The Ritual of Barbell Training

Posted by on Feb 13, 2013 in Articles | 211 comments

I stood in a weight room the other day watching about 40 kids squat, press and deadlift. It was one of those rare occasions I wasn’t yelling something at a kid, “shove your knees out”, “chest up!”, “elbows in front of the bar!” All you could hear were the weights clanging, bumpers dropping, and yells from fellow lifters encouraging their training partner. I’m not sure why I wasn’t yelling at a kid but it was pretty nice for about 10 minutes. Just thinking and watching. As a strength coach in a crowded gym we don’t get much of that. So, in this rare opportunity I began thinking. What was I thinking about? I started to ponder why some kids excel in the weight room and some do not? Why do some kids gain 20 pounds of muscle, take their squat from 135 pounds to 400 pounds in 7 months, and become technicians of the lifts. Why do some of the others with access to the same program, the same advice, the same bar, the same steel, only gain a few pounds, take their squat from 115 pounds to 185 pounds, and just never make any more progress? This is what I was thinking about in the rare quiet of my own head in that noisy basement weight room.
I understand all the reasons we know so well. We all know them. Consistency, dedication, proper eating, proper recovery, GENETICS, mental attitude, and all the other things required to gain strength, size and power on a strength program. We know all these things are critical and we hammer them at every power athlete. A day doesn’t go by that I don’t talk to a kid about food, rest, recovery, focus, and consistency. There still seemed to be something else as I stood and watched these kids. What were the best performers doing in this crowd that made them different? Why did they look different as I stood and watched that day? Then it hit me. It hit me so hard that I could see it in every weight room I had coached in, including my own gym. The successful, the strong, approach the weight room and training in a very deliberate and focused manner. In the words of one of the best coaches in barbell sport, Marty Gallagher “one obvious difference between the athletically ordained and the athletically ordinary is the elite have an (innate?) ability to center and focus the mind on the athletic task at hand, whereas the civilian, the normal person, attacks weight training with the same approximate level of mental commitment they would muster for watering the lawn or brushing their teeth.” This was the difference.
Read that quote again. Let it sink in. It’s important to understand that although you are not trying o set a world squat record you are trying to get as strong as possible to improve your quality of life. Stronger now means stronger later. We only have so much time here, today, to get strong. We are all busy. We all have a million other obligations. Most of us make it to the gym 3 days a week or so for about an hour each. If I can do something simple that requires no extra time on my part and actually make my workouts more efficient why would I not do so? If I can reduce the likely hood of stalling on a lift simply because I have done everything right and make 100% use of that time I made it to the gym, why would I not do so? Whether you are an weightlifter of a powerlifter your task (the actual lift) takes as little as a second to tops about 3-4 seconds. If you have done everything right leading up to that 1-4 seconds you will not miss that lift.
As I stood there I noticed the kids making the most progress walked in every day and approached the same squat rack. Set their gear down in the same place. Adjusted the bar on the rack the same way they did 2 days earlier. As they stepped into the squat rack every movement was the same as the set before it. They placed their left hand on the rack, then their right, they stepped under the bar the same, carefully placed the bar in the exact same spot on their back. They took the same steps out of the rack. Their first warm-up set looked like their 3rd work set. They had ritualized everything they did from the time they walked in to train. If something threw off their ritual (their normal squat rack was occupied) you could physically see their discomfort. It upset them visibly.
The kids that made the most progress had what seemed to be an instinctual ability to ritualize what they did in the weight room. I as the coach didn’t teach it. They just seemed to do it; like all the best lifters I have coached. As I thought about it I realized I knew which kids were going to make the most progress by the end of the first week with a new group. It had nothing to do with how well they squatted on day one, it had nothing to do with what they looked like physically, it didn’t have much to do with genetics, it had everything to do with those that had the innate ability to ritualize the lift. You could see it developing by day two and by day three the ones that were going to do it had already started doing it.
So the next question I logically asked myself was can you teach someone how to do this? Can you teach someone to ritualize what you teach them during that first squat session? Can they begin to ritualize those first 10 cues you teach them about the squat and repeat the sequence two days later? Over time as they become more and more proficient at the movement will they continue to do it and add new steps to that process that have a positive impact on the lift? I think the answer to these questions is yes, many can (clearly many will never learn or apply this process) if you begin the process during the first coaching session.
Most of you reading this are not coaches so I will spare you the process I have used to get those without the innate ability to ritualize a barbell movement to begin doing so from day one. This article is for you the lifter who may approach the bar with the same focus you would any mundane task that needs little attention. This article is to get you thinking. All of you are familiar with the process of ritualizing something in your life. You all do it whether you think about it or not. Think hard about something you do regularly that if you get out of sequence it gets you get off track and gets the task harder. I know for me grocery shopping is a task I have ritualized. I will walk into the store with my list and attack it the same way every time. Veggie section, meats, milk for the kids, back in the other direction to hit the few things I need in the middle isles. When the process happens it’s smooth, I’m in and out in no time. The only thing I fear is the dreaded text from my wife while in the meat section asking to add Ketchup to the list. If I do not turn and get the ketchup as soon as I get the text I will likely forget it. If I turn and get it I will mess my sequence up (my grocery store ritual) and I will forget something else. I will spend 10 minutes stumbling around an aisle I do not even need to be down all because I got out of sequence. I know you have something, just think about it. You already know how to do this.
The next step is to apply it to your barbell training. Begin to ritualize how you squat, press, and pull. Place the same hand on the bar first in the same spot every time you squat. Place the bar in the exact same position on your back every time. Walk out of the rack and place your left foot in position then your right. If you do this you will never have your hands placed in the wrong position on the bar. You will never place the bar in the wrong position on your back. You will never miss a squat because you took too wide a stance. This is the start of the process. As you continue to ritualize you will add your own cues or steps to the process. You will begin to see all your lifts looking exactly the same. The first set to the last will look the same. Remember, when you do everything correctly you cannot do it wrong. Once you have set the lift up correctly you can’t miss it.
If you are a competitive lifter and do not ritualize your competition movements you may want to give it a try. You stand a lot better chance when adrenaline is high and the stress of the situation increases of successfully making the lift when you have ritualized the process. Stress and adrenaline can get us out of sequence and the more times you have done the exact same thing leading up to the lift the less likely you are to miss.
Check out one of the greats, Kirk Karwoski training his deadlift. Look at the first warm-up to the last. I think it is safe to say Kirk ritualized his lifts. The only difference between set one and the last is plates added to the bar. Kirk had the ability to treat his 60% warm-up the exact same way he treated a max attempt. In his mind the 60% lift might as well have been 900 pounds. He had the same mental focus and the same ritual.
Remember, when you do everything right you cannot screw up.



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