Key to Continuing Progress for Advanced Lifters: SMALL Improvements

Posted On August 8, 2019

Most readers of this blog will have been lifting for quite a while. The quick and easy progress that came when first starting out is long behind us. As experienced lifters we must tease progress out of progressively more elusive places.

When discussing powerlifting training I like to use the 80/20 principle as an illustration. The first 80% of progress was easy.  Beginning from a relatively untrained starting point, the first gains were pretty easy.

However, after months and years of training, we now confront the difficult proposition of realizing the last 20% of our personal potential. I think each 5% increment of progress gets progressively more difficult.

An example from baseball can illustrate this point. Think of the development of the skill in hitting a baseball as growing in the following progression:

  • Hitting a ball off a batting tee
  • Learning to hit slow pitching
  • Learning to hit faster pitching
  • Organized high school/amateur pitching
  • College pitching
  • Minor league professional pitching
  • Major league pitching

At each stage of improvement, the player must master ever more subtle nuances in hitting. Something similar happens in powerlifting. But progress does not happen without focused intentional effort.

Most experienced lifters have mastered the fundamentals of performing the competitive lifts.  However, many do not realize their full potential because they inadvertently let small things fly under their radar.

Bad technique tends to creep in over time. Just ask any golfer. One of the hardest things to do is maintain a good golf swing. 

In powerlifting, this translates to being able to put out maximum force on each of the three lifts. Small technique flaws can undercut this objective.

For example, here are some common issues that can creep in when your not being vigilant:

When squatting, your butt comes up first coming out of the hole

Feet positioning in squatting restricts full engagement of the glutes

Bench press bar starts landing too far up the chest

Not driving the shoulders back when starting the deadlift pull

There are many more, but you get the point. Small technique issues can undercut your chances to progress.

If you have an experienced coach observing you on a regular basis, they can catch these seemingly minor problems, and begin helping you correct them.

For example, my coach (Tim Mercer) saw that the arch on my right foot was collapsing just a little bit and the chain of muscle activation that followed essentially cut my squatting power. 

These issues will usually be invisible to all but the most experienced coaches. 

Having detected this small flaw starts the process of corrective action.

Unfortunately, small flaws do not always have small solutions. The issue Tim observed stems from many different athletic injuries I have sustained over decades in different sports. Making corrections will require working on specific balance and muscle activation drills that one would think are far afield from powerlifting.

In my case, some ballet and gymnastics drills are going to be part of the recover-rebuild process. In addition, many more familiar drills with hip bands and thoracic compression are on my menu.

Now for those who want to begin with a self-assessment or do not have an experienced coach, here are some suggestions.

(Note: be very wary of taking advice from anyone who does not have a long history of coaching or competing in powerlifting.  Without a LOT of firsthand experience, they are whistling in the dark).

You may already have a sense of what part of a lift is giving you the most trouble.  Write this down because it will be important to deal with this in addition to other small things you may find.

Squat: Place an empty bar across your back and if possible, do the lift in front of a mirror.  The mirror can be your coach. You can also have someone shoot a video of you or shoot a video yourself using a tripod to hold the camera.

Use the same form you would use in a competition squat. Carefully observe your descent into the below parallel position. Stop at different points and do a check of your alignment. Pay special attention to how things feel and the tension in your muscles at each point.

Pause in the deep position and do a check of your feet, back angle, hip alignment, knee position, etc. Make a mental note of anything that seems even a little bit off or not quite right. Write this down as soon as possible. You will have to work on these things.

Slowly return to the upright position and pause to check your alignment at two or three different points. 

Take videos of yourself squatting with different weights, starting relatively light and working up to ones that are heavy for you. It may be that you have no obvious problems with light weights but start altering your technique as weighs get heavier (a very common problem).

Bench Press:  Light weights seldom reveal problems here.  You will need video of your bench press done with a weight that is at least a modest challenge for you.

The small things that happen in the bench press often come from relaxing a certain muscle group (at the wrong time).  Relaxing the back is common.

Allowing one or both shoulders to drift up toward your ears during the push is another common issue. 

It will really help if you can get views of your bench press from different angles: 1) directly on the side; 2) from slightly above and to one side of your head and 3) your feet and 4) from the top of your head. 

If you have a technique flaw you should see it in one of these views.

Deadlift: Video images will be the most useful for diagnosing any flaws in your technique. Looking at yourself in a mirror (head on) will not allow you to see the angle of your back or the position of your shoulders.

The deadlift is technically the least complicated of the lifts, but if you are seeking to get your maximum possible pull, you must ensure that your technique is flawless.

Probably the most common error is to get the butt too high and not fully engage the hips and the quads in the pull. A video taken from the side will reveal this if it is a bad habit you may have developed over time.

Another common error is to wear shoes with an elevated heel. This causes a forward lean that will cause your pull off the floor to drift forward. This dramatically reduces the efficiency of your pull. Lifting in flat soled shoes or slippers allows the most efficient pull.

Assessing the small faults you have in each lift can be mildly disturbing, but it is the only way you can make corrections that will give you bigger lifts.

I should note that you may find you have several things to correct on one (or all) of the lifts. My suggestion is that you try to clean them up one or two at a time. Trying to do too many at once can lead to nothing getting done.

The bottom line is that each of us must continually analyze our lifting technique to find those small opportunities for improvement.  None of us would knowingly toss away 5 kilos here or there.  But, that can happen if we are not constantly doing the lifts with our best technique.

Lift big,


Written by Richard

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