Do you lift weight? You better be able to do these 3 things.

by Ryan Wagner

A few years back there was a guy in the gym that I would see quite frequently, as he and I apparently had the same schedule. And more often than not, he was bench pressing. But he was never pressing raw. Instead, he always used a heavy band wrapped around his upper arms, such that the elasticity of the band would aid his press and help him in the lower portion of his strength curve.

Now this is just fine if you’re a competing powerlifting and you’re purposely training different portions of your strength curve. However, it was clear to me that this guy wasn’t a competing lifter, he just wanted to rep out two plates. The danger in this is that you can’t really lift that much weight. The band is giving you probably 20 or 30 pounds for free.

I’m picking on this guy because he’s a perfect example of what so many people want when they come to the gym – they want to move some big weight.

Fundamentally, there seems to be a lack of respect for the fundamentals.

If you’ll allow me a little tangent here, I’ll summarize an article I read a while back about entrepreneur Elon Musk. He was explaining how he approaches his work. What it boiled down to was him spending much of his time on learning the fundamentals.

And so in the gym, a lot of people spend way too much time working accessory exercises. Think: curls or calf raises.

That being said, with this post, I want to go through a handful of examples where you may be getting ahead of yourself. I identify a goal, and what you need to do in order to have the privilege to go after it.

And let’s be abundantly clear here, I’m not trying to shout from my high horse and belittle your lifting. Quite the opposite. I want to keep you healthy and happy. To provide you the best tools available to go after your physical goals. And training smart means having a clear understanding, and respect for, the fundamentals. So, do you lift weight? Well, let’s take a look at the fundamentals.

Spent ample time building your foundation, then build an awesome house!

1. Squat

Goal: You want to squat below parallel

Requirement: Then you need to be able to perform 3 full range of motion pistol squats.

Admittedly, I’m starting the list off with a tough one, aren’t I? And there’s a fair chance that many of you are already squatting below parallel and are no where near proficient in the pistol.

And if you’re still reading this and haven’t already rationalized to yourself why I’m wrong, let’s get into the weeds.

First and foremost, the squat is a serious lift. Not because it involves a particularly large amount of weight, but because it’s a very technical movement. It’s a compound lift that involves your entire kinetic chain. If you’re just learning to squat, it can take months to get everything dialed in and years to hone your pattern in a safe and efficient manner. When we talk about squatting below parallel – a controversial topic in its own right – one of the key pieces of the puzzle is having just the right amount of mobility.

And that’s where the pistol comes in. With a properly executed pistol, there’s a lot going on. You need good mobility at your ankle, your knee, and your hip in order to get all the way down. Also, your quads need to be loose enough for your anterior meridial (fascial) line to slide over your patella. And you need to have the hamstring flexibility and hip flexor strength to allow you to extend your opposite leg in front of you while you shift your weight forward  so that you don’t fall backwards! Whew. Lots going on.

So, how does this relate to the squat? Well, a pistol is a unilateral movement, right? And a squat is bilateral. And a lot of the same things are going on. We need good movement at the ankle, knee and hip and flexible quads and hamstrings.

By learning to successfully perform a strict pistol squat, you train all of these things. In fact, you’re forced to check off these requirements, because otherwise, you won’t even be able to cheat it – you’ll fall over! In this sense, the pistol is a self-limiting exercise.

2. Pressing

Goal: You want to bench press heavy weight

Requirement: Then you need to be able to perform 10 great looking push ups.

Here’s what you need to understand about the bench press and push up: They are both pressing movements, but the push up is “closed chain” and the bench press is “closed chain.”

You can read one of my previous articles on the push up to get a thorough explanation on what I consider to be a “good” push up, but here’s the jist: Keep those elbows in, stay straight as a board, and keep your chin tucked down such that your entire spine is kept neutral.

If you can knock out 10 without shaking like a paint shaker, then you’re free to approach the bench.

3. Deadlift

Goal: You want to deadlift with a straight bar

Requirement: Then you need to nail your toe-touch and active straight leg raise.

Something to bear in mind, is that the traditional barbell deadlift is very much a joint friendly exercise. For instance, the movement of a deadlift is merely picking something up off of the ground, but the height at which the heavy object resides is arbitrary. So long as you’re lifting it with a hip dominant movement, it’s categorized as a deadlift. But in the gym, we use a barbell with plates that have a radius of 8.5 inches. Where did that come from? The answer is from the early Olympics, when organizers decided to institute a standard of sorts such that if a lifter missed the lift, his (and back then the only competing athletes were male) head would not be in danger of being crushed by the bar, due to shallow plates.

Fast forward to the present, and everyone and their mother has been lifting barbells from this set distance off the ground. And to be honest, reaching all the way down to grab a barbell while keeping a relatively straight tibia, means that most people deadlifting are pushing their luck. So, how do you know if you’re a good candidate to be safely lifting from 8.5″ off the ground?

Two ways:

1. Toe touch

Can you bend over and touch your toes without more than a micro-bend in your knees? Good, move on to number two.

2. Active straight leg raise

Lie down on your back and raise one leg as far up as you can. If you can get to almost perpendicular to the ground, good for you, you can deadlift. Gray Cook recently put together a nice video on this topic, and I’d encourage you to watch it if you have time. As usual, he argues a compelling case.

Wrap up

If reading through the above 4 movements was a bit of a reality check for you and you realized that maybe you have been putting the cart ahead of the horse, fear not, because once you master the prerequisite movements, you’ll be stronger in the long run.

By Ryan Wagner

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