When you approach the barbell, your setup should be automatic. There should be no thinking on where you hands go, what hand grabs the bar first, where your feet should be lined up, or how low your hips should be. You should have done so many reps the same way that your body REACTS.
When it is competition day, you want to get into a flow state. You are moving through the steps without thinking. Your heart is beating faster, your mind is in the present moment, and you are ready to destroy the weight on the bar.
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You would never see a basketball player change their free-throw routine on game day. Most of them developed their routine in middle school and kept it for the rest of their life. My free throw routine is dribbling twice with my right hand, spinning the ball so my shooting hand is lined up in the center of the ball, taking one breath, and then shooting. I have been using this technique for as long as I can remember.
If I drilled with my left hand instead of my right hand, I would be so confused – and my shot would feel off. I guarantee you I would miss more shots if I used a new free throw technique. If I wanted to change it, I could do it, but I would suffer a performance decrease for a short period of time.
Setup is similar but even more important for sports like weightlifting and powerlifting. If we don’t set up right, we are throwing away so much potential to generate more tension in the barbell – tension to help us get our spine organized, to get “tight,” and to make the weight on the bar feel lighter.
Starting from the Top
My favorite way to teach beginners how to set up for weightlifting is using a top down approach.
- Set the core
- Bend the knees
- Hinge the hips while keeping the same knee bend
- Bend the knees further to get to the bar
- Take the tension out of the bar
- Get your eyes straight ahead
The order needs to remain the same every time. As people do reps more and more, they sometimes rush the set up and start combining steps. Don’t do this! Take your time in your setup. If your setup is rushed and you do not maximize the amount of tension in the start position, you are losing kilos in your lifts.
Not everyone needs a top down setup, but I think it is the best to organize the spine. When setting up, spinal alignment should be one of the biggest priorities. You can control the amount of lumbar motion using this setup more than any other. Most people have a hard time organizing their spine in the bottom position of a squat. It is much easier to organize your spine at the top and maintain it as you hinge.
Another key component in the set up that I often see done poorly is taking the tension out of the bar before the lift begins. If I can hear a “click” in the bar when I am standing next to you, that “click” means the tension in the bar was not taken up. You need to start pulling on the bar before you pull the bar off the floor.
Let’s say you need 100% effort to pull the bar off the floor. For you to get set up properly, you need to start pulling with 10-20% effort to get the slack out of the bar. You should be pulling on the bar to help you get set up and maximize the tension in the bar. If I was to let go of the bar before I lifted it, I would fall backward. I am using the weight of the bar to pull me into a better position. Take the slack out of the bar before getting set.
The last component that needs discussion is eye/head position. If you are doing weightlifting movements you want to keep the head/eyes straight ahead. There is so much movement the body has to go through in weightlifting. You want to keep the head stable. It should be consistent throughout the entire movement. If you want to maximize your balance and stability, don’t move your head.
If you are doing strength movements, I want your head in a neutral position. I like having it aligned with the rest of the spine. The lumbar, thoracic, and cervical (neck) spine should all be aligned. This normally puts the eyes and head looking slightly down. As the movement continues, the head and eyes will naturally rise. Don’t move the neck or eyes as you are moving. Just have the “eyes open” but don’t look at anything in particular.
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Make sure to build quality reps while getting set up! The more reps you get using the same set up the better. If you want to change your set up to organize your spine or get more tension out of the bar, you are going to need more reps. Start slow and DO NOT RUSH YOUR SET UP.
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