By Chris Manrodt

Are you just getting started in Powerlifting? Have you heard about lifting but aren't sure what it really is? Are you interested in playing a sport, but need to get bigger, stronger, or both to crack the starting line-up? This section of the Strength On-line Page is devoted to helping the beginner. A lot of the lifting information out there is written for folks who compete regularly in Powerlifting meets, or who have a several years of lifting experience. I will attempt to make this column humorous and interesting as I try to shed light on the basics of successful, injury free lifting.

Pop culture has given the word “Balance” a lot of meanings in our language. To a powerlifter, balance also has more than one meaning. And, balance is something most powerlifters strive to maintain. I would like to address two of those meanings for the beginner and even for the more advanced lifter.

Balance and Physics

        In the days before digital scales and pressure sensors, the only way to weigh something was to put it on one end of a balance, and then put objects of a known weight on the other end. When you had added enough objects of known weight to balance the two sides, you knew how much something weighed. For those of you too young to have played with a balance in school, think about the scale at the doctor's office, there they try to get the horizontal bar with the numbers on it to balance by sliding weights along a lever. What’s my point? There is no question that weight and balance are fundamentally linked.

       If we think about physics for a second, there are two components to force. There is a magnitude component, which in our case is the weight. And there is a directional component, sometimes called the vector. In the case of a powerlifter, that would be straight down, from the force of gravity. Or, wait.....

       If the direction of the force is only straight down, then how can a lifter fall forward or backward when trying to squat and deadlift? How can the bar move toward the head in the bench press?

       While it is true that the force of gravity pulls straight down on an object on the earth’s surface, the powerlifter may not necessarily push straight up against gravity to move the weight. In order to minimize wasted energy, it would be of obvious advantage to push straight up, and avoid and movement in other directions.

       Lets look a little closer at the squat. From my experience of tweaking with form, there are easily three things, which could keep a novice lifter from moving weights even close to their potential:

  1.  Leaning too far forward thus putting the force on the back, and removing the efforts of the quads and hips.
  2.  Placing the bar too high on the neck, which can lead back to problem #1, or can cause a lifter to lean back too much. Then, you end up doing a high bar squat like a bodybuilder, where much less weight can be used, because the movement is using mostly quadriceps.
  3.  Having a muscular imbalance between the left and right legs.

       What do these three have in common? No, they are not about eating right, sleeping enough, taking the right supplements, and using the right routine. They all effect balance. It's simply keeping the weight on your back, balanced front-to-back and side-to-side. Having watched countless squatters in meets at the local level, about half the time that a lifter fails to get the weight up, it is because they moved in a direction that was distinctly not up-and-down.

       I have had a lot of personal experience with problem #3. I ruptured 2 ligaments in my right ankle four years ago. And after six months of rehab, my right leg had become much weaker than my left. Every time I squatted, I would descend normally, but then coming out of the hole; I would shift to the left noticeably as I ascended. After struggling for a whole year trying to work up to my old contest max, my left hip was really hurting. In fact, my left side had gotten much stronger; from what my doctor told me was over-compensation for my weak ankle. As my balance shifted, it limited my strength. Not to mention the fact that the uneven stress was causing structural problems in my joints.

       So, what did I do? Well, first off, I had to back way off on the weight I was using, and basically learn how to squat all over again. I had to re-teach my muscles how to work together with the proper right-to-left balance. I added a lot of one-legged assistance exercises, which helped to strengthen my weaker leg, and also added a lot of hip flexor, adductor, and abductor exercises to help build more stability in my core. The results have been great, as I have been pain free for the last year, and I have recently broken my PR in the squat and the deadlift.

       I have also found new life using box squats, as espoused by Louie Simmons at Westside Barbell. This technique requires a tremendous focus on form, using weights that are only 50-60% of one’s max. This has really helped me to develop a strong, balanced squat. I would recommend these to anyone who is struggling with their squat form. Use a light weight, do many sets, and really concentrate on making every rep perfect. If after a few reps, you can’t keep your form perfect, quit, and come back again stronger next time. Do not continue to train with poor form. Your body, your strength, and your total will suffer in the long run.

Balance and Lifestyle

       O.K., radical shift in topic. Another definition of balance is one that you would mostly likely hear on Oprah. It is about balance in your life, and in your priorities. The easiest way to talk about this is with an illustration.

       Have you ever read any of those “Train like the Champions” articles in bodybuilding magazines? Most of us in the strength game have, and many of us were introduced to strength via these glossy, eye-grabbing works. Many of these bodybuilders train twice a day, six days a week. They eat a chicken breast and a protein shake every three hours from sunrise to midnight. They also train for hours at a time, working a single muscle for 20 or more sets at a crack. And while the result of their efforts is as obvious as their tan lines, I ask “What about the rest of life?”

       For the powerlifter, one cannot spend twenty hours a week training the squat. In fact, most research suggests that your one rep max will actually decrease if you train too frequently with heavy weights above 90%. So, what is a lifter to do to get stronger? First get in to the gym, lift hard, then get the heck out of there. If you are sweating under iron for more than 90 minutes, four times a week, you are probably hurting your cause more than you are helping it. In fact, it is more likely that 3 sessions of 45 minutes will be more than adequate for the less seasoned lifter. 

       Let's draw another analogy, this time to football. Why is it that football players, even at the professional level only play 16 games in a year, playing just once per week, while basketball players complete 82 games in a single year, and baseball players play 162? The short answer is that football is tough on the body. A football player can recover from a hard-hitting game in about 4-5 days, and most coaches know that during the regular season, you have to limit how much full contact goes on during practice. Basketball players can routinely play two nights in a row, but will tend to suffer only after they play on a third consecutive night.

       Powerlifting is like football, and bodybuilding is more like basketball. A powerlifter needs time to recover from each workout. Time away from the gym. In a way, this makes powerlifting a wonderful sport, because it allows for a good lifter and even a great lifter to have a balanced lifestyle. In fact, I would go so far as to say powerlifting requires a balanced lifestyle. You have to do other things besides powerlifting. The list is endless:

  • Read some books. Dr. Mel Siff and Dr. Fred Hatfield are among my favorite authors.
  • Raise a family. Many on the Strength list, including its owner, are proudly and successfully raising families while competing at the top of the sport year round. What percentage of elite level athletes in other sports can boast that?
  • Join an organization or group. My wife and I have gotten involved in our church.
  • Play a recreational sport on the weekend. Louie Simmons would call that GPP, {Jason, maybe add a hyperlink to Louie’s GPP article?}
  • Start a powerlifting web site, or contribute to an existing one. (oh wait...)
  • Volunteer. You can look like a stud (or studette) pushing a wheelbarrow for Habitat for Humanity or any other worthy organization.

       Powerlifting is about being strong. To be strong, you must have a strong body AND a strong spirit. To have a strong spirit, you must nourish it. Most eastern and western schools of thought and philosophy are rooted in actions which create a balance of activities between inward focus and outward focus.

       While I have never known any champion bodybuilders, I used to have roommates that lived like them. They spent so much time in the gym and preparing food, that they lost track of their friends, they lost track of current events, and they even lost track of their jobs. Now, they looked like studs, and they were very popular with the ladies, but they never kept a girlfriend for very long, because of the intense time, energy and monetary requirements of that lifestyle. That lifestyle was focused almost totally inward. 

       By comparison, powerlifters are notoriously friendly and helpful. There are many entries to Powerlifting forums about the wonderful generosity of Powerlifting champs, giving their time and energy to help run meets, give advice, sit in a judges chair, etc. etc. Many powerlifters are ready to lend a spot in the warm-up room, or grab the bottom of a bench shirt. The great lifters in this sport understand the idea of balancing inward focus with outward focus. I have had the personal privilege to talk to USAPL SHW National Champ Brad Gillingham, and he is definitely a model in that mold. He is always helping, cheering, and sharing advice. 

Balance and Thought

       Balance is an outward manifestation of an inward attitude. In the gym, balance means focusing on form, and correct muscle action. Outside of the gym, it means thinking about things besides your next trip to the gym. Many novices have fallen in love the sport of powerlifting, and tried to devote all their time to it. Only to get tired or burned out, before they ever really got strong. I bet if they spent more time thinking about lifting, and more time filling their lives with other things that they love to do, they might enjoy powerlifting even more.

For more information on getting started check out the archives section here on Strength Online or drop by the Q&A forums.

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        prohibited without written consent. Copyright 1999 Chris Manrodt.