Friday, April 2, 2010

Powerlifting, Part Three - Bradley Steiner

Ken Waller
Photo, Ray Beck

Norbert Schemansky

Doug Hepburn

Powerlifting, Part Three
by Bradley Steiner

Pull Movements And Their Variations

Pull movements hit the back heavily. Olympic lifters train practically on pull exclusively, and, as a result they have the finest back development of any athletes in the world. Back work is synonymous with power work. Back work builds tremendous muscularity in the entire upper body and power to the Nth degree. While pressing builds great arms in the sense of TRICEP development, pulling builds great arms in the sense of BICEP development. Read that sentence again. A balanced ration of the heavy press/pull exercises in your routine will give you strong, well-developed arms in a way that all the curling and tricep isolation movements never can. Believe me! If you want arms concentrate on press/pull basics.

Power Cleans

This exercise is so superbly excellent that I have come to the conclusion that the only reason it is not more widely used is because of laziness. It is a rugged movement, I’ll concede, but it provides so much great benefit that everyone who works out should use it from time to time. Power cleans provide puff-and-pant exercise, fantastic back, arm, trap and leg work, and generally increase overall body strength at a fantastic rate. All the movement really consists of is a floor-to-shoulders rapid lift of a heavy barbell, and then the return of the barbell to the floor position. It cannot be done for high reps and heavy weights, unless you happen to be a born superman. Low reps (no more than 6 a set) are indicated, and sets of 3 to 6 are best. Also points to bear in mind when power cleaning include . . .

VERY tight grip on the bar.
Hands comfortably spaced, not too narrow, not too wide.
DO NOT rise up on toes when cleaning.
Finish the lift part of the clean in a solid, secure position.
Lower the weight RHYTHMICALLY, do not drop it.
Lift partly with leg strength, as well as back and arm power.

Suggested set/rep schemes for effective training in the power clean are:

5 sets of 5 reps. Here, the first 2 sets are progressively heavier warmup sets, and the final three sets are done with an absolute limit.
4 sets of 6 reps are also good.
Going as heavy as possible, I’d use a set/rep scheme like this – 1 set of 6 (warmup), 1x6 (heavier), 1x4 (added weight), 1x3 (added weight), 1x2 (added weight), 1x1 (near limit), 1x1 (all-out limit).
For general conditioning 2 sets of 10 reps with a moderate weight are fine in the power clean.

Bentover Rowing

Reg Park regarded this exercise as the single best back movement. Park was perhaps one of the three best examples of a champion power-bodybuilder during the 1960’s. Most men who know their business in the physical training field know how great the bentover row movement is as a basic pull. Key points in the bentover row:

Warm up the lower back first before going into the exercise.
Use a very tight, CONTROLLING grip on the bar, and a comfortable handspacing.
Pull the bar to touch the midsection or chest, and lower to full arms’ length for every rep.
Do not permit excessive body swing to assist in the basic rowing action (although some body swing is inevitable when handling heavy weights).
Try to remain as “bentover” as you possibly can so that the fullest burden of work is thrown upon the thick lat muscles.

Best set/rep schemes are:

2 or 3 sets of 8-10 reps for general development.
5x5 or 5x6 (as described for power cleans) for power-bodybuilding.
1x8, 1x6, 3x5 (weight increases following each set) for variety in power-building.
NOTE: I have found there is no value in training for single attempts in this movement.

Power Snatches

Many believe the Olympic lifter’s snatch movement to be the finest all-round weightlifting movement. In many ways it certainly is. However, the “pure” Olympic split or squat style of snatching is neither necessary or all that desirable for the power-bodybuilding oriented trainee. It requires too much total devotion in training because of its strenuous nature and difficult movement patterns. Better to do the variation of the lift known as power snatching, which will provide the many of the benefits and take less single-lift involvement on the part of the trainee. When the power snatch is done with a light weight it is called the FLIP SNATCH. I favor flip snatches above any other movement (except perhaps rope-skipping) as an effective warming up movement.

The power snatch is simply a floor-to-overhead rapid lift, starting from the same position you’d use for power cleans, except with a wider handspacing. The bar is secured by the hands, the hips are dropped low for drive, and the head is raises. Then, DRIVE! The hard pull is made and as the bar travels upward the knees are bent slightly so a modified “dip” under the rising weight is permitted. As the bar locks out overhead the body is brought to an erect, solid, upright posture. The weight is lowered, and the next rep is started.

The virtues of power snatches (or flip snatches) are many, and I stress that they are essential in some form, from time to time, in your schedule. When power snatching, remember:

Keep the feet solidly placed and drive with the legs to aid in the lift.
Keep the tightest possible grip on the bar.
Lock out fully overhead – arms STRAIGHT!
Pause after each snatch, to make sure of you solid position.
Coordinate every muscle in your body to achieve a smooth, good-feeling lift.

Suggested set/rep schemes:

1 or 2 sets of 6 reps as a warmup (light flip snatches).
1x6, 1x5, 1x3, 1x1 (basic heavy workout, adding poundage after each set).
5x5 – advanced power training (using first 2 sets as progressive warmups, and adding weight for 3 sets of 5 reps with a limit weight.

The Deadlift

One of the accepted powerlifts, the deadlift is also a fine power-bodybuilding EXERCISE. This is especially true when done in stiff-legged style. Working the lower back via very heavy deadlifting is not advisable too often as this part of the anatomy tends to be somewhat prone to injury if overworked. Yet, the low back area is also a critical zone and, in addition to exercises like snatches and cleans that indirectly hit the area, specific deadlifting from time to time is desirable. Here are some tips on performance:

Use an over-under grip when training heavy.
Control the weight, don’t swing it or bounce it.
Warm up adequately.
Keep the head up.
In regular deadlifting drive with the legs.
In stiff-legged deadlifting remember not to “jerk” the body up.
Most of the time if is better not to use a too-heavy weight.

Set/Rep Schemes:

Regular deadlifts – 4x6 or 5x5 or 4x5.
Stiff-legged deadlifts – 2x10-12 or 3x8 or 1x8, 1x6, 1x5 (adding weight each set).
NOTE: Go for a limit only in the regular deadlifts, never with the stiff-legged variation.

High Pulls

Generally thought of as a weightlifter’s assistance movement (which it is), the high pull is also a power-bodybuilder par excellence! It induces muscular gains throughout the body and builds great strength and power. In all, a VERY desirable exercise. It is definitely rugged.

My interpretation of high pulls are upright rows done from floor to head height. The handspacing is either clean grip or the wider snatch grip. They are rough and it is best to do them in fairly low-rep sets to avoid awkward and potentially dangerous poor technique. Remember . . .

Pull hard! Try to touch the ceiling with the bar.
Let the high pull be a coordinated movement that utilizes every muscle group.
Work as rapidly as you can, avoid pausing for too long between reps.

Suggested beginner’s schedule: 3 sets of 6 reps.
Advanced: 1x6, 1x4, 1x3, 1x3, 1x2 (adding weight after each set).
There is no need to go for limit singles in high pulling.


The basic squat to full or to parallel position is THE basic power exercise, and one of the best overall bodybuilding exercises as well. There are a few worthwhile variations to the squat – the most valuable being the front squat. The power-bodybuilder should put his effort into BASIC squats, and include front squats from time to time as a variation, an aid, or as a means of avoiding staleness. Essentials to remember:

NEVER bounce or drop into a squat! This is the cause of knee and back injuries.
Always have two attentive spotters or a power rack when you are going for heavy and for limit reps.
Try to keep your back flat and erect.
Go into the full squat position only with weights that do not approach your absolute limit, otherwise stick to parallel squats.
Warm up well before going into heavy squats.
Keep your head up.
NEVER pause and wait at the bottom of a squat. Come up fast!
Try a shoe with a raised heel to see if it helps.
Learn to breathe, powerfully and effectively when you squat, through experimentation.

Suggested set/rep schemes:

2 or 3 sets of 10 to 12 repetitions for intermediate trainees.
4x6 or 3x8 or 5x5 for advanced people (using increased weights for each set).
BEGINNERS will follow either a breathing squat (1x20) routine to gain weight, or a basic 1 or 2 by 12-15 routine to build up generally for the first three or four months of training.
Front squats should be worked the same (set/rep-wise) as standard squats.
In going for an all-out limit squat try this sequence:
1x12 (warmup), 1x8, 1x6, 1x3, 1x2, 1x1, 1x1 (adding weight after each set).

Bench Work

The bench press is a basic powerlift as well as a fundamental power-bodybuilding exercise. In training it should be used on a flat as well as an incline bench from time to time for variety. The dumbells can be utilized on the bench, and if they are used the weights should be heavy. Flyes on the incline bench are good for power-bodybuilders too.

Too much emphasis should not be given to bench work. The reason why many trainees favor bench pressing above standing presses is because the bench permits the use of heavier weights with the expenditure of less effort. Naturally, this means, to all who are honest about it, that the overall benefit to the entire body is less with bench pressing than it is with standing pressing. Bench work is valuable and important, but in recent years it has been given way too much emphasis by bodybuilders and lifters alike. Do it, but don’t OVERDO it. Some tips for getting the most out of bench work:

Work strictly, not bouncing the bar off your chest, or swinging instead of lifting the dumbells.
Keep hips on the bench – don’t over-arch.
Keep a tight grip on the barbell or dumbells.
Be sure to have two attentive spotters or a power rack whenever you go for a new maximum, be it a single or maximum reps with a weight.
NEVER do benches to the neck! The “upper” pecs can be worked adequately and well by simply reverting to an incline bench or doing incline flyes, instead of bench presses to the neck.

Recommended set/rep schemes:

Beginners: 2 or 3 sets of 8-12 reps with moderate weights.
Advanced: 3 or 4 sets of 6 reps. 4 sets of 8 reps. 1x8, 1x8, 2x6 (adding weight after each set). Also, 5x5 as shown in the power clean example.
Set/rep schemes apply to barbell and dumbell bench presses and flying movements with heavy dumbells – all exercises done either on a flat or incline bench.

Partials, Rack Work And Isometrics

In 90% of the training you do the emphasis should be on picture-perfect form AND heavy weights. Cheating is undesirable, and while it SEEMS that you are working harder because you are lifting more you are, in fact, working less intensively since the “heavier” work is being distributed over many hefty muscle groups – instead of being placed on the ones that you wish to work.

Sometimes – SOMETIMES – a little cheating is okay. But more often than not when the urge comes to really pile on the workload you are better doing partials. This way you will actually be putting forth the work where it is desired, with no outside assistance. Let me show you what I mean by partials.

Let’s take the deadlift. We’ll say you normally do 4 sets of 5 reps with 300 pounds. Now you are hungry for more strength and power, so one day you may do the following . . . you do the first 3 sets as usual to give your back a good basic workout, and also to insure an adequate warmup. Then, you put 400 pounds on the bar. You know you can’t get a full deadlift with that weight, but you also know that a PARTIAL lift, once you’ve thoroughly warmed up, will provide a good stimulus so that perhaps in a few workouts you’ll manage 310 pounds for 5 reps. You go right ahead and deadlift the 400 pounds from the floor as best you can. As it turns out you succeed in lifting rep #1 to about knee height. After a few breaths, rep #2 is the same. Rep #3 won’t budge after going mid-distance up your shin, and by rep #4 your hands are begging to let go of the bar. But you set your mind as firmly as your muscles and you go foe the final rep. Murder! You eke out an inch-off-the-floor lift, and drop the bar like it was the end of a Sherman tank. That’s a good set of partials for you!

You will need partners or a power rack to do bench presses and squats as partials. Never try to do this without a high quality power rack or two husky, attentive spotters.

You can make your deltoids feel like they were made of cotton if you press 3 normal sets of 6 reps and then 2 sets of 3- or 4-rep partials with an excess of iron on the bar some day. Try it. Don’t do this often, though, since more than one such workout a month or, at the most, every three weeks, is plenty. The same can be done with bench presses, squats, etc. by using different settings in the power rack.

Partials build power and strength in abundance. You can – and I am not exaggerating – sometimes improve a lift after one workout where you apply partials properly. The trick is to see that you don’t do them too often and get enough rest between attempts.

With the warning that, again, partial movements are a supplementary aid, not a recommended method of constant training, I commend the technique to you as truly valuable.

I mentioned racks and their use with partial movement workouts. Not only can you use the rack to do partial movements, but you can use them to aid in isometric contractions and in all forms of really heavy, borderline lifting. Borderline lifting is when you’re only half-sure that you’ll make the set, or the rep.

Isometrics were once offered as the final answer to rapid strength and muscle building. This was too bad, because the idiots that did this ruined what could have been a good thing in its own right. After all, something doesn’t have to be perfect of be a kind of panacea for it to have genuine value. In its place, isometric contraction exercise is valuable. It is certainly no substitute for vigorous weight training. Not by a long shot. Isometrics CAN keep the muscles toned when weight training facilities are not available. They can also help overcome a sticking point in a particular lift by overloading a specific area of the movement.

In the next chapter I’ll outline a good, basic beginner’s course.

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