Introduce Fear; Introduce Failure

Chinese weightlifter Wu Jingbiao burst into tears after failing to win gold in the men's 56kg weightlifting event on July 30, 2012.

Chinese weightlifter Wu Jingbiao burst into tears after failing to win gold in the men’s 56kg weightlifting event on July 30, 2012.

Recently I failed something important and it pissed me off. It made me feel stupid and embarrassed, but it spurned me to work to avoid future failure. What do you do when everything seems lost? Knowing how to work through failure is the difference between being a cry-baby-piece-of-shit and a grizzled warrior who learns from every scar he’s earned.

I’ve written about failure for years (“Learn From Your Mistakes“, “Getting Girls to Train – 5“, and most of the stuff currently tagged in the “mindset” category). I always come back to the same sequence:

1. Failure occurs.
2. Calm the emotional response, especially in a time-dependent situation (i.e. in the middle of a competition).
3. Objectively figure out what variables contributed to the failure.
4. Begin corrective action to improve those variables.

Instead of focusing on the injustice, anger, or sadness in failing, find out what went wrong and start doing something to fix it.

In the realm of athletic performance, the problematic variable can be a variety of things like faulty mechanics, programming, nutrition, sleep, mobility, mindset, or procedure. Most of these can be accounted for with a quality coach as they will free the athlete to focus on execution. For example, I’ve saved many young powerlifters and weightlifters from getting a lift red-lighted simply by cuing them to wait for a command. And I also believe my books (like “The Texas Method: Part 1” or “FIT“) or articles on this site have helped people prepare their programming for successful competition.

A coach, consultant, or knowledgeable training friend can be an objective set of eyes that can ask the right questions like, “Why are you squatting 5×5 so much?” or “Why did you deadlift heavy one week out from your meet?”

Comprehensively look at your training in a brain storm session and determine if the problem is acute or chronic. Once you identify the problem, create a plan on how to improve it. If your squats were red lighted due to depth, then chronically address squat depth in training. If you randomly shifted forward onto your toes at the bottom of your squat, then you need a cue to induce proper mechanics.

If your fault is procedural, like not waiting for a command, then you’ll have to work on that specific piece of the procedure by itself, then throw it back into the entire sequence. For example, if you successfully waited for the “down” command on the squat or bench press, but you did not wait for the “press” command on bench or the “rack” command on squat or bench, then use the commands on every set in training. Once you have accumulated correct reps with the command, throw it back in the entire competition sequence in the weeks leading up to your meet. Do this with and without amping your adrenaline up; on meet day you’ll have a lot of it, and you’ll still need to focus on your sequence and cues despite surges in adrenaline.

Utility in Failure

There are two kinds of people: 1) The person who is either naturally gifted or extremely hard working who rarely fails and 2) the person who is either lazy or doesn’t challenge themselves. Most people fall into the latter category, possibly including you, Mr. or Ms. Reader. I’m not saying you’re entirely lazy — most people who like to train are not — but most people who like to train shy away from new challenges like competition.

I’ve spent years urging people to enter into strength competitions to turn their lifting hobby into a competitive endeavor (“Letter of Intent Day” posts as well as “Your First Lifting Meet” or “Lady’s First Meet“). Signing up for a meet suddenly makes training meaningful. Every rep is a preparation instead of a check mark. Quality rest becomes a priority instead of a byproduct. All of these changes stem from the fear of failure, which is ultimately why competition is avoided.

Everyone thinks they aren’t “strong enough” to enter a lifting meet. News Flash: Anyone can lift in a meet. I’ve coached and lifted at meets where the ages range from 14 to 65 with some men opening with other guy’s second warm-up set. Nobody cares if you’re weak, and if anything showing the courage to show up will get you infinitely more respect than sitting at home and saying, “I’ll wait until next year.” Not to mention you can glean useful information from veterans, whether they are your opponent or your side judge.

It always pays to be a winner, but the “losers”, or everyone but the winner, will especially learn from the experience. At the very least signing up for a meet gives you a different appreciation for quality training. Do all of the little things right, and you can have a very fun, successful day at the meet. But if you fail, especially when you fail miserably, it gives you a unique opportunity to display courage and maturity.

“The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.”
–Martin Luther King, Jr.

Great men in history would say that failure is the time in which your dignity is defined. Gather as much as you can from the experience. Understand the emotion. Determine the problem. Work to eradicate the error. Use that emotion as a reminder of why the preparation is important.

The Bar Teaches

The lessons we learn in the battle against gravity are valuable and will permeate into life. This is exactly why we train. Sure, we want to be strong and jacked. It’s not easy getting there, but we do it anyway. We learn from the process, and now we know we can also learn from the failures.

I urge you to seek out these competitive opportunities to put yourself in a unique chance for success or failure. If you have a highly competitive job, then I can understand avoiding a lifting meet. For example, a lawyer has a high stress job that can have victories, failures, or tied settlements in a single afternoon. A firefighter risks his life by stepping into a burning building and then may or may not stabilize a victim before paramedics arrive. These types of occupations inherently include constant competition.

“Better to do it than to live with the fear of it.”
–Logen Ninefingers
From The First Law Trilogy, by Joe Abercrombie

However, if you have a comfortable job where your livelihood, your balls, are not on the line, then you need the inherent risk in competition. The potential of losing something, even if it’s just public pride or getting out of your comfort zone, will significantly alter the experience. Too many people in our society choose to stay comfortable, but I urge you to seek competition, to seek the unknown. Introduce fear; introduce failure.

It is only until we bleed that we remember we are truly alive.

Pendlay’s MDUSA Program

Glenn Pendlay recently posted an article on his blog explaining how he trains the Muscle Driver USA Olympic weightlifting team (article).

It’s your standard fare of doing the competitive lifts, doing power and other variants when necessary, and getting stronger with presses and squats. There are some peculiarities that help distribute the work load throughout the week, like making the Monday, Wednesday, and Friday afternoon workouts the heaviest days, doing doubles and power variants in the morning sessions, and always trying to improve the squat.

Glenn sits with his beard at the National University Championships

Glenn sits with his beard at the National University Championships

Pendlay also mentions using the Texas Method to push the squats. For those of you who never read my Texas Method e-books, the style of programming was coined when the Wichita Falls Weightlifting team fell into it with Pendlay as the head coach. It’s a good general approach that can push an Olympic weightlifter’s squat without interfering too much with the competitive lifts’ training. The way I program the Texas Method is more for general strength trainees and raw powerlifting, but a weightlifter will have success with the core program of using a volume day, light day, and intensity day.

Anyway, check out Glenn’s article; his system is a simple outline that he dials in for specific lifters depending on what they need, whether their weaknesses are in squatting, overhead strength, cleaning, snatching, or jerking.

Coaching the Sumo Deadlift

We’ve had some talk lately about sumo deadlifts. Some of you are still of the mindset that “only conventional deads are ‘real’!” That’s fine. When you finally come around and try these, the rest of us will already be well-versed with them.

Our model today is one of my Vintage Strong lifters, RoryT. He’s a 181-198 powerlifter who is built to squat and bench, but not to pull. Before I took over his training, he had frustratingly beat his dead against the 450lb brick wall for about a year or so. We transitioned him to sumo pulling about a year ago (along with a wide-stanced squat to compliment it) and he ended up pulling 500lbs for the first time as my birthday present – along with recently getting his squat to 520×2. At our gym Push/Pull meet June 1st, I expect him to pull around 525 or so, which will be a nice PR for him. He should get 550 by November, his next meet.

The first thing most people screw up on any kind of deadlifts is the width of their grip. Your arms need to hang straight down from your shoulders. Any angle in, or more likely, out, makes you do more work – it sets you up in a more awkward starting position and makes the distance you have to pull longer. This is true for conventional pullers, and a very common mistake, but is even more troublesome with sumo deads, because if you grip the bar too wide, your hands get even more in the way of the movement than normal.

This is what we call "pulling into your dick." Avoid that, if possible. And if you do

This is what we call “pulling into your dick.” Avoid that, if possible. And if you do it…smile.

The second thing everyone needs to pay attention to is stance-width. When you first transition to sumo pulls, work your feet out to a wider stance SLOWLY, over several sessions, and stretch – a lot. Your hips will thank you. At first, getting your feet just outside of your hands will be fine. As you become mobile enough, going wider will mean a shorter stroke and a stronger lockout, at the expense of increasing the difficulty of breaking the bar off the floor. We’ll call this the “Narrow Sumo.” Don’t expect to be dramatically stronger at narrow sumo than conventional – it’s essentially going to put your levers in the same position, as you can see in the pic.

Conventional on the left, Narrow Sumo on the right. Note the similar back angle.

Conventional on the left, Narrow Sumo on the right. Note the similar back angle.

Eventually, you’ll be able to comfortably slide your feet out several more inches per side, which will allow you to shorten the ROM of the movement. We’ll call this the “Wide Sumo” because we’re brilliantly original. Wide sumo does not have to mean your feet are touching the plates, OK? It does mean that you’ll be able to have a slightly more vertical back-angle, which is a great benefit for those of you like Rory who have a relatively long torso for your height, and/or shorter arms – which is basically the perfect build to go ahead and run with sumo.

On the right is Rory's slighty wider sumo stance. Note the more advantageous back angle (admittedly, he's more arched and set up to pull, too). It's not a drastic-wide stance.

On the right is Rory’s slighty wider sumo stance (see the increased distance between his hands and shins?) Note the more advantageous back angle (admittedly, he’s more arched and set up to pull, too). It’s not a drastic-wide stance.

Your grip and stance width are the most basic parts of learning sumo, so once you have them correct, it’s time to set up for a pull. I’m going to tell you to get your feet UNDER the bar as Rory has done in the pics above. You are literally going to have the bar touching your shins. Most people set up too far away from the bar, and as a result, have a forward-angled-shin. The coaching cue here is “straight shins,” which is silly, because your shin can’t not be straight. It’s short for straight up and down, or vertical. Think STRAIGHT SHINS, and make them as vertical as possible.

The left is how it SHOULD look. The right is how it probably looks when you first try sumo.

The left is how it SHOULD look. The right is how it probably looks when you first try sumo. Note the angles of the shins and arms.

Get your feet under the bar and grab the bar at the appropriate width. Chances are it feels awkward as hell if you’re doing it correctly. Good. You want to get your center of mass as far behind the bar as you can without falling over. The cue here is STRAIGHT ARMS. You want to try and get your arms much more vertical than you’re probably used to. You could probably condense both of these cues and just yell “BE STRAIGHT” to your lifter, but that might raise some eyebrows at your gym and make you look like a jackass.

When you’re in the correct starting position, and you feel like you’re about to fall on your ass, it’s time to start the pull. As with the regular dead, you must set your lower back, flex your posterior chain, and get to work. It’s even more important on sumo, so get it right. Getting your lumbar flexed and solid before the pull is KEY. If you have problems locking out a sumo, you’re probably not setting your back well enough. You’ll also think “chest up,” though again, that’s not a literal cue – it simple means to get your upper back tensed as well. If your nipples are pointed at the bar, you’re gonna have a bad time.

SET YOUR BACK! Or you will die.

SET YOUR BACK! Or you will die. The left might feel easier when getting the bar off the floor, but it won’t go anywhere after that. The right will mean a smooth 3-white-light PR. Do it. 

Initiate the pull by squeezing the bar off the floor using your glutes and hams, which should be tensed as soon as you touch the bar. Carry this momentum as hard and as quickly as you can all the way to lockout. Think about shoving your hips FORWARD into the bar all the way until lockout, and don’t re-bend your knees at the top. Yes, we use the “hips!” cue. Yes, it makes us sound douchey, like a multiply gorilla. No, we don’t care. Always yell “OH YEAH!” when the hips are truly engaged. Trust me.

Another way to look at this is to think about “pulling back” on the bar. Both cues basically accomplish the same thing, but see which resonates best for you, and stick with it. Your weight should always be concentrated on your heels for a sumo pull. If you’re coming up on your toes, fix it.

A note on footwear: You should sumo pull in a flat-soled shoe. For what I hope are obvious reasons, don’t use your heeled Olympic shoes. Wrestling shoes are the best bet, but IPF-approved slippers are a $10 option if you’re cheap. I prefer to pull in socks at my gym, because it’s easy. Chucks are OK, but still have a bit of a platform and that could cost you a PR. Rory squats and pulls in the shoes pictured in the gym, but uses Titan slippers at meets.

Hopefully this helps you figure out how to sumo. Ask any questions you have below. Once you get your sumo form figured out, you should really be impressing the opposite sex. If not, I suggest you take up juggling. Of course, Rory’s probably better at that than you, too, but everyone’s gotta have an idol, right?

LAX balls are very useful to have around the gym.

LAX balls are very useful to have around the gym.

The Over-Warm-Up

This is a technique I use with some of my lifters to increase their confidence on the bench press. It’s not a new idea, and people have been using it since the dawn of time, but it’s something we haven’t discussed on the site, and I get a lot of questions about it. I call it the “Over Warm-Up (OWU).” It’s a very technical and marketable name, I know. What does it mean? What do you think it means? It means you warm up to a heavy single before your work sets. Complicated stuff.

It might not have a sexy name, but it works. I’ve used this with a quite a few lifters to build confidence on heavy benches and to get them past long-term sticking points. In the past few months, RoryT used it to go from a 285 max bench to hitting 300 for the first time, then a couple weeks later, crushing 300×2. Jess used this technique to handle 95lbs dozens of times before her meet last weekend, where she hit two easy Meet Bench PRs. Many guys over on the LHS Forums are using it with success. You could also use it for various other lifts, like presses, push presses, even squats – though I think it’d be a pretty terrible idea on deadlifts. The target audience for this approach will be primarily novices and intermediates. If you’re an advanced lifter, chances are you’re not likely to benefit much from it, as you’ve already had years to master the mental aspects of the main lifts, and you’re quite capable of getting psyched up for a heavy PR single.

However, many lifters will find themselves “nervous” about certain weights, especially in the beginning stages of getting stronger. Typically, these hurdles revolve around a combination of big plates and 25lb plates. The weights I’m talking about here are usually 185, 225, 275, 315, 365, 405, etc., though the OWU can be used for any mental sticking point (the 200 and 300lb benchmarks can be just as intimidating as any other, even though they don’t look that special on a bar), or even just to include some heavy practice.

I can’t stress enough that you have a partner lift/spot your OWU, especially as you first tinker with it. Never pick a weight you can’t handle – if you are EVER missing a rep on your OWU, you’re doing it way, way wrong. You need to pick a weight that is well within reach – it’s not supposed to tire you out, or require a psych-up. It’s not an excuse to get greedy and “max out.” It’s just something to stomp on until it’s dead. Then you move on to the next enemy, and stomp it. Here are a few examples of how I implement it.

Example A: The Novice
Most novices should be on a simple linear progression, and our imaginary example is benching every other workout for 3×5 (or 3×5+, going for max reps on the last set). Let’s say they’ve gotten their LP from 165 for 3×5 to 212.5 for 3×5, and they’re now adding 2.5lb (or less) per workout and trying their damn hardest to continue progressing, with visions of 300+ in their head. This person would normally warm up to 212.5 like so:
45 x Lots, 95×5,5, 135 x 5, 185×2-3, 200×1, Work Sets @ 212.5.
Adding in an OWU at 225 is perfect for this person. Not only will they get used to handling 2 plates, they will KNOW they can hit it any day of the week, helping them feel more confident about getting up to it for their 3×5 work. Their warmup would now look roughly like this:
45 x Lots, 95×5,5, 135 x 5, 185×2-3, 205×1, 225×1 (OWU), Work Sets @ 212.5.
They would use 225 as their OWU for a few weeks until it was laughably easy, or until their work sets have actually caught up to that level (in this case, 225). At that point, they can either ditch the OWU for awhile, or move it up in 5-10lb increments if they enjoy feeling a bit heavier singles before their work sets.
Again, please note that a proper OWU is NOT heavy enough to constitute a large amount of work. It should not be a grinder. It should not impede the lifter’s ability to perform their work sets. Take a few minutes of rest after the OWU before your work sets, just as you would after your final normal warmup.

Example B: The Intermediate
Let’s say we have a typical intermediate lifter using the Texas Method. He got his linear progression from 205 3×5 up to 245 for 3×5 after a couple months of hard work and proper dieting and too many resets. He’s gone from benching around 225 for a single to around 285 or so on a good day, but something about 275+ just makes him a bit nervous. On his Intensity Day, he’s trying for 5RM’s in the 255 range, and his Volume Day is starting at 225 3×5, because he refuses to use less than 2 plates for his Volume Day.
This lifter should utilize the OWU on their Volume Day, but not on their Intensity Day. In this case, I would have them work up to 275 and then backing down to their work sets. It would look something like this:
45 x Lots, 135 x 5,5, 185×5, 225×1-2, 255×1, 275×1 (OWU), 225×5,5,5

The lifter would NOT use the OWU on their Intensity Day, as they should conserve every bit of energy they have for a big PR. The Intensity Day would still look like this:

45 x Lots, 135 x 5,5, 185×5, 225×1-2, 255×5 (PR)

Note: I prefer TM lifters to use as little supportive gear on their Volume Day as possible when they’re a ways out (IE, more than 6-8 weeks) from a meet. This means they would usually use no belt or wrist wraps on VD for bench, even if they use them on ID. The OWU is an exception – it would be acceptable to “gear up” for it, especially when first implementing it. Of course, keep in mind 132lb Jennifer Thompson doesn’t wear a belt for her 300+ raw bench, so…just sayin’. After a few weeks of using wrist wraps and a belt with 275, the lifter could then practice dropping the gear, or slowly increasing the weight of the OWU. Preferably, they’ve decided to enter a meet, which leads us to…

Example C: The Competitor

Another great use for the OWU is to practice some simple raw paused work on the bench, especially near a meet (starting 4-6 weeks out or so would be appropriate). Again assuming a typical TM template with a Vol/Int day each week, I would also have this lifter use the OWU on their Volume Day before their work sets, but in this case, I would have them practice their opening (paused) bench attempt. This is an excellent way to add in some practice getting used to the commands. It’s particularly helpful for USAPL lifters who might experience long “start” and “rack” commands, depending on the judge. As they get closer to a meet, the pause should be slightly longer, and the speed coming off the chest should be noticeably improved. At the meet, they’ll have 100% confidence in their opener.

The OWU is a tool that can be used effectively. It is by no means required in all successful programs, but give it some consideration, and feel free to play with it in your own programming. You might like it, and hopefully, it will lead to lots of new PRs.


AC Discusses Squats

Here’s the third installment of “AC teaches you how to do stuff more awesomely.” So far, he has gone over some tips on how to press better and how to bench better. Today, he goes over how to coach the squat.


There are two basic variations of the back squat: High Bar and Low Bar. They’re two different squats, but there are semi-similar ways to go about learning/doing/coaching them.

I want to help you teach the squat in general. First and foremost, you are going to to have the athlete stand in front of you like a mirror. Next, you are going to tell them to place their feet shoulder width apart. Just like the grip on the bench, this stance will provide the longest ROM with the most musculature utilized in the lift. It’s similar to the bench in that it’s harder to put your femurs into external rotation the wider you go (shoving your knees out). Next, their toes are going to be slightly pointed out. This will allow the athlete to shove their knees out to perform full ROM and get external rotation more than if their toes were pointed straight. depthIf the toes are straight (most athletes don’t have the mobility to accomplish toes straight and knees out) and the athletes knees are forward instead of out all that muscle and bone and fleshy area of the hip/femur mash into one another making it harder to achieve depth. With that said, have the athlete squat down to depth and stay down there. Note: this is without the bar. Have the athlete take his hands, put his palms together and with his elbows, shove the knees out. All of this is being down while maintaining extension in both lumbar/thoracic spine (WE ARE STILL AT THE BOTTOM OF THE SQUAT).

Now this leads into the low-bar squat. Low bar uses a little more hamstring than a high bar, but if your athletes are doing a lot of cleans (full cleans) then the high bar may be of more use to you because the squat in the clean is similar to a high bar squat.

In case I lost your attention…


From there you are going to walk around behind the athlete and place your hands on their low back/hips and apply slight pressure. The weight should be placed right over the middle of the foot, roughly where you tie your shoe laces. THIS IS WHERE ALL THE WEIGHT IS ON A LOW BAR. You are then going to tell them to “DRIVE” their hips into your hands. This emphasizes “Hip Drive,” which is what low bar squatters use to rebound out of the hole.

Notice my hips driving me out of the bottom. Also notice how I maintain my bar position because my spine is in extension. Have them do this once or twice to get a feel for it. Another thing to note here: Their head position is neutral with their eyes fixed on a reference point a few feet in front of them. They ARE NOT LOOKING UP. Looking up destroys the tension that you attained through eccentric contraction in the hamstrings. The hips and knees move forward losing that stretch reflex. You can demonstrate this by doing a 3rd and 4th rep with the athlete in this demo phase. Have the athlete look at the ground a few feet in front of them and then command them to drive up (hands still on the hips), then have the athlete look up as hard as they can (like most coaches tell them too). Squatting should be significantly harder now. Keep in mind this is for the low-bar. You can get away with that more in the high-bar, but it’s not a good spinal position.

Now you can take them to the barbell. Start with just the bar and then move from there.  For the low bar, the barbell sits along the spine of the scapula. It’s almost like a ridge that your body creates when you place yourself under the bar. When the athlete is under the bar, move so you can be in a position next to them. From there you are going to give them the last little touch up cues. When they unrack the bar it should coincide with a large breath of air and extension of the spine. Reference my video if you need to look again. Also, when they unrack it their elbows should be applying downward pressure on the bar. Do not let their elbows slack down. All the weight of the bar is on their back NOT on their arms. Again, notice in the video how my elbows stay high. They are going to take roughly two steps back and take the same stance they had when you were teaching them before. Now right before they go, you will tell them 2 last things: A: They are going to have to shove their knees out without their elbows, and B: They are going to REBOUND out of the bottom, so basically they aren’t pausing at the bottom.


Take a big breath and hold it for each rep. Each rep gets a new breath and it gets held FOR THE WHOLE REP.

At all times their eyes should be fixated on a reference point. It is hard to maintain balance if they are looking around.

Cues for Low Bar Squats:

“Knees out.” The athlete shoves their knees out for external rotation. Easier ROM, more musculature in the lift.

“Mid-Foot.” If you see the athlete shifting their weight, it can change the mechanics of the squat. This cues them to put their weight back on the middle of the foot.

“Drive.” This will remind the athlete to use his/her hips when they rebound out of the hole.

“Bounce.” This is tough for some people to get, but they essentially have to rebound out of the hole off of their hamstrings, using that eccentric contraction we talked about earlier. This is more of an advanced cue – for beginners, think “control down, fast up.”


Moving on to High-Bar Squats

The High Bar is similar in a few ways, but the bar placement is placed (higher) on the traps. This bar placement changes a few things. The torso has to maintain a more vertical position throughout the lift. The more vertical the torso, the more acute (closed) the knee angle will be. The “knees out” cue stays the same – it’s crucial for both styles of squats. The cue that changes here is “Mid-Foot.” The weight is emphasized on the heel, NOT the mid-foot. Put emphasis on “heels” on the way down and up. “Knees out” is just as important — common for lifters to bring them in at the bottom and on the way up in the high bar variation.


For more discussion on Low Bar and High Bar squats, see Justin’s article on the subject. Remember, neither of these articles is telling you exactly which is better for your situation, or demonizing either variation. If you’re confused, discuss the subject with your fellow lifters, your coach, and contemplate the issue quietly in the godswoods. Or, you know, try ‘em both, and shit. If you can’t hit 4 or 5 plates with both variations, you should probably just do more of them. – Jacob