Article written by Matt Mills
As a strength athlete, I tend to stick to a lot of the same exercises that I am strongest at. This of course is nothing new, as we like a nice ego boost in the gym so we can go post about it on Facebook right after. I fell into this trap for way too long, only working on my strengths, and avoiding all of my weaknesses. I don’t care how strong or conditioned you are, we all have them. When I first started Powerlifting I was lucky enough to be taken in by one of the best female powerlifters in the world, Disa Hatfield, daughter of Fred Hatfield. Disa had shown me how to properly set up on the bench press, arching, tightness, leg drive, as well as how to do a sumo deadlift. I had squatted and deadlifted all through high school, but I was never shown how to properly perform them. Half squats were a regular thing for me until I was shown what proper depth was. I literally went from what I thought was a 405 squat to a 135 below parallel squat. It was very humbling, but I knew it was something I absolutely needed to work on. Now, followers of LBEB are definitely not quarter squatters, but the point was instead of letting my ego get the best of me, I dropped the weight and slowly worked my way back up the right way.
Prior to Powerlifting I trained strictly as a bodybuilder with high amounts of volume, and all kinds of body part splits to hit every single muscle I could in isolation. Looking back this wasn’t the best way a beginner should train, but I did get bigger, and stronger. Now I’m not saying any of you should get some posing trunks, get oiled up, and tanned to step onstage, unless that’s your goal of course. If you have read any of my previous articles you can tell I am a big fan of using bodybuilding training to bring up weak points. I never advocate only using the big lifts to get stronger. Don’t get me wrong: squats, deadlifts, and presses should always be part of your program no matter what your goals, but don’t be afraid to switch things around.
I have been guilty many times of sticking to my strengths and yes, I got somewhat stronger, but it also caused numerous minor injuries in the process. Performing the same lift the same way will only bring up the stronger muscles, and keep the weaker muscles weak. I have many examples of this from my own training. One being that I always loved the bench press, but then again, what high school kid didn’t? We used to have a contest on a weekly basis, so my train of thought was I had to bench press nearly every day! It was safe to say that my chest took over most of the movement while my shoulders and triceps were lacking big time. I know plenty of lifters that have the complete opposite problem as they are all triceps and no pectoral development. Not having addressed my weak points only led to me getting hurt in a charity event of all places. I completely tore my pec major in half on a 445 bench press. I was lucky enough to make a full 100% recovery, but I needed to know why it happened after all these years of benching with no problems.
As a Powerlifter my best pull is in a sumo stance by far. My conventional pull was honestly embarrassing compared to my sumo. For years I would only pull sumo, and occasionally throw in some rack pulls. I didn’t want to pull from the floor, because I was incredibly weak at that point. Even as a Strongman competitor I was lucky enough that most of the deadlifts are generally raised off the floor so again, I avoided conventional deadlifting. After deadlifting only in a wider stance I began to develop some nasty hip tendinitis, which, paired with my wide squatting only made things worse. I finally realized I needed to bring both of my stances in, which immediately made the tendinitis go completely away in a matter of weeks. I changed to a conventional deadlift, and also brought my squat stance in considerably. Now I was extremely weaker on both lifts, and I literally had to lower the weight I was using by over 100lbs. Once my weaker points started coming up my body hurt far less, and I even packed on a lot more muscle from lifts I wasn’t used to.
Once my focus changed solely to strongman training I was forced to work my conventional deadlift even more, as well as take flat benching out of my program. My upper body training focused more on strengthening my shoulders, triceps, and far less on my chest, which is just what I needed. On occasion I would put my sumo pull back into my training, and the craziest thing happened every time I did…I was stronger! This was a pretty big light bulb to me as I would only conventional deadlift in my training since I was much weaker at it. My squat was no different as I was far better in a wider stance, but I had brought my stance in considerably, as well as making front squats a priority for Strongman. Training for the Arnold in March of this year I only trained narrow stances as it was more specific to the events. Only 4 weeks after the Arnold I had signed up for my first Powerlifting meet in over 3 years. I only had 2 ½ weeks of solid training ahead of me before I had to start deloading again, so I didn’t have much time. My compound lifts were switched back to my stronger stances, both immediately felt better than ever. The main goal of this meet was to pull 800lbs so the plan was to hold back a little on the squat and after 3 pec tears I had to take a token bench.
I’m not here to discuss the details of the competition but I was able to hit a PR on both the squat and deadlift with hardly training my stronger stance in the 8 months prior. I was able to hit an extremely low 665lb squat and my all-time goal of pulling 800lbs.
The reason I discuss Bodybuilding training is that bodybuilders that compete are perfectionists, and they will spend countless hours bringing up their weaker muscles. Arnold used to spend at least an hour on just his calves after every training session, as he always thought they were a weak point for him. Again, Bodybuilders are solely concerned with how they look, but a small muscle group is likely to be a weak muscle group. I can honestly say I only have only known and heard of a handful of great lifters that have purely gotten stronger performing the same compound lifts all of the time. There are quite a few programs out there like this, and I’m sure many of you have tried them without much success. I’m not going to get into any specific programs here, but I will say in my experience working with hundreds of clients, along from my own experience you cannot back squat heavy nearly every day. Any lifter that has been on any of these programs is constantly pushing through pain, and let me tell you that is not a good thing, and does not make you “hardcore”. As an advanced lifter there is pain I have to push through at certain times to get the job done just like most of you as competitors do. However there is a fine line between pain you can work through, and pain you can’t that will result in injury, or even surgery.
I also love using different types of bars in my training. Just as changing your stance on squats and deadlifts can increase your strength and size, so can switching up the bar you use. If you have seen my previous videos, I use the safety bar quite a bit in my training with good reason. One being when I low bar squat for a while I get some pretty bad elbow pain. I low bar squat because that’s where I’m strongest, so I make sure to train it hard for an upcoming contest, but when your shoulders and elbows need a break, the safety bar is a good choice. For those of you that are trainers, you will be sure to run into people who simply cannot put a straight bar on their back, as it will be too much on their shoulders. Don’t be stupid here and make them force it, because you will only have an injured client that will no longer be a member.
What I want you to do is abandon all of your strongest lifts. If you have never tried sumo deadlifting, then give it a shot. If you find out you are a terrible sumo deadlifter, you know what you need to work on. If you use a moderate squat stance then try it wider, then more narrow. If you have access to any specialty bars, give them a shot for a training cycle, as I guarantee you it will be humbling experience. For those of you who are interested in getting your overhead press up, as I always I recommend trying a different grip. Press in a neutral grip with a swiss bar, or strict press a log if you have one. Train like a bodybuilder, find out what muscle groups you are lacking in, and make it a priority in your training to bring them up. Despite what some strength athletes think, the added muscle can only help your big lifts.