Change often isn’t comfortable.
Get a conventional deadlifter to pull sumo for the first time and ask them how they feel about change. Chances are they won’t like you very much for asking.
In a sport of three disciplines, you tend to get pretty familiar with how your squat, bench press, and deadlift feel. You perform each movement hundreds of times a month, and when a lift deviates from what you’re used to feeling, it stands out. Given how repetitive practicing for the sport of powerlifting can be, when something stands out as feeling different, the snap reaction is usually to tell ourselves it is wrong.
This challenges our willingness to make significant changes to technique, some that may be required in order to make significant progress.
Is it wrong or just different?
Cross your arms. Go ahead. Do it. Feels easy and comfortable, right? Now cross your arms the other way. Feels pretty awkward, doesn’t it. It might have even taken you a few tries to figure out how to do that. Now, crossing your arms in the opposite direction is by no means fundamentally wrong. It’s just something you’re not used to, and something your body hasn’t quite figured out yet. If you did it a couple of hundred times in a row, it would start to feel natural pretty quickly. But until then, you’re working with a cold motor pattern, so to speak, and it’s going to feel a little funky.
This brings me to a phrase I must’ve said a hundreds of times to dozens of the athletes I coach: “just because it feels different doesn’t mean it is wrong.”
Similarly, just because it feels easy doesn’t mean it is right. But perhaps a better word would be optimal.
Powerlifting is a sport of human architecture. The more structurally sound we can make ourselves, in terms of joint angles and positions, the more enhanced our ability to take advantage of the strength that we have will be.
Understanding your body
The majority of young lifters go through a phase in which they accidentally stumble across the fact that they can squat with a pretty darn wide stance.
Week by week the feet just seem to eek themselves out more and more. This also happens to coincide with that athlete starting to train seriously for the sport of powerlifting. Their squat numbers are climbing because of a greater exposure to squat frequency, and thus volume, and they are making progress.
That technique must work for them, right?
A more experienced set of eyes will notice a few things when watching this particular athlete squat: As they exit the bottom of the squat with heavy weights, the knees will often slide back, deferring force production away from the knee extensors and to the hamstrings and glutes. The chest will often fall down slightly as the hips pop up. The squat becomes less an up-and-down affair, and more of back and forth dance. In short, this athlete’s squat is not structurally sound. There are energy leaks all over. In general, the lesser the amount of total movement in a lift, the more efficient that lift will be.
Something needs to change.
Adding 15kg to my squat
I was once this particular athlete.
A good friend, better coach and national record squat holder, Trent Blanchard, has one of the most tight, efficient squats you’ll ever see. He pointed out that my stance had become too wide.
“You have big strong quads from all the time that you spent Olympic Weightlifting. I think you should bring your stance back in and take advantage of that in your squat.”
So I took his advice.
I moved my feet in about six inches each side. It felt weird. It felt very weird. My quads got extraordinarily sore. And so did my abs. I had to spend three weeks using lighter weight than I was accustomed to, which didn’t necessarily stroke my ego. But it slowly began to feel natural. And objectively, my squat was prettier and more efficient. I was getting balanced force production from all of my leg muscles. The gummy tendons that attach to the hip began to cool off.
And then the personal records started coming.
Every session it was something new. A PR double. Hitting my old PR double for a set of four. New 1RM’s when I was supposed to be working up to a moderately difficult single – and they were truly only moderately difficult. The technique change that was uncomfortable and awkward at first resulted in some major progress about three months later. In those three months, I added 15kg to my squat.
Pushing through the weird
With any major technical overhaul there is going to be some growing pains. They will often challenge your patience. Working with lighter weights than usual can also challenge your identity as a powerlifter. All of these things are an investment in better lifting in the future. Be it switching from weightlifting shoes back to flat shoes in the squat, moving from a standard bench press grip to maximum legal width, or learning to deadlift sumo, it’s going to feel strange at first. But that doesn’t mean that it is wrong, and making those changes may make you a much more effective lifter.
It is humbling to take a step back and accept we may not be doing things as optimally as we could be.
Powerlifting is an individual sport, and it’s important to remember how individualized it is to maximize the bodies we have. It can become very easy to get wrapped up in the feeling of familiarity with our own technique, and construe that as meaning it is ideal. Removing the personal bias, deferring to a coach or trusted friend in the sport, and critically thinking about how to optimize yourself as a structure is crucial to long-term development. Because change often isn’t comfortable, but neither is progress, and sometimes the two can be one and the same.
About the author
Justin Reeson is the owner of LiftHacks, and a Team Canada Powerlifting coach. He has coached dozens of powerlifters including multiple Canadian national champions, national record holders, and medalists. He is a competitive powerlifter and olympic weightlifter. Justin is most passionate about strength and human performance, and aspires to help others realize how much they can achieve through patience, discipline, and hard work.