. I’m stepping off the podium. No more boring discussion on psychology and theology. What the hell does this have to do with EliteFTS and improving your performance under the bar? Dave has said numerous times that in order to become the best in the sport of powerlifting, a lifter ought to “act as if.” I won’t recount his advice beyond that quotation. It would be far too repetitive. However, psychological modeling and ritualizing your physical and mental state will improve your preparations, allowing you to perform at a peak level, which leads you to prevailing at the meet.

Specific mental conditioning
There is much talk about being “fired up” and going buck wild in order to be successful on ME days, and subsequently, on the platform. Chuck Vogelpohl and Chad Aichs are both highly successful lifters and watching them psyche up is breathtaking. Robbins would definitely agree that by getting to that level of intensity, these lifters put themselves into the most “successful physiological state.” What this means is that when you reach that apex before each lift, you’re actually channeling more than just intensity. You’re reenacting the successful mental and psychological state that you prepared through months and years of training. Bringing that “fired up” attitude allows you to tap into the well-rehearsed methods that allowed you to reach PRs in the past and duplicate them again.

Think of it from another perspective. This time we’ll use MMA as our sport model. I’m a huge UFC fan, and you can sometimes predict the outcome of the fight by watching the fighters as they walk to the Octagon. Sure, the sport is well known for upsets. I’m still reeling over Gonzaga’s head kick to my favorite striker, Mirko Cro Cop. However, if you were to compare Matt Hughes as he enters the cage in his fight verses BJ Penn to that of his loss against GSP, you will notice a dramatically different look to his entire physique. His head wasn’t held nearly as high, and his pre-fight stance was much more relaxed. Or take Rich Franklin against Silva in comparison to his fight against Jason MacDonald. These athletes must prepare mentally before the fight as powerlifters must before each lift.

In the past, I loved to turn up Vehemence’s “Kill for God” and tear into the bar. This often produced mixed results. Sometimes I’d get lucky and grind out a PR, and other times I would become so excited that my technique would suffer and I’d completely miss the weight. As you can guess, this haphazard approach to training led to several injuries. It was around this time that I decided that in order to achieve some level of success, I needed specific mental preparation before each attempt. My secondary motivation was to avoid the embarrassment of looking like an ass each time I got all fired up and missed a weight. This is when I examined my failures and successes, deciding that I needed to develop rituals for performance.

In March, I entered my first official IPF meet and found myself a bit out of place. There was no Vehemence over the speakers (of the three meets that I’ve attended, there hasn’t been any music for the lifters), and there were a thousand other distractions present. What I lacked in St. Thomas was proper mental preparation. The technical cues were, for the most part, present. So what does this mean to you?

I’m in the process of experimenting with using specific mental cues to become internally motivated. Instead of relying on specific auditory cues—my favorite metal songs for instance—I try to put myself into the proper mental state. Dave used to channel the infamous “Zippy” in order to handle the 900-lb squats and 600-lb presses. From what he’s written, Zippy was off the fuckin’ wall.

In my experience, I tend to blow lifts because I lose focus on the technique required to make each lift. Dave’s Zippy was able to keep this focus as well as display an enormous amount of intensity and rage. I’m making an assumption here, but for a taste of what Zippy was like, check out the end of the EliteFTS squat index DVD. After the credits roll, there’s a clip of Dave doing a 1-board press with 700 lbs (the same press he mentions in Under the Bar). If that doesn’t get you fired up folks, I don’t know what will. The intensity just flows through the screen.

Personally, I think that my successful lifts have come when I reach a state where I put the emotions aside. This eliminates the central nervous system burnout that can come with heavy psych ups in training and allows me to relax the fight-or-flight instinct. Because I’ve had several setbacks due to minor but persistent injuries, I’m often afraid of blowing out my shoulder or hip. By entering a state where I can focus on practicing safe and effective techniques and totally detach from myself, I can operate in a successful state. The only care I have is executing my pre-lift rituals and movin’ weight. This is highly personal, and of course, there is more to it than I have described. However, we all have specific triggers that will result in achieving what Robbins called the most “productive state.”

Exercise specific
One of the first pieces of advice that I will pass along is that lifting in the gym and lifting on the platform are completely different. At my first competition, I learned this the hard way and ended up bombing out of the meet. Although I had a system of ritualizing my lifts in place, I know that further practice will lead me to greater success.

Haphazard training will lead to inconsistent results. This is why perfect practice leads to perfect play. Before you squat, you need to put yourself in the proper physical and psychological state to replicate your successful training in the gym. What I’ve developed is a mental “checklist” of preparation before I unrack the barbell. With practice, this has become automatic.

While this physical preparation sets me up for the proper form required to squat, I also have developed a checklist of mental cues before I squat. Here’s what I’ve found to bring me the greatest success to date. Remember that Louie would never have become a legend without constantly evaluating the performance of the Westside lifters. His greatest gift to our sport is that of experimentation. Westside Barbell is the strongest club that will ever exist because of a desire for continuous improvement. That which doesn’t yield the greatest results is rejected. What works for you now won’t always produce the same results. Six weeks from now, my set up for each lift could be radically different, but I guarantee that I will only change my process if it creates PRs.

The squat

  1. Firmly grasp the barbell. I take a wide stance, standing at arm’s length from the bar. I wrap my hands tightly around the bar.
  2. Take a deep breathe of air and expand the abs. At this point, I start to narrow my focus and set myself mentally. I breathe deeply and expand my abs against the belt.
  3. Set up under the bar. Retracting my shoulder blades, I now create a shelf for the bar to rest. My upper back is as tight as I can make it. My right foot is placed by the furthest corner of the rack followed by my left. I shoot under the bar and arch my lower back hard while keeping my chest as high as I can.
  4. Fully expand the abs. At this point, my upper body is tight, my back is arched, and my legs are tight. I take another breathe deep into my abs and take some more air to fill my chest. In the past, I’ve found that sometimes my upper back rounds after I’ve unracked the bar. By taking this extra air in, I’ve eliminated that error. It serves as a mental cue to keep my chest up.
  5. Unrack the weight. My pinky finger comes off the bar, and I drive my elbows as far forward as I comfortably can. The bar sits high in my hand, almost on the calluses. I tighten myself up again and straighten up, arching the bar out of the rack as best as I can. One of the final mental cues I use is to start the descent by pushing back using my hips. This reminds me to sit back in the squat and activate my hamstrings/glutes.
  6. Begin the descent. At this point, I’m about as tight as I can be. My hips are already slightly angled backward, and my legs are locked out. By angling my hips backward, I reinforce the “sit back” command. Training alone has forced me to develop my own cues to prevent technical breakdowns. This is one that has helped incredibly.

Most of the above is a recap from a dozen articles on this site. What I’m trying to do is outline how I prepare to unrack a weight. I’ve dropped about twenty physical and mental cues that took me several years to develop. I’m certainly not an elite lifter, but I’ve learned through trial and error what seems to produce the best results.

The bench

For the proper bench set up, I highly recommend that you refer to Jim’s exercise index DVD. He carefully lays out the step-by-step approach on how to set up for the bench. While I have to modify the foot placement to fit in with IPF regulations, there is little I change.

  1. Lay back on the bench. For the longest time, I used to flop back on the bench and try to arch. I found this completely useless. Start with your shoulder blades off the edge of the bench and set your feet. This is a quick-fix that could help you stay tighter during the press.
  2. Spread those legs. Get them out as wide as possible. Turn your toes out as you would for the squat and set your legs. While this is one area I need improvement, getting your feet set properly will help you form a tighter arch and give you a solid base to drive off of once the bar touches your chest.
  3. Pull your shoulder blades together. Just like you did on the squat, create the sturdiest “shelf” you can. Practice with setting your traps high and low until you find a happy medium.
  4. Kiss the bar. This is where you set your arch. Pull yourself up to the bar a la a chin up, keep your back tight, and try to kiss the bar. Without moving your butt, you need to minimize the distance between your shoulders and your ass. This is a proper arch.
  5. Set your back against the bench. Lower your shoulders back onto the bench and try to stay tight. If you have a hard time keeping your arch, try to visualize driving your abs toward the bar at this point. I found that sometimes I’d become loose just before I pulled the bar out of the rack. By pushing my abs toward the bar, I kept my arch and stayed tighter.
  6. Grab that bar. At this point, the bar should be somewhere above your chin. Because I train alone, I don’t have anyone to hand the bar to me. By keeping the bar in front of your face, you minimize the distance that the bar has to travel before you find your groove. Set your hands at whatever distance feels best and squeeze as hard as you can.

The deadlift
I used to believe in the “grip it and rip it” philosophy for my deadlift. While this netted me my first 500-lb pull, I had a hell of a time advancing beyond this. Subsequent modifications to my set up have led me to a 565-lb pull. My set up was too loose, and I’d end up out of position before the bar passed my knees. While there are two different types of pulls (sumo and conventional) and a million different grip styles, the principles remain the same.

  1. Step up to the bar. Keep the bar in front of you. If you need an explanation as to why this will improve your pull, you need to go back to square one.
  2. Set your low back and abs. Get as tight as you can and prepare to lower yourself to the bar.
  3. Grip the bar. There are a dozen different grip methods, and I don’t intend to argue as to which is superior. Use whatever works for you. I belong to the “over under” camp. I roll the bar with my left hand (over grip) until I find a sweet spot where the bar feels right in my right hand (under grip). I squeeze the shit out of the bar with my right hand first. At this point, I now wrap my left hand around the bar and keep both wrists as straight as I can. During my “grip ‘n rip” stage, I found that my grip wasn’t as solid, and the bar would slip if I didn’t secure my right hand/under grip first. This made all the difference, and I haven’t missed a weight due to grip since.
  4. Begin to sit back. Sumo or conventional, it doesn’t matter. You want your posterior chain to fire in the appropriate pattern, and I find that rocking back slightly before the lift until I feel tension in my hamstrings has helped me fire my posterior chain in the proper order. This is highly individual so find what physical cue you can link to mentally prepare to pull with the proper timing.
  5. Tighten the lats. Just before I pull the bar, I tighten my lats. This is another cue to remind myself not to round my upper back too much and throw my timing off. When I can’t break the tension of the bar from the floor or if my timing is off and my hamstrings lock out well before my low back, chances are my upper back was well rounded.
  6. Sit back and pull. At this point, you should be plenty tight. Sit back. As you reach your desired depth, look up and pull the bar.

These are the physical and mental cues that I perform on every rep of every set on DE and ME days. While much of this is individualized to meet my specific technical weaknesses, analyze your own lifts and see where you can improve your set up. By ritualizing your technique, you can eliminate the likelihood of being out of position before you attempt the rep. You will also know if something doesn’t “feel right” during your set up because you skipped a link in the process chain. Go back and set up again and become conscious of each of the steps and cues you’ve developed. Chances are you hurried something or were flat out slacking. This is where ritualizing your training becomes important and can be the difference between a PR and being stapled to the bench.

Chaos theory
I’m going to contradict myself here. You need to prepare yourself for chaos. This sounds absurd at first but bear with me for a moment. One of the greatest challenges I found at the meet was getting accustomed to squatting and pressing out of a different piece of equipment. The J-hooks on the bench platform weren’t at the same exact height that I’d been training with. But they were damn close. Unless you’re training on and competing in a monolift, the squat stands at the meet aren’t going to be the exact same as the EliteFTS rack sitting in your garage. By the way, if you haven’t purchased a rack from this site, you need to stop reading and go work some overtime. Put away twenty five dollars a week and you’ll be able to afford a SYOG package within a year. Don’t kid yourself. Spending that money on porn and booze isn’t helping your total no matter how strong it makes your wrists. And don’t even try to make the excuse that the blonde at the strip club needs your twenty dollar bill to put toward her college tuition. Let the unmotivated slob sitting in perv’s alley make that donation to her med school ambitions. Those double D’s didn’t just magically appear on her chest so don’t sweat it if you have to skip the strippers once and a while.

Back to the topic at hand…I found the bench pad at my meet in St. Thomas to be incredibly soft, a dramatic change from the stiffness of the EliteFTS bench pad. (I prefer a stiff bench pad because the stability it offers is incomparable to the average commercial facility bench.) What if you unrack the barbell at a specific height and you’re unable to replicate that exactly at the meet? Perhaps when you step up to the barbell for the deadlift you aren’t lined up as evenly as you ought to be or the bar rolls a bit too far forward at the beginning of the pull. There are a thousand excuses for poor performance on the platform, but the onus of responsibility always comes back to shitty preparation in the gym.

So does that mean all your mental cues regarding your technique become obsolete? Do all the hours of practice end up thrown out the window because you can’t get your head around the changes in equipment used at the meet? Yes, if you don’t prepare for this chaos ahead of time.

To illustrate this, I’ll use an example. The bar in St. Thomas was much different than my Texas power bar. There were rings on the bar to indicate the exact legal width of your grip and it wasn’t like what I had trained with. Because I used the visual cue of lining my fingers up on the power bar’s ring, I was unprepared and ended up using a narrower grip than I had planned on for my first attempt and a wider grip in an attempt to compensate on my next two attempts. This threw me off and was one of the factors why I bombed out in the bench. Knowing this, I can now prepare for a different bar and will practice setting my grip on the bench without specifically cueing in on the power bar’s rings.

To utilize this “chaos theory,” I suggest you train your assistance and supplemental/RE work with various grips, set ups, and stances. All of my ME work is done with as close to a competition set up as I can. This way I can practice my technique under maximal loads. Any technical weaknesses will become apparent, and I will learn how to adapt to these weaknesses ahead of time. Try to do rep work with a loose form in the bench. Don’t arch as much if at all. Keep your shoulder blades tight, however, and continue to pull the bar apart! When doing good mornings, you can keep your shelf tight, but I try to vary my process for keeping my lower body and “core” tight. This way I can gauge how my body will react under different circumstances. There will also be a carryover effect because you will stress and strengthen areas of your body that are overlooked during your ME work. This is due to a focus on technical concerns.

Wrap up
Ok, that was a lot of technical information so I’ll try to come up with a few bullet points that can serve as notes for your training:

  • Develop specific rituals for your technical cues. Follow each process in exact order and try to have this process mimic your competition stance/grip/set up.
  • Experiment with new techniques during your accessory and RE work. Some of your technical cues can be altered during your DE work, but be careful that you don’t develop bad habits. Dynamic days serve as technical training time as well as speed-strength builders.
  • Prepare for chaos by using a variety of grips and styles. What happens if you’re taxed from the squat and your bench form begins to break down? Are you prepared to adjust your set up to compensate for this? Perhaps your shoulders are jacked from the squat. What do you do?
  • Experimentation is the key to success. Determine your technical weaknesses and specific strength weaknesses. Utilize different methods to produce the desired outcome. Practice this new set up after you develop very detailed and specific cues on how to get into position.
  • If you train alone, you need to be very introspective and analytical. Tape some of your ME work. Or better yet, be as conscious as you can of every movement. Write down what worked and what didn’t. If you failed an attempt, go back through the lift and attempt to figure out what may have caused this. Was it solely because you weren’t strong enough or was it a technical misfire?

Alright, enough is enough. Quit reading this and go train for some PRs!

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